Book review: Nox by Anne Carson

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      Published by New Directions, $37.50

      Anne Carson’s Nox is a work of painful beauty. One long accordion-folded page housed in a box, it resembles an art book, but the stunning complexity of the accumulative poetic text makes it much more than merely aesthetically pleasing.

      The book is an elegy for the poet’s brother Michael that, like Carson’s previous poetry, draws on the resonance of the ancients, in this case to form an argument with the ineffability of the language of grief. For example, the book takes a series of translations of Catullus’s first-century-B.C. poem "101"—written for his dead brother—and layers them with letters, textual fragments, photographs, and a collection of lexical entries, to compile (literally, "to pile up") a history of her brother. She comes at this death from many directions. Importantly, the book ends with a blurry copy of the final translation. That the text on the last page is almost unreadable hints at the struggle to articulate “something inbetween, something so deeply swaying”.

      Carson writes of the Catullus translations, “I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for a light switch. I guess it never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.” Images of prowling and light work through the absence of the brother. The seeking is continual; she writes at the outset, “My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail,” and later “My brother dies in Copenhagen in the year 2000 a surprise to me,” with the word DIES into the page under the main text. Finally, she writes, “his death came wandering slowly towards me across the sea.” The experience is never simply the event, but the multiple ways loss is felt.

      Carson suggests it is “always comforting to assume there is a secret behind what torments you”, and so she investigates a lexicography of words associated with grief that are set out like definitions, but push beyond literal meanings toward the creation of a more personal history “told and retold”. As she points out, the word repent means “the pain again”.