Blog #107: Meeting Rebecca Solnit and Anne Carson in Stykkishólmur’s Library of Water

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Children of Writers

Highlights from Iceland include a wilderness pilgrimage from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmark, birds…from wheatear to gyrfalcon, the butchering of whales, and–in Roni Horn’s Library of Water–an encounter with Anne Carson’s “Wildly Constant.” Today’s blog will focus on Anne Carson.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes that “Books are solitudes in which we meet,” and it is therefore fitting that it is through Rebecca that I again met Anne Carson. I first discovered Anne Carson’s poetry in my explorations for Fathers: A Literary Anthology, fell in love with her writing, and eventually “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan” became part of the anthology. When a Guardian reader commented on my Top Ten Father Memoirs, Fathers: A Literary Anthology also led me to Solnit and her ever so exciting and poetical matremoir, The Faraway Nearby.

On a previous trip to Iceland, I had already visited Stykkishólmur, but now because Solnit had been writer in residence there, and because she wrote so magically about the town and her residency in the Library of Water, I revisited. The Library of Water was everything she said it was and more. Part of the more was a copy of the London Review of Books which contained Carson’s “Wildly Constant.” Exciting and inspiring as it was to test my vision and impressions against Rebecca’s, it was dumbfounding to also rediscover Anne Carson in the Library. Carson, too, had been a resident of the Library, and now I got to experience the Library and Stykkishólmur through Carson’s eyes as well. Hard to imagine better guides than Carson and Solnit.

Posted below is “Wildly Constant,” along with my biography of Carson from Fathers.

‘Wildly Constant’
by Anne Carson

Sky before dawn is blackish green.
Perhaps a sign.
I should learn more about signs.

Turning a corner to the harbour
the wind hits me
a punch in the face.

I always walk in the morning,
I don’t know why anymore.
Life is short.

My shadow goes before me.
With its hood up
it looks like a foghorn.

Ice on the road.
Ice on the sidewalk.
Nowhere to step.

It’s better to step
where the little black stones are.
Not so slippery.

I guess the little black stones
could be lava.
Or do I exoticise.

A man hurries past
with a small dog.
No one says Hello.

A pink schoolgirl passes.
Looks in my face.
No one says Hello.

Who would expect
to see a walking foghorn
out so early.

Wind pushes more.
I push back.
Almost home.

Why did I come here.
New wind every day.
Life is for pushing back.

Now it is dawn.
A gold eyelid opens
over the harbour.

People who live here
learn not to complain
about the wind.

I go inside and make tea.
Eat bran flakes.
Read three pages of Proust.

Proust is complaining
(it is 1914)
about the verb savoir as used by journalists.

He says they use it
not as a sign of the future
but as a sign of their desires –

sign of what they want the future to be.
What’s wrong with that? I think.
I should learn more about signs.

The first thing I saw
the first morning I went out for a walk in Stykkishólmur
was a crow

as big as a chair.
What’s that chair doing on top of that house? I thought
then it flapped away.

A crow that big is called a raven.
Corvus corax in Linnaeus’s binomial system.
Each one makes a sound

like a whole townful of ravens
in the country I come from.
Three adjectives that recur

in the literature on ravens are
omnivorous.
Pernicious.

Monogamous.
I’m interested in monogamous.
I got married last May

and had my honeymoon in Stykkishólmur.
This year I returned to Stykkishólmur
to live with my husband

for three months in one small room.
This extreme monogamy
proved almost too much for us.

Rather than murder each other
we rented a second place
(Greta’s house)

near the pool.
Now we are happily
duogamous.

There are ravens on the roof
of both places.
Perhaps they are the same ravens.

I can’t tell.
If Roni Horn were here
she’d say ravens

are like water,
they are wildly constant.
They are a sign of Iceland.

I should learn more about signs.
I came to Stykkishólmur
to live in a library.

The library contains not books
but glaciers.
The glaciers are upright.

Silent.
As perfectly ordered as books would be.
But they are melted.

What would it be like
to live in a library
of melted books.

With sentences streaming over the floor
and all the punctuation
settled to the bottom as a residue.

It would be confusing.
Unforgivable.
A great adventure.

Roni Horn once told me
that one of the Antarctic explorers said
To be having an adventure

is a sign of incompetence.
When I am feeling
at my most incompetent

as I do in Stykkishólmur
many a dark morning
walking into the wind,

I try to conjure in mind
something that is the opposite of incompetence.
For example the egg.

This perfect form.
Perfect content.
Perfect food.

In your dreams
said a more recent explorer (Anna Freud)
you can have your eggs cooked as perfectly as you want

but you cannot eat them.
Sometimes at night
when I can’t sleep

because of the wind
I go and stand
in the library of glaciers.

I stand in another world.
Not the past not the future.
Not paradise not reality not

a dream.
An other competence,
Wild and constant.

Who knows why it exists. I
stand amid glaciers.
Listen to the wind outside

falling towards me from the outer edges of night and space.
I have no theory
of why we are here

or what any of us is a sign of.
But a room of melted glaciers
rocking in the nightwind of Stykkishólmur

is a good place to ponder it.
Each glacier is lit from underneath
as memory is.

Proust says memory is of two kinds.
There is the daily struggle to recall
where we put our reading glasses

and there is a deeper gust of longing
that comes up from the bottom
of the heart

involuntarily.
At sudden times.
For surprise reasons.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Proust wrote
in 1913:
We think we no longer love our dead

but that is because we do not remember them:
suddenly
we catch sight of an old glove

and burst into tears.
Before leaving the library
I turn off the lights.

The glaciers go dark.
Then I return to Greta’s house.
Wake up my husband.

Ask him to make us some eggs.

ANN CARSON from Fathers: A Literary Anthology

While it is possible that her father once said to her, “The letters of your salad are very large,” it is certain that Ann Carson was born in Toronto, June 21st, 1950. Because Ann Carson limits the biographical blurb in her books to the short, and often false sentence , “Anne Carson lives in Canada,” reviewers and critics are quick to talk about her as “notoriously reticent about her personal life.” Despite that supposed reticence, she has given interviews to the U of T Magazine, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among others, and it is public knowledge that she grew up Irish Catholic in small town Ontario, daughter of a banker-father and housewife-mother; that at the age of 5 she tried to eat an illustrated copy of The Lives of Saints; that she was introduced to the study of Greek by a high school teacher and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in classics by studying at University of Toronto and St. Andrews; that she has taught at Princeton, McGill, and the University of Michigan; that she married and divorced; that her highly original and idiosyncratic books blend the essayistic with the poetical, the personal with classical, the philosophical with the painful; and that she has won numerous prestigious awards including the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, The Griffin Poetry Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work, despite its erudition, complexity, and deep grounding in classical scholarship, often seems highly personal–especially in books such as Glass, Irony, and God (1992), Plainwater (2002), and The Beauty of the Husband (1995). In her most recent book, Decreation (2005), Carson signposts the words of Simone Weil: “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.” Of course, Carson is often disingenuous in her remarks. She has also said that “Loneliness is not an important form of suffering.”

Note: The version of “Wildly Constant” published above is the version that was published in the London Review of Books. I have not obtained permission for use of this poem, so I hope this blog will now motivate you to seek out more of Carson’s poetry, thereby making amends on my behalf.

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