by Anne Carson
Carson’s long, but tersely brilliant poem “Wildly Constant” reminds us that “etymologically the text is a cloth; textus, from which text derives, means ‘woven’.”¹ The poem consists of 58 tercets of varying line length, plus a final single line stanza, and it takes so many meditative turns—is about so many things—that the result is an intricately woven fabric, as simultaneously smooth and bumpy as raw silk.
The reader’s challenge, but also pleasure, lies in reading backwards and forwards to make connections between these topics, to find his or her way in this fabric-maze of turns. That pleasure derives from a striptease in which a little more—or something different—is revealed with each turn. As Roland Barthes reminded us decades ago, the irony of the striptease is that the spectator’s pleasure (i.e. the reader’s) lies in moments of partial vision; the spell is broken at the moment of full disclosure or complete nudity.² Carson’s long poem never fully discloses itself; instead, its revelations are always partial, tentative, recursive.
From the first several stanzas, we surmise that the poem is about the speaker’s ontology as a foreigner new to Iceland and consists of a meditation on place as she takes an early morning walk. But by tercet #15, the speaker has shifted her attention indoors and inside the pages of Proust. Then, in stanza # 21, she makes an about-face turn to reflect on Linnaeus and ravens. By stanza #24, the poem swerves abruptly to the topic of monogamy and by #33 to an ekphrastic review of a (real or imagined) library of glaciers. Later, antarctic explorers, eggs, and even Ann Freud, come into play. The whole feels unstable; indeed it can only be constructed in our own imaginations.
For instance, after describing the extremely large ravens in Styykishólmur, the speaker turns to a meditation on monogamy and marriage:
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
I’m interested in monogamous.
I got married last May
As these tercets unfold, the three adjectives—omnivorous, pernicious, and monogamous—function as a hinge, modifying the large, noisy ravens, but also modifying marriage. This linkage is reinforced by sounds that “recur”: the “ous” ending (a homophone of the word “us”), and the slant rhyme of “sound/town.” The ravens and the prospect of moving to Iceland for a monogamous marriage both emerge as foreign or exotic to the speaker’s experience, as awful and sublime, with all of the paradoxes embedded in those terms.
Quite often the meditative turns in “Wildly Constant” look syntactically like questions about to be answered, but the punctuation at the end of the line undermines the sound of a question. For example, after a few stanzas describing the library of glaciers, we read:
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.
Each of these tercets ends with a period and the second tercet is also a sentence fragment, a dependent clause. Just as the image suggests, conventional punctuation is optional, even residual. The effect works against a reader’s tendency to hear women’s speech with a rise in pitch and a sense of uncertainty or self-doubt. Here instead, even when this speaker asks questions, her pitch plummets and we pay closer attention. But the question is still a turn and the answers still sometimes come:
It would be confusing.
A great adventure.
Because of the earlier sections on ravens, migration, and marriage, glaciers take on a metaphoric resonance. They may be images of marriage and commitment, as they seem massive, beautiful, and permanent, but glaciers, like marriage, can actually melt or come to an end. The attempt to archive glaciers in a surreal library is a necessary but also perhaps a futile project. At another point we learn that the speaker and her husband live in two different houses, a form of geographic “duogamy.” Her answers turn out to be multiple and contradictory. The speaker is both authoritative and uncertain about what she’s gotten herself into and about how to reinvent intimacy.
Marriage is of course a word and therefore linguistically a sign. If readers return to the opening of “Wildly Constant,” they’ll find that the poem’s larger, or perhaps just additional, concern is with the project of reading signs. Almost every meditative or Q&A turn in the poem constitutes the speaker’s attempt to read a “sign.” Everything she sees or encounters is potentially portentous:
Sky before dawn is blackish green.
Perhaps a sign.
I should learn more about signs.
Turning a corner to the harbor
the wind hits me
a punch in the face.
The word “sign” recurs throughout the poem (stanzas 17, 18, 31, 39, 50), as do references to the speaker’s encounters with the wind (stanzas 11, 12, 14, 40, 45). The objects, people, ideas, and memories the speaker encounters throughout her morning come at her like wind which always “pushes more” (stanza 11), and she keeps turning to reflections on these things; she is always ready to “push back” (stanza 11). The section on Proust allows us to make some sense of this striptease, this series of revelatory flashes:
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.
In these stanzas, the speaker appreciates Proust’s insight that what we claim to “know” may just be what we want or desire. But by the third of these tercets the speaker “pushes back” against Proust with the carefully punctuated line “What’s wrong with that? I think.” While most of the poem uses periods where readers expect question marks, here the poem deliberately uses a question mark, albeit followed by the terse “I think.” And the final line is actually a turn back, a recurrence of a line earlier in the poem: “I should learn more about signs.” The matter is therefore not settled. The speaker is beginning to acknowledge that she wants something that may or may not be possible, or to acknowledge that she’s not sure what she wants. Either way, she still has much to learn or savoir.
By the final stanza the speaker is still knee deep in the process of figuring out where or how she belongs in Iceland and what kind of marriage to build, how to practice the oxymoron of being both “wild” and “constant.” She has “no theory / of why we are here” but she does have a “deeper gust of longing” and we read:
The glaciers go dark.
Then I return to Greta’s house.
Wake up my husband.
Ask him to make us some eggs.
The final line of single syllable words echoes the terse turns and double entendres throughout the whole poem. Grammatically, the speaker may be describing what she’s doing (as in “I ask him…”) or commanding herself (as in “Ask him!). The choices she’s made must be continually chosen. The secret to monogamous jouissance—and reading pleasure—may just be maintaining the striptease ad infinitum, a recurring spiral of turns, an unfinished cloth.
¹ Roland Barthes. Image-Music-Text (1977).
² Roland Barthes. “Striptease” (1975) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973).
Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012). Her poems are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Minerva Rising, and the anthology The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss. Her work has also appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, Calyx, Pebble Lake Review, Wicked Alice, Ekphrasis, Cloudbank, and other journals and anthologies. She is a Senior Editor with Rhino Poetry and an adjunct professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.