Fans of contemporary innovative poetry, as well as those interested in a postmodern examination of the elegy, will be eager to get their hands on Anne Carson’s Nox. It is a moving and beautiful book, one which will powerfully affect any reader willing to give it the time and space—reading Nox requires two hands, and I can’t imagine a version for Kindle any time soon.
Nox comes in a big grey box, and the back of it says: “When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” Inside is an accordion-like text block, a scan of “a worn, hardcover book…a handmade art object containing poems Anne had typed on a computer, printed out and pasted on the pages,” as New Directions editor Declan Spring put it.
When Carson says that Nox is “an epitaph…in the form of a book,” we are in somewhat familiar territory. Nox is marketed as poetry and is one of Carson’s many generic hybrids that cast non-poetic genres into lyric. Her previous volume-length poetic works are a “novel in verse” (Autobiography of Red) and “a fictional essay in 29 tangos” (The Beauty of the Husband). Carson’s oeuvre spans shorter poems and essays in several collections, translations of Sappho and ancient Greek tragedy, two book-length essays, and recent innovative performance pieces that have incorporated the work of “anarchitect” Gordon Matta-Clark and included collaboration with dancers. Her postmodern poetics is related to the work of conceptualists who present non-poetic texts as poetry (like Kenneth Goldsmith) in pushing against the limits of what can be called poetry. But unlike the conceptualists, Carson is more interested in making the lyric with input from various sources than in grinding an axe against ideologies of the author or the lyric subject.
The generic inputs to Nox are various: the book includes taped-in photographs, fragments of letters, paintings, drawings, collages, and tracings. Most of the words, typed and taped-in as well, are devoted to Carson’s narration of her relationship with her brother Michael. He “ran away in 1978, rather to go to jail,” and the family hardly hears from him in the decades that follow. Michael, who is living in Copenhagen, gets in touch with Carson after their mother dies. They make plans to meet but before they can, he dies.
It seems obvious how these circumstances make difficult the work of elegy, and that is a main theme of Nox. From the start Carson considers this difficulty in relation to the paradigmatic elegy, Catullus’s poem 101. Nox starts with the Latin text of the poem, and throughout the book lexical entries for each word of the poem appear on left-hand page. Carson tells us,
Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is known of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there.
Our ignorance of Catullus’s brother, and Catullus’s journey to recite his elegy, clearly resonate with the circumstances of Nox. But for Carson the resonance is formal as well:
I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy…I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.
The difficulty of translation (a favorite theme of Carson’s) and the difficulty of elegy come together. Though Carson eventually provides a translation for poem 101, it appears slightly smudged, and on a yellowed paper. A smudged, yellowed version of poem 101 is all that can be built out of the clean and precise lexical entries throughout Nox. And the little mausoleum that we hold when we read Nox is the closest Carson can get to elegy and epitaph for her brother.
The lexical entries in Nox shouldn’t be overlooked or skimmed; they are clearly as poetic as any other text in the book. Carson provides direct definitions of the translated words, but she also provides usages that are clearly modulated to the content of opposite pages and part of the attempt at elegy; some of these phrases are among the most beautiful lines in the book. One example is a usage of miseras: Carson provides “(with ablative of cause) nocte fratris quam ipso fratre miserior: made sadder by the brother’s night than by the brother himself.” The word nox (night) and variations like nocte appear frequently in the lexical entries but, notably, not in the poem 101 itself.
In addition to the prose narration of Carson’s relationship with her brother, which dominates the right-hand side of Nox, Carson includes a few lines in a different typeface which usually stand alone. These occasional fragments seem to be lines from another kind of Carsonian poem—perhaps the short pieces in Decreation about Carson’s mother. Here are the first several:
In small white sleep mits your hands protrude.
Few circles, other lesser circles, but yet circles.
I make a guess, I make a guess.
In an ordinary envelope (it was written).
Places in the world where you and I saw things.
Places in our bones, strange brother.
Though the last two seem directly linked there are ten pages between them. It’s an exquisite frustration not being able to read these lines as a simple lyric without copying them out like this. But this frustration is the fundamental interest of Nox. In its various forms and modes, Carson succeeds in “fill[ing] my elegy with light of all kinds.” The darknesses of Nox illuminate the impossibility and difficulty of this work.
Reviewed by Daniel Benjamin
Nox by Anne Carson
New Directions, 2010
Box, 192 pp, $29.95
Posted in Reviews