Hannah Graber’s response to “Short Talks” by Anne Carson
Reviewed by Hannah Graber (The American Short Story ~ The Seamless and the Stitched - November 5, 2011)
“Early one morning words were missing.” When I first read Short Talks, I had difficulty understanding why Anne Carson wrote about what she did, and thought that some words must have been missing. I was confused as to how they all fit together and it was only after further consideration that I came to see how the sections unite into one cohesive piece. Anne Carson’s Short Talks is a series of short reflections on different subjects that at first do not seem to be related, but through her use of cyclical images and consistent use of historical facts in fiction, the piece gains a cohesive quality that unifies the work.
Throughout this piece Anne Carson references many historical figures. She mentions many famous people, including Frans Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Prokofiev, and Sylvia Plath, and by referencing these people she borrows from the authority they hold in the readers mind to strengthen her own work. She even references Frans Kafka multiple times, which acts to reinforce her authority. She references him first in the short talk “On Rectification” about his life and wife, and then brings him up again in “On The Anatomy”. By having her texts refer back onto themselves in an authoritative way, she strengthens her reliability in the reader’s mind as well as the relatedness of the different Talks.
Anne Carson goes further than just bringing up historical figures. She also references many historical works of art as well as facts. The way in which she does this unifies her talks in a way that seems scientifically reliable. It appears as though she has facts to base her talks on, which stops the reader from wondering for too long if she is any sort of authority on the subject. She places these historical references throughout the text to curb the readers questions, as if to say “look, I’m not making this up, see this fact? I am talking about real things, go look it up if you want.” She starts off the talks with a fact asserted alongside her assumptions. In “Homo sapiens” she says the phases of the moon were inscribed on the handles of the tools, so they could be “reminded of her presence” while they worked. While the tools may actually have had the phases of the moon inscribed upon them, it does not mean the inscriptions were used for that purpose at all. Anne Carson asserts historical assumptions with historical fact consistently throughout her text, which serves to unify the text.
Yep, she plays with that strict division between fact and fiction. I think she is showing us that the way she knows these facts is filtered through her aesthetics and her particular way of perceiving — even though she is a classics scholar, her facts are inevitably fictionalized.
Anne Carson also uses many cyclical imagery to unite her work. There are many reappearing images in this work, including the moon, travel, and art, but one great use of imagery is her use of water. Water appears in many of the talks, including “On Waterproofing”. This short talk is particularly important because it gives a deeper meaning to the appearance of water. This is a very strong, emotionally charged, talk, and whenever water appears in the peace emotions seem to flow with it. In “On Waterproofing” the mother dies shortly after the father shines her shoes so they are “waterproof”. Water also appears again when she is looking for her lost lover she crosses rivers, and the strong emotions of loss are again connected with water. Water is also a very cyclical element. Water exists in the water cycle, and the water cycle is also related to the moon and its cycles.
These are wonderful details to notice. I loved these sections too!
Water is also important in more subtle ways throughout the text. In “On Trout” the cyclical nature of water is more subtly referred to. Trout live their lives entirely in the water, and their life cycle depends on swimming upstream to spawn. Anne Carson says that some trout do not spawn upstream, and says that these “remaining trout” survive the winter by finding somewhere very deep in the water to hide. This reference brings up imagery of both the water cycle and the life cycle of trout, but also reinforces the watery imagery throughout the text, which ultimately serves to unite the short talks as a whole.
Anne Carson writes a series of “Short Talks” which at first seem to be a conglomeration of unrelated thoughts, but after further discovery they are indeed related. Through how she consistently asserts her authority with historical facts and references as well as her cyclical imagery, Anne Carson successfully pulls these “Short Talks” together into a cohesive piece.