The first question raised by Anne Carson’s new book Float, published as a collection of 22 loose chapbooks, is, not surprisingly, how to read it. The chapters themselves are in no particular order; “Reading is freefall” is printed in a publisher’s note on the jacket. In principle, this form of randomness should be liberating, and yet it remains unsettling to the kind of reader most of us are, which is to say, accustomed to directions and guidance. As with most things related to Carson, it’s a bit complicated.
To read Carson is like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle – in order to solve it, you need to know the conventions its constructor has followed. In the case of Float, this can be hard to discern. Carson’s poems tend to be rooted in myths the author assumes you know, too, so there’s no overt reference to them in the title, or anywhere else. It seems ironic that the best study guides to Canada’s most celebrated poet are Wikipedia (“Cassandra was a daughter of Kim Priam and Queen Kecuba of Troy”) and Google.
The search results for a combination of Lou + Master Ren + Los Angeles led me to a 2012 tribute to the late Lou Reed at which Carson appeared, providing the occasion for her poem “L.A.” It would have been easier had I referred to the chapbook that details her lectures and appearances, Performance Notes (either I misplaced my copy, or it was buried in the middle – one of the hazards of reading Float in the spirit it was intended, which is to say, on the living room floor, spread out).
Accessibility has never been a hallmark of Carson’s work. In spite of her acclaim as the recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships (the famous “genius” grant), potential readers are often frustrated by her writing style, which can come across as a series of notes-to-self. Even other poets talk about Carson in irritated terms, as if there’s a language she’s using with which they are not familiar.