The Life of Towns

1995, Anne Carson, from Plainwater.

The above link includes some interesting and (sometimes) helpful student commentary on each poem below.



Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow, my pear, your winter.

I am a scholar of towns, let God commend that. To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is
someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think
I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there.
And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before
there were any edges or angels or virtue -- who was there to ask the questions? Well, let's not get carried
away with the exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.

Matter which has painted itself within lines constitutes a town. Viewed in this way the world is,
as we say, an open book. But what about variant readings? For example, consider the town defined for us
by Lao Tzu in the twenty-third chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

A man of the way conforms to the way; a man of
virtue conforms to virtue; a man of loss conforms
to loss. He who conforms to the way is gladly
accepted by the way; he who conforms to virtue
is gladly accepted by virtue; he who conforms to
loss is gladly accepted by loss.

This sounds like a town of some importance, where a person could reach beyond himself, or meet himself,
as he chose. But another scholar (Kao) takes a different position on the Town of Lao Tzu. "The word
translated 'loss' throughout this section does not make much sense," admonishes Kao. "It is possible that
it is a graphic error for 'heaven.'" Now, in order for you or me to quit living here and go there -- either
to the Town of Lao Tzu or to the Town of Kao -- we have to get certain details clear, like Kao's tone. Is he
impatient or deeply sad or merely droll? The position you take on this may pull you separate from me.
Hence, towns. And then, scholars.

I am not being trivial. Your separateness could kill you unless I take it form you as a sickness.
What if you get stranded in the town where pears and winter are variants for one another? Can you eat winter?
No. Canyou live six months inside a frozen pear? Now. But there is a place, I know the place, where you will
stand and see pear and winter side by side as walls stand by silence. Can you punctuate yourself as silence?
You will see the edges cut away form you, back into a world of another kind -- back into real emptiness, some
would say. Well, we are objects in a wind that stopped, is my view. There are regular towns and irregular towns,
there are wounded towns and sober towns and fiercely remembered towns, there are useless but passionate towns
that battle on, there are towns where the snow slides from the roofs of the houses with such force that victims
are killed, but there are no empty towns (just empty scholars) and there is no regret. Now move along.


Apostle Town      

After your death.
It was windy every day.
Every day.
Opposed us like a wall.
We went.
Shouting sideways at one another.
Along the road it was useless.
The spaces between.
Us got hard they are.
Empty spaces and yet they.
Are solid and black.
And grevious as gaps.
Between the teeth.
Of an old woman you.
Knew years ago.
When she was.
Beautiful the nerves pouring around in her like palace fire.

Town of Spring Once Again      

"Spring is always like what it used to be."
Said an old Chinese Man.
Rain hissed down the windows.
Longings from a great distance.
Reached us.

Lear Town        

Clamor the bells falling bells
Precede silence of bells.
As madness precedes.
Winter as childhood.
Precedes father.
Into the kill-hole.

Town of Bathsheba's Crossing      

Inside a room in Amsterdam.
Rembrandt painted a drop of life inside.
The drop he painted was Rembrandt's stranger.
Dressed as a woman rippling.
With nakedness she has.
A letter in her hand she is.
Out of a thought toward us.
Her foam arrives.
Before her even when he.
Paints Rembrandt's stranger.
As Rembrandt he shows.
Him bewildered and tousled.
As if just in.
From journeys.
On tracks and side roads.

Sylvia Town      

The burners and the starvers.
Came green April.
Drank their hearts came.
Burning and starving her.
Eyes pulled up by roots.
Lay on the desk.

Town of the Dragon Vein     

If you wake up too early listen for it.
A sort of inverted whistling the sound of sound.
Being withdrawn after all where?
Does all the sound in the world.
Come from day after day?
From mountains but.
They have to give it back.
At night just.
As your nightly dreams.
Are taps.
Open reversely.

Emily Town     

"Riches in a little room."
Is a phrase that haunts.
Her since the voltage of you.
Snow or a library.
Or a band of angels.
With a message it.
Not what.
It meant to.

Wolf Town     

Let tigers.
Kill them let bears.
Kill them let tapeworms and roundworms and heartworms.
Kill them let them.
Kill each other let porcupine quills.
Kill them let salmon poisoning.
Kill them let them cut their tongue on a bone and bleed.
To death let them.
Freeze let them.
Starve let them get.
Rickets let them get.
Arthritis let them have.
Epilepsy let them get.
Cataracts and go blind let them.
Run themselves to death let eagles.
Snatch them when young let a windblown seed.
Bury itself in their inner ear destroying equilibrium let them have.
Very good ears let them yes.
Hear a cloud pass.

Entgegenwärtigung Town

I heard you coming after me.
Like a lion over the flagpoles and.
I felt the buildings.
Sway once all along the street and I.
Crouched low on my heels.
In the middle of the room.
Staring hard.
Then the stitches came open.
You went past.

September Town     

One fear is that.
The sound of the cicadas.
Out in the blackness zone is going to crush my head.
Flat as a piece of paper some night then.
I'll be expected.
To go ahead with normal tasks.
Mending the screen.
Door hiding my.
Brother from the police.

Memory Town     

In each one of you I paint.
I find.
A buried site of radioactive material.
You think 8 miles down is enough?
15 miles?
140 miles?

Luck Town     

Digging a hole.
To bury his child alive.
So that he could buy food for his aged mother.
One day.
A man struck gold.

Death Town     

This day.
Whenever I pause.
Its noise.

Town of Finding Out About the Love of God.     

I had made a mistake.
Before this day.
Now my suitcase is ready.
Two hardboiled eggs.
For the journey are stored.
In the places where.
My eyes were.
Like a current.
Carrying a twig.
The sobbing made me.
Audible to you.

Pushkin Town

It has rules.
And love.
And the first rule is.
The love of chance.
Some words of yours are very probably ore there.
Or will be by the time our eyes are ember.

Town on the Way Through God's Woods

Tell me.
Have you ever seen.
Every tree a word once a.
Cloud over Bolivia.
Mountains were cowering once in an.
Old freight car the word for God's.

Town of the Man in the Mind at Night

To four a.
Tinkle of the moon grazes.
It knocks.
The blade.
Of night like a.

Town of the Sound of a Twig Breaking     

Their faces I thought were knives.
The way they pointed them at me.
And waited.
A hunter is someone who listens.
So hard to his prey it pulls the weapon.
Out of his hand and impales.

Love Town     

She ran in.
Wet corn.
Yellow braid.
Down her back.

Town of the Death of Sin

What is sin?
You asked.
The moon screamed past us.
All at once I saw you.
Just drop sin and go.
Flashing after the moon.
Black as a wind over the forests.

A Town I Have Heard Of     

"In the middle of nowhere."
Would that be?
Nice and quiet.
A rabbit.
Hopping across.
On the stove.

Desert Town     

When the sage came back in.
From the desert.
He propped up the disciples again like sparrows.
On a clothesline.
Some had fallen in to despair this puzzled him.
In the desert.
Where he baked his heart.
Were no shadows no up and down to remind him.
How they depended on him a boy died.
In his arms.
It is very expensive he thought.
To come back.
He began to conform.
To the cutting away ways.
Of this world a fire was roaring up.
Inside him his bones by now liquid and he saw.
Ahead of him.
Waiting nothing else.
Waiting itself.

Hölderlin Town     

You are mad to mourn alone.
With the wells gone dry.
Starlight lying at the bottom.
Like a piece of sound.
You are stranded.
Props hurtle past you.

Town of the Noon Stack     [Midi = French for "midday."]


Town of Greta Garbo     

When my idol left it broke.
My back it broke my legs it.
Broke clouds in the sky broke.
Sounds I was.
Hearing still hear.

Town of Uneven Love (But All Love is Uneven)

If he had loved me he would have seen me.
At an upstairs window brow beating against the glass.

Town of the Exhumation

Old mother fingers coming down through the dark.
To rip me out my little dry soul my.
Little white grin that meets.
At the back.

Town A-Roving&      

There is no God but.
God out for God's.
Evening walk in the roaring.
Leaves the shudder forests.
The crops going dark the hearts.
Of gold as if they would break.

Thomas Town     

Hand in hand into his mind never.
A thought came but that other.

One-Man Town     

It's Magritte weather today said Max.
Ernst knocking his head on a boulder.

Tolerance Town

Gold cup 1 woman 2.
Gold bowl 1 woman 1.
Gold bowl 1 woman 1.
Gold cup 1 woman 1.
Gold beaker 1 man 1.
Gold bowl 1 man 1.
Gold cup 1 woman 1.
Gold cup 1.

Judas Town     

Not a late hour not unlit rows.
Not olive trees not lock not heart.
Not moon not dark wood.
Not morsel not I.

Bride Town     

Hanging on the daylight black.
As an overcoat with no man in.
It one cold bright.
Noon the Demander was waiting for me.

Town of the Little Mouthful     

Without arrows how?
Do I know if I hit.
The target he said smiling from ear.
To cut.
Through by the bowstring.

Freud Town     

Devil say I am an unlocated.
Window of myself devil.
Say nobody sit.
There nobody light.
The lamp devil.
Say one glimpse of it.
From outside do the trick do.
The trick devil.
Say smell this devil say.
Raw bones devil say the mind.
Is an alien guest I say.
Devil outlived devil in.

Town of My Farewell to You     

Look what a thousand blue thousand white.
Thousand blue thousand white thousand.
Blue thousand white thousand blue thousand.
White thousand blue wind today and two arms.
Blowing down the road.


These three are not included in my first edition of Plainwater: however, I didn't make them up. They were published with an edition of "Plainwater" from Best American Poetry. I still love them & am including them here.


Anna Town

What an anxious existence I led.
And it went on for years it was years.
Before I noticed the life of objects one day.
Anna gazed down at her.
Sword I saw the sword yield up.
To her all that had been accumulated.
Within it all that strange.
World where an apple weighs more.
Than a mountain then.
We set off.
For bitter warfare.
Is dear to us.

Town of the Wrong Questions

Walls are built why.
I am in here what.
Pulleys and skin when.
The panels roll back what.
Aching what.
Do they eat—light?

Town Gone to Sleep

There was distant thunder that was its.
Voice there was blood.
Hitting the ground that was.
A Creature's life melting.
In its time there.
Was air forcing.
Out to the edges of that garden as.
Veins of a diver who.
Shoots toward the surface that was a Creature's.
Hope in it just before turning to see.
Ah there we lay.
There the desert.
Of the world immense and sad as hell.
That was hell that.
Was a Creature's heart.