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A motley crew steers Anne Carson’s FLOAT (Knopf, $30). There’s Edmund Husserl, Jean-Luc Godard, Joan of Arc, Pablo Picasso, mad Hölderlin, Hegel, a chorus of Gertrude Steins, and Carson’s noble, demented uncle Harry, not to mention the usual Greek suspects: late-arriving Odysseus, howling Cassandra, and a rather tetchy Zeus. What else would you expect from Carson — renowned classicist, translator, and polymath? The book is actually a collection of twenty-three chapbooks of poetry, drama, and mental peregrinations stacked in an acetate case; most have been published or performed before, but a few are new or expanded. Whether one skims or dives, there are treasures to be found. The two playlets of “Uncle Falling” plumb family tragedy; “Powerless Structures Fig. II (Sanne),” about the death of Carson’s brother’s wife, is a heartbreaker; “Eras of Yves Klein” and “Good Dog I, II and III” are goofy fun; and from the essay “Contempts,” I learned a new way of looking at Brigitte Bardot’s bottom. Still, the question arises: twenty-three chapbooks?

“Splitting,” 1974, by Gordon Matta-Clark. Courtesy the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark; David Zwirner, New York City/London; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York City.

“Splitting,” 1974, by Gordon Matta-Clark. Courtesy the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark; David Zwirner, New York City/London; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York City.

Perhaps Carson and her publishers simply felt it was time for another book, and this was the material they had on hand. It’s doubtful anyone would cry foul if one of the sheaves went missing and another appeared in its place, but the whole coheres. The tether is Carson herself — her interests, erudition, and autobiography; the way she thinks, and writes, and, occasionally, rhymes. As Gordon Matta-Clark, another artist who surfaces in Float, once put it, “You are the measure.” That was a play on Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher who declared that “man is the measure of all things.” Indeed, replacing universal, abstract “man” with a particular individual is as essential to Carson’s project as the Greek language itself — a language that, had it not been for the ministrations of a “bored high-school Latin teacher” and a free lunch hour, she might have missed learning altogether. “My entire career as a Classicist is a sort of preposterous etymology of the word lunch.

“Preposterous etymology” is not a bad term for the kind of argumentation she favors. The critic Dan Chiasson has noted that although Carson has a reputation for difficulty, she is in fact didactic, a simplifier and hand-holder who spells it all out. Float sinks when it becomes overly insistent on associations that rub out meaningful distinctions. “I started to think about bodies falling,” she writes, citing Achilles’ horses dropping their manes to the ground, her father parachuting into combat in World War II, humans going into their graves, and a baby “falling . . . from between the knees of its mother.” (I thought they were pushed out.) Nor can I catch her awe for the untranslatable. Her question “What else is one’s own language but a gigantic cacophonous cliché?” rings with disdain for the beauties and games of ordinary language.


The Horses of Achilles, c. 1650–1725, in the style of Anthony van Dyck © National Gallery, London/Art Resource, New York City

“If words are veils,” she writes, “what do they hide?” For Carson, words most definitely are veils, and the mystery they cover is “our whole way of knowing the truth.” “Cassandra Float Can” veers from the scene in Agamemnon in which the Trojan prophetess erupts in perfect Greek to Matta-Clark’s “splittings” — houses that he literally sawed in half. She is enamored of fissure, disruption, “the action of cutting through surfaces to a site that has no business being underneath.” It is true that when Matta-Clark split a house open, he transformed space. But what he found underneath the surface had, strictly speaking, all the business in the world being there: it was more house. A little mundanity can be a tonic, and sometimes the view is clearer if one steps aside and peers over Carson’s shoulder, rather than through her periscope.

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