In Plain Sight: A Review of Plainwater by Anne Carson


When you enjoy a new-to-you author this much, you just hope you haven’t made the mistake of choosing her best book to read first. And though Plainwater is a flavorful mix of essays and poetry, it really amounts to poetry, whether in traditional lines and stanzas or hidden in paragraph form. The lady has a word with ways, as they say.

The book opens modestly enough with “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” which is an interview between the author and a 7th-century B.C. poet (but of course!). The moral of the story? If you like an ancient poet, make like a ventriloquist and give him a new voice.

After this comes “Short Talks,” the perfect thing for these short-attention-span times. Most of these entries are a mere paragraph long, with titles like “On Trout,” “On Disappointments in Music,” “On Ovid,” “On Parmenides,” “On Waterproofing,” “On the Mona Lisa,” “On Sylvia Plath,” and “On Reading.” Sweet and short, the shortest of the lot is “On Gertrude Stein About 9:30,” which goes like so: “How curious. I had no idea! Today has ended.”

Section 3, “Canicula di Anna,” is full-fledged poetry–44 pages of a phenomenology conference in Perugia, Italy. If you have no idea what phenomenology is and how on earth (much less Italy) it would merit a conference, know that it is, according to both Merriam and Webster, “the study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy.”

As they say in Canada: “Oh.”

“The Life of Towns,” Part 4, is similar to “Short Talks” except it is written as short poems. The beyond-curious thing about these guys is that every line in every poem starts with a capital letter and ends with a period–even when it’s not a sentence. Exhibit B (“A” being busy):

“Luck Town” by Anne Carson

Digging a hole.
To bury his child alive.
So that he could buy food for his aged mother.
One day.
A man struck gold.

Once you get used to the quirky periods (that must be ignored) and to the fact that Carson has forced you to slow down and read her poems slowly, you’re safe at the plate.

Finally, the book wraps up with a travelogue of sorts called “The Anthropology of Water.” It’s about Anne and a boyfriend doing the Simon & Garfunkel thing (“Yes, we’ve all gone to look for America…”). It’s like snooping in a poet’s diary, this section, and you not only get an idea about camping (of all things), but learn about the psychology of man and woman in close quarters (pup tents, sleeping bags, cars, etc.) and the communion one feels with nature, even under times of stress.

My favorite line in this section, running away (like the dish and spoon)? Easy. It’s two lines under the heading Friday 4:00 a.m. Not swimming.: “Staring. The lake lies like a silver tongue in a black mouth.”

Let me stare at that line again. If it’s 4 a.m. as I do so, even better. And if I’m in a cabin right on a lake, better still. Deep inhale. Slow exhale.

Throughout all of these sections, Carson explores her fraught relationship with her father. Yep. He’s another one of those strict, man-of-few-words types who bears a daughter-of-many-words and has trouble showing his love.

What is it with men who have trouble showing their love? In its way, the theme of this lovely book.


2 thoughts on “In Plain Sight: A Review of Plainwater by Anne Carson

  1. carter7878

    Ken, I’m going to stop showing my love for you if you don’t stop writing such silliness as “it really amounts to poetry, whether in traditional lines and stanzas or hidden in paragraph form.” Can we please drop this idea of “poetry” as something ineffably wonderful? It’s simply a kind of writing organized by lines and stanzas and committed to form as a way of enhancing content. Maybe we should just call it “verse.”

    I know I seem pedantic, but unless we define our basic terms, any literary discussion is just pissing into the impressionistic wind.

    Have you ever heard a critic say, “That isn’t PROSE”?

    If poetry means something ineffably stupendous, then there’s NO SUCH THING as BAD poetry!


    1. I didn’t realize you were showing your love for me all this time. Good to know. And I’ll try my best to learn, but I just kind of wing it when I write here. My three readers (four, including you — for now) seem to like it. But I’ll try. Honest. In verse and prose….


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