The Last (Poetry) Book I Loved: Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson


As if Anne Carson were a geological epoch, a little ice age or a period of Cretaceous warming, I divide my life into B.A.C. (Before Anne Carson) and after A.A.C. (After Anne Carson). Few people can write like a verb is a dog they command. But she can.

I was introduced to A.C. in a period of my own severe lack of command of anything. Two kids under five. House a wreck. Self a snot-factory. I thought Poetry! That’s what I need! I’ll take take a poetry class! Mother’s Little Helper, poetry. A balm. Some classics.

My teacher first thing disabused us of the classics. This class was going to be modern, post-post-post structuralist or something; we were going to read and write “sonic cubes.” This made me nervous. I was writing at that time scenes from childhood, and baby burp. I raised my hand: I like narrative poetry I said. Everyone in the class wanted to pat my head. Poor dog. Making a narrative is so last Sunday, like cupcake boutiques in big cities, it just isn’t done anymore by people.

I started writing in the very early morning at a cafe and I would use the descriptions of their coffee flavors in my poems. Charged. Dusk. Melon-y, syrup. Spice. Adjectives. Nouns. Divorced of narrative. It was wonderful. It was wonderful, actually, to be divorced from my narrative, the moi who spoke in my head about which laundry detergent cleaned best, the unending story teller, the upright pronoun. Who cares what I thought? Give the I a break already. There was more to life.

I was approaching A.A.C. like a wormhole. I was primed by a coffeeshop, like some say the Age of Enlightenment was. My poetry teacher took me aside one day as he took all of us aside on different days to chat with us about our “process” and to “recommend reading” to aid us in our process, so I have him to thank too: Peter Richards. Like a midwife. He said read Anne Carson. I was like who? He was like She’s a Canadian poet, a classicist. I was like, Canada? I’ve been there once. Give me more Jane Kenyon, I begged. He was like, You don’t need more Jane Kenyon. I was like, How about some of the other confessionals? He was like, No. More. Confessionals. For. You.

I read The Autobiography of Red in a night, rapt, with a red crayon, a stub one of the kids had neglected, because at that time I could not find a damn pen in the house. Though it is cosmologically correct to read this book with a red crayon. Like a kid’s red crayon is made of red wax, this book is made of words. Just words, nothing extra. No floozyness, A.C. Turning narrative on a dime with a verb, causing story. Which is so different from what we call “making up” a story.

I bluntly made exclamations in the margins. No other book has shaken me, as they say, to the core. I laughed. I cried. I was a spy thriller movie trailer, as in I was ridiculous to watch reading this book, I was all Pow! Shazzam! and I was full of awe. Charlotte’s Web, and Middlemarch, and A Wrinkle In Time are my favorite books, books I want to go to bed reading. They have changed the way I think and feel and experience, but not the way I think and feel and experience language. I just want to stop. And say thank you, Anne Carson you caused a brave new world to erupt from the page like a volcanic island.

Elizabeth Bastos is a stay-at-home-mother of two, an avid reader, and a recreational baker of French pastry. Her work has appeared online at Errant Parent, Food Network Humor, McSweeney's and The New Yorker Magazine's Book Bench blog. She can also be found at More from this author →