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Autobiography of Red

A Novel in Verse

by Anne Carson

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canadian, literary, visionary & metaphysical
list price: $16.00 USD
also available: Paperback Paperback
category: Poetry
published: 1999
imprint: Vintage
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  • Winner, QSPELL Award
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The award-winning poet reinvents a genre in a stunning work that is both a novel and a poem, both an unconventional re-creation of an ancient Greek myth and a wholly original coming-of-age story set in the present.

Geryon, a young boy who is also a winged red monster, reveals the volcanic terrain of his fragile, tormented soul in an autobiography he begins at the age of five. As he grows older, Geryon escapes his abusive brother and affectionate but ineffectual mother, finding solace behind the lens of his camera and in the arms of a young man named Herakles, a cavalier drifter who leaves him at the peak of infatuation. When Herakles reappears years later, Geryon confronts again the pain of his desire and embarks on a journey that will unleash his creative imagination to its fullest extent. By turns whimsical and haunting, erudite and accessible, richly layered and deceptively simple, Autobiography of Red is a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is.

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist  

"Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today." --Michael Ondaatje

"This book is amazing--I haven't discovered any writing in years so marvelously disturbing." --Alice Munro 

"A profound love story . . . sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender." --The New York Times Book Review

"A deeply odd and immensely engaging book. . . . [Carson] exposes with passionate force the mythic underlying the explosive everyday." --The Village Voice

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I like the feeling of words doing
as they want to do and as they have to do.

He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet. Born about 650 B.C. on the north coast of Sicily in a city called Himera, he lived among refugees who spoke a mixed dialect of Chalcidian and Doric. A refugee population is hungry for language and aware that anything can happen. Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do. Stesichoros' words were collected in twenty-six books of which there remain to us a dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments. Not much is known about his working life (except the famous story that he was struck blind by Helen; see Appendixes A, B, C). He seems to have had a great popular success. How did the critics regard him? Many ancient praises adhere to his name. "Most Homeric of the lyric poets," says Longinus. "Makes those old stories new," says Suidas. "Driven by a craving for change," says Dionysios of Halikarnassos. "What a sweet genius in the use of adjectives!" adds Hermogenes. Here we touch the core of the question "What difference did Stesichoros make?" A comparison may be useful. When Gertrude Stein had to sum up Picasso she said, "This one was working." So say of Stesichoros, "This one was making adjectives."

What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning "placed on top," "added," "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.

Of course there are several different ways to be. In the world of the Homeric epic, for example, being is stable and particularity is set fast in tradition. When Homer mentions blood, blood is black. When women appear, women are neat-ankled or glancing. Poseidon always has the blue eyebrows of Poseidon. Gods' laughter is unquenchable. Human knees are quick. The sea is unwearying. Death is bad. Cowards' livers are white. Homer's epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption. There is a passion in it but what kind of passion? "Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code," says Baudrillard. So into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. And Stesichoros was studying the surface restlessly. It leaned away from him. He went closer. It stopped. "Passion for substances" seems a good description of that moment. For no reason that anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches.

Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver. Or a child bruiseless. Or hell as deep as the sun is high. Or Herakles ordeal strong. Or a planet middle night stuck. Or an insomniac outside the joy. Or killings cream black. Some substances proved more complex. To Helen of Troy, for example, was attached an adjectival tradition of whoredom already old by the time Homer used it. When Stesichoros unlatched her epithet from Helen there flowed out such a light as may have blinded him for a moment. This is a big question, the question of the blinding of Stesichoros by Helen (see Appendixes A, B), although generally regarded as unanswerable (but see Appendix C).

A more tractable example is Geryon. Geryon is the name of a character in ancient Greek myth about whom Stesichoros wrote a very long lyric poem in dactylo-epitrite meter and triadic structure. Some eighty-four papyrus fragments and a half-dozen citations survive, which go by the name Geryoneis ("The Geryon Matter") in standard editions. They tell of a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia (which is an adjective meaning simply "The Red Place") quietly tending a herd of magical red cattle, until one day the hero Herakles came across the sea and killed him to get the cattle. There were many different ways to tell a story like this. Herakles was an important Greek hero and the elimination of Geryon constituted one of His celebrated Labors. If Stesichoros had been a more conventional poet he might have taken the point of view of Herakles and framed a thrilling account of the victory of culture over monstrosity. But instead the extant fragments of Stesichoros' poem offer a tantalizing cross section of scenes, both proud and pitiful, from Geryon's own experience. We see his red boy's life and his little dog. A scene of wild appeal from his mother, which breaks off. Interspersed shots of Herakles approaching over the sea. A flash of the gods in heaven pointing to Geryon's doom. The battle itself. The moment when everything goes suddenly slow and Herakles' arrow divides Geryon's skull. We see Herakles kill the little dog with His famous club.

But that is enough proemium. You can answer for yourself the question "What difference did Stesichoros make?" by considering his masterpiece. Some of its principal fragments are below. If you find the text difficult, you are not alone. Time has dealt harshly with Stesichoros. No passage longer than thirty lines is quoted from him and papyrus scraps (still being found: the most recent fragments were recovered from cartonnage in Egypt in 1977) withhold as much as they tell. The whole corpus of the fragments of Stesichoros in the original Greek has been published thirteen times so far by different editors, beginning with Bergk in 1882. No edition is exactly the same as any other in its contents or its ordering of the contents. Bergk says the history of a text is like a long caress. However that may be, the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box. "Believe me for meat and for myself," as Gertrude Stein says. Here. Shake.




Geryon was a monster everything about him was red
Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red
How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against
Their hobbles in the red wind
Burrowed himself down in the red dawn jelly of Geryon's
Geryon's dream began red then slipped out of the vat and ran
Upsail broke silver shot up through his roots like a pup
Secret pup At the front end of another red day


Across the salt knobs it was Him
Knew about the homegold
Had sighted red smoke above the red spires


If you persist in wearing your mask at the supper table
Well Goodnight Then they said and drove him up
Those hemorrhaging stairs to the hot dry Arms
To the ticking red taxi of the incubus
Don't want to go want to stay Downstairs and read


Geryon walked the red length of his mind and answered No
It was murder And torn to see the cattle lay
All these darlings said Geryon And now me


His mother saw it mothers are like that
Trust me she said Engineer of his softness
You don't have to make up your mind right away
Behind her red right cheek Geryon could see
Coil of the hot plate starting to glow


Athena was looking down through the floor
Of the glass-bottomed boat Athena pointed
Zeus looked Him


Later well later they left the bar went back to the centaur's
Place the centaur had a cup made out of a skull Holding three
Measures of wine. Holding it he drank Come over here you can
Bring your drink if you're afraid to come alone The centaur
Patted the sofa beside him Reddish yellow small alive animal
Not a bee moved up Geryon's spine on the inside


A quiet root may know how to holler He liked to
Suck words Here is an almighty one he would say
After days of standing in the doorway



Geryon lay on the ground covering his ears The sound
Of the horses like roses being burned alive


In those days the police were weak Family was strong
Hand in hand the first day Geryon's mother took him to
School She neatened his little red wings and pushed him
In through the door


Are there many little boys who think they are a
Monster? But in my case I am right said Geryon to the
Dog they were sitting on the bluffs The dog regarded him


Steps off a scraped March sky and sinks
Up into the blind Atlantic morning One small
Red dog jumping across the beach miles below
Like a freed shadow


Little red dog did not see it he felt it All
Events carry but one


Arrow means kill It parted Geryon's skull like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude breeze


He loved lightning He lived on an island His mother was a
Nymph of a river that ran to the sea His father was a gold
Cutting tool Old scholia say that Stesichoros says that
Geryon had six hands and six feet and wings He was red and
His strange red cattle excited envy Herakles came and
Killed him for his cattle
The dog too


The red world And corresponding red breezes
Went on Geryon did not




Suidas s.v. palinodia: "Counter song" or "saying the opposite of what you said before." E.g., for writing abuse of Helen Stesichoros was struck blind but then he wrote for her an encomium and got his sight back. The encomium came out of a dream and is called "The Palinode."

Isokrates Helen 64: Looking to demonstrate her own power Helen made an object lesson of the poet Stesichoros. For the fact is he began his poem "Helen" with a bit of blasphemy. Then when he stood up be found he'd been robbed of his eyes. Straightaway realizing why, he composed the so-called "Palinode" and Helen restored him to his own nature. Plato Phaedrus 243a: There is in mythology an ancient tactic of purgation for criminals, which Homer did not understand but Stesichoros did. When Stesichoros found himself blinded for slandering Helen he did not (like Homer) just stand there bewildered--no! on the contrary. Stesichoros was an intellectual. He recognized the cause and at once sat down to compose [his "Palinode"]. . . .



No it is not the true story.
No you never went on the benched ships.
No you never came to the towers of Troy.




1. Either Stesichoros was a blind man or he was not.

2. If Stesichoros was a blind man either his blindness was a temporary condition or it was permanent.

3. If Stesichoros' blindness was a temporary condition this condition either had a contingent cause or it had none.

4. If this condition had a contingent cause that cause was Helen or the cause was not Helen.

5. If the cause was Helen Helen had her reasons or she had none.

6. If Helen had her reasons the reasons arose out of some remark Stesichoros made or they did not.

7. If Helen's reasons arose out of some remark Stesichoros made either it was a strong remark about Helen's sexual misconduct (not to say its unsavory aftermath the Fall of Troy) or it was not.

8. If it was a strong remark about Helen's sexual misconduct (not to say its unsavory aftermath the Fall of Troy) either this remark was a lie or it was not.

9. If it was not a lie either we are now in reverse and by continuing to reason in this way are likely to arrive back at the beginning of the question of the blinding of Stesichoros or we are not.

10. If we are now in reverse and by continuing to reason in this way are likely to arrive back at the beginning of the question of the blinding of Stesichoros either we will go along without incident or we will meet Stesichoros on our way back.

11. If we meet Stesichoros on our way back either we will keep quiet or we will look him in the eye and ask him what he thinks of Helen.

12. If we look Stesichoros in the eye and ask him what he thinks of Helen either he will tell the truth or he will lie.

13. If Stesichoros lies either we will know at once that he is lying or we will be fooled because now that we are in reverse the whole landscape looks inside out.

14. If we are fooled because now that we are in reverse the whole landscape looks inside out either we will find that we do not have a single penny on us or we will call Helen up and tell her the good news.

15. If we call Helen up either she will sit with her glass of vermouth and let it ring or she will answer.

16. If she answers either we will (as they say) leave well enough alone or we will put Stesichoros on.

17. If we put Stesichoros on either he will contend that he now sees more clearly than ever before the truth about her whoring or he will admit he is a liar.

18. If Stesichoros admits he is a liar either we will melt into the crowd or we will stay to see how Helen reacts.

19. If we stay to see how Helen reacts either we will find ourselves pleasantly surprised by her dialectical abilities or we will be taken downtown by the police for questioning.

20. If we are taken downtown by the police for questioning either we will be expected (as eyewitnesses) to clear up once and for all the question whether Stesichoros was a blind man or not.

21. If Stesichoros was a blind man either we lie or if not not.

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Contributor notes

ANNE CARSON was born in Canada and has been a professor of Classics for over thirty years. Her awards and honors include the Lannan Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations.

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Editorial Review

"This book is amazing--I haven't discovered any writing in years so marvelously disturbing." --Alice Munro

"A profound love story...sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender." --The New York Times Book Review 
"A deeply odd and immensely engaging book.... [Carson] exposes with passionate force the mythic underlying the explosive everyday." --The Village Voice

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