We Have Wings on Our Backs: Autobiography of Red

The semester I spent in London, I went to the British Museum at least three times, which is not nearly enough. Most of the collection of artefacts from ancient Egypt was undergoing some sort of rehab at the time – you know, all the fancy stuff and sarcophogi and things. But there was a small display of everyday items: make-up kits, kitchen tools, hand mirrors, bits of fabric. I, like many kids, went through a pretty serious Egypt phase, but it was mostly centered on the mythology, not the archeology. Ancient Egypt was a place where gods rose up out of lotus flowers and wore the heads of strange beasts, where rivers ran backwards, a person had two souls, not one, where the writing danced with the shapes of cranes and men, where the earth was a man and the sky was a woman. It was a land of unreality, of dream, of reversals.

In some ways, I never realized that the people of ancient Egypt were real, were people with human bodies like mine, until I looked at the tin of face powder with its neat row of brushes with little numbers by the handles. I saw her then, brush in hand, blacking her eyes, whitening her face, carefully outlining her mouth in red the way I do when I go out and want to look pretty. She had a husband, some kids, and they’d gotten a babysitter for the first time in what felt like ages. She saw a movie and her husband drove the sitter home. They stayed up too late drinking wine and talking. In the morning, the kids woke them up early, and then they sat sleepily on the porch and watched the kids play in the rushes and fight companionably.

I’m not sure where this is going. This book makes me incoherent. I kind of want to stop trying to get it across to you and just order you to read it. Go read it. I just finished reading and I want to sing and and cry and write some stories, and I want to go back and read it again, and then I started doing that. Then I thought maybe it would be better to cry and type a bunch of anecdotal rubbish that only makes sense to me so I did that. Now I think I’ll do that some more.

I don’t have a good classical education, but at some point I was given a copy of Sappho: A Garland, which is a translation/collection of all of Sappho‘s extant poetry. Very few full poems of hers come down intact – mostly because someone else quoted her – and the rest is just fragments, sometimes whole lines, but also sometimes just a few words with big tears between them. These few whole poems were augmented by the discovery of scraps and bits wrapped around things like mummified crocodiles (I make this up not) dug out of the Mediterranean sand by colonial archaeologists. These fragments kill me. They make me burn with hunger.

For me*

neither honey
nor the bee


The moon has set
and the Pleiades; it is the middle
of the night and the hours go by
and I lie here alone.


golden chickpeas grew along the shore


In one of the reviews on Goodreads, the reviewer wonders if this book was written just for him, which is what I wonder too. Sappho was my fragmentary poetic love; a poet named Stesichoros was Anne Carson’s. She says he “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” I loved Sappho for empathizing with Helen, in the poem that begins:

“Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
ever you love best.”

The poem ends with the personal, with Sappho, the poet, dropping her little argument about Troy and Helen and the place of those things in the world and howling with the ache of her lost lover. Homer was many good things, but he was a not a poet of the personal. His seas are always wine-dark, his dawns rosy-fingered, the blood black. Mimesis makes demands; remember this one adjective and not all the others. Remember the story, the fleet, the thronging cavalry. Sappho broke Homer open for me; Stesichoros did for Carson. Stesichoros was struck blind by Helen for calling her a whore. He wrote a reversal, and Helen reversed his blindness. Makes one wonder about the blindness of Homer, right? I’ve recently derided free verse as for the lazy, and then this came along and struck me blind. I’ve been broken open again. Ah, and I leak while I reverse.

Genyon, whose name meant red, who lived on a red island and kept a herd of red cattle was killed by Hercules for his cattle for one of Hercules’ Tasks. Carson writes this story like a heap of scraps falling out of a box, with a piece of Steinian meat thrown into it for good measure. So often poets are wankers, even the ones I love, because they write for other poets or for themselves or god knows what. The obfuscate, they allude, they conceal. They put their appendixes at the back and not the front. Carson is generous. She reverses this, and then she tells a story of the personal about a boy named Genyon who falls in love with a drifter named Herakles. Genyon is a monster with red wings, but then he isn’t. This isn’t simple allegory; unlike a Homeric story the nouns have adjectives that change and when the adjectives change, so too the nouns. The modern story is rended, it is torn, it is told in fragments and images. But it is also specific and it moves, like Zeno’s Paradox in free verse.

Another thing I saw in the Egyptian room was a wall painting that had all of the Egyptian paint still on it. They would carve the relief, and then paint over it in wild colors, but history and sand and blood has rubbed those colors off. Classicism in art is mistaken: there is not anything subtle and sepia about the Ancient world. They took out their make-up brushes and went dancing. And now I’m wrong again, they probably had wings too, because we still have them tied down to our backs under our jackets. When we fly no photograph can capture us until it’s all reversed.

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