“Stacks” and “Bracko” may sound like a comedy about two dimwitted mob henchmen, but in fact it was the title of a two-part performance art piece that we caught last Thursday at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Centered around a reading by poet and classical scholar Anne Carson, and incorporating “immersive sculpture” by Peter Cole as well as interpretive dance choreography by Jonah Bokaer, Part One sought to explore “the nature of collapse as manifested in human anatomy, grammar, and everyday objects.” Part Two was based on selected works of Sappho (as translated by Carson) and featured choreography by Rashaun Mitchell. No margin for mediocrity here: a production like this is guaranteed to be either death by a thousand concepts or a daring integration into a unified whole. We are happy to report that it was the latter, thanks in large part to the artistic confidence—and surprising stage presence—of Ms. Carson herself.
Carson has for some years been one of the finest living poets in the English language, though her experimentation within any given piece or even any given book will never be to everyone’s taste. Best known for her “verse novel” The Autobiography of Red (1998) and her book-length poem The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2002), she is no stranger to bizarre, high-concept forms, and indeed seems to delight in them. Her style is scholarly—albeit with a deadpan wit behind the dry mask—and highly allusive, so much so that the problem of allusion as a form of expression is often central to her meaning. In this she follows in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and, especially, Marianne Moore, a poet who also loved to craft verse “essays” out of wild flights of quotation and meditation.
Throughout “Stacks,” Carson’s flair for the deadpan emerged both in her words and her delivery; she read in the aloof near-monotone of a lecturer, but with many tongue-in-cheek inflections to match the verbal winks and nudges of the poem. The poem itself defied any easy summary as to subject; it moved from a catalogue of the moon’s mari, or “seas” (both real and imagined: the famous “sea of tranquility,” the less-famous “sea of sleeping naked”), into a retelling of the biblical story of Jezebel and a capsule history of the environmental decay of Detroit. Among other things. As promised, the unifying theme was “collapse,” but also creative rebuilding and rearrangement: as Carson spoke, the dancers around her folded, contorted, and crumpled their bodies while playing intricately with Peter Cole’s stacks of cardboard boxes—kicking them over, shifting them, building them up again into new patterns. Carson herself shifted (or was shifted) onstage as her stanzas (dubbed “stacks”) reshuffled their lines to produce surprising effects. The culminating moment saw Carson surrounded by a towering sculpture of newly-positioned, delicately-balanced boxes, which like her poetry asserted a Stevensian “rage for order” against the chaos of physical, environmental, and societal collapse.
Part Two, “Bracko,” was slightly less dramatic but still quite effective. The title, a portmanteau of “Bracket” and “Sappho,” refers to the many textual holes in Sappho’s surviving work, which editors and translators like Carson are forced to indicate with brackets. The piece consisted of a quartet of readers, Carson among them, rendering Sappho’s verses in a blend of different voices, including one voice that simply verbalized the brackets themselves. Thus “Bracket…bracket” became a calm, eerie counterpoint to the passionate text. At the same time, two dancers enacted an intricate choreography involving long, silver ropes, which first bound them, then divided them, then finally enclosed them within a pair of “brackets” laid out on the stage. As a metaphor for the phases of love, we found this simple yet graceful; and of course, as editors ourselves, we are always impressed by any piece that makes ballet out of punctuation.
In the end we judged “Stacks” and “Bracko” to be an unqualified, if unlikely, success. Sadly, our review will be of no direct use to anyone, as the performance was one-time-only. On the other hand, the show did pique our interest in Cole’s sculpture and Bokaer and Mitchell’s choreography, as well as renew our appreciation for Carson’s poetry, so we are glad to be able to encourage our readers to seek out these pleasures for themselves. Perhaps some will be less impressive when experienced individually, but at least in combination they were, as Sappho would say, [ ]ing great.