Anne Carson’s Nox
by Brandon Lussier
Over the course of Anne Carson’s career, which now spans three decades, the poet, essayist, and scholar has published collections of disparate poems; collections of essays; book-length poems; books that mix essay with poetry (sometimes blurring the lines between the two); and books of work translated from ancient Greek. The text of her latest book, Nox, contains brief essays, fragmentary poetics, Latin dictionary definitions, photographs, one photocopied letter (torn into pieces), and numerous copies of childish drawings. The result is a work that displays Carson’s facility as a scholar of classical antiquity, her abilities as a poet and essayist, and the playful personality that underpins her strongest work.
The physical nature of the book is worth mentioning. It is a high quality, full color reproduction of a scroll dozens of feet long, to which the author glued and taped all of the elements that compose the work. On the back of the box that contains the book, Carson writes that she composed Nox as an epitaph to her brother, and the published book “is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” The result of this format and presentation is the sense that the reader is approaching a special, personal text, and it works well with the elegiac content.
The Latin of the title, meaning Night, plays a significant role in the book. An elegy that Catullus wrote for his brother centuries ago opens the book, in Latin, without translation. Throughout the book, definitions of Latin words appear on nearly every other page (the exact words of Catullus’s poem, in the order in which they appear in the poem). Once all of the definitions have been provided, Carson provides her complete translation of the poem into English.
At first glance, these seem to be typical dictionary definitions, but a close read reveals that they have been altered and added to by Carson. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that the dictionary definition of the word cinerem (ashes) contained the contextual sentence, “cinis hic docta puella fuit: this ash was a scholarly girl.” By turning the definitions themselves into creative work, Carson has found a way to write poetry in Latin while seamlessly providing readers with the English translations. Frequently, these sentences theorize night, day, dawn, and light. This is in keeping with the author’s exploration of night as a symbolic or even allegorical way of understanding and defining the position of loss and mourning, lost and mourner: “nocte fratris quam ipso fratre miserior: made sadder by the brother’s night than by the brother himself,” is one example, found in the definition of the word miseras (meaning pitied, sad, pathetic). One of the more poignant examples is found in the definition of donarem (gift), which appears just before a copy of letter in which Carson’s mother practically begs her son to write to her after five years of silence (“FOR FIVE YEARS FOUR MONTHS AND seven DAYS I’VE PRAYED FOR YOU”): “nox nihil donat: nothing is night’s gift.”
In Nox, we learn that Carson’s brother, in his adult life, played a very small role in the life of her and her mother. He was abroad—they were not always sure where—sent infrequent postcards, only wrote one letter in decades, rarely called, and had very little to say when he did call. He was so distant, in fact, that her mother thought he was dead for years (“when I pray for him nothing comes back,” she says), and Carson scrawls across one page, in pencil, “WHO WERE YOU.” All elegies are, to some extent, attempts to symbolically replace the deceased. Of Catullus’s brother, Carson writes: “nothing at all is known of the brother except his death.” Unlike Catullus, Carson provides the best history of her brother that she is able, given the small role that he played in her life. At the same time, she explores the relationship between loss, language, and the writing self, and that exploration is the artistic core of the book.
One of the more overtly intellectual aspects of Nox is its explicit positioning as the product of a living personal history. Carson calls attention to the ways in which language enables and shapes what we call history through discussion of the Greek origin of the word: “The word ‘history’ comes from an ancient Greek word . . . meaning ‘to ask,’” Carson writes. “One who asks about things . . . is an historian . . . . It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.”
Carson is prone here, as often in her work, to intellectual-sounding utterances that don’t quite make sense when analyzed. In this case: why must we either carry what we have survived or fashion it into a thing that carries itself? If we are talking about producing a history (or an elegy) that can “carry” an event survived, does that production, however successful, result in the event being lifted from the survivor? Carson’s symbolic representation of her brother is all we, as readers, know of him, so for us it successfully “carries” him. But the symbolic can never replace the symbolized entirely in the living mind of the person who crafted the symbol. Carson delivers in a matter-of-fact academic tone a seemingly intellectual statement that doesn’t stand up well to analysis. Moments like these, as in her other works, are her weakest.
Fortunately, the strengths of Nox are greater than the weaknesses. Carson is a master at weaving thematic threads throughout a lengthy work, and indeed across multiple works published in separate books. In Nox, as in Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband, her two previous book-length poems, she repeatedly returns to images and ideas in a ritualistic, repetitive pattern that in this case is almost entirely responsible for lending a sense of cohesion to an extremely fragmentary work of literature.
Early in Nox, Carson quotes from an ancient text by Hekataios, in which he (metaphorically represented as a phoenix) mourns his father: “he hollows out the egg and lays his father inside and plugs up the hollow. With father inside the egg weighs the same as before….” Of the passage, Carson writes, “the phoenix mourns by shaping, weighing, testing, hallowing, plugging and carrying towards the light,” which refers directly back to all of the mentions of light and night in the book while at the same time referring forward to the ongoing repetition of the theme. Later in the text, Carson returns to the egg, writing, “both my parents were laid out in their coffins . . . in bright yellow sweaters. They looked like beautiful peaceful egg yolks.” Some ancient Indians, she then tells us, ate their dead. So mourning is an egg; the bodies of the deceased are eggs; and some have eaten bodies in mourning. The mix of the figurative with the factual, and the contemporary with the ancient, works well here, as it does in much of Carson’s strongest work. Her usual wry humor is at play, too: “When my parents died I chose not to eat but to burn them,” she writes.
Here, as elsewhere in Nox, the complexity of the work deepens in relation to the author’s catalogue of work, in which eggs have been mentioned before. In the introduction to her translation of Euripides’ Hippolytos, Carson writes of the play, “It makes me think of a hard-boiled egg. Cut it open, you see an exquisite design—the yellow circle perfectly suspended within the white oval. The two shapes are disjunct and dissimilar yet construct one form. They do not contradict or cancel out, they interexist . . . . They each follow the other in a perfect system called egg.” So too, of course, do night and day, life and death.
Although it will not provide a representative introduction to Carson’s work for those who haven’t read her before, fans will love Nox for its honesty, occasional brilliance, and physical beauty. All of Carson’s strengths are on display here, but the fragmentation of text, image, and artwork, and the unpolished nature of the work may bother some. Most, however, will be happy to go back to Carson’s previous books of original poetry if they want to read polished lyric, and will appreciate this artful and exciting experimentation.