I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING. This is what I conclude after reading Anne Carson's brilliant Men in the Off Hours.

Freud cuts open eels, looking for testicles. Four hundred slit females later, he confides in a letter that the "young goddesses" of his town were unapproachable. "Since it is not permitted/to dissect human beings I have/in fact nothing to do with them."

Men and bones and scalpels. Carson's impeccable verses are sliced from fragments, letters; they are misplaced. She creates epitaphs for luminaries like Freud with the poet's ease of elided history, jumping into their psychologies with complete authority. Poems about stains. Marks. And soiled suede gloves.

"I imagine there are no thumb prints/on the pages as you read. Margins/are little fishbowls/specks of brilliance/goggle there in your slanted print."

As the title suggests, Men in the Off Hours concerns itself with gender and casual causality. Marine biology and females and Freud. Freud's musings flay me, just as Carson's margins do. He raps against Carson's glass tank with his tiny spectacles. A kind of scientific curiosity exerts itself. There's Audubon and his goddam birds, shot and stuffed and strung along wires. Imitating birds in flight, slow enough to illustrate.

And then Jesus, practicing his signature miracle, ripping poor Lazarus from "his warm little bed in the ground." The cave is dark. All bats hold still. Are you sure you want the guided tour? Lazarus' bones move "like a mist in him all blown to the surface then sideways.../twist... to the outside where they ignite on air/The burning of his bones lets Lazarus know where each bone is."

Virginia Woolf wrote a short story that started with a mark on the wall. She stared at it and it meant something. Then her husband came in the room and said, "I'm going out to buy a newspaper." Her story ended abruptly. The stain flattened itself on the wall under that man's gaze. Carson writes: "Even in the off hours, men know marks."

Sometimes your tone of voice is rather sharp, Anne.

Imagine, a smeared wall staring back! The mistake is illuminating. This is what gives art momentum: unbalanced arithmetic; broken meter. "The willful creation of error/the deliberate break and complication of mistakes/out of which may arise/unexpectedness." Unexpectedness is poetry. Poetry, metaphor, is error. This is what Carson thinks about most: paintings, missing gloves, verbs without subjects in Greek.

I don't know anything. In the off hours, ignorance is intimacy.

Anne Carson reads Tuesday, March 21, 7:30 p.m., at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St., tickets at 292-7676, $12.

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