The Beauty of the Husband
by Anne Carson
Alfred A. Knopf, 147 pages, $22

Reviewed by Harvey Shepard

Anne Carson is a highly honored poet, essayist, and professor of Classics at McGill University. Several of her recent books are hybrid collections blending literary criticism, essays, and poetry into an exciting mix. A gifted scholar and lover of antiquity, her fascinating, brilliant commentary in such books as Eros the Bittersweet and Economy of the Unlost is almost enough to inspire a reader to learn Greek.

Although The Beauty of the Husband bears the playful subtitle “A fictional essay in 29 tangos,” it is in the form of a long poem – written in a very loose irregular style – broken into short chapters, separated by enigmatic fragments from less well known writings (a play, marginal notes, letters, reviews, etc.) of John Keats, to whom the poem is dedicated.

As sophisticated readers of modern poetry, we should not make the mistake of assuming Carson is telling her own life story in this book. In a recent interview, when asked how we are to interpret her use of the first person, she replied: “Who is this I? It’s not identical with me. It’s continuous but yet constructed. . . It’s all mixed up with autobiography, but it’s not the same.” And . . . I don’t simply want to tell what is. I want to tell what is with all the radiations around it of what could be. . . it’s no longer the event. The event is just the raw material that goes into your observation of what you see when you walk around it.”

The Beauty of the Husband is narrated by a woman describing a relationship begun more than 30 years earlier – her infatuation and seduction at 15, subsequent marriage, separation, and divorce. The story is a proud confession of an obsession, an obsession not yet relinquished.

She believes it to be erotic:

So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age //
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

And she believes one has no choice but to follow and accept the consequences:

and I do not apologize because as I say I was not to blame, I was unshielded
in the face of existence
and existence depends on beauty.
In the end.
Existence will not stop
until it gets to beauty and then there follow all the consequences that lead to the end.

What do we learn of the husband’s “beauty?” Nothing. He is never described physically. Instead we are told:

My husband lied about everything.//
Money, meetings, mistresses, //
He lied when it was not necessary to lie.///
Destroyer liar sadist fake

We wonder how and why she endured this: “Easy to say Why not give up on this?”

It was by his words, his letters with their pleas and challenges, that “the husband bound her to him.”

Even to receive this letter was to be transgressed
by an iridescence of him
which I could not keep out of me like a fine plaster dust
it came in at every pore.

It is painful to witness such an addictive relationship. The husband’s narcissism and manipulations are too obvious and too cruel. Ultimately we tire of her obsession – its blindness, passivity, and willingness, even eagerness – to immolate herself on the altar of such narcissistic “beauty.”“Here’s my advice,/ Hold./ Hold beauty.”

We become irritated (as perhaps we are meant to) by the wife’s claim that beauty is sufficient cause. She does not want to probe deeper – as if afraid she would lose the power of this memory, the reenactment of her youthful enchantment.

Carson has written often about love and loss. In her wonderful poem “The Glass Essay,” the narrator is also an abandoned wife, but there she is much less bewitched: “I want justice. Slam./I want an explanation. Slam./ I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.” And in that work she also made much more effective and powerful use of another writer’s life and work – Emily Bronte.

The sometimes lyrical and moving language of The Beauty of the Husband is not enough to redeem the sad tale. We are puzzled by Carson’s choice not to explore the true roots of the wife’s obsession or to penetrate more deeply into the nature and mystery of our attachment and relation to “beauty.”

Perhaps she believes that explanations are futile and simply wants to give full voice to the wish – the dream – to be chosen by beauty, to be desired by beauty, to abandon oneself to beauty – perhaps even the form of it we call poetry.