cover image Men in the Off Hours

Men in the Off Hours

Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf, $24 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40803-8

Carson's demanding style has been among the decade's most intriguing: critics with little else in common look forward to her inimitable and argumentative poems. Carson made her last splash with the narrative poem Autobiography of Red. This follow-up volume of short poems incorporates a brace of unusual genres--quick verse-essays, epitaphs and epigrams, predictions and ""oracles,"" pseudo-bibliographical ""drafts"" and ""fragments,"" verse-portraits (the Biblical Lazarus, a circus ""Flatman""), invented proverbs, and extremely free translations. (One of several amazing versions of Catullus begins ""Before my holy stoning in the wet kisses and the smell of sperm/ I drove an ambulance for the Red Cross."") Like her previous work, these poems draw frequently on Carson's classical training (she teaches Greek and Latin at McGill University in Montreal). Her harsh, carved lines, clear closures and periphrases can sound like attempts to forge an English answer to Greek lyric. The opening ""Epitaph: Zion"" initiates readers into the sudden twists, astonishments and mysteries in the longer work to follow: the whole poem reads: ""Murderous little world once our objects had gazes. Our lives/ Were fragile, the wind/ Could dash them away. Here lies the refugee breather/ Who drank a bowl of elsewhere."" Potential keys to many poems reside in two brisk, scholarly prose essays at the beginning and near the end--""Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War"" and ""Dirt and Desire: Female Pollution in Antiquity."" Woolf reappears in the poems as a principle of inner experience and subjective time, Thucydides as the opposing principle of linear time, narrative, action, event. Carson's other new works invoke, describe and quote Hokusai, Audobon, Tolstoy, Augustine, Edward Hopper, Akhmatova and Artaud; it is the measure of Carson's striking talent that the men and women in her lines sound, at base, always and only like her. (Mar.)