Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Anne Carson's Nox

Anne Carson has credentials when it comes to fragments.  She’s a professor of classics and translator of ancient Greeks who says, of using brackets when translating Sappho, “Brackets are exciting.”
Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
Carson is a seasoned practitioner of the translator’s art.  She revels in seeking out meanings that lie behind a single word, searching through silences on either side of it where words have gone missing.

And Carson is a poet:
The poet is someone who feasts at the same table as other people.  But at a certain point he feels a lack.  He is provoked by a perception of absence within what others regard as a full and satisfactory present.  His response to this discrepancy is an act of poetic creation . . . .
A convention about Carson is that she shares little about herself.  The evidence typically offered is the terse statement, “Anne Carson lives in Canada,” on the dust cover of her books.  But in Economy of the Unlost, Carson seems to take issue with that convention:  “There is too much self in my writing.”
I have struggled since the beginning to drive my thought out into the landscape of science and fact where other people converse logically and exchange judgments—but I go blind out there.
Carson weaves strands of self throughout her work.  Her brother surfaces in Plainwater:  “It was late spring when he disappeared, for reasons having partly to do with the police, partly with my father—it doesn’t matter now.”
Postcards came to us from farther and farther away, Vermont, Belgium, Crete, with long spaces of time in between them.  No return address. . . . A card came from Goa, mentioning heat and dirt and the monsoon delayed.  Then no more cards came.
Now Carson brings us Nox, a book in a box, in which Carson brings to bear her acumen in the classics, as a translator, and as a poet—or, as she might say, “those three things”—searching through fragments to make meaning in the face of her brother’s death.

It’s not the first time Carson has attempted to order fragments buried in a box.  About Stesichoros’s Geryoneis, from which she embarked on an “imaginal adventure” that became Autobiography of Red, Carson wrote:
 . . . the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat.  The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box.  You can of course keep shaking the box.
Nox is both a book and an object of art.  Each smudge of ink and paint, each stapled photograph, each bit of text on crumpled paper, has been so brilliantly reproduced as to render a trompe l’oeil effect.  Readers will be tempted to run a finger across the paper, expecting to feel a rough-cut edge or crust of paint.

In the opening pages of the book, smudged ink on a yellowed scrap of paper spells out Catullus’s poem 101 in the original Latin:   “Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus . . . .”  On successive pages, bound together in a thick accordion stack, Carson meditates on the poem word by word, interleafing commentary, family photographs, drawing, painting, and collage, to take apart and reassemble an understanding of her brother’s life.

Often the word nox, or one of its declensions, appears within the definition of a word from the poem.  The definition of aequora, for example, includes “inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus?”, which Carson translates as:  “have we made it across the vast plain of night?”  The definition of manantia renders the Latin phrase “omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat” as “the whole pointless night seeps out of the heart.”  And in the definition of atque, a mere conjunction, one meaning of which is “and,” Carson includes “similiter atque ipse eram noctuabunda,” translated as “just like him I was a negotiator with night.”

Each definition is redolent of suggestion, which Carson amplifies with text, collage, and other renderings, most often on the facing page.  Meanings accumulate and dissolve in turns.

Of Catullus 101 itself, Carson says:
No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind.  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.
At the end of the book, a fragment of yellowed paper bears the Catullus poem in Carson’s translation, the ink so smudged as to be barely readable.  Carson knows the limits of her efforts:  her brother slips away from her again and again.
Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light.  Human words have no main switch.  But all those little kidnaps in the dark.  And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.
To appreciate this graceful, intelligent book, readers need not know Latin or have a foundation in the classics.  Just shake the box.



Quotations from books other than Nox (in the order in which they appear in the text):

If Not, Winter, p. xi.

If Not, Winter, p. xi.
Economy of the Unlost, p. 108.
Economy, p. vii.
Economy, p. vii.
Plainwater, p. 246.
Plainwater, pp. 246-247. 
Plainwater, p. 223 (among others).
Autobiography of Red, pp. 6-7.


  1. wow, Sue, you should really be writing for a WIDER the NYT's book review! and feel luck to be a reader of this blog entry... You do such a great job of unpacking Anne Carson....(and illustrating your points suitably as you go along). I especially savor the well chosen quote regarding words in translation, "the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them..."
    Thank you!

  2. What brilliant photographs!

    And it amazes me that you have drawn the human and accessible from such complex work. The careful attention to the details are like Carson's always startling sudden domesticity and erudition - details that make this post sing like Anne Carson's work: in a clear and quite unique voice.

  3. When I first saw the book Nox, I admired its artistry.

    With your words I can now see its poetry.

    And I agree with Elaine Sexton that your writings deserve a wider audience

  4. Though I have never read, or viewed, Anne Carson's work, I am in awe of her abilities-- thanks to your brilliant interpretation.

    I agree--you should submit your next review/profile to a publication that would showcase your deeply affecting pieces.

  5. Thank you all for your lovely comments. All credit must go to the inestimable Anne Carson, for all I had to do was shake the box, and out came these gorgeous bits of text to guide me in writing about her work.

    As for publication elsewhere, here at RA, in my estimation, we’ve got the best of all worlds: the rare opportunity to write as we please and put it out there at will, and the good fortune to have readers come to visit and enjoy what we write.

  6. That notion that Carson doesn't put herself in her work makes no sense to me at all. It's the exact opposite, as you point out - she weaves herself throughout her work, her relationships with men, her mother and father, etc.

    Thanks for the great review of Nox - I have yet to buy a copy.


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