Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

What is a beginning? What is an ending? What makes a particular grouping of words become a poem or a story or a fiction or a non-fiction? And do these labels, these distinctions, even matter?

For anyone who does not know, I’ve been reading and thinking about books that may or may not fit into the category of Contemporary Verse Novels. In attempting to define “contemporary verse novel,” I turned to several presses, books, and authors that I wanted to study and better understand.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Novel in Verse (vs. Novel vs. Poetry)

I first looked at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. In grouping together these three books, I examined the role of family as both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. I spent some time discussing the mother/son relationship in Autobiography, the abusive father in Pink, and the strange mother who keeps jars of fetuses in Frank. In better understanding the families, readers also gain further entrance into the lives and minds of the protagonists. Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or short story collection, family is a solid theme that many authors write about.

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Contemporary Verse Novels and Anne Carson’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, Selah Saterstrom’s THE PINK INSTITUTION, and C. A. Conrad’s THE BOOK OF FRANK

I’ve been reading and comparing Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. What these three books have in common (besides being among my top favorites) is that they offer, through short, fragmented sections, isolated snapshots of a family. It isn’t until the reader finishes the book (or perhaps we could call it an album) that s/he gains an overall sense of what these families are and how they operate. Additionally, these books are all verse novels; they deliver the pleasures of reading a novel while also paying an incredible amount of attention to sentences, lines, and syntax. There is as much to learn from these books’ white space (what’s left untold) as there is from the stories they do reveal.

For this post, I’m interested in the idea of family. All three books provide narrative from or about the child or children protagonist. It is the family that the child struggles against. For instance, Autobiography of Red provides this snapshot of little Geryon and his mother:

“Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon’s father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone. / They grinned at each other as night climbed ashore. Turned on all the lights / even in rooms they weren’t using. / Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast / cut into fingers for dipping. / Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice. / They took supper trays into the living room. / Geryon’s mother sat on the rug with magazines, cigarettes, and telephone. / Geryon worked beside her under the lamp. / He was gluing a cigarette to a tomato. [. . .] / He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair / and was gluing these to the top of the tomato. [. . . ] / She put her hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato. / And bending she kissed him once on each eye / then picked up her bowl of peaches from the tray and handed Geryon his. / Maybe next time you could / use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.”

What I love about this passage is we learn so much about Geryon, his creativity, his preoccupations while his mother is on the ¬†phone. But we also learn about his mother. She doesn’t get mad, she encourages his little project, and it’s clear she loves and appreciates him. This is how, later, we understand why Geryon is so attached to her. And I love that so much about these characters is so clearly portrayed in such small sections (or chapters).

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