Carson Street | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Anne Carson can freeze your bones while she breaks your heart. "Light on brick walls and a north wind whipping the branches black," she writes in "Methinks the Poor Town Has Been Troubled Too Long." "Shadow draws the gut of the light out dry against its palm. Eat your soup, mother, wherever you are in your mind."


"Methinks" is part of "Stops," the sequence of poems that opens Decreation, Carson's 2005 collection. It is not, however, simply a collection of poems, or at least not a collection of simple poems. The book's subtitle reads "poetry, essays, opera," and Carson includes, among much else, essays on sleep (as regarded in Woolf, Keats, The Odyssey) and lunar eclipses. The protagonists of the titular "opera in three parts" include: the mythological love triangle of Hephaistos, Aphrodite and Ares; medieval theologian Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake as a heretic; and Simone Weil.


In another suite of poems, "Sublimes," focal points include Immanuel Kant and 1960s Italian film star Monica Vitti. Carson views Vitti's sensual and cryptic persona in Antonioni's L'Eclisse through an existential lens: "Thing in Itself was unattainable, insurmountable. / She keeps trying to leave the room."


Carson -- who reads March 27 at the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series -- has remained impossible to pigeonhole even as she's become a literary celebrity. Born in Toronto in 1950, she concentrated in early adulthood on painting and on studying the classics. Admirers of her 1987 treatise Eros the Bittersweet -- an academic look at Eros in Greek culture -- included Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. Carson published her first books of poetry in the 1990s, and by decade's end had a MacArthur genius grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship to accompany rave reviews. Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, called her "the most exciting poet writing in English today." She's been profiled in the New York Times Magazine and name-dropped on The L Word. Yet Carson continues to prohibit her publisher from including promotional blurbs on her book jackets.


Carson's 1998 novel in verse, The Autobiography of Red, imagined the story of Herakles and the monster Geryon as a gay coming-of-age romance. The Beauty of the Husband (2001) -- "a fictional essay in 29 tangos" -- chronicled a failed marriage: "To stay human is to break a limitation. Like it if you can. Like it if you dare."


-- Bill O'Driscoll


Anne Carson 8:30 p.m. Mon., March 27. Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland. Free. 412-624-6506 or


Words Work

"I really wrote this out of grief," says Lolita Hernandez of her first collection of short fiction. Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant (2004, Coffee House Press) took shape in the early '90s, as the Detroit Caddy plant where she'd labored two decades prepared to shut for good.


In stories such as "This Is Our Song for Today," the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants describes a multicultural mix of workers who seem parts of a great clanging organism. They experience through their work some kind of spiritual connection, and feel its breaking. An engine jumps the conveyor, and the grease and metal of the laborers' day acquires a layer of magical realism.


Work of the hands that defines a way of life is the theme at Writers @ Work: Writing About Working-Class Lives, a March 29 panel discussion and reading hosted by Carnegie Mellon University. Hernandez will be joined by three Ohio-based authors. They include: Jeanne Bryner, a nurse, poet and creative-writing teacher; Diane Gilliam Fisher, a poet whose gritty, enthralling Kettle Bottom (2004, Perugia Press) was inspired by the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1920-21; and Larry Smith, whose Milldust and Roses: Memoirs (2002, Rideway Press) reflects on his working-class post-World War II youth in the Ohio Valley.


In the literary marketplace, working-class voices typically struggle for a hearing. Hernandez, 58, wrote poems for years before she ever considered publishing them. Two chapbooks followed; she also branched into fiction, earning a master's degree from Norwich University's Vermont Writing School. All this while still working full time, says Hernandez by phone from Detroit, where she now implements equipment-maintenance procedures for GM.


The March 29 reading, her first in Pittsburgh, will focus on Autopsy of an Engine, which author Richard Rodriguez called "a talented writer's record of loss, a poet's meditation from inside the working place." Other fans include fellow working-class-Detroit native Jim Daniels -- an author and CMU English professor who helped organize the reading -- and Hernandez's own former Cadillac-plant co-workers. "They say, 'Gee, we always said somebody should write about what goes on here.'"

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