A poem made for Roni Horn out of the titles of five of her sculptures.
If you are not the free person you want to be you must find a place to tell the truth about that. To tell how things go for you. Candor is like a skein being produced inside the belly day after day, it has to get itself woven out somewhere. You could whisper down a well. You could write a letter and keep it in a drawer. You could inscribe a curse on a ribbon of lead and bury it in the ground to lie unread for thousands of years. The point is not to find a reader, the point is the telling itself. Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper. She takes her pen and writes on it some marks no one else will ever see, she bestows on it a kind of surplus, she tops it off with a gesture as private and accurate as her own name.
Consider Jane Wells. The paper she has in her hand is a letter from her husband’s mistress, Rebecca West. Her husband, H.G. Wells, a sexual socialist, liked his women to acquiesce in one another. There were many women. Jane kept track of their ups and downs, occasionally had them to tea, sent them congratulatory cables when they bore bastards to H.G. and received their notes of sympathy if she fell ill. “How ill you have been . . . how sorry I was . . . how glad I am . . .” wrote Rebecca West. I wonder how long Jane Wells stood studying this letter before she took out her pencil and added the few faint underlinings and exclamation marks that make it a document of a different kind. I wonder why she did this. Unlikely she expected anyone to ever read the page. But there were considerations of privacy and accuracy that moved her hand to perfect it in a certain way, to have her mood recorded, to whisper on paper some resistance to the falsity of the other woman’s sentences. “Candor—my Preceptor—is the only wile,” wrote Emily Dickinson. (Letter to T.W. Higginson, February 1876.)
Consider Helen. Oh Helen was a package. She had all the men of Greece in love with her, fled to Troy, charmed everyone there too. It was partly her beauty, partly her accurate private mind. Homer doesn’t bother describing her beauty but he gives us a close-up of her mind. It was one of those long afternoons of the war. Homer cuts from the battlefield to everything quiet in Helen’s chamber:
in her chamber weaving a great cloth
doublefolded and red and she sprinkled into it
the many contests of horsetaming Trojans and bronzeclad Achaians
which for her sake they were suffering at the hands of Ares.
(Homer, Iliad 3. 126–9)
Of course all the women in Homer weave, it is the quintessential female work—because a household needs cloth. Because the designs of women are as tangled and purposeful as webs. Because of that skein in the belly. Yet Helen’s weaving is special—double and red and weirdly now. Since antiquity critics have admired this reciprocal paraphrase of Helen and Homer. They are both in their different ways deeply unfree, deeply wily, makers of marks. Into his telling hers is “sprinkled”—funny verb, like salt or seeds—in a sort of infinite regress of candor. She is not just another object taken up and used by a man for the sake of his art, she glances out.
“Jane” wasn’t Mrs. H.G. Wells’s real name, Amy Catherine was her real name. H.G. didn’t like Amy Catherine, he rechristened her Jane, a name he thought embodied domestic ability. They were married close on forty years and Jane fulfilled H.G.’s domestic expectations. Yet sometimes he says he saw “[Amy Catherine] look at me out of Jane’s brown eyes, and vanish.” (H.G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography.)
For comparative purpose here is the text of a curse tablet on lead, measuring 8 × 3 cm, written on both sides, rolled and pierced by a nail, found buried in Boeotia, original date unknown, possibly 4th century BC:
I bind down Zois of Eretria wife of Kabeiras before Earth and Hermes her eating her drinking her sleep her laughter her sex her playing the lyre her way of going into rooms her pleasure her little buttocks her thinking eyes
and before Hermes I bind down her walk her words her hands her feet her evil talk her entire soul I bind them down
—Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living. Her publications include Nox; Autobiography of Red; Decreation; Eros the Bittersweet; If Not, Winter; Fragments of Sappho; Glass, Irony and God; Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides; Men in the Off Hours; An Oresteia; Plainwater: Essays and Poetry; and Short Talks.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.