Red as Its Name

© photo from
A look at the front cover of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red
© photo from
A glimpse inside Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red

There is something truly fascinating, magical, intriguing, and certainly ingenious about Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. This book was required for my Poetry Workshop curriculum last year and it was, by far, my favorite and the most memorable to me, due to the number of components it mixed and carried so well. Where to begin with Red? First, we can start with the color. One might think that a poetry book with Red in the title daring to be tinted red is risking accusations of being too on the nose. But the shade is just dark enough that the image of the volcano on the cover can be seen as a brown sketch or engraving, a nod to the ancient roots from which the story’s inspiration hails where it flourished in Ancient Greek mythology alongside tales of the gods and magical, fantastical beings. This is a prime example of Red mixing ingredients successfully in its physical makeup, in addition to its contents.

The touch of Red’s pages evokes age. The texture is thin like onionskin and almost malleable, as if channeling the feel of an old volume, one passed down through the ages to each successive generation, bearing records of long-ago events, and sitting well-preserved on a podium for all to see. Even the codex seems old in the way it wishes to lay open as if to display its inner offering for all to see, like a history book or encyclopedia enticing someone to pore over its pages, but with the promise of narrative to tie the pieces together. In this way, once again, Red pays homage to its origins while balancing out this hat tip to the past with its more contemporary interpretation written inside. Interestingly, the inside is inverted when compared to the outside. Whereas the inside feels old in opposition to the more modern interpretation, the cover appears old but feels smooth. Appearances can be deceiving, the cover says. Who says that one cannot combine both? The font style and size similarly read like something old, distinguished, having survived a long time to bear its messages to the reader. The chapter numbers are written in Roman numerals, like the headings of scrolls or the face of a preserved grandfather clock. Using an archaic way of expressing numbers in such a mythology-contemporary hybrid work points to the flexibility of time in Geryon’s life story in Autobiography of Red: if he can come from such a far-off moment in mythological history and nestle so comfortably in a contemporary period, a perfect amalgamation of both, why shouldn’t the book in its physical aspect do the same? Just like the story itself, the book perfectly embodies a hybrid creation. Because of this, I can only approach the book as both a kind of history and a narrative folded into one unique creation.

Looking at Autobiography of Red with a fresh perspective, I was struck by how suited the book seemed for the older practice of reading aloud. Even if it was “a practice fundamentally different from the kind of private, meditative engagement we now experience,” Red’s hybrid nature in weaving poetical prose with a narrative makes it ideal for such an endeavor (Borsuk 53). Poetry is still read aloud today. However, longer narratives are not performed in the same way as often. With Red’s marriage of the two forms, it has made a longer narrative more suited for a performance aspect. I find it ironic and somehow fitting that in furthering technological development and literary experimentation, we somehow have found a way to come full circle. Considering Red’s identity as a mixture of concepts, it is the perfect vehicle to undertake this path.

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. MIT Publishers, 2018.

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