Warning: I feel as if just about any descriptive noun I might use while discussing Anne Carson’s new “book”–Nox (Latin for night)–should be in quotation marks. “Poetry,” “cover,” “read,” “page”–all of those words don’t quite apply here. On the back “cover”–or, more precisely, the back of the box the “pages” come in–Carson writes: “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.” Once the beautifully designed “box” folds open, we find a couple of hundred “pages,” all printed on one sheet of paper that folds out accordion style. On them we find partial photographs of Carson’s brother Michael, her own collages constructed around images his life and death sug-gested to her, fragments of his letters reproduced so exactly that they look three-dimensional, small fragments of the narrative of his life written by the poet, a word-by-word translation of Catullus’s elegy for his brother, and Carson’s occasional comments on the uncertainty of history and the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of finding a language for grief.
All that sounds very complicated and difficult, but Carson’s intellectually demanding work has found an inexplicably large audience around the world, and this “book” opens up for any-one who pays attention. Carson gives us just the essential hints of her brother’s life, but “No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.” Her only sib-ling never seemed to find his way in the world. Carson tells us that he left Canada because he was likely to end up in jail. He moved through various cities around the globe under an assumed name and was mostly penniless, until he died in Copenhagen. Carson didn’t find out until weeks later, by which time his ashes had been scattered in the sea.
But that remarkably sad story is only one strand running through this long piece of paper. Carson reproduces a slightly blurry copy of Catullus’s elegy, written in the first century B.C. Carson gives us dictionary definitions of every word of this sad ancient poem, admitting that she has never been satisfied with her own translation of it. Some might remember the last words of that poem (“frater, ave atque vale”) that have drifted into our language as “brother, hail and farewell!” Carson has given us a new and much more emotional version of that line–“and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.” But she doesn’t seem satisfied with this translation, either–because at the very end of the book she reproduces it again, but so blurry or faded that the only word visible is “brother.”
Anne Carson reads from Nox at Nicola’s on Thursday, May 13.