[12 October 2010]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
All sorts of books are also art objects. Think of, say, the Griffin & Sabine books of Nick Bantock, in which actual letters, postcards, and other ephemera are collaged to help tell, or help us figure out, a story.
Still, still, I don’t think I’ve ever read — or ever held — anything like Anne Carson’s Nox. Carson is a wonderful poet, a classics scholar, a teacher at the University of Michigan, a Canadian. In Nox she offers us a cardboard box containing a book. But what a book.
It’s a book with pages you can turn. But all the pages are connected, in one long folded concertina. It’s a challenge, physically speaking, to read.
Carson worked with artist Robert Currie to create this thing. At a Carson reading at Princeton, I asked Currie about the concertina design, and he said, “I’m really intrigued by the way the book pulls at you. It’s always trying to fall. You can’t ever be comfortable reading it.” The entire book was unrolled and stood on its edge. Sure enough, someone pulled a corner down, and the audience gasped as the whole thing unfurled, descending, giving way to gravity and its fate.
Nox is many things. It’s an elegy for Carson’s elusive brother Michael, with whom Carson, her family, and others had a pained relationship (“HE AND I LED A TURBULENT LIFE AND HAD NOISY ARGUMENTS,” says his widow at the funeral), and who died in 2000, under circumstances left obscure here. His story, what we can glean of it, is told in scraps of letters (photocopied, yellowed, sometimes pressed and smashed on the page), family photos (often with the shadow of the photographer looming), postage stamps, rubbings, traces collaged, smeared and torn and weathered.
Much is torn; tearing is everywhere, visually and poetically. Carson worked hard to get that faded, weathered look. She told me she soaked some pages in tea and then dried them on a radiator.
Parallel to the story of Michael is the story of Carson, classicist and poet, trying to translate the Roman poet Catullus’ famous elegy on his dead brother, “Multas per gentes.” A blurry, creased text of the poem appears at the beginning of the book. Then, on many of the lefthand leaves, the poem is parsed, word by word, in entries very much like those in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (tweaked by Carson — the word night weaves throughout).
So we learn why this beautiful, simple poem resists translation, all the many things and ways each word can mean. At the end, she does give us a masterly, muted translation, and we get a last sight of the poem, overstruck, blurry, near the end. Carson contends with the poem and its many levels, its explosive simplicity — and also tries to grasp, or tries to grasp why she cannot grasp — her brother, or the loss of him, or the traces of him.
What saves Nox from being precious, from overdoing it, striking a pose that, while very moving, is finally ingenuine? Of course, a sister grieves for her brother — but she doesn’t always create such a cathedral to her grief. And there’s an irony to grief: It’s one of life’s most piercing things, yet it’s not special.
So when a poet declares “I grieve!” loudly, elaborately, the effect can diminish, not amplify. After all, you cannot amplify grief; it’s already at the full. Even the effort would seem self-indulgent.
So how does Nox sidestep these hazards, if it does? I think it does, and because it does, I think it’s one of the finest books of the year.
Nox is saved by its painful, authentic uneasiness with itself. Again, the accordion-action of the book guarantees that we, as readers, stay off-balance as the pages pull in a couple of directions at once.
Nox likewise preserves a convincing awkwardness with the brother, as in part 3.1: “My brother dies in Copenhagen in the year 2000 a surprise to me.” We’re left in doubt: Was he the surprise, or was it the death, or was it the year, or the fact that 2000 was the year he died? And the missing comma renders the statement unwieldy.
The word DIES appears to be gravestone-rubbed, again awkwardly, over the edge of the paper with the sentence on it. Borders are violated; nothing but nothing is neat.
No answers are here, no closure. Loss happens, it’s hard, and time closes, incompletely, ill-fitting, over the life. Experience is smeary, crumpled.
The parallel story — a translator wrestling with a poem both clear and recalcitrant — is a likely and apt metaphor for the quest to understand, or at least find a place for, what happened to Michael. Neither Nox the book nor Carson’s translation leaves us much acceptance. There’s little understanding, but rather a provisional surrender to the inevitable.
So all the things that make Nox artistic — the book-in-a-box design; the accordion; the crumpled, smeary, torn scraps of evidence; the word-by-word tour of Catullus’ poem — lead us into the brother’s life and the sister’s loss, but don’t really dwell on the sister’s emotions. We feel them, all right, but we’re not pushed to feel them. They arise as if the loss were ours.
No preciousness here. There is — as in much of Carson’s poetry — a classical distance from shattering sorrow. She says from the beginning she’ll never really “capture” Michael: “No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”
Nox looks and reads like memory. Memory tears and smears and selects and fades. Memory helps us place the things of our lives, and that is why memory is the main way we know ourselves. Memory, in the end, is all we have.
True, this book — which you can read in less than an hour but will take a life to absorb — takes risks, gambles with exposure. It literally shows us family snapshots. Yet, it also suggests an austere but powerful hope, the kind you can’t know unless you’ve been through loss like Carson’s: Nox reminds us that where we cannot understand, we can still love.