“What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange […] Let us see who controls the danger.”
—Anne Carson, Decreation
Anne Carson’s self-described three part essay, “Decreation: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God,” is a text of daring, if not challenge. The essay serves as a theoretical culmination of her book, also titled Decreation—a collection of poetry, essays and opera. While Decreation opens with texts oriented towards Carson’s mother (in “Stops,” “Going to visit my mother is like starting in on a piece by Beckett”) and father (in “Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” a brief but guiding mention of his deline via dementia), these personal forays eventually yield to a broader citational movement with sleep, the sublime, tragedy and ecstasy. So, as Decreation unfolds, Carson’s once-foregrounded subjectivity becomes harder and harder to detect, a gossamer fabric veiling and revealing moments of citation, translation and ideological connection. I picture the x-rayed dress split open and displayed upon Decreation’s cover, the missing body amidst implied internal probing. I hear Sappho, translated by Carson: “greener than grass / I am and dead—”
From the outset of “Decreation: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God,” Carson presents deceptively simple terms: “This is an essay about three women and will have three parts.” From there, her reader becomes aware of a textual network entailing an active examination of ecstasy, self-destruction and religious belief, as these experiences and orientations pertain to Sappho, Porete and Weil: three women who willfully lost themselves in love and religious devotion. In other words, it seems—upon first read—that one section would be devoted to each woman writer. For most of the essay, then, there is a felt sense of order, a formal shape within which these women can be displayed in all their decreating.
At the conclusion of the essay, however, Carson proffers a cunning fourth part:
Inasmuch as we are now entering upon the fourth part of a three-part essay, we should
brace ourselves for some inconsequentiality. I don’t feel the cause of this inconsequence
is me. Rather it originates with the three women we are studying and the cause of it is the
fact that they are writers.
While Carson jests in a dual devaluation of Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil—first (perhaps) because of their gender, and second because of their vocation—I can’t help but wonder about the implications for Carson herself, the textual orchestrator of this project-within-project. What—or who—is Carson, if not a writer? What about her project separates herself from Sappho, Porete and Weil? Is Carson’s act of writing “Decreation”—and, throughout the book-length project of the same name—one of ecstasy, of removing the self (from what)? After all, as Carson writes away from herself and her fragmented family history, she clears the subjective “I” and wields her voice in the service of Sappho, Porete and Weil’s embodied philosophies.
I started this series on citational poetics in the summer of 2020, thinking that I knew what my project was, and what questions most explicitly motivated my work. In retrospect, I felt the vitality of my project yet could not fully name it; I was feverishly writing around something I couldn’t see. To an extent, in this work, there is a requirement of circling—foregrounding, even—the unknown. We cite to challenge our subjectivity; another voice might convey an idea we lack the words or feeling for. Alternatively, another voice might populate a previously perceived smallness, aloneness, or even insignificance.
Alice Notley wrote: “What is it like at the beginning of the world?” Fanny Howe wrote around and around bewilderment. Meanwhile, as I wrote, countless people died and were dying in a horrifying entanglement of racial capitalism and misogyny—an entanglement only compounded by the ongoing pandemic. People are still dying.
At this moment, as I re-read the preexisting sections of my series, I see that I got too close to myself. I circled too closely around a wound I didn’t know I had. As if precipitating this dissonance, and in the months following my installment on mothers and the dead, I turned away from criticism and towards what might be non-literary forms of citation: incantation, tattoo, improvisatory movement from the safety of my basement. I wasn’t rejecting writing, necessarily, but placing my body more directly in my creative practice. This leaning into the present and somatic, however painful and bewildering, had a profound effect on my ability to recall instances in my own life, to transform. Now, echoes of past selves yield to a new kind of clarity as I slough them off.
Carson writes, on quotation:
“Let us see who controls the danger.”
In July 2020, I said I’d include Anne Carson in this series. It’s now August 2022, over two years after this writing ‘began’, and I find myself circling back to the page—and to Carson—thanks to a record by Mount Eerie. Titled Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2, this record recalls Lost Wisdom while providing holistic perspective on the despondency that ran throughout its first iteration. In Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2, Phil Elverum, the songwriter behind Mount Eerie, nimbly embraces change, contradiction and faulty binaries. With eleven years between Lost Wisdom Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, and with a discursive lyrical form that allows Elverum to oscillate between biography, citation and desire, the record orients itself in a like-messianic time-scape.
Indeed, it’s time: Elverum’s play with time plunged me back into Carson’s work. The sneaky fourth section of “Decreation” reminds me of how futile organization can be, of how the work of writing—whether musical or literary, or both—often has a mind (or minds) of its own, against whatever order time might suggest. Elverum’s choice to open Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2 with a song called “Belief,” only to end the record with a wildly different song called “Belief pt. II,” suggests a thematic constancy in his musical catalog, one that the music itself barely captures. It’s continuous. It’s nonlinear. It cites itself—its past—even as it welcomes other voices into the fold.
In “Belief,” the listener finds Elverum reflecting on a new relationship in the aftermath of tragic irony and profound loss. He sings: “Through all of my life I waver back and forth between a belief and not.” The seven-plus-minute-long song encompasses Elverum’s entire life, creating—in its steady churn of guitar and voice—an occasion for turning and re-turning through memory, connection and loss. In “Belief,” the instrumentation tells us what to attend to: piano and vocal harmonies emphasize Elverum’s flights against certainty, and towards a curiosity that makes space for presence and absence, love and loss, belief and not.
Over halfway into the song, after inviting his listener to imagine the depths of his despair after the death of his wife (“So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die / And then look into the pit / I lived on the edge of it / And had to stay there”), Elverum pulls the poet Joanne Kyger into his lyrical movement. He sings, “Joanne Kyger said,” before disappearing into the landscape of the song. Julie Doiron enacts this musical citation, singing Kyger’s poem into being:
We fight incredibly through a hideous mish mash of inheritance,
forgiving for deeper stamina. That we go on, the world
always goes on, breaking us with its changes
until our form, exhausted, runs true.
After this citational moment, a droning sound enters the song, as if performing Kyger’s idea of exhaustion. In this clearing of voice, I wonder: why does Elverum move directly from emotional provocation to citation? Why does he flag a loss and then flee the scene? On one hand, it seems too easy of a departure. On the other hand, what if his provocation created an opening—a vulnerability—he could no longer attend to in that form? Might this citation have made his project more bearable?
In another essay in Decreation, Anne Carson explicitly discusses quotation. She writes:
What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because you can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous.
(Let us see who controls the danger.)
Just as Carson teases her reader with an “inconsequential” fourth section, Elverum dares his listener to “imagine” life on the edge of a pit—not just any life, but his. He provides no elaborate image, no narrative divulgence. Instead, citation ruptures the narrative. In these moments of rupture, in these provocations, Carson and Elverum ask for an audience’s fluid attention: particular (individual) and relational at once.
In this installment of Citational Poetics, which presents as a conclusion, I aim to explore provocation, absence and recovery in Carson’s Decreation and Elverum’s Lost Wisdom pt. 2. I hold the vision—not quite a thesis but a curiosity—at its center. There is always more to be said.
It was merely a sound without a name…it was every possible thing at once.
When I started this series, I was thinking about citation as a survival strategy. Now, I’m thinking about citation as a discursive technique that favors discretion instead of confession. Against the relentless intersections of mass surveillance and misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia—particularly in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—I now see citation as a way of getting as close to the truth as possible and placing another voice, experience or idea in the space a deeper trauma might belong to. Following Carson’s lead, I wonder how this newfound conception of citation might afford a more vigilant choreographing of “danger,” one that both protects the subjective voice and insists on art as an active reconfiguring of experience—insists on art’s form as a veil.
In March 2019, I saw Phil Elverum perform at the Art Institute of Chicago. As Mount Eerie, he had recently released A Crow Looked at Me, a brutally vulnerable record marking the sudden death of his wife. At the time of this release, I felt my life hollowing out, clearing space for something then-unseen, and the emotive force of Elverum’s songs propelled me—dizzied—into grief and then into life on completely new terms. “Real Death” was a salve as I navigated a shocking death; a former lover whom I’d lost touch with had taken their life. The song provided me with no answers but accompanied my movements through necessity: work, graduate school, bathing, sleeping, eating.
I first started listening to Mount Eerie when I was a teenager. Elverum’s 2008 release of Lost Wisdom found me—and held me—in a way I didn’t quite understand at the time. As a kid, I felt that I didn’t possess much wisdom, that I didn’t have much to lose. Now, I see this ‘lost wisdom’ as my body’s encoding of traumatic memories so that I could survive through decades of abuse. Now, I see how little I knew safety in my early life. I see Elverum’s ‘lost wisdom’ as a mode of bewilderment, of Fanny Howe’s “slipping center”. In Elverum’s focused yet impressionable songwriting, ambling on its own terms, I find a moving reflection of what it means to live through horror: mundane and magnificent in equal measure.
When I was twenty-one and studying literature at Dublin City University, I found a copy of Anne Carson’s Decreation at Books Upstairs. I was about to be diagnosed with PTSD. In a state of constant yet eerily dull terror, I saw my body diminish before me. Somehow, I came to want to disappear. I didn’t know why. I spent my days walking and reading and writing, unable to inhabit any form of rest. I found perverse relief in Carson’s prose:
Simone Weil had a problem with eating all her life. Lots of women do. Nothing more powerfully or more often reminds us of our physicality than food and the need to eat it. So she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it, where desire need not end in perishing, where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.
Food and love were analogous contradictions for Simone Weil. She did not freely enjoy either of them in her life and was always uneasy about her imaginative relationship to them. But after all, eternal beatitude is not the only state where to look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.
This “dream of distance” is, of course, a paradoxical state of being and dying simultaneously—one that entails self-destruction and, still, the prolongation of desire, “where the lover can stay.” With this distance—“near and far at once”—I begin to understand why I started to cite so actively in my poetry. In the introduction to this series, I wrote: “My penchant for citation may also lie in a desire for safety while actively keeping my gaze both of and beyond myself.”
I couldn’t be with myself in writing without this distance. Through citation, I could remind myself that my experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse were tangible, valid and embodied. I could stage conversations I was never able—and may never be able—to have. I could affirm myself without an experience of violating vulnerability—and, ideally, provide an occasion of affirmation for any reader in need of similar recognition.
It’s easy to selectively read a passage when you’re hoping to be seen. Now, I see Carson’s passage on Simone Weil and food and love not as permission to embrace the “problem,” but as part of a stunning dialogic on dissociation. In the case of “Decreation,” Carson writes of the “clearing of self for God” as a measure taken when one gets in the way of oneself in the act of religious devotion. Is a writer a choreographer of distance, of subjectivity, of necessity?
After all, it’s in this fourth section that we see Carson’s definition of what it means to be a writer. And as she writes towards an understanding of what it means to be a writer, she invites new figures into her thinking. In this space, she holds children against mystics, noting that children cannot stay in the “the crossing-point of a contradiction.” Children, she writes, will not consent to this site. This crossing-point, this “dream of distance”—a place of pain that risks obliteration, annihilation—is, she says, for “mystics,” not children.
While Carson calls the fourth section of “Decreation” inconsequential, the heart of the essay lies in wait in this purported surplus. It risks being overlooked by an absentminded reader, even as it provides necessary definition and connection:
To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.
Why do we see children and writers in the same tightly woven space of the fourth section? Children are the original creators. The play of make believe, in the midst of life and its uncertain and cruel terms, is—perhaps—our first brush with the “big, loud, shiny centre of self” and how we choose to wield it. Children know what, as Alice Notley asks in “Women and Poetry,” the beginning of the world is like. This constructed “centre”—like a mirror or a prism—is not the “self,” but a means of preserving the self.
Things feel together until they aren’t. There’s a kind of relief in reading Carson’s fourth section—like an accident, it casts the previous three sections in an entirely new light. I’ve come to see my flashbacks in this vein, with some grace. I no longer hate them; indeed, I need them.
Citation led my mind to what my body already knew. It provided an abstract and, still, narrative framework from which I could perceive—and save—my own life. I hesitate to claim an overarching ethics of citation, but I can say what it provided me: interaction, recognition, a site for something like decreation where I could exist outside of my body on the page with others learning and reclaiming and asking and asking (for what? For life). Citation was and is a healing mode. It also becomes a way of subverting gendered expectations for what writing should look like and do, as well as a way of insisting on often unseen allegiances.
Still, I wonder how the self can protect its past forms—how this, too, might be a form of fidelity. As I write this conclusion, I am aware of the many past selves I’ve held in this space. I see and hear the memories of past selves that populate Elverum’s “Belief”; as Walter Benjamin calls for “genuine memory” that yields “an image of the person who remembers” as well as “an account of the strata which first had to be broken through,” Elverum responds deftly, allowing sound to bolster the image: of the dark water, the hill, the dragon, the jet. Elverum himself is somewhere veiled within—or behind—the “big, loud, shiny centre.”
(Let us see who controls the danger.)
In December 2021, a Planned Parenthood in Knoxville was burned to the ground in an arsonist attack. It’s August, now, and abortion is illegal in Tennessee. Language and meaning are warped as the criteria for “criminality” expands, first threatening people of color, people with limited financial resources, and children. We continue to “[rush] backwards and forwards within an irreconcilable set of imperatives.” What stories need to be told right now—not in banditry, but in solidarity?
Furthermore, what does it mean to cite when another self is involved? How might discretion—not motivated by shame, but protection—ultimately be a form of belief? To cite: to have a finger on the pulse of a wound, its strange time. To not let the blood flow unprotected. A new perspective might yield a “strata” from which the writer and their “big, loud, shiny centre” might recalibrate in company, recover, live.
Much like Elverum’s lyrics cut off mid-sentence at the end of “Belief,” suggesting a continuation—into the rest of the record or another space entirely, “a sound without a name”—I find my project resting now, here, for a while, until I agree or disagree, shape or reshape, find a new form for these ideas. These are all notes towards a much larger project—one, as I have said throughout this series, that is both within and around me, collectively tended to by all those surviving and grieving and living—all at once or one at a time.
I believed you and dove / And oh my god / When we swam together for a little bit
AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. The author of The Wheel (Spuyten Duyvil), her work appears or is forthcoming in Annulet, Music & Literature, Black Warrior Review and La Vague. Her fourth album, Summer Angel, was released by Dear Life Records this June. Pitchfork featured her song “Destroyer” on one of its playlists. What Floods, her book-length poem, was accepted for publication by Inside the Castle and will be published in 2024.