When a poem reads like a story, it strides two literary planes at once. The Beauty of the Husband, the new book by Dr. Anne Carson, National Book Critics Circle nominee, does just that.
The Beauty of the Husband is a scrapbook of sorts, 29 sections each section termed a tango which delve into separate aspects of a wife’s tempestuous relationship with her husband the reasons and seasons of a marriage gone wrong, as told by the wife. But told to whom? Each reader becomes the unseen character in Carson’s book a Listener, an old trusted friend privy to her secrets, or The Listener, a stranger who by virtue of anonymity becomes her ear. However one prefers to look at it, the reader is not disjointed from the tale but rather becomes a part of its process.
The story unfolds as if The Listener sits cross-table from the wife, the dim, post-midnight hours pressing through her cigarette smoke as she speaks in a stream-of-consciousness vein for 145 pages. She unveils each disintegrating stage of her marriage, confiding hidden details, pieces of the puzzle, some of which have empty spaces to fit, and some of which do not. It is a deeply personal disclosure.
A familiar tale, this love story takes on added hues with quotations from John Keats situated at the start of each tango, and with Carson’s own deft writing. She paints her novel-within-a-poem from the wife’s viewpoint and freely weaves and shapes her lines to fit the story’s passage. The book reads like prose, like a novel well-sprinkled with Classical references, as would be expected from a Professor of Classics. But poetry clings to Carson’s words, which are strung together beautifully with a poet’s expertise. Her words are often stunning:
Her voice sounded broken into. Where were you last night.
Dread slits his breath.
he can hear her choosing another arrow now from the little quiver
and anger goes straight up like trees in her voice holding
his heart tall.
I only feel clean he says suddenly when I wake up with you.
The seduction of force is from below.
With one finger
the king of hell is writing her intitials on the glass like scalded things.
So in travail a husband’s
legend glows, sings.
The husband is a selfishly cruel user who stole his wife’s writing to further his own career. Then after only one year of marriage, he found himself a mistress and actually seemed eager to show his wife her picture. Over time, he continued to twist the knife with his words:
Not much use to you without you am I.
I still love you
You make me cry.
Keats wrote that truth is beauty, and the Keats connection brings the book’s premise of beauty to the fore. Carson expands on his idea by examining the perception of beauty. The wife says that she loved her husband for his beauty, then likens beauty to the bright appearances of poisonous species:
. . .So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
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.
This speaks to the value system of our own generation, whose heroes are beautiful and whose role models are models. By her own admission, the wife in Carson’s book loved her husband for his beauty. It was enough for her it was more than enough. Life mirrors the wife’s inclination. The world finds fulfillment in beauty, is content to trace the outside of the package and forfeit all else. But there is a toll: unprofitable love culminates in anguish. The beauty of the husband was what the wife wanted, yet it slipped through her fingers before she ever truly possessed it.
The tango, that passionate, physically expressive lovers’ dance to sultry music, is a fitting mode for The Beauty of the Husband. These tangos spin a story of a physical attraction that loomed larger than common sense, burned hotter than caution, consumed everything else in the wife’s life. Although her husband was weak and unfaithful, she had chosen him, after all, for his beauty. One by one, the tangos bring their relationship to a close until at the end we are left with the haunting conclusion that the beauty of the husband was nothing more than a flimsy facade after all.