Anne Carson and the Charcoal Burners
For nine years now, I have been haunted by images from a poem by Anne Carson as enigmatic as they are unforgettable. Called Burners Go Raw, it opens with Carson’s nightmare vision of medieval charcoal burners’ forlorn, accursed existence.
Burners medieval dark mud on a road a dark morning/ falling back through memories a faint pain, dark uphill/ way the usual alone and gavel picking my step out where/ nothing, out hoping, hope sinking, slope rising, that dark/ colour, almost rain, a thing impending…
What is impending is an apocalyptic blow that will make the “dark mud” engulf the seen world “past the end of the soundtrack.” “And then we’ll see and then we’ll spend, then/we’ll be the burners” Carson says. Her tone is fatalistic, as if wholly accepting of the devastation to come.
Since first reading this poem, I have learned more about the difficult lives of the medieval charcoal burners. They were ostracized by the communities who relied on the fuel the burners produced − for centuries the only one available to generate the high temperatures needed for iron smelting and glassmaking. Rather than being grateful, people of the Middle Ages accused the burners, who lived and worked alone in the woods tending their kilns, of secrecy and evil practices. In fact, theirs was a painstaking and demanding occupation, one of the oldest human crafts. Because the process of carbonizing the wood inside the teepee-shaped kilns could take up to eight days, the charcoal burners had to keep watch constantly to ensure the fire never went out, and that the burning alder wood did not get totally consumed. Some burners sat on a two-legged stool through this crucial labour so that if they fell asleep, the stool would topple over, waking them. They knew the charcoal was ready when blue smoke rose from the kiln.
Perhaps it was the extreme reclusiveness the craft required that made its practitioners seem furtive and somehow polluted to outsiders. Whenever charcoal burners appear in Russell Hoban’s dystopic masterpiece, Riddley Walker, for example, Riddley makes the “Bad Luck go a way syn.” In Riddley’s grim and often brutal world, with its post-nuclear-holocaust medieval conditions, the English language and humankind’s myths and legends have been fractured and remade; yet people’s ancient fear of the charcoal burners remains unchanged.
Anne Carson’s nightmare dark-mud world, where “we’ll be the burners,” seems as bleak a place as the mutually hostile communities of Riddley Walker where one crosses a fence at one’s peril. Then almost miraculously, she returns us to the lamplight of home with the poem’s middle hinging stanza. Its opening image has a simple purity and rousing power. “Go snow woke me.” This wonderful phrase, with its consoling assonance, conveys to us the light of new-fallen snow that Carson sees as “pawing in through blinds/through eyelids.”
As the mysterious snow-glow wakes her from the nightmare’s grip, she is able to delve into the roots of the desolate dream. “I thought you would outlive me,” she declares. So we begin to understand the dark mud where all hope sinks as the torment of personal loss.
In the third and final stanza she conjures up the daring idiosyncratic person whose death she mourns: “one day you/climbed in the kitchen window poured raw rubies out on/the table from a drawstring bag at your hip.” Those raw rubies return us to the abrasive adjective of the poem’s title. The loss of the beloved creates a wound that seems at first to defy all healing, eternally raw, like the scapegoated burners.
The poem’s anguished repeated end line paradoxically opens the way to assuage the rawness and mend what has been shattered: “and when you left I sat/at the table in my life. I sat at the table in my life”
Tellingly, the poem forgoes any final punctuation, the terminating period we would expect. This is because an unending writerly process has begun. Sitting at the table In her life, taking the position of the writer, the poet reworks the fragments plucked from the mudslide’s devastation. Like the charcoal burners at their lonely labour watching for the blue smoke that crowns their process, or Riddley Walker making a travelling show out of ancient puppet figures, like Punch and Judy that have survived nuclear disaster, Anne Carson forges images of spilled rubies and doe-like snow from her raw pain. She pulls hope from the burners’ dark mud, reclaims the rising slope.