Saturday, March 16, 2013

“small kidnaps in the dark”: Anne Carson’s Nox (Guest Review by Paige Webb)

“small kidnaps in the dark”: Anne Carson’s Nox
Review by Paige Webb

“Look!” I said, unfolding Nox for my son and for weeks to anyone who came by: an unbound, accordion style fold of a book preserved in an austere box.  It is an elegy or epitaph for her brother, Michael, who she scarcely knew and died unexpectedly in Denmark.  But Nox is more than a performance of grieving, it is a translation.  Anne Carson is, after all, a translator, though here she attempts to translate a person, a history, her grief.
Without a physical spine, what binds Nox is “Catullus 101”: on nearly each left-hand fold Carson translates and defines each successive word in the Latin poem, definitions of breadth, offering not only the full periphery of each word, but also Carson’s poetic phrases as usage examples.  These definitions both speak to and juxtapose the more personal entries on the right—a letter, a photo, an anecdote.
Because Carson often presses against the boundaries of genre (her “short-talks” are poetry, but she calls them lectures; Autobiography of Red is a Novel in Verse; The Beauty of the Husband is an Essay in 29 Tangos), I was not surprised to see Nox pushing against what constitutes a book, as a single long folded sheet, or against what constitutes a book of poetry, with its entries of prose, definitions, and only snips of “poetic” phrases.  Nox veers in that it is starkly personal: even in The Beauty of the Husband the autobiographical is mitigated through the poetic.  In Nox, she offers more of a factual history, plainly transcribed, with actual letters and photographs, as if she must begin proper translation with the most primary of sources.  
To translate Michael, Carson starts with history.  She invokes the first historian, Herodotus, as she searches the what-happened-and-why of her brother, a search to find “an account that makes sense . . . a lock against oblivion.”  But she quickly presents the futility in history, in asking.

when Herodotos endeavors to find out from them the size of the Skythian population, [they] point to a bowl that stands at Exampaios.  It is made of the melted down arrowheads required of each Skythian by their king Ariantes on pain of death

We can gather facts, but we can never know what the facts we gather mean. 
Still, Carson can’t avoid trying to know.  Michael becomes “overtakenlessness”: “that which cannot be got round.  Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of.”  So we see frustrated scratches (“WHO WERE YOU”) repeating forcibly down the page.  Desire, as usual with Carson, becomes the subject; she cannot avoid or fulfill the want to comprehend her brother, her connection to him, the meaning of his life and death—“He does not end.”
And Carson places us in the search, unfolding the history.  Nox physically unfolds as we read and as we read we progressively receive more information.  On one page we see a fragmented letter from Michael, only some half-phrases; below this, an account of events (labeled 2.2): He ran away instead of going to jail, he sent a few post cards, he changed his name, he only wrote one letter (the letter we partially see).  The next three pages repeat this structure, presenting different sections of the same letter (we gain it piece by piece, but never the whole) and the expository 2.2 section, verbatim (the facts do not change, only our understanding of them)—except the last is cut off, as if run, off center, from a copy machine.  The facts do not change, and as we gather more we do not necessarily understand more.
Facts do not explain meaning, the why, so Carson translates, but this only offers “little kidnaps in the dark”: snatches of meaning she pieces together in a “room [she] can never leave . . . composed entirely of entries.”  Continually she enters her brother’s shadow, his night, recording each entry she gathers:

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 bowl at Exampaios.

She culls small kidnaps of Michael’s night, transforming them into entries, into Nox.  And Nox is purposefully fragmented, imperfect; like the Catullus poem which translation fails, Carson ultimately does not show that she can translate Michael’s life or her emotions about his death, but only that she can attempt.  And the existence of Nox asserts meaning in the attempt.
Talking to a friend about this book, he mentioned all the ripped letters and photographs: the probability that Carson destroyed them to create Nox, or the original it copies.  We can’t know why she tore pieces of her brother’s history, whether for personal or poetic reasons, and whether the two, here, can be separated.  It does seem necessary, however, for her to deconstruct “Catullus 101,” progressively, through her definitions and through the tea stained version of the whole that turns from Latin to English, from torn to indecipherable.  Perhaps to attempt an entry into meaning, she must rend the pieces she has to configure the whole. 
And it is the whole configuration that strikes: how Carson physically reconstructs the frustrated search for meaning, the clarity in her awareness of this process and its uncertainty, the courage (or forfeit?) of the last ave, or farewell—all creates a deeply felt and acutely conscious pathos. 

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