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Mirror on Mirror

With Anne Carson, the deluge

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson. New Directions. 64 pages.

Most new poetry, and most new plays, arrive almost bereft of expectations. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy—which appears to be both a poem and a play—arrived with a stack of them. It offers what we’ve come to expect from Anne Carson: non sequiturs, crisp single lines, sharp generalizations (“In war, things go wrong. Blame Woman.”), classical references in modern dress.

An adaptation from ancient Greek drama, it’s a book about Helen, abducted at the insistence of Aphrodite and then blamed for the Trojan War. Hers is the face that launched a thousand ships: despite her intentions, she’s the original femme fatale, who wants to be heard but can only and always be seen. Carson’s single speaking character is a dreamt or synthetic or beyond-space-and-time version of Marilyn Monroe. Like so much previous art about Monroe (from Andy Warhol’s paintings to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” to poems by Rae Armantrout, C. D. Wright, and Frank Bidart) Norma Jeane Baker of Troy invokes Monroe’s legacy as muse, exploited sex symbol, victim, and underestimated intellectual, whose career stands for all the compromises that A-list women make to stand in the light.

Enticed from New York and a pining Arthur Miller to Hollywood, the camera’s greedy eye, and an imagined marriage to the film director Fritz Lang, Carson’s Norma Jeane Baker (Monroe’s original name) makes a fitting Helen: two parallel women, millennia apart, whose carefully acquired beauty made them patriarchy’s ideal targets.

But Carson’s Helen is not Homer’s Helen. Instead, she begins from the Helen of Euripides, a rarely performed ancient play with a more or less happy ending. “The play is a tragedy,” Carson’s Helen/Monroe says. “Watch closely now / how I save it from sorrow.” Euripides’s Helen, like the Helen in Stesichoros’s palinode (the same Stesichoros whom Carson addressed in Autobiography of Red), never truly went to Troy. Instead, the Trojan prince Paris abducted a cloud, a fake, a duplicate who took Helen’s form. Meanwhile a protective goddess spirited the actual Helen away to Egypt, where she waited out the Trojan War in the protection of a good king.

Maybe happy endings are all confabulations, too good to be true, cooked up by the fortunate to justify their good fortune.

Euripides’s Helen begins with the good king kaput: his predatory successor insists on marrying Helen against her wishes. Fortunately for her, Menelaus shows up: unfortunately for him, he’s shipwrecked. They meet, she tells him that she’s the genuine Helen, and the fake one conveniently dissipates, at which point he believes her. Husband and wife then trick the bad king into letting them flee Egypt on a stolen boat, slaughtering the bad king’s guards as they go, while the chorus muses, as Greek choruses are wont to do, on providence and fate.

That’s in Euripides. What else is in Carson? Bits (almost in the standup comedian’s sense of “bits”) where Monroe impersonates Truman Capote; screeds against war; attacks (which you can find in Euripides too, if you look for them) on the idea of destiny, of the single right thing to do, of the gods’ justice, of the well-plotted play. “Arthur is a man who believes in war,” Helen/Marilyn says, “Men standing shoulder to shoulder / tempered in the fire of battle.” She and Fritz Lang know better: they seem to know that war is pointless and ridiculous, especially (but not only) when men fight it over their idea of a woman, a woman—an idea—who’s not even real. As if Carson had not marshaled enough intertext, she also has Norma Jeane recite Stevie Smith’s nine-line faux-naif poem in tercets about Persephone, whose journey gives Helen and Marilyn more parallels for innocence willingly lost: “They said it was sad. / I was born good, grown bad.” (Does the Smith reference work? Smith’s poem does, though its presence in Carson’s book, one more intertextual reference, creates clutter.) The cloud-Helen, the “golden Hollywood idol,” like the forever-innocent, forever-in-need-of-rescue Persephone, is a lie designed to attract men: the real Helen is safe, no cause for battle, and once you see through the lies you can see your way, with Menelaus and Helen and Marilyn, to the happy ending.

Or maybe the happy ending is the lie. Maybe Marilyn, Helen, and happy endings are all confabulations, too good to be true, cooked up by the fortunate to justify their good fortune. If this ancient, fictional story ended well for everyone who did the right thing, maybe history ends that way too: maybe we don’t need to make big changes in our society, or in our sense of right and wrong, or in the way we treat women. Maybe whatever already is, is right.

That’s what cooked-up happy endings can imply. And yet Euripides may have been mocking them, rather than simply providing them. Euripides—compared to his forebears Sophocles and Aeschylus—sometimes seems to reject or distrust the Greek pantheon: at the least, there’s a history (going back to antiquity) of debate about his piety or impiety, and Carson’s version encourages us to doubt all illusions, including the one in the tale. “Trust Euripides. Trust Helen,” says the sans-serif prose that stands in for a chorus. “She never went to Troy. Marilyn really was a blonde. And we all go to heaven when we die.” Surely we don’t. “Desire is about vanishing,” Carson adds. “You dream of a bowl of cherries and next day receive a letter written in red juice.” But the cherries are gone.

Maybe we can’t speak to one another without reaching for consolation and ultimately finding illusions and lies. Maybe all happy endings are cherry stains, will-o-the-wisps, impossible goals. Maybe “language should cover its own eyes when it speaks.” Carson’s collection of brief monologues, assumed identities, and hard-to-stage essays on single Greek words—kairos, “luck” or “lucky target”; apate, “deceit”—might be a set of riffs on the duplicity inherent in all communication. All of us, Helen/Marilyn suggests, want to be deceived, Helen/Marilyn herself most of all: she’s no more in charge of the shadow she casts, the illusions she projects, than the rest of us. “She’s just a bit of grit caught in the world’s need for transcendence.” Mirror on mirror, as Yeats wrote, is all the show.

This version of Euripides, and of Marilyn, ends up neither feminist nor anti-feminist, neither anti-war nor martial: it’s a big shrug, a sense that all is illusion, and we have no choice but to play along. And yet Carson’s Norma Jeane, like Euripides’s Helen, is also a serious play about war and about postwar mourning. Everyone in the book seems to have lost someone over the length of the Trojan War: Marilyn/Helen has lost her daughter Hermione, and treats her the way that Japanese survivors of the 2011 tsunami treated their dead, speaking to her on a defunct rotary telephone repurposed as performance art. (The phone in Japan is real: “People can go in and dial a number / and talk to the dead, talk to their lost ones, talk to the underworld.”)

Until the very end of Carson’s book, the Euripedean war-ravaged Greece on the margins of Helen’s Egypt/Norma Jeane’s California does not feel like the United States or like Carson’s native Canada in 2020, at risk primarily from kleptocracy, pandemic, and climate change, from inaction and tragedies of the commons; it feels a lot more like the United States fifteen years ago, waking up from the pernicious illusions that obscured the pointlessness of the second Iraq war.

And then comes the flood. Carson’s Helen/Marilyn, along with Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, and Pearl Bailey (who corresponds to Euripides’ priestess Theonoe), have to flee Hollywood when Los Angeles, or perhaps the world, floods: 

By now you could see the wave coming up Sunset Boulevard.

A single wave filling Sunset Boulevard with white and black foam five stories high.

Arthur and Truman were packing the boat

with all the kitchen and wait staff of the hotel,

plus Pearl’s entourage, a mob of anorexic youth in sexual T-shirts.

The wave hit.

The night roared.

We were popped up to the top of the sky and we set off. Sailing east.

Where should Helen—or Truman or Pearl Bailey—go? New York, according to Carson, where Hermione supposedly still lives, but of course the characters never get there: they just “sail, / under no stars at all.”

For all its collage elements, for all its spirals of unpredictable anachronism, parts of Norma Jeane follow an argument very familiar from Carson’s earlier work, or from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, or from any number of feminist antiwar tracts: military conflict turns out to be patriarchy’s way of making more patriarchy. “MGM had the rights to a war movie, big investors involved, you know / how things work.” Who wouldn’t want to escape—or rewrite or defeat—that narrative, if you could?

But when Helen flees Arthur, and Fritz, and Hollywood, for New York and her daughter Hermione, it’s not clear whether she can escape the sea, whose dangers are greater and more primal than those of patriarchal heroes with spears. The flood that drowns Los Angeles throws up “Bibles, a STOP sign, a Santa hat, people. . . . Some try to claw their way up onto our boat, / I beat them off with a boat hook. / They are not Hermione, / they are disqualified.” Like almost all modern comic protagonists, she seeks personal happiness or personal fulfillment in the midst of a world that might fall apart no matter what she does. Can she get it? Should she? To paraphrase George Orwell: Should I? Should you?

Helen—however tonally unstable—is clearly a play, with characters, roles, dialogue, and a plot, even if (as in all Greek tragedy) some of the major events take place offstage. Is Norma Jeane a play? It has been staged: a New York City theater commissioned it. Helen, or Norma Jeane, would challenge an actor in the way that other non-naturalistic roles in modern plays—say, Caryl Churchill’s—do. Yet it’s hard to imagine how a director would handle those dictionary entries, those mini-essays on Greek words, which appear with no indicated speaker. They’re unsettling enough, by the end, if you pick up the play on paper and just read. Perhaps they’re read aloud over a tannoy, by an invisible monitor. Perhaps they’re projected, behind Helen/Marilyn/Norma Jeane, on a backdrop screen.

Maybe the characters can’t—and after all most characters, in drama or in real life, can’t—construct a better society.

If the play, or the poem, seems to flail, to fall between the stools of savage farce and heroic rescue, deconstruction and redemption, stage drama and see-through illusion, there are reasons to think the original does too. And if the play doesn’t know what to do with itself by the end, Marilyn didn’t know either. Nor did Persephone. She just wanted attention, or travel, or reinvention, or autonomy, or fame. Maybe the characters can’t—and after all most characters, in drama or in real life, can’t—construct a better society, with a better set of norms, than the one they knew, the one they flee and repudiate, the one that launched a thousand ships to burn Troy.

The persistence of those norms, including the trope of beautiful women and the men who fight over them, has a domestic counterpart to Helen’s story, in which the fights lead to making up, and the quarrels in marriage reinforce love. As in The Beauty of the Husband—or in her epochal prose work Eros the Bittersweet—Carson excels when she animates the mixed feelings around a conventionally heterosexual, monogamous, strongly felt erotic bond. Passages like these, late in the play, where Truman and his “dear beloved Jack” (also Helen and Menelaus) fight, reminded me how strange and beautiful anything Carson touches can become:

Birds move about the yard. Hell yawns. War pours out of both of you, steaming and stinking. You rush backward from it and become children, every sentence slamming you back into the child you still are, eery sentence not what you meant to say . . . You both decide without words to just—skip it. You grip one another. In the night, in the silence, the grip slowly loosens and silence washes you out somewhere onto a shore of sleep.

It is the best reconciliation a character in one of Carson’s books can expect. And it would be wrong to expect even that. Love is a tempest, but if you are lucky enough your illusions will capsize without you, the clouds will vanish, and you’ll land on a friendly shore.