The Unfolding Elegy


by Anne Carson
New Directions, 194 pp., $29.95
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…

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