Float and the Transgressive Delight of Anne Carson

ADDISON NAMNOUM is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in JuxtaProse MagazineOff the Coast, and Words Dance Publishing, among others. She volunteers her time as a fiction reader for Philadelphia Stories and A Public Space, and is currently working on her first book of poems.


Ever receive a gift so beautiful, so touchingly simple and lovely, that you wind up feeling both a little embarrassed and breathless? This is the feeling you will experience when you get your hands on Anne Carson’s latest book of poetry, Float. 

Float , Knopf. October 2016.

Float, Knopf. October 2016.

The first thing you will notice when you put your hands on it is, of course, that Float is not bound in a fashion you would expect of a book of poems, or any book for that matter. It comes in the form of twenty-two chapbooks which are enclosed within a slightly glossy, transparent case. (It’s important that I tell you it has a slight gloss. This transparent frame, in spite of being plastic, has unusual charm and mystique; Normally plastic says more coldness than warmth, says product rather than book. Yet the case which holds the floating chapbooks draws one in, fascinates. When you pick up the case, in a shift of light, you see yourself in its reflection. How consciously this was done I can’t know, but it’s a noticeable effect that will perhaps make you feel that brief flush of embarrassment I mentioned earlier. How surprising, even unnerving, it is to recognize yourself in a beautiful gift.)

The twenty-two chapbooks of Float are slim, exciting volumes bound in varying shades of blue, each carrying the image of a solitary piece of white thread which hovers at the bottom of their covers. On the case’s back cover slip, Float tells you how it would like to be read: the order of the chapbooks is “unfixed,” the topics “various.” “Reading,” it gently instructs, “can be freefall.”

How surprising, even unnerving, it is to recognize yourself in a beautiful gift.

Now, Carson has surprised readers in the past. Though she has a traditional training in the classics, she has long excited us with her clever play within form, her knack for reclaiming old voices, her retranslations of translation as genre. Like many others, I think I first fell in love with Carson’s work when I read “The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony and God. It delighted me. And so I have to ask—how often, as a reader, do you get to experience delight? Of course, I don’t mean the word in a precious way: I mean it in a childlike way. A lemon sorbet kind of way. The way the rare line of prose or poetry lights you up, makes your insides laugh. When I read “The Glass Essay,” I thought, wow, this poet is really taking her time with the question of grief. She looked at it through her dreams. Through Emily Brontë. Through her mother and father. Through her body. Through the moors. Perhaps it seems small, but for me it was radical, a somehow deeply feminist act, a reinvention of convention. I smiled inside. 

The chapbooks of Float do much the same thing.

Courtesy of Addison Namnoum, @a.d.nam. Instagram.

Courtesy of Addison Namnoum, @a.d.nam. Instagram.

While arguably they all house poetry, Float’s chapbooks include poems, essays, plays, and stories. In each of these presentations the chapbooks will challenge your expectations on form. An example is “108 (flotage).” A curious piece, “108 (flotage)” tells a story about a hitchhiker and narrator in a numbered list (“41. Instead I asked the cop Are those for me? / 42. Pointed to the shackles”). The 108 list concludes with a parenthetical:  “(There are many ways to tell a story. A guy told me what happened to him at the border. I put some points on file cards. Every time I tried to fill in what happens between the file cards I lost the story…It was like a winter sky, high, thin, restless, unfulfilled. That’s when I started to think about the word flotage.)” 

Flotage—defined in Webster’s Dictionary as the state or condition of floating, or “that which floats on the sea or in rivers”—is a concept that reappears throughout the chapbooks and naturally is tied to the book’s title and format. And, as Carson discloses in her parenthetical at the end of “108 (flotage),” she is not too shy to tell us a little about what she is doing, or why she is doing. In Float Carson’s author notes rise to the surface of the chapbooks candidly, introspectively, even playfully. Sometimes she references the concept obliquely: In “Wildly Constant,” a spare, contemplative poem, Carson writes, “Proust says memory is of two kinds. / There is the daily struggle to recall / where we put our reading glasses / and there is the deeper gust of longing / that comes up from the bottom / of the heart.” In “Cassandra Float Can,” a fascinating treatise on translation and voice which shape-shifts in the chapbook from essay to poem, Carson meanders a tight circle around the word (“Everywhere Cassandra ran Cassandra found she could float”). She asks, “If words are veils, what do they hide?” Floating, here, is an ability to pass through worlds, through languages, through time. To see to the other side.

[Carson] has long excited us with her clever play within form, her knack for reclaiming old voices, her retranslations of translation as genre.

Transgressive women figures like Cassandra feature strongly in Float. The prophetess receives careful, loving treatment from Carson: “Like spacetime, she is nonlinear, nonnarrative and the most beautiful of Priam’s daughters…when she stood up to prophesy she shone like a lamp in a bomb shelter.” In “Stacks” Jezebel gets a second treatment (“We do not think speed of life. We do not think why hate Jezebel?”) and in “Candor” Helen is reexamined as wily: “She is not just another object taken up and used by a man for the sake of his art, she glances out.” Joan of Arc, Gertrude Stein, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson also make appearances. 

It should be noted that powerful and interesting men appear in Float as well, but there is something special about Carson’s treatment of these women in the collection. By investigating these women in a new light, Carson is celebrating candor—candor as transgression, as act outside of time—and the candor implicit in the act of writing, the act of telling one’s own story. In the chapbook “Candor,” she describes a woman writer looking down at a page and “nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper…she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.” Throughout Float, we learn again and again of a woman who belongs deeply, uniquely to herself. Who defies time. Who defies public and private memories of her person. And this act of defiance—of defiantly belonging to oneself, of floating through convention—is decidedly one part playful and one part harrowing.

An exercise in memory and retelling, Float is a strange and charming success. It illuminates. It challenges. Maybe most of all, it delights. 

Float is published by Knopf and is now available for purchase.