anne carson; cage a swallow can’t you but you can’t swallow a cage can you: a sonnet sequence for roni horn

R. Currie and Anne Carson photo T Oelfke

Cage a Swallow/Swallow a Cage was performed twice on November 6th at the Whitney, during their exhibition of Roni Horn AKA Roni Horn. It’s part of the work that AC did during her Residency at RH’s Library of Water in Stykkisholmur, Iceland.


I couldn’t make it, have been requesting a recording of it for some time and now it’s up on their site here (UPDATED 2Mar2018).

The page includes stills and a downloadable mp3 of about 25 mins, which may not be there forever…

Thanks, you Whitneys…

UPDATE 17.xi.2010

Transcription of the event follows;

Hello good evening, thank you for coming.

We are going to present ‘Cage a swallow can’t you but you can’t swallow a cage’, second. And first we’re going to do another piece. As a way of introducing you to life in Iceland! ‘Cage a swallow was written in Iceland in honour of Roni Horn because Currie and I were living in Roni Horn’s installation called A Library of Water -underneath in a room- and we thought we’d make use of our time there and write a piece in honour of her and that’s what’s going to happen but, we also wrote a poem collaboratively, Currie and I, we were there in the months of February, March and April, an experience which I would euphemistically describe as difficult! Because in those months it’s dark and when it’s dark Icelanders don’t come out of their houses. So we were kind of desperate for social contact and so the Mayor of the town said to us ‘Heh wouldn’t it be great if you guys gave a public reading and we could invite all the people in the town and they could sort of listen to your work and get to know you and everything would be just fine from then on. So we said ‘yes, great’ and went back to our room and wrote a collaborative poem and showed up at the reading and nobody came … except the Mayor and two tourists from Utah who wandered through and we made them stay.

Anyway though we do like this poem and Currie and I wrote it together and Penelope and I are going to perform it for you. It’s called ‘Wildly Constant’.

Wildly Constant.

[This is a transcription of the performance, utilising the from of the poem as it appeared in the LRB, with some minor alterations by AC. In fact this blog page just won’t hold any format: apologies.

AC reads the normal text, a collaborator reads the italics. I did this for myself and might as well share…]

Sky before dawn is blackish green,

perhaps a sign I should learn more about signs

turning a corner to the harbour the wind hits me,

a punch in the face.

Between igneous and atmosphere

crows tend like braille, the silver dark stumble

like overlong songs.

I always walk in the morning.

I don’t know why anymore,

life is short.

My shadow goes before me

with its hood up.

It looks like a walking foghorn.

Ice on the road, ice on the sidewalk

nowhere to step

it’s better to step where the little black stones are

not so slippery.

Harboured by a carpet of moss,

the rocks once hot now still cold.

I guess the little black stones could be lava

or do I exoticise?

A man hurries past with a small dog, no-one says hello.

A school girl passes, looks in my face, no-one says hello.

No-one expects to see a fur foghorn out walking so early.

Wind pushes more strongly

I push back

almost home

Why did I come here?

New wind everyday

life is for pushing back.

Now it is day

a gold eyelid opens over the harbour

people who live here learn not to complain about the wind

I go inside, make tea, eat bran flakes, read three pages of Proust.

Proust is complaining, it is 1914, about the verb savoir -as used by journalists.

He says they use it not as a sign of the future, but as a sign of their desires,

sign of what they want the future to be.

What’s wrong with that I think.

I should learn more about signs

The first thing I saw, the first morning I went out for a walk in Stykkisholmur

was a crow, a crow as big as a chair.

What’s that chair doing on top of that house, I thought.

Then it flapped away.

A crow that big is called a raven

Corvus corrax in Linnaeus’s binomial system

Each one makes a sound like a whole town full of ravens

in the country I come from.

Three adjectives that recur in the literature on ravens are;

Omnivorous, pernicious, monogamous.

I’m interested in monogamous.

I got married last may and had my honeymoon in Stykkisholmur.

This year I returned to Stykkisholmur to live with my husband, for three months in one small room.

This extreme monogamy proved almost too much for us

Rather than murder each other we rented a second place,

Greta’s house, near the pool.

Now we are happily duogomous

There are ravens on the roof of both places

perhaps they are the same ravens, I can’t tell.

If  Roni Horn were here, she’d say ravens are like water

they are wildly constant.

They are a sign of Iceland.

I should learn more about signs.

I came to Stykkisholmur to live in a library

Nightly, flatbeds arrive harbour side and receive the catch,

Ling, lumpfish, crow and idle all

all but one packed in ice,

their effort hopeless is doubled, and they contrive a clear cold fairway

for the one left to scavenge.

The library contains not books,

but glaciers.

The glaciers are upright.


As perfectly ordered as books would be.

But they are melted.

What would it be like

to live in a library

of melted books?

With sentences streaming over the floor

and all the punctuation

settled to the bottom as a residue.

It would be confusing.


An adventure.

There is no traffic

tool, usual, fortunate to sky-scraping nesters.

Roni Horn once told me that one of the Antarctic explorers

said “to be having an adventure is a sign of incompetence.”

When I am feeling at my most incompetent

as I do in Stykkisholmur many a dark morning walking into the wind

Gun metal and blue meet at knife edge horizon.

I try to conjure in mind something that is the opposite of incompetence,

for example; the egg. This perfect form, perfect content, perfect food.

In your dreams, said Anna Freud, you can have your eggs cooked

as perfectly as you want, but you cannot eat them.

Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep because of the wind

I go and stand in the library of glaciers

I stand in another world, not the past, not the future,

not paradise, not reality, not a dream,

an other competence, wild and constant.

And who knows why it exists,

I stand amidst glaciers

listen to the wind outside falling towards me from the outer edges of and night and space

I have no theory of why we are here or what any of us is a sign of.

But a room of melted glaciers reverberating with the night wind of Stykkisholmur

is a good place to ponder it.

Each glacier is lit from underneath, as memory is.

Proust says memory is of two kinds

There is the daily struggle to recall where we put

our reading glasses.

Lolloping in this slither, giant sieves, swallow beetles pace

while swallows away relentless polish sky

And there is a deeper gust of longing, that comes up from the bottom of the heart

involuntarily, at sudden times, for surprise reasons.

Here is an excerpt from a letter Proust wrote in 1913;

‘we think we no longer love our dead

but that is because we no do not remember them:


we catch sight of an old glove

and burst into tears.

Before leaving the library I turn off the lights, the glaciers go dark,

then I return to Greta’s house, wake up my husband, ask him to make us some eggs.

Root, bolt, grey wash tilt,

this place is a ladder top.

The end.

That’s Iceland for you!

[Currie] The second piece is;

[AC] Cage a swallow can’t you but you can’t swallow a cage can you?

[C] This is a piece that we wrote in Iceland for Roni, a sonnet cycle, and it’s an excerpt from an even longer piece that will be for two choirs -we’ll see what happens. And I blew all the introductions before … Kjartan Sveinsson … Olof Arnalds … Penelope! Penelope Thomas … Thank you all for coming.

[AC] And this is Currie!

Cage a swallow can’t you but you can’t swallow a cage can you? A Sonnet Sequence in Honour of Roni Horn.


Net, blue ling, rough haired grenadier,

long rough dab, witch.

Norway pout, arctic char, spur-dog, lumpsucker, boil,

Honey consistency is transitional, a point in the curvature of a lens

from normal swallow towards the grounded and rigidly formed apple consistency

Cliff, Pompey fresh, a black and grey streaking

a plover ricing on the lea-side

a snow fox stands over, far.


Blue reflect, there are two swallows in Iceland

Hirundo Rustika?, and Reparia Reparia?

of the order Passa Reformis? and the family Herun Dinodi?.

Small invertebrate visionaries who feed in flight and drink by

skimming low over the water with open mouth.

Low over the water.

Each spring the swallows navigate from South Africa to Iceland

They fly 15 hours a day, they fly unerringly

each one punches a 7000 mile long hole in the world

and drops straight down it, not stopping to eat or sleep.

If you were a sailor and had sailed 7000 nautical miles

you would get yourself a swallow tattoo

a second swallow after 10,000

three swallows is too rare to mention.


Oh stray sweet sister, oh rapid swallow

what has thou found, in the spring to follow?

what has thou found in thine heart to sing?

what has thou found in thine heart to sing?

After the snow, after the husband/s,

can the swallow have wishes

can she know the way?

her soul is restless

as a [k]night in broad day.

What a strange feeling, to fly so high

to fly by ? into that big silence

as it were proof of love

alone, vanishing towards the north.

After the husband/s, after the snow.


What they ate.

A swallow is a fuel efficient vehicle

if she burned gasoline instead of body fat

she’d get about 72000 miles to the gallon

by the time she arrives at her destination

her breast bone is as sharp as a knife.


A substantial vent crushing breath

a plane bent to be the manifold and beautiful bracings of swallows in flight

a list apart of points, the horizon and zenith

a common facet, survival, a project radius

These sonnets and swallows balance atop a crust of Oxus stone

a sound to a depth of twenty metres, can you sight such a slow hulking?

The gift is a new hat and a ticket to a show

Vanish, click, pressure

There is no threat to local goods.

Today we drive on roads of volcanic rock

crushed on a four metre burn

resting on and above the same matter

olivine, manotite, ash.

Today crows the size of army duffles,

pick their way through weather anomalies

or pause, in lean windward.

Today a wild blue reflection similar to the Berlin Library with no books

in vastness and void, pitch and yah.

They dance and create a vector bundle

of silver mad black kinesis, a taurus

a fluke through which these swallows might pass.


Oh ladies strange

who banned the ?

blustering ? wind ?

you planneth here and there and far

and flash down cold.

Through the fish horizontal ?

how do you learn what you have to know?

as in how dotheth ? ? ?

a life on the wave and sad

just go.

My sonnet is ?

goes by towards the north

the glow and dart of your

here are the reasons I stayed, looking between

plunging swiftly ?

? in my mind, of your.

Nothing in the world

equals a cage on Mallory

your flash, forth.

A swallow cuts the sky

? ?

a town ? ? ?

matted ?, the ?


A place of phase and ice

mylar and mica, foil and transfer

sheering tension is as blue remains outside

traditional tools.

Clear observation slips in its first bloom of blue hue.

Rice paper.

low over water and fields, the bump, the sea and sore

fluid, dynamic  ecru, racing.

AC [and PT and C, repeating with delay]

Beautiful as a trireme, your every little feather

with its one and seventy oars

your overall arrangements

with its one and seventy oars

How do feathers work?

all striking the water in time to the pipe man’s flute.

They work like artists,

reasonably and luminously.

As blue as they are black as they are blue

there is a threat, they swept, so do you.

The end.

[Improve away!]