“Nox”, by Anne Carson

Anne Carson’s Nox is a brilliantly moving contemporary development of the elegiac mode, a heart-wrenching epitaph for the brother she hardly knew, a devastatingly close reading of one of the Ancient World’s finest poems, an insightful musing on the process of translation, and, in the end, a simply exquisite object, a physical book which should put an end to elegies on the demise of physical books at the hands of e-books. Don’t kindle the funeral pyre for paper any time soon!
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Nox is, to simplify, a photographic reproduction of the pages of a notebook Carson assembled as she came to terms with her brother Michael’s death and with the long absence that preceded it. The object is an accordion folded codex, much like the surviving codices of the pre-Contact Maya. This book fits neatly into a well-constructed grey book-shaped box. The author’s name and the title, along with a slim cut-out photo of Michael as a youngster are on the top of the box, the front cover of the “book”. The contrast of the swim-suited youth, giant swimming goggles covering his eyes, and the word “Nox” (Night) — especially when the youth’s exaggerated contrapposto pose is noticed — tells us clearly that this poem is a funeral oration, both for the brother and for Youth itself.

The pages themselves are minimalist collage. I thought immedieately of the notebooks of Peter Beard, but Carson’s notebook has none of the baroque busyness of Beard’s work. Each of Carson’s pages has a bit of text pasted in, perhaps a bit of a cut-out photo, sometimes hand-written notes or letters. On the verso (if one reads it as a book rather than stretching the whole out as a ribbon) of almost every “page” Carson provides a long definition of a Latin word. These words are together are the text of the poem known as “Catullus 101”, by the 1st Century BCE Latin poet Catullus.

As it was for Carson, Catullus 101 was one of the first Latin poems I was ever confronted with (after the notorious “Passer Poem”, Catullus 3).  Catullus is a poet filled with life and with love of life. Gould and Whiteley, in their introduction to the ancient school boys’ text I used, write:

Of the five Roman writers represented in this book, Catullus comes nearest to our English conception of a poet. His best work is seen in short, intensely personal lyrics, such as are so common and so popular in English poetry, and he has been compared to such self-revelatory poets as Shelley and Burns, and to the Greek poetess Sappho.

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Tastes may have changed in our more cosmopolitan time, but Catullus has not lost his power. He remains, as I’ve said, filled with life and the love of it. And so, any elegy such as 101, for all its Roman formality, remains brutally moving. As Carson writes:

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.

Carson’s elegy is absolutely post-modern, and brutally moving. About three quarters of the way through Nox, Carson offers her translation of Catullus 101, still a tentative translation after a long career as Classicist and poet. I find it interesting that Carson’s translation appears again on the final page as a water-smudged palimpsest of itself, perhaps in differing versions, to me a comment on the falibility of memory, or of experience’s effect on meaning, or so many other things.

I’ve written little about the words of Carson’s poem. The words which stood out most for me were those of her description of the experience of translating:

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.

This passage struck me most personally because I have myself wrestled for thirty-five years with the process of translation. What I might add to Carson’s description is that you may not always be quite sur what a light switch is. And I realize now that Carson is also describing Life, and a life.

I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end

Nox is a simply beautiful expression of personal mourning reflected in a two thousand year old mirror. That reflection, that echo across millennia and cultures helps to make this very personal, sparingly described life and mourning into something universal. I suspect, although, as a reader of Latin I cannot know, that Carson has extended this universality to — has translated it for the contemporary reader ignorant of the Latin language.

And, again, Nox is a stunningly beautiful art object, a brilliant achievement of the mass-market publishing industry. Anne Carson’s Nox is a moving tribute to the brother she hardly knew. The object is a triumphant victory ode to the physical book, still able to do so much more than an e-reader.

Anne Carson’s Nox was published in 2010 by New Directions (by Penguin in Canada). As a lover of poetry, a student of Catullus and of elegy, a hoarder of books, a dabbler in design, I will treasure Nox.

I think you might, too.

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