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A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos

Written by Anne CarsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Anne Carson


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: May 20, 2009
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55456-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
The Beauty of the Husband Cover

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The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

This clear-eyed, brutal, moving, darkly funny book tells a single story in an immediate, accessible voice–29 “tangos” of narrative verse that take us vividly through erotic, painful, and heartbreaking scenes from a long-time marriage that falls apart. Only award-winning poet Anne Carson could create a work that takes on the oldest of lyrical subjects–love–and make it this powerful, this fresh, this devastating.



You know I was married years ago and when he left my husband took my notebooks.
Wirebound notebooks.
You know that cool sly verb write. He liked writing, disliked having to start
each thought himself.
Used my starts to various ends, for example in a pocket I found a letter he'd begun
(to his mistress at that time)
containing a phrase I had copied from Homer: 'entropalizomenh is how Homer says
Andromache went
after she parted from Hektor — "often turning to look back"
she went
down from Troy's tower and through stone streets to her loyal husband's
house and there
with her women raised a lament for a living man in his own halls.
Loyal to nothing
my husband. 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.
You if anyone grasp this — hush, let's pass
to natural situations.
Other species, which are not poisonous, often have colorations and patterns
similar to poisonous species.
This imitation of a poisonous by a nonpoisonous species is called mimicry.
My husband was no mimic.
You will mention of course the war games. I complained to you often enough
when they were here all night
with the boards spread out and rugs and little lamps and cigarettes like Napoleon's
tent I suppose,
who could sleep? All in all my husband was a man who knew more
about the Battle of Borodino
than he did about his own wife's body, much more! Tensions poured up the walls
and along the ceiling,
sometimes they played Friday night till Monday morning straight through, he
and his pale wrathful friends.
They sweated badly. They ate meats of the countries in play.
formed no small part of my relationship to the Battle of Borodino.

I hate it.
Do you.
Why play all night.
The time is real.
It's a game.
It's a real game.
Is that a quote.
Come here.
I need to touch you.

That night we made love "the real way" which we had not yet attempted
although married six months.
Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg and to this day I'm not sure
we got it right.
He seemed happy. You're like Venice he said beautifully.
Early next day
I wrote a short talk ("On Defloration") which he stole and had published
in a small quarterly magazine.
Overall this was a characteristic interaction between us.
Or should I say ideal.
Neither of us had ever seen Venice.
Anne Carson

About Anne Carson

Anne Carson - The Beauty of the Husband

Photo © Peter Smith

Anne Carson was twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; was honored with the 1996 Lannan Award and the 1997 Pushcart Prize, both for poetry; and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2000. In 2001 she received the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry–the first woman to do so; the Griffin Poetry Prize; and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She currently teaches at the University of Michigan.
Praise | Awards


“The most exciting poet writing in English today.” —Michael Ondaatje

“Brilliantly captured…Reading her is to experience a euphonious, mystical sort of perplexity…punctuated by what the husband himself calls ‘short blinding passages’…moments of almost unbearable poignancy.” —The New York Times

“Her best book.... Her poetry’s form and sensibility are quite unlike anything else.” —The Globe and Mail

“With swift strokes depicting the illusions and disillusions of a marriage gone sour, Carson has managed to make the intellectual life hip. In her hands, a quote from Plato seems as natural as a pop reference…. Then there are the lines of sheer lyricism, lines that send us spinning back to the idea of beauty, of truth.” —Miami Herald

“An exquisite meditation on love and loss that reads with the emotional depth — and with the ongoing resonance — of a great novel.” —Elle

“I would read anything that [Anne Carson] wrote.” —Susan Sontag


WINNER Griffin Poetry Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of the work of Anne Carson, whom Michael Ondaatje praised as "the most exciting poet writing in English today."

Carson is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, and has been the recipient of much admiration in the literary world. She is credited with the invention of an entirely new kind of poetry, fusing free verse with prose passages, using pastiche to startling effect, combining searing emotion with austere intellect. Interspersing her own words with quotes and references to sources that range from classical Greek literature, St. Augustine, the Bible, and the Tao to Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust, Carson constructs an astonishing art that is able to arouse, like nothing else in recent years, new emotional and intellectual energies in her readers.

About the Guide

In this powerful and moving portrait of a doomed marriage, Carson introduces the tango as a poetic form and revisits John Keats's claim that "beauty is truth, truth beauty," in a moving and often wryly amusing exploration of how people become the victims of desires they can't control.

About the Author

Anne Carson was born in Canada in 1950. In addition to the works addressed in this guide, she has written Economy of the Unlost, Eros the Bittersweet and Glass, Irony and God. She has also produced translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, forthcoming in 2002) and Electra of Sophocles. A 2000 MacArthur fellow, she is a professor of classics at McGill University.

Discussion Guides

1. The poem is dedicated to Keats, "for his general surrender to beauty." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats concludes that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Clearly the speaker of The Beauty of the Husband knows a lot more than that, but she is not saved by her knowledge from the fatal beauty of her first love. The irony is that the beautiful husband is a liar, and his lies destroy the marriage. The speaker states, "Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony/ because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive" [p. 37]. How is Carson using irony in this poem?

2. Carson has appended a subtitle to this work; she calls it "a fictional essay in 29 tangos." What effect does the word "fictional" have? Is it a warning that readers are not to take this as an autobiographical story? Does it make a difference, in terms of emotional impact and reading pleasure, whether The Beauty of the Husband is true or not? Daphne Merkin has suggested that "a story line in any conventional sense is not what fuels Carson's writing--or what she cares about, except as it may enable her to ask the questions that interest her: to what avail are Parmenides and 'the true lies of poetry' when set against the 'welter of disorder and pain' that 'is our life'?"4 How does The Beauty of the Husband read as a story? Does it share certain elements with fiction?

3. The wife in the poem says, "How do people/ get power over one another?" [p. 38], and later, "Why did nature give me over to this creature--don't call it my choice, / I was ventured: / by some pure gravity of existence itself,/ conspiracy of being!" [p. 49]. She also asks a related question: "What does not wanting to desire mean?" [p. 75]. These are crucial philosophic questions for the poem, and for the whole ideal of human self-determination. Does Carson suggest that people are helpless when in the grip of desire? Carson has written a book about the Greek concept of Eros; does she suggest that in fact a power like the god Eros still exists and can conspire to give one person over to another?

4. The wife states that her husband was "loyal to nothing," and yet she is "not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty. / As I would again / if he came near" [p. 9]. This is essentially a romantic and aesthetic approach to life. What role, then, does the rational mind play in this drama?

Suggested Readings

Saint Augustine, Confessions; Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame; Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights; Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony; Catullus, The Poems of Catullus; Bei Dao, At the Sky's Edge; Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems; Ivanhoe and Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy; Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories; John Keats, Otho the Great: A Tragedy in Five Acts; Gail Levin, The Paintings of Edward Hopper; Mimnermus, The Fragments of Mimnermus; Adrienne Rich, "Vesuvius at Home" in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978; Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein>/b> and How to Write; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching. See also Tango, a film by Carlos Saura (1999), and Anne Carson pages on Knopf's Poetry Web site.

  • The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
  • February 19, 2002
  • Poetry - Canadian; Poetry
  • Vintage Canada
  • $19.95
  • 9780676974751

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