by Anne Carson
Reviewed by Abigail DeutschOne Comment
Nothing could prepare you for Nox, but the title tries: It sounds like "book" and "box," and "nix" and "knocks," maybe even "knick-knack." To elegize her brother, Anne Carson has packed a study of night and nothingness in a cardboard container whose lid resembles a door, complete with the cut-out image of a keyhole. Through the keyhole, we glimpse a photograph of Carson's brother, in swimming trunks and goggles, expression unreadable. Swinging the lid upward to reveal the book within, we see that illustration again, on the cover. In Nox, doors lead to other doors, and questions to further questions, creating a confusion that alternately enchants and annoys. Soon enough, we realize Nox isn't a book at all, but a long sheet of paper folded up like an accordion.
Then we might try to pull Nox out of its box, extending it endlessly, like the scarves magicians yank out of hats. Holding the sheet upright and looking at it from the left, we see only white space, a telling absence. From the right, we see a hodgepodge of text and images sprawling down its length. Nox is like a Xeroxed scrapbook, a medley of photographs, quotations, translations, diaristic jottings, and bits of letters.
The oddness of Nox's physical form prevents us from reading it casually. We must choose how to read it, how to hold it, how to sit with it -- and those challenges, in turn, warn about the way Nox will sit with us. It will test and puzzle; it will make demands on us, and make us self-conscious of our responses.
I respond to Nox's unwieldiness by popping it out of the box. In this form, it resembles a collapsed house of cards and weighs little. Since Nox has no binding, its revolving "pages" circle a column of air.
Looping, always approaching but never arriving, straining to see and to understand: so, in Nox, does Carson proceed. The illustration on the box's lid suggests that reading Nox will be like peering through a keyhole -- like spying -- and I think of J.S. Mill's remark that "poetry is overheard." For Carson, too, this elegy is a work of espionage. "No one knew him," she observes of her brother, Michael, who "ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail" (the reason for the jail threat, like many of Carson's choices, goes unexplained, infecting the reader with Carson's confusion). He then moved abroad, and contacted his sister and mother only rarely. Finally he arranged to see Carson, but died before they could reunite. So Carson mourns not only an absence, but also the absence of an absence -- of a brother whom she'd lost, in certain ways, even before he died.
Carson includes few details about her brother here -- perhaps because she doesn't know them. Instead she picks up the tools that have served her well in previous work, both poetic and scholarly: quotation and translation. In Nox, those techniques draw us in only to distance us, a tug-of-war in which the intrigue eventually gives way to irritation.
What appear to be Carson's statements, for example, often turn out to come from other writers. Her brother remains a mystery, she writes, "no matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was." The phrase "starry lad" comes from a poem by the late British scholar Hugh Macnaghten, who described Catullus in those terms in 1925. Carson's line purports to come as close to Michael as possible, to encapsulate him -- "the starry lad he was" -- and yet it derives from another author's depiction of another person. As is often the case in Nox, Carson doesn't indicate that she's quoting. She leaves it to us to notice the allusion, which (with all due respect to Mr. Macnaghten) few readers would. And so, while appearing to explain her experience, Carson actually pushes us away -- from Michael, from Macnaghten, and from her own poetic process. It's a fascinating gesture, and yet it encapsulates what's frustrating about Nox: a taste for literary gamesmanship that distracts from the commiseration the work aims to evoke.
For Carson, quoting becomes a kind of translation, prone to translation's troubles and freedoms. She begins the work with the Latin original of Catullus's 101st poem, an address to the Roman poet's own late brother. Each left-hand page of Nox provides substantial English explication for a word of the Catullus poem, which Carson progresses through from start to finish. This assiduous translation seemingly aims to clarify. Yet every Latin word spawns a vast lineage of English equivalents, some more related to Catullus than others. Eventually Carson's own themes -- night, loss, darkness -- come to infuse the definitions. The plenitude of information obscures his poem -- to quote her definition of "multas," it is "too much in evidence, tedious, wearisome, verbose; occurring in a high degree, full, intense."
And yet sometimes that bounty provides a fine corollary to Carson's desperation "to evoke the starry lad he was." Here she defines "frater":
a full brother; (plural) brother and sister; (plural, transferred) of a kindred race; (especially vocative, as an affectionate way of referring to a person of one's own age); (as a euphemism for a partner in an irregular sexual union); as an honourific title for allies); (referring to a member of a religious club); cum fratre Lycisce: with dear old Lycis (of a dog).
The multiple definitions reflect Carson's uncertainty about her brother's identity -- and about the nature of their relationship.
Stepping back, we might again ask: Why? Why, in this elegy for a brother, provide a translation? Why pair personal with historical? Much of Carson's oeuvre raises such questions. A centaur of an author, part creative writer and part Classicist, Carson has long mixed what doesn't match, producing poetry, memoir, and academic work, and sometimes mingling all forms in a single book. In subject as well as form, she revels in uniting the distinct: the contemporary and antique, the fanciful and matter-of-fact. Take Geryon, her unforgettable protagonist from Autobiography of Red -- a crimson, homosexual, winged creature from ancient poetry who lives nonchalantly in the present.
This isn't to say that, in Nox, Carson casually tosses references together: Rather, she binds the work tight with thematic ties that, with careful reading, slowly become obvious. She ponders both historiography and personal history because, for her, seeking to understand her brother is like seeking to understand antiquity. Her sources are flawed and fragmentary, her analysis necessarily imperfect. And studying her brother's words, she writes, is like translating historical testimony: "Because our conversations were few (he phoned me maybe 5 times in 22 years) I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I'd been asked to translate them." She has never translated the Catullus poem -- nor come to understand her brother -- to her satisfaction, despite years of effort:
But over the years of working at [translating the poem], I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for a light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end. Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light.
The connection between translating a language and comprehending her brother has a heartbreaking analogue in the real world. She learned of her brother's death two weeks after the fact from his Danish widow. She later received "a translation of the text of the service," which occurred in Danish, and which the bad timing had forced her to miss.
Nox asks us to prowl, too, a request that makes sense given Carson's experience. And yet my reservation about Nox is how insistently it makes sense. I don't mean I wish it were harder to understand. I mean that it persists in puzzling, and in asking the reader to decode -- and since it offers rewards, in the form of thematic discovery, we keep asking "Why?" But all this problem-solving distracts from emotional connection, which is what I seek in elegies.
I'm reminded of an incident from my childhood. I couldn't answer a math problem in school, and started weeping. My teacher, herself a trifle dramatic, shouted: "We cry at weddings! We cry at funerals! We do not cry in math class!" Crying while trying to untie Nox's knots would be like crying over long division (which I've come to accept is not a typical response). For me, plumbing this work meant thinking far more often than feeling -- or, more precisely, engaging in the sort of thought that doesn't inspire much feeling. Rather than share in Carson's pain and confusion, I bit her bait, chasing quotes, sources, and explanations. Even as I did so, I yearned for the wrenching frankness of earlier Carson poems -- for example, "The Glass Essay," from Glass, Irony, and God:
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
The intellectual acrobatics of Nox, for all their early intrigue, come to feel like defense mechanisms against such directness.
Carson's experience may demand such mechanisms; Nox may be her way of packaging the intensity and perplexity of losing her brother -- crafting, out of uncontainable grief, an artifact small and neat enough to hold. She writes that when you have survived something "you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself." Surviving means carrying on, quite literally -- means boxing up, holding fast, and going forward.
After her brother died, Virginia Woolf jotted down as a possible epitaph some of the same Catullus lines that Carson translates: "atque in perpetuam frater / ave atque vale." Her elegy for Julian Thoby Stephen, who passed away at 27, was the novel Jacob's Room, a curious work whose narrator seems to shift identities as the novel progresses, and whose characters, Woolf's husband observed, seem like "ghosts," "puppets, moved hither and thither by fate." Even Jacob, modeled on Stephen, comes off as unknowable -- rather as Carson's brother does. Woolf was close to her brother, and yet Jacob's qualities are "mostly a matter of guess work." The mysteriousness of Jacob's Room, like that of Nox, first interested and then frustrated me: how can you care about characters you can't know? The door to Jacob's room, like the lid of Nox's box, doesn't open quite wide enough to let the reader in.
Woolf meditates not only on what can't be ascertained, but also on what can't be said. Oddly, it is the unsayable that she puts forth most simply and beautifully. Here Woolf describes Jacob's mother writing her son a letter after he's moved away from home:
Poor Betty Flanders ... can never, never say -- whatever it may be -- probably this -- Don't go with bad women, do be a good boy; wear your thick shirts, and come back, come back, come back to me.
Out of this intricate novel, it is the unutterable cry toward the unknowable boy -- the pointless, essential, and entirely straightforward wish -- that most often comes back to me. If such unadulterated feeling infused Nox, I would come back to it, too.
Abigail Deutsch is a writer from New York. Her work appears in The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Poetry magazine, n+1, and other publications. She is considering writing a book about hair.