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The Unfolding Elegy

Nox

by Anne Carson
New Directions, 194 pp., $29.95
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Nancy Crampton
Anne Carson, New York City, 2003

In 2000, Anne Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, learned that her long-estranged brother Michael had died in Copenhagen. It took two weeks for Michael’s widow to deliver the news: she said she had had trouble finding Anne’s number among his things. Michael’s funeral had already been held, his ashes scattered in the sea near Elsinore castle, north of Copenhagen, where Shakespeare had Hamlet do his grieving. When word reached Carson, she found that she had amazingly little to go on in trying to imagine her brother’s life: the terse remarks of the widow, a small trove of firsthand memories (he stayed with her once, before he vanished; she remembers his extinguishing his cigarette butts in a frying pan), ancient family photographs, postcards from his shadowy travels, and the single letter he wrote home during his thirty-two years abroad, which their mother, heartbroken over her son’s disappearance, bequeathed to Anne on her deathbed.

To this small archive of relics, Carson added whatever odds and ends she could find. It happens that Catullus also lost a brother on a distant shore, around 57 BCE: Carson had been trying to translate Catullus’ elegy for him (it is the one with the famous conclusion, “ave atque vale“), which now seemed to offer the proleptic account of her own brother’s fate, her whole adult life. Into the drawer it went, along with bits of Herodotus, the proto-historian Hekataios of Miletus, etymological lore (the meanings of “history,” “elegy,” and “autopsy” among others), original collages and mini-paintings, poems and lines for poems. Then Carson took a notebook and made a long book- collage of everything she’d collected. Nox is the facsimile of that strange homemade object.

It is a most unusual book, printed on one side of a long single sheet of paper folded like an accordion. “Accordion-fold” books are their own minor genre, and are often homemade: folding a sheet of paper, first this way, then that, is among the simplest ways to make a book, requiring no binding. This chain-link form is especially suited to panoramas, alphabets, bestiaries, souvenir books, and almanacs. The format allows for the simultaneous representation of episode and arc, individual and ensemble: stretched out along the length of a table, you can see all at once the succession of English monarchs, or the stages of the evolution of man, or one hundred full-color views of Paris. We use the word “unfold” to describe the passing of time; these books literally unfold over lengths unavailable to conventional books. The format makes it possible to tabulate the fits and starts of historical or personal time (including those hiccups in time a mourner feels especially keenly) against the steady, regular intervals of months and years.

One nifty feature of many accordion-fold books, Nox included, is this: taking the book out if its carton and holding it before you, you have a choice. If you flip through the pages right to left (the way you would a conventional book bound on the left side), you see the text and images: striking family photos, scraps of yellowed paper, torn and frayed looseleaf marked in blue pen, little collages and sketches. If, however, you flip in reverse (as though the book were bound on the right), you have a blank book. Nothing about Nox requires you to flip in the first way, the customary way, rather than the second: there is no text on the cover to initiate conventional reading practice. Read it in one direction and Nox is one of the most visually interesting books to be published in recent memory. Read it in the other and Nox is nothing, an erasure.

If you turn the book over, so that you are looking at the back cover, you have, furthermore, the impression of an entirely unused notebook: the gray cover and blank white pages (now situated the way a normal book’s pages would be) look as they must have before Carson personalized them. It is as though Carson were inviting you to create a private Nox of your own: to do so, simply begin by grieving. This is the mordant irony of Nox, as though to say: your turn now. (Carson can be as darkly comic a writer as Beckett.) Nox stirs up in others the drive it fulfilled in Carson, to fill in the blanks—though that long blank on its reverse also suggests the futility of ever even trying. The book is a grief baton, passed from one mourner to another: a memento mori disguised as a scrapbook.

One model for Nox is the classical commentary: those editions of classical texts where the accumulated scholarship, presented as footnotes, crowds out the actual text. I just looked at an edition of Antigone from my college Greek class: it is almost comical how the little squiggle of Sophocles on every page bobs atop the vast sea of commentary. Carson is an unusual poet in that she directs her mimesis, often, toward acts of explication, decoding, solving, and explaining; that’s normally thought to be the critic’s job, or the scholar’s. A Carson poem is sometimes a pantomime of scholarship (the reverse is also true: her more “scholarly” works—Eros the Bittersweet is the best known—feel like prose poems); Nox is very much a quasi-scholarly, quasi-forensic investigation of her brother’s death.

In Nox there are two main texts: Michael—his life and death—and Catullus’ elegy. Michael’s story is presented on the recto pages, in the form of personal memorabilia, helpful historical facts and ideas, quotations from him and others, and bits of Carson’s original poetry. A translate-it-yourself Latin–English lexicon is printed on many of the facing pages, keyed word by word to Catullus’ elegy. The recto pages present the searching, impressionistic commentary on the brother’s life: as the commentary accumulates, the man himself, the little he left behind, seems blurrier and blurrier. The left-hand pages empower any reader to assemble for himself, in counterpoint, Catullus’ elegy, though the enormous range of meanings under every entry makes the task seem impossible. The categories cross: little bits of right-side contemplation keep cropping up in the lexicon entries on the left (under aequora, “plain,” for example: “immensumne noctis aequor confecimus? have we made it across the vast plain of night?”), while elements of Catullus infect the memory bits of Michael on the right.

Carson is thought of as a difficult writer, but the risk she often runs is overexplicitness. I suspect her deep appeal has partly to do with the fact that, unlike most contemporary poets, she teaches us things. Her sense of what a poem can do, steeped in classical models, extends even to quite practical fields of instruction: the history of coinage, the etymology of the word “symbol,” the origin of the Greek alphabet. She never gives a Virgilian lesson in husbandry, but her marvelous book about divorce, The Beauty of the Husband, contemplates the agricultural metaphor dormant in that word. At times I have wanted Carson’s dots to be a little harder to connect, her insights less classroom-ready. But Nox answers every riddle with another riddle, committed as it is to a sense of identity and fate as permanently weird. It is her elegy kit, but it includes no directions for assembly; that would miscarry the flummoxed core of her feeling.

It is both a contemplation of the fact and a brilliant manifestation of it that we read strangers’ poems about death not to get answers but to join a cross-temporal chorus of questions. Those of us lucky enough to do our primary grieving later in life all come equipped, as it were, with the languages of strangers’ griefs: a huge overabundance of poems, stories, songs, works of art that constitute a collaborative instruction manual on how to be sad. Nox is the latest contribution to that enormous trove.

2.

There is too much self in my writing,” Carson once remarked:

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. So writing involves some dashing back and forth between that darkening landscape where facticity is strewn and a windowless room cleared of everything I do not know.

This vision of the poet as forager for facts—gathering them from the “darkening landscape” then returning to a “windowless room” to ponder them, protected from the distraction of even newer facts—is unique to Carson. It is like having to fetch water from a well: a process of going and getting the water, bringing it home, using it up, and setting out again. Most poets depend on access to information the way we depend on indoor plumbing. Carson is always running out of material; her poems, often quite long, are mental logs of a life spent draining down and then refilling, draining and refilling, the contents of her mind.

This is a classicist’s model of mind, with its alternating states of depletion and replenishment. Ancient Greek is a permanent drought always awaiting a potential cloudburst: Carson’s special taste for fragments (she translated Sappho, whose corpus includes only a single complete poem) derives from the quite intimate role scholars and translators play in reassembling, from strewn bits, the distant past. No scholar of Sappho, knowing how her work came to us on old papyri scraps and pottery shards, can isolate poetry from the material it was printed on—material that was then perhaps burned, soiled, soaked, smudged, or even used to wrap a mummy. And no translator of Sappho thinks of history as complete without the ministrations of the present.

The most recent addition to Sappho’s corpus, published in the Times Literary Supplement in 2005, in a translation by Martin West, is (poignantly, for a text so damaged by time) an account of poor Tithonus, the mortal Greek for whom the goddess Eos, who loved him, secured immortality but not eternal youth. Tithonus then aged eternally, ending up (in many versions of the story) a grasshopper: like the manuscript the poem was printed upon, like everything in Sappho, Tithonus beat time even as it beat him, badly.

Nox reflects upon all of these issues: the seesawing relationship of what takes place within consciousness of self and objective fact; the bucket-like nature of the mind, filling and emptying, filling and emptying; the mystery of distant lives, incomplete without our imaginative reconstructions; but especially the nature of linguistic fragments. Louise Glück once suggested that every poem aspires to the power of the fragment: indeed even a quick mental summoning of work across the arts since, say, Coleridge, confirms the unique prestige fragments have had in modern culture. The first names that come to mind give a sense of how ubiquitous the interest in fragments has been: Walter Pater, Gertrude Stein, Joseph Cornell, George Oppen…it is hard to know where to stop.

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Anne Carson/Rodrigo Corral, Inc.
Anne Carson’s brother, Michael, in a detail from the cover of Nox

Carson is heir to this tradition of fragments. But in Nox, since many of the bits are so personal, their scarcity cannot be chalked up to the ravages of millennia. “Fragmentation” and the whole notion of an extensive historical past retrievable only in scraps is therefore in this case a metaphor, not a fact: Anne and Michael could have met in Copenhagen or New York, as Anne and Sappho could not have done. Their histories are intertwined: Michael, who called his sister “pinhead” and whose laconic, wry way, coming across in bits of quoted conversation, echoes Carson’s own, emerges as a kind of photonegative of Anne. The enormous poignancy of this book comes from Carson’s decision to adopt, in reassembling a sense of her brother from the fragments he left behind, the impersonal techniques of the historian and the translator.

There is much traffic in Nox in abstractions: “history,” “elegy,” “translation,” and “custom,” among others. Carson’s method is to estrange these very common kinds of terms by bringing us back to their origins; often this method reveals the links among them obscured by later uses. One can imagine a really fatiguing graduate seminar where Nox, baited on every page with such words, would be interpreted entirely in their terms. At times Carson the pedagogue is perhaps too much on display. But this pantomime pedagogy (not to say we don’t actually learn from the pantomime; we do) is just one of several registers in the book, and the point is precisely the shuttling among them, testing each one for power.

We like our mourning raw, but literary elegy comes closer to ceremony and ritual than to cri de coeur. Its roots in ritual always drive it toward the forms and fashions of the past, but its roots in a unique personal loss make it restless inside of them. This is why Milton calls his friend Edward King by the conventional name “Lycidas,” and then, as though rebelling against that choice, spends so much of the poem trying to particularize him. Like “Lycidas,” Nox embeds its own failures and false starts. It opens in the past tense, with the canceling of an earlier elegy:

I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.

Starry lad” is a bit of salvage from that earlier, junked elegy: a hybrid of the more common “dreamy lad” and the phrase “starry-eyed,” suggesting our common use of the word “star” to mean celebrity (Carson loves old movies) and gesturing very lightly toward the classical tradition of immortalizing the heroic dead by turning them into constellations.

And there are other embedded elegies: Catullus’, inadequate because untranslatable; Michael’s own elegy for a mysterious girl he loved and who died, the subject of his one letter home; and, for me most affectingly, these remarks read by Michael’s widow at his funeral, which Carson presents in facsimile (it is impossible to reproduce the look of the print on crumpled paper, but I have come as close as I can to a faithful copy):

I do not want to say that much about Michael
You all know him in different ways.
He and I led a turbulent life and had
noisy arguments.
Nevertheless we never doubted our
mutual love and respect.

And now some food for thought.
Yesterday you cannot change.
Today you might alter.
Tomorrow does not give any promise

Dr. Johnson would have liked this artless, but oddly affecting, little poem, just as he would have hated Nox: his critique of “Lycidas” (“where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief”) still hovers over any elegy that wears its artfulness on its sleeve.

3.

Near the beginning of Nox, Carson quotes the proto-historian Hekataios of Miletos, who described the semimillenial flight of the phoenix from Arabia to Heliopolis:

He makes out of myrrh an egg as big as he can carry. Then he tests it to see if he can carry it. After that he hollows out the egg and lays his father inside and plugs up the hollow. With father inside the egg weighs the same as before. Having plugged it up he carries the egg to Egypt to the temple of the sun.

Not everything inside of Nox works for me: its overfamiliar account of translation as séance, the mystical traffic between disparate selves (it is time for people to start talking about translation as a perfectly straightforward and practical undertaking); its spelling out and sometimes spoon-feeding of ideas; the constant ransacking of the classics for support of even the most familiar and unobjectionable sentiments (“We want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense”). But Carson has made an extraordinary object, like the phoenix’s egg, and has supplied us with the sublime logic to understand everything inside of it as provisional, sketched, and partial: it is an edifice built on botched attempts.

It is very strange, holding the mass-produced facsimile of a homemade object, a book that has already become (by poetry standards) a huge hit, even a best seller. To suppose that anything mass-made and shrink-wrapped might convey the feeling of a three-dimensional homemade object ignores just about every fact of modern commerce. The culture of the craft project, extending outward from kindergartens and church basements, would seem to have infected a great, challenging, postmodern poet. The Internet is rife with “creative memory consultants” who offer to help people fashion their memories into artifacts; “scrapbooking,” fed by the nostalgia for predigital forms of memorabilia, is now a flourishing pastime with a whole arsenal of supplies and suppliers.

I suppose it should be granted that a book like Nox returns us to the magic of books as physical objects. But I see it, rather, as marking the precise crossroads where we now find ourselves in relation to print books. It is indeed hard to imagine a Kindle or iBooks edition of Nox; and yet the logic of Nox actually tends away from physical books and toward technological reinvention in forms that might well leave physicality behind entirely. By the time we own Nox, it has already passed out of its original physical form and been encoded digitally in ways that allow for it to be printed and sold. One ingenious fact of this book is its ability to saturate itself with thinking about itself—and by that word “itself” I mean not only the original object Carson made, but the mass-made object New Directions published, and any later iteration, virtual or actual, it may finally take.

This ingenuity about itself, this consciousness of itself in multiple (even as-yet-unrealized) forms and embodiments, is not merely an intellectual gimmick. Nox is not a book about books. It is a book about elegy, about the dream poets have of making a permanent and timeless material substitute for the lost beloved, even as their medium, language, marks time and exists at best in wary relation to matter. Thus its inclusion of Catullus 101, a poem that runs like an electric current through all its subsequent printings and translations, never settling for long in any one form. Nox, a new conduit for Catullus’ current, seems likewise designed to outpace any temporary embodiment. When we hold it in our hands, it has already outrun us: the process that put it into our hands has brought it to other, newer hands elsewhere.

No matter how far-flung our speculations about Nox, they always return, boomerang-style, to Michael Carson. The foundational rupture in reciprocity—a brother going away for good, for no good reason, leaving no trace—is encoded in the act of buying and owning this book, a gift (one that cost money, to be sure) from a stranger we nevertheless come to feel we know intimately, left partially blank for us to fill out, as though by a stroke of courtesy, but with no return address. The Economy of the Unlost—Carson’s fascinating study of (among many other things) Simonides of Keos, legendarily the first Greek poet to compose for money—gives us this discussion of objects in a gift economy:

Within a gift economy…objects in exchange form a kind of connective tissue between giver and receiver. The reciprocal character of the connection is implied in its reversible terminology: in Greek the word xenos can mean either guest or host, xenia either gifts given or gifts received…. Such an object carries the history of the giver into the life of the receiver and continues it there.

The fact that we have to pay for Nox is just another manifestation of that original rift between brother and sister—that reciprocity broken, the only fitting elegy has to acknowledge the fact of broken reciprocity. Rarely has forking over thirty dollars felt like such a solemn act of memorial.

An object [is] the sum of its complications,” Wallace Stevens wrote. He was describing a pineapple, but holding this wildly paradoxical object in your hands, you feel that complications have almost never added up to so much.

Letters

It Could Be Done December 23, 2010

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