When we attend poetry readings we do so hoping that we will be moved by the poems in a way unlike the experience of reading them on the page. We expect that hearing them in the poet’s voice will give them another life, other dimensions. Most readings go something like this: The poet reads from her new book, answers questions after, maybe signs some books, then leaves. Now imagine being transported in a different way—not only by the movement of language itself, but by that of bodies and objects as they pull you toward experiencing your own physicality, being alert enough to hear your own breath. That is what an Anne Carson reading is like.
Last Thursday Carson collaborated with sculptor Peter Cole, choreographers Jonah Bokaer and Rashaun Mitchell, and dancers from the Merce Cunnigham company to present “Stacks and Bracko,” a reading and performance at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Over seven hundred people turned out on a Thursday night, giving it the buzz of an art event that could be transformative in the mode of performance artist Allan Kaprow’s happenings in the 1960s. Not only was that certain kind of energy present (as Carson has developed a cult following which is part New York literati, part academic, part hipster), but the performance itself, in its inventive marriage of dance, sculpture, poetry, and theatricality, felt like something new, happening right now.
Carson has put on these kinds of collaborative events for the past several years. Many of them have taken place in New York City at venues like Housing Works Bookstore and the 92nd Street Y. The Skirball Center was host this past February to another Carson event, “String Talks,” which featured poetry and dance as well as video, and engaged the audience in a call-and-response exercise during the reading, evoking the interactive elements of happenings.
At Thursday’s presentation, an accumulation sculpture comprised of stacked boxes was the first thing the audience, which included such cultural luminaries as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, encountered as they looked to the stage. The first performance of the evening, “Stacks,” set out to explore, according to the event press release, “the nature of collapse as manifested in human anatomy, grammar, and everyday objects.” The piece featured poetic texts by Carson and choreography by Bokaer, which complimented Cole’s piled-object sculpture.
As Carson read poems about the seas of the moon, the environmental collapse of Detroit, and reinterpreted the biblical story of Jezebel, Cole reconstructed the sculpture of cardboard boxes around her. The boxes were stacked across the stage high and low, shifting abruptly. Carson shifted with them in staccato movements as she read, while three dancers jumped over, threw, slapped, and balanced the boxes.
Carson’s words moved toward the audience like a succession of quick waves. At times I found myself caught under water, able to hear only the sounds of language without grasping a certain meaning. At other instances, I could come up for air and focus on the dance and sculpture, which enriched the reading by opening up more opportunities for meaning.
“Bracko,” the second act of the evening, was a more minimalist piece than “Stacks,” blending elements of classical poetry—Carson’s translations of Sappho fragments—and modern dance. Performing choreography by Rashaun Mitchell, two dancers, bound to one another with a silver rope, moved fluidly through a sequence suggesting restrained eroticism, with the rope being tied and untied throughout the dance. “You burn me,” Carson read from one of Sappho’s fragmented texts.
Robert Currie, Penelope Thomas, and choreographer Elizabeth Streb joined Carson in the reading, all of them standing on the right margin of the stage. Like an avant-garde Greek chorus, their voices overlapped, interrupted, and moved alongside one another. They honored lack, or what was missing of Sappho’s poems, by monotonous repetitions of the word bracket, the punctuation Carson has chosen in her translations to suggest lost words. As Carson says in the introduction to If Not, Winter (Knopf, 2002), her book of Sappho fragments, “Brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”
Absence and its relation to presence was also felt in the performance’s silences, when Carson and her chorus stopped reading, allowing only the sound of the dancers’ movements, as well as their breath and the collective breath of the audience, to be heard. This quiet punctuated only by murmurs of human motion is how “Bracko” concluded.
I had a hard time getting out of my seat and going home after the performance. It’s not often that poetry can do such a thing—make you feel as if the top of your head were taken off, in the words of Emily Dickinson. Perhaps this is because Carson understands poetry differently from many contemporary poets. For her, poetry does not occur only on the page, nor the stage—it occurs as words flit through the mind and the body, as they engage with other bodies, dancing bodies, and the objects around them.