The Beauty of the Husband: Metaphors

Analysing the complex metaphors of Anne Carson’s “The Beauty of the Husband”.


Wounds bring both pain and a promise of change.

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband

Mesmerised by Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, I embarked on a more ambitious journey through her world of verse-novels. This blurb warned of complexity:

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

If tackling page one was an act of faith in myself, then moving from page one to page two was an act of faith in the author and in her ability to write an “enjoyable” book on marriage, starting with the words A wound. Petty grievances and family drama make for hard reading.

But reality TV this is not. In fact, Carson’s book is the smoothest ninety-minute read.

Of the 145 pages most are nearly blank—the usual sparsity of verse counterbalances the density of its internal images—so it’s easy to breeze through visually.

The consequences of the content are another matter (which is personal).

The writing lessons to be drawn, yet another (which I’ll share).

But first: what of tangos, what of Keats?

In my reading, the Argentine connection first developed into a romantic allusion (smoke, thigh slits, and the signature leg slant), then into a pagination aesthetic (it could have been 29 chapters, 29 poems, 29 essays). Both allusion and aesthetic coloured my expectation, but seemingly not my experience.

Keats appears epigrammatically at the beginning of each Tango, and occasionally within the text itself. Though, familiarity with Keat’s isn’t necessary to appreciate Carson’s voice and the story that she tells.

On this blog, I’ll appreciate her writing. I drew three lessons:

  1. Images do not have to be expansively written to be expansively felt. Metaphor condenses emotion neatly, even while riling reason (e.g. Tongue is the smell of October to me.).
  2. Referencing the real world in highly stylised fiction can be done plausibly, without it feeling like cheap stuffing or kitschy ornamentation (e.g. because she mentioned Houyhnhnms and he objected / to being “written off as an object of satire,”—before you say anything, Houyhnhnms are a fictional part of the real world).
  3. One-line, ping-pong dialogues are race cars down the page. (Coward. / I know. / Betrayer. / Yes. / Opportunist. / I can see why you would think that.)

Today, the metaphors of Lesson 1. References and dialogues will follow later this week.

The density of a text (the rate of surprise it offers) can occur on two levels: through what is being said or through how it is being said. The what and the how, in the guise of meaning and expression, are inextricably linked by the author’s style, but operate on different levels.

Take the following example:

My pencil broke. I will stop trying to dig my way out of captivity using writing utensils. 

The second sentence is an unexpected application of a pencil, but its expression is straightforward.

In contrast, a captive who is allowed to inform his family in brief, untruthful terms of his captivity might think to himself:

My pencil bleeds between the words.

Here the complaint of censorship is expected, but the formulation is not.

As hinted by that second example, the chief condenser of expression is metaphor. Unlike the tit-for-tat comparison of traditional similes, metaphors yoke together thoughts into trains or invest pencils with cardiovascular systems. They’re useful and beautiful and beastly, and learning to write them well is difficult. Not least because they’re seemingly everywhere when you try to find a literal interpretation, and seemingly nowhere when you try to find fresh specimens.

Carson’s verse-novel is a beautiful middle-ground.

The novelistic aspect ensures you’re not swamped with ladders and knots of metaphor as you would be in a poem; the poetic aspect ensures diverse metaphors with unique twists. In her own words:

There is something about the way that Greek poets, say Aeschylus, use metaphor that really attracts me. I don’t think I can imitate it, but there’s a density to it that I think I’m always trying to push towards in English. It’s a kind of compacting of metaphor, without a concern for making sense … it’s just on the edge of sense and on the edge of the way language should operate.

I have sifted through her book, and here are the extracts I deemed most revealing. I’ve underlined the binding elements which transfer meaning from vehicle to tenor.

Metaphor as (more than) synaesthesia:

Tongue is the smell of October to me.

An object (tongue) is equated with a smell, the smell is qualified by an abstract concept (October). This goes beyond synaesthesia.

Metaphor as identification with a complex image:

Clothed in flames and rolling through the sky is how I felt the night he told me
he had a mistress and with shy pride
slid out a photograph.

But still when I recall the conversation it’s what I see—me a fighter pilot
bailing out over the channel. Me as kill.

Complex images can serve as descriptors of feeling through simple identification.

Metaphor as segue through simile:

His letters, we agree, were highly poetic. They fell into my life
like pollen and stained it.

The letters’ arrival is compared to that of pollen; their effect is a metaphorical stain.

Metaphor in two stages:

How do people
get power over one another? is an algebraic question

you used to say. “Desire doubled is love and love doubled is madness.”
Madness doubled is marriage

First a question of social dynamic is identified with a question from mathematics, then a the language of mathematics is used to quantify and compare usually incomparable concepts.

Metaphors as signalled by em dashes:

What if a devil long after sacrifice
starts coming and going on the borderland—
just a crease in daylight.

The metaphor is twofold: daylight is not known for having creases, and devils hardly exist as such phenomena. Whilst the em dash isn’t strictly needed for the image to function, it does, as a punctuation mark, prepare the reader for a jump in meaning. Visually it also presents a border and a crease, which further strengthens the image.

Metaphor and simile boost each other:

and anger goes straight up like trees in her voice holding
his heart tall.

Anger can only metaphorically go straight up, but the metaphor needs the simile like trees to make itself visual, before returning to hold the heart on its spearhead.

Metaphor as metalepsis:

She followed him to the door feeling a pang of abyss.

Pangs are usually of hunger or guilt or some other familiar stinging, negative state of body or soul. However, all those states are associated with larger, symbolical phenomena of hollowness and having the ground taken from under you. Abyss works here as well as a word might. However, a simpler, more general pattern can be learned from a modified sentence (remove the pang):

She followed him to the door with a feeling of eagle wings.

Eagle wings could be anything of the correct contextual drift.

Metaphor as attribution:

Infinite evening ahead.
Its shoals appear to him and he navigates them one by one
slipping the dark blue keel ropes this way and that
on a bosom of inconceivable silver

Shoals are bound to evening via the its. A trick worth noting.

In the following quote attribution is used together with the simile image-boost:

while high black banks of twilight came and stood around them close
as sentries.

Twilight is given high black banks, which then came and stood, which in turn made visual sense if compared to sentries.

Metaphor as sophistry:

Ray please I never lied to her. When need arose I may have used words that lied.

Words are personified to take on the blame. This may be a caricature of a liar’s excuse, but the truth it works off is unsettling. Metaphors taken to mean non-literal interpretation of words proliferate outside of strict scientific terminology, from the underpinnings of social conventions (How are you doing? I’m fine means different degrees of truth-telling to different people) to our intimate justifications (I can say I was sick because no one can check I wasn’t, and I was sick of work, so that’s pretty much the same thing.)

The best metaphors are both shortcuts to meaning and salves for the brutal cuts of reality. That’s also the message I took away from The Beauty of the Husband: you may call your wound the prick of a rose thorn, so long as you know which rose and how to rout its kind from your garden.

But don’t throw away the petals.

Dead roses make good potpourri and Turkish delight.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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