Anne Carson. Nox. New Directions, 2010.
Reviewed by Jessica Reidy
When a poet is a sure hit like Anne Carson, I don’t feel compelled to read reviews before I buy the book. Knowing it is there is all I need. So when her book arrived in the post one afternoon, I tore through the tightly-bound packaging and unearthed a silvery cardboard box. A strip of a home photo (a boy standing in a bathing suit), smeared with gold, rests above the faint-as-smoke title, Nox. I flipped open the lid and saw not so much a book, but a folded length of paper. I closed the lid again, confused. I was not prepared for this. Then, I opened it back up and lifted the paper out. I played with it like a child, watching it fold and unfold like an accordion bellowing, forgetting entirely for a moment that it was a book and I ought to be reading. That is the nature of Nox, the epitaph for her lost brother, Michael Carson. It is a mysterious link to a child’s memories. It’s fitting. Carson’s memories of her deceased brother are the memories of their shared childhood, and like memories from childhood, they are far, fragmented, reconstructed. The book itself is a facsimile of a work that she created after his death—a collage of photos, poems, paintings, drawings, cut-outs, letters, Latin translations, and writings all addressing the “overtakelessness” of the topic. And still, it is all one piece—like a person, a moment, or a life. It is at once the eternal night, and something utterly curious. It is a howling dog that falls silent when he sniffs the casket and realizes that his owner is dead. It is dropping a slinky down the stairs to understand gravity.
While moving through this work, the reader has a sense of many stories being told at once. Carson tells her brother’s story—who he was—from what she can gather. She tells the story of mourning him with her mother long before he died. She tells Catullus’s story, and considers the nature of history with Herodotus. The book begins with the cryptic inscription, “nox frater nox” pasted over the name “Michael,” scrawled over and over again in thick cursive. On the next page is Catullus’ poem 101 in Latin, an elegy for his brother who also died away from home. Catullus describes his travel to the funeral, the offering he will leave for his brother’s burial “into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.” Carson provides a lexicon word-by-word translation of the poem (as well as a complete translation, later) throughout the book—one word on nearly every left-hand page. The underside of the accordion-style-stretch of pages is bare, just as Carson describes Catullus’ Latin, “… like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind.” The piece-by-piece translation and the collaged nature of the book, evoke the very effects of grief. When someone is lost, the world ceases to make sense. We are compelled to know all of it, to study all the parts and pieces with such scrutiny that understanding fluctuates like the tide—in turns, all is apparent; all is dark. It becomes very important to build the person lost back into reality through memory, investigation, and art. It becomes very important to make something. It becomes very important to know exactly who the deceased was and to say it aloud—and this is complicated by the fact that there is only so much that we can know about a separate human being.
In Carson’s case, it was especially difficult to know who her brother was. Michael ran away from home in 1978 to avoid jail, and traveled abroad until his death in Copenhagen in 2000. She only spoke to him five times on the phone, and received about a dozen postcards with no return address. Carson didn’t know about his death until two weeks after he had died. It took his widow some time to find her number in Michael’s papers. Like Catullus, Carson made the journey over the sea to mourn her brother. She spoke with his widow, she looked through his diaries, and she pieced together who her brother was. The spattering of communication that Carson received from him while he was on the run, the postcards, the few phone calls, the single letter, strike me as the beginning of his elegy, born from his absence.
There are hints about the story of Michael, and the reader discovers those hints in her memories, in a cut-and-pasted letter, in photos, in poems. Just as Carson translates the elegy, piece by piece, she translates her brother in this wonderful artifact. But, true to the nature of death, nothing is clear. Her words, “who were you,” cut white through a gloom of charcoal shading on the same page as a poem that introduces the one letter he sent to his mother when a woman he loved had died. That letter is reproduced in fragments, which seems appropriate. Death interposes a lacuna in the narrative of a person, an insuperable gap or lack that, in Michael’s case, was already well-established in the stuff of his prolonged absence and minimal correspondence. The dance between what is hidden and what is revealed continues throughout the book. No matter how much investigating is done, each person is a mystery, and death sheds no light.
While every piece of this collage seems straightforward on its own—the definition of aequora; short prose poems that capture moments of her life, her brother’s life, her grief, and that which is connected to it; excerpts from his letters, “I have never known a closeness like that”; Herodotos’ description of a Phoenix; family photos and photos he took; scans of envelopes and stamps from Europe and Asia…. The enigma is, what are all these things together? The combinations make a person, make the story of grief, make the lightless night. As I read this book, I felt like I was threading great things together along with Carson, trying to make sense of that which cannot be understood.
Carson shares a story that Michael’s widow tells her—when she first met Michael, they were penniless in Amsterdam, and they spent two years sleeping in a stairwell. Carson also has a memory of her brother in a stairwell when they were children. He was huddled in the corner where they kept their boots, with his face all bloody and their mother holding him crying, “What now oh what now?” Between these two memories is a staircase, reverse-drawn in charcoal on the page. The staircase feels significant—it is a symbol of trouble, removal, and distance. It returns later as a photograph, and in the last poem-fragment that Carson writes, “He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears.” The stairwell is in the shape of the unusual pages, it is the step-by-step translation of an elegy, and, most simply, it is a path to another level. Carson created a work of art, an epitaph, with the remarkable effect of conjuring a person entirely through shadow.
At the end, I was overcome by the singular thought that she made Nox for him. She is, as Catullus writes, giving him “the last gift owed to death, and talk (why?) of mute ash.”