The Autobiography of Red

The Autobiography of Red is a “novel in verse” by Canadian poet Anne Carson. I’ve always been really into narrative poetry. I think that life situations and stories make the most interesting poems. When I found this “novel in verse” online, I got really excited. The idea of a long poem telling a story seemed like an interesting anachronism; something I associated with Homer and thought had died with Lord Byron.

The novel in verse tells the story of Geryon, the monster that Hercules destroyed in his tenth labor. Carson takes this story further and places Geryon in modern day Canada. Herakles is Geryon’s love interest, and Geryon’s “destruction” happens due to harmful romantic relations. The novel in verse has elements of magical realism as well; Geryon is red-skinned and winged.

The form for the most part seems to work, though poetry itself sometimes runs the risk and then succeeds in being simply prose broken into lines. The book is completely in free verse, and the plot seems to be the mechanism driving the book. It’s not all bad, though. Certainly not; every once in a while, you’ll get a great line or so:

“Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.
They were two superior eels
at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.”

But for the most part, it definitely reads like a novel instead of a long narrative poem. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it; I found the story interesting, and enjoyed the character of Geryon. I sometimes wish that it was more of a long narrative poem than a novel. Carson does succeed towards the end in creating a poetic atmosphere when the narrative moves to focus on specific photographs taken by Geryon, and the significance of each. The poems act as photographs themselves; short peeks into the life of the characters and the action at hand.
Similarly, the expository section in the beginning I feel works very well. It is similarly set up as short five or six line poems that give the necessary information and place the novel in terms of how it fits in the tradition of the poetic epic, while still maintaining a poetic, pleasing feel. For example, the short poem “Geyron’s War Record”:

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

Like I said, sometimes Carson really delivers. You’re able to get a glimpse into the character and still be treated to that great rose metaphor. Carson also includes an interesting introduction to the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros, who penned the original epic documenting the Geyron/ Hercules story. Overall, this collection/ novel/ epic is certainly worth your time and energy despite the periodic lapses into prosidy.