Nox by Anne Carson
This is my site Written by Alex on December 8, 2010 – 2:45 pm   

Nox by Anne Carson.

Get this book. Read this book.

Lamentation

Tony Cenicola
By BEN RATLIFF

Anne Carson’s new book comes in a box the color of a rainy day, with a sliver of a family snapshot on the front. Inside is a Xerox-quality reproduction of a notebook, made after the death of her brother, including text and photographs and letters, pasted-in inkjet printouts, handwriting, paintings and collage. “Nox” has no page numbers, and it’s accordion-folded. It carries a whiff of visual art multiple or gift shop souvenir or “Griffin & Sabine.” But trust me: it’s an Anne Carson book. Maybe her best.

Carson, a university classics professor by trade, is usually described as a poet, though that’s not her problem. None of her books contain all verse in any traditional sense — not counting her translations — and some contain none. There’s not much poetry in this one, yet the whole thing is poetry of a kind you’re not used to. Her words are often not very melodious. Even on the hot subjects of desire and impermanence (sex and death and all their implications), she’s analytical, pedagogical, privately plain-spoken, stonily amused. In “Nox,” the linkage of ideas approaches a kind of music; the language works only in their service, without much extra show.

The book concerns her older brother, Michael, who in adulthood fell into drugs and, finally, drifting under false identities. (In her words, he “ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail.”) He died in Copenhagen in 2000, doing who knows what, after marrying a couple of times. They weren’t close as adults: she writes that he phoned her “maybe five times in 22 years.” Her memories are not straight nonfiction, but rather her usual: poems becoming dialogues, essays becoming memoir, single words becoming sentence fragments. But the book also concerns, and uses as its binding glue, Catullus’ poem No. 101: a 10-line, 63-word elegy delivered at the burial site of his brother in Asia Minor.

So first you get the Catullus poem, in Latin. From there, on the right-hand pages, comes the Michael-related stuff: her poems and essays, his postcards and a letter, old black-and-white photo­graphs. And on the left-hand pages, there are original dictionary entries, Latin to English, for every single word in the Catullus poem, one by one.

Hold it now. Many of Carson’s past experiments with form were funky and intuitive; they found their own shape. This is simpler, easier to define and more imposing. She’s using the dictionary entry as literature. As with any dictionary, some of the examples are ­phrases from real sources, though uncredited — Horace, Propertius, Plautus and so on. But she orders them in her own way, carrying out a dictionary’s function by giving all possible meanings of a word, and carrying out this book’s function by making the dictionary entry a ritual: the usage examples sound like prayers separated by semi­colons, and they all edge ­toward a theme of night, or death, or disappearance.

At a certain point, well into “Nox,” perhaps while taking in the 30th lexicographical meaning of a word like ad, you will wonder if she’ll ever give you the poem in English. She does. It’s a close and almost awkward translation, nothing like her free and swaggery Catullus from an earlier book, “Men in the Off Hours.” It wants to convey the original’s syntax and rhythm, its stillness and dignity:

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed —
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.

“No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction,” Carson writes in her defense, “which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind.”

Every thought runs together in “Nox.” Elegy and history are cousins, she explains, because they’re both forms of autopsy. She describes translating as being in “a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch”; it’s her own nox. But Michael, whom she still does not understand, is her night as well, her dark room whose light will never go on. (“A brother never ends,” she writes.) Of course, her subject’s life was full of night, too: he traveled on a false passport. Even the dictionary entries are rolled into the big theme: the discussion about the metaphorical dark room leads her to talk of “entries” as endless ways into “a room I can never leave.” The book is totally recherché and weirdly clear, lingered over and neatly boxed, precious in the word’s best sense.

Ben Ratliff is a music critic for The Times and the author of “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music,” which is now available in paperback.

A version of this review appeared in print on June 13, 2010, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review.
Posted in  

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.