The case for Anne Carson’s _Nox_ might begin with its box (that’s not binding): grey with white binding (that’s not binding) and a single silver sliver, in which stands a boy diver on grass maybe forty summers ago, wearing superhero goggles and flippers. The photo is just offset from a strip of beige paint and it’s stunning, then modest—the book is thick (like _War and Peace_ in yesterday’s trope, a reform bill in today’s) and swarming the boy. Ben Ratliff called it “the color of a rainy day” in the _New York Times_; on the far side of the splash of paint, it’s also the color of that grainy photo of a summer day—a perfect day for bananafish, if you like. (If not—we’ll see.) I hesitate on the cover because I first heard of _Nox_ when I saw it, standing upright like few other books can in the lobby of a cafeteria, admirable in its economy of color and the narrow cut of the picture. I bought it the very same afternoon. I am not even particularly fond of Anne Carson, a classics professor at the University of Michigan and a poet who always seems to be writing her way out of poetry. Perhaps it improved my first impression that her name only winks out later, in transparent reflective tape.
Inside the box is _Nox_: a single sheet of paper, an accordion replica of a notebook that was, as Carson writes in the jacket copy, “an epitaph for [my brother] in the form of a book.” In the notebook Carson wrote, typed, carved, shaded, painted, pasted and, of course, translated. Her collage is particularly well-done, her frustrated pencil markings less so, but the presentation itself excels. At several points in our version the same page repeats, approximating the act of unfolding a letter taped into the original. A verso might show the staple gripping a photograph to the recto, and shadows of its heaviest marks; traces of graphite have rubbed off on facing pages; lines of pressure that spell out Carson’s most desperate questions (“WHO WERE YOU”) fade over several. So trained was I by the accuracy of the replication, cared for by the artist Robert Currie, that on one of the repeating ‘fold-out’ pages I mistook a fleck of dust for a kind of interrogation of repetition through disruption (à la Pynchon’s Kenosha Kid), falling as it did in the exact position Carson might’ve bitterly placed a period: “He was travelling on a false passport and living under other people’s names. This isn’t hard to arrange. It is irremediable. I don’t know how[.] he made his decisions in those days.” Upon re-reading I was able to watch it drift into place over a dozen frames, affording Carson respect of a different sort: her air of mastery encloses even her accidents. Read _Nox_ and you’ll read it by the pixel.
Of course, Carson didn’t sneak a period in: so far as I can tell and we’ve been told, _Nox_ is “as close we could get” to her original notebook, unembellished and unedited. (There are typos; the only appearance of digital correction I could catch was a small triangle pointing to a typewritten letter Carson had previously pasted in.) I’m glad of it, twee and crafty as a high-quality print of crumpled paper might sound—but such success arguably places _Nox_ at the front of the wrong line, at the end of which the book-as-object is less an academic vogue than a marketing necessity. Indeed, one can imagine Carson herself as a guest lecturer in the final, presentist week of a seminar on the history of the book, asking, as she did of Beckett’s _Quadrat_ short in _Decreation_, “_do I detect a question of genre[?] . . . would you say [s]he thematizes h[er] medium[?]_” Well. One hardly hopes the answer is the same as hers was there, not least because the genre in question is the epitaph, the medium in replica, the dead letter: “No he thematizes himself—like Elvis singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ he’s a one-man quartet.”
Which brings us to Carson’s subject, a matter that ought, by most lights, overwhelm any concerns one might have about Carson’s leap from generic to mediatic free play (if not void critical commentary entirely). Her brother is far more remarkable than her collage: a brother to whom she spoke no more than five times in their adult lives. Michael enters as the boy on the cover and disappears with drug (and consequent legal) problems in 1978, reappearing only once for two decades, by letter from India. Eventually he settles in Copenhagen and brings himself around to calling Anne a handful of times before his death in 2000. Throughout his travels he is loved—that’s Carson’s passive—by a number of women intensely, briefly, tragically. Of the first we only see the blank walls and mattresses against which she was photographed, usually naked (and from which Carson wisely removed her, letting the bareness of a cheap wooden chair speak to the conditions of their romance). We only hear of their relationship in that single, brutally laconic letter: “Six days later she was dead. I went crazy.” The second lover is his first wife and half a sentence. The third is with him to his end, and provides our best glimpse of Michael after his itinerant years: “He and I led a turbulent life and had noisy arguments. Nevertheless we never doubted our mutual love and respect.” Carson has written of her family previously, often in their flights—her father’s from reason and her lover’s from their home, for instance, in “The Glass Essay”—but _Nox_ is her most extended personal piece, and its subject the farthest flown. In itself that’s strange, and makes for difficult reading; though one wants to sympathize with a sister at a loss for words, one wants words from a poet. The abundance of media in which Carson chose to work thus stands in contrast to the memories with which she has to memorialize—even stands in for them. _Nox_ is the rare epitaph that conceivably says more of its subject in death than its author ever said to him in life. No small feat, but no great one, either.
Yet this, Carson begins, may be the condition of all memorials, all histories, even all people in all times. “Now by far the strangest thing that humans do… is history. This asking. For often it produces no clear or helpful account, in fact people are satisfied with the most bizarre forms of answering[.]” Her example, by way of Herodotos, is the Skythian census: a bowl formed of the melted-down arrowheads demanded of each citizen, providing a testimony to the size of the kingdom “at once concrete and indecipherable.” (The census-as-object, perhaps.) Immediately thereafter the thought is on a new track to the same place: “Historian can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide. Note that the word ‘mute’ (from Latin _mutus_…) is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” Those familiar should find Carson unchanged; those unfamiliar will find themselves startled by every thought, each molecule of thought. A demystifying account would note how well Carson’s range of modes maps onto late continental philosophy, the boldly turned wisdom drawn up from a deep well of classical sources (if narrower than hers) by way of etymology, spilling when overfull into phrases like, “to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” Of course the execution in the hands of a poet, even if in the genre of the essay, yields far greater pleasure and, in this more than any other of Carson’s books, incomparable heart. If _Nox_ is more poetics than poetry, an account of loss so inwardly-folded on how to account for loss, it transcends the limitations of such second-orderliness in how gravely its answers matter.
Carson’s most inspired metaphor for this absence yielded by her interrogation—and yes, like Carson I’m still in school—allows us to lay out _Nox_’s last element, what we might call its plot. For _Nox_ is as much a record of interpretation as grief, culminating (before a kind of anti-denouement) in a translation of Catullus’ poem 101, composed on the death of his brother in the Troad (Turkey) and supposedly delivered there, after the long journey from Verona, by Catullus himself. Ultimately, the translation is almost beside the point: Ratliff called it “close and almost awkward;” I’ll admit to being more moved by its sopping-wet disintegration several pages later. Like many of Carson’s words in _Nox_ they seem forced, and forced out of our attention by the book’s beautiful surfaces. Among the more mysterious decisions made is “what a distant mood of parents / handed down as the sad gift for burials” for “_prisco quae more parentum / tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias_,” pulling up the thirteenth or so definition of “more” and confusing nearly all sense of Catullus’ subject—which, like Carson’s, is the inadequacy of his own mode of mourning.
I’m sure of this, despite having forgotten all my schoolboy Latin, because Carson has turned her translation into a narrative—and a writerly exercise—by stringing dictionary entries for every one of Catullus’ words throughout the text. These are authored by Carson herself, and have overwhelmingly poetic examples (“_tibi rident aequora ponti_ the waters of the sea laugh up at you”). In explaining her choice of method, Carson arrives at the aforementioned metaphor and best characterizes her double loss of words and sibling:
_I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy…. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end._
This darkness, awoken into the night (or, _nox_), renders not only the whole room imperfectly visible but each object within it as well, the points of reference by which one might successfully visualize it: “Human words have no main switch.” Then, improbably, something switches on in Carson. If she cannot satisfactorily navigate the room from its constitutive objects, she might at least compile them: “What if you made a collection of lexical entries, as someone who is asked to come up with a number for the population of the Skythians might point to the bowl at Exampaios. In one sense it is a room I can never leave, perhaps dreadful for that. At the same time, a place composed entirely of entries. Is it not astonishing, entry.”
I presume Carson is astonished because her “entry” leads out, onto the broader field of language, which she earlier calls a “luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web …that hangs in your mind;” I’m not, because my “entry” leads in, to the written text and the often banal entries we find there. (Most entries these days are, after all, data entry.) Just opposite there’s a typical example from her dictionary, a web that more entangles than astonishes: “nunc adverb [cf, Hitt ki-nun, Gk vuv, Eng now] at the present moment, now; (strengthened by other adverbs) already now; (defined by temporal clauses), nunc ipsum at this very moment,” and so on. Trudge through and you are at bottom provided with a titular reference and something to chew on: “_nunc nox!_ night now! (implying that this latest development is in some way unexpected); … well what now? (ironically, introducing a suggestion which must be considered absurd or unreasonable in the face if [sic] what has just been said); but as it is.” The same phrase might cast doubt or underscore; night may surprise “but as it is,” as it shouldn’t.
There are more charitable examples, of course. The nearly prior “_adempte_” is a nice one (“_nox diem adempte_ the day would not be long enough [night confiscates day]”) and rare in that it actually rewards reading in the usual way, establishing watchwords by which we can make sense of other parts of the text. Its concluding definitions, “to remove by death, kill; … to acquire by purchase, blush, buy” are necessary to understand the following question, “_Why do we blush before death?_” Still, these are half the book—and once one notices every entry ending on _nox_, one feels obliged to read them all with equal care. Perhaps a reader capable of closer reading would find that care rewarded; I simply couldn’t revisit them.
If Carson was earlier bewildered with Herodotos by the Skythian bowl, the incomprehensible object that nevertheless must suffice, why compile a lexicon she considers of the same nature? In part because such meaninglessness, idle words, both too many (for what they provide) and two few (for what we desire), mark for her the specific condition of the relationship she has lost—which should, in principle, give this “prowling” an emotional force. “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. _Lots of crime in Copenhagen. Danes are hardworking. I am painting the flat._” That these S-V-O sentences make for conversation is, of course, Carson’s tragedy: a room she cannot but must leave, and hopefully has. Yet one of the major means by which Carson has us accompany her prowling—these endless lists of tertiary meanings—delivers irresolution of a different, even trivial sort.
What may be most notable about the conceit, however, is that it occurred to Carson in another context. The first time around it was a kind of productive foolishness, one identified with her greatest weakness as a thinker. At the end of her essay “The Gender of Sound,” on the tactical utility of essentialized gender difference to ancient Greek and Freudian misogyny, Carson wrote:
_I have cast my net rather wide and have mingled evidence from different periods of time and different forms of cultural expression—in a way that reviewers of my work like to dismiss as ethnographic naïveté. I think there is a place for naïveté in ethnography, at the very least as an irritant. Sometimes when I am reading a Greek text I force myself to look up all the words in the dictionary, even the ones I think I know. It is surprising what you learn that way. Some of the words turn out to sound quite different than you thought._
Naïve as Carson may be to the details of her brother’s life she is not, in the end, ignorant of or silent on its final import. It has a main switch, turns out to sound quite like we thought. Here the obstacle to speech is likewise habit of mind—but that of tact, not prejudice. Carson brings herself to the anger she deserves only once and movingly. The technique is far simpler than any compilation of entries, the discovery far less recondite than readers of Carson may expect. She quotes, points, negates and condemns: “When Herodotos has got as far as he can go in explaining an historical event or situation he will stop with a remark like this: ‘So much for what is said by the Egyptians: let anyone who finds such things credible make use of them.’ Or:”—and this taped on the back of a yellowed note—“‘I have to say what is said. I don’t have to believe it myself.’” And the note unfolded: “‘Love you. Love you.—Michael.’”
One cannot expect Carson to be so courageous twice. In “The Glass Essay” she wrote that “The basic rules of male-female relations / were imparted atmospherically in our family, // no direct speech allowed.” If Michael learned the lesson by falling silent, Anne did by falling into verse; and if her directness here often falls flat (“WHO WERE YOU”), at its best “oddly into me drops this expression,” as she describes recognition. Often I worry that criticism’s outcome, if not its purpose, is to police such allowances and enforce such prohibitions— and so for all its flaws, for the difficulty of its subject alone Carson’s directness and indirectness alike are allowed.