Nox, by Anne Carson. New Directions, 192 pp., $29.95.
0: Perhaps the process of translation is one of the only ways to “represent” a loss or trauma. What is translation if not a reaching in the dark for a word or phrase or thought that will, because of language’s nature, always fail to convey the original power of the violence that wounded us and the contours of the scars that remain. As Anne Carson states in her elegiac new work, Nox:
I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. . . . 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.
As such we always remain in the dark, confronted only by the nothingness of it all.
Carson’s latest work begins with an invocation of sorts, a call to a muse. Her Beatrice (and Virgil) is Catullus, and the Roman’s poem 101 in particular. (One of the structural motifs that grounds Nox is Carson’s word-by-word lexical breakdown of Catullus’s original. Carson walks us through the process of translation itself in these lexical entries and, by extension, gives us poetry that reminds one of Gertrude Stein: “Ad: preposition with accusative case . . . to, up to, into; to the house of, to X’s, to the temple of; onto, to; into contact with, against . . .”) It is this poem of Catullus’s that Carson struggled to translate even before her brother’s death, and it is this poem that acts as the absent center (and provisional beginning, since it is the first text we see in the book albeit in Latin) for the entirety of Nox itself:
I want to explain about the Catullus poem. . . . Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is known of the brother except his death. . . . I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101.
But Carson did translate the poem—it appears in Nox—even if her translation falls short of her own expectations.
What follows below are Carson’s translated lines of the Catullus, with commentary by me that reflects on the themes and issues that arise from those very lines, and how they relate to my own reading experience of the text. The fragmentary and epigrammatic nature of the review is meant to mirror Carson’s own compositional technique and Nox‘s ten “sections,” as each section is broken down into a number of smaller, poetic fragments. I take this review, in other words, to be a translation of sorts as well, a bridging of the gap between text and reading experience.
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
1: As Peter Green notes in his edition of his own translation of the same poem, “[this] journey is universalized: lines 1-2 recall the opening of the Odyssey.” He goes on to write, “Catullus is very vague. We end up with no idea of the tomb itself (tumulus or headstone?) . . . and there is no invocation of the gods or the dead man’s guardian spirits.” Nox replicates the poet’s own personal odyssey of discovery after the unexpected death of her brother, Michael. When Carson’s brother died in 2000, she had, for a rather long period of time, had only a few opportunities to talk to him: “Because our conversations were few (he phoned me maybe 5 times in 22 years) I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them.” What may it mean to keep lines in mind as if they needed to be translated? Perhaps only to arrive to an understanding, an answer, an account of what in fact happened: “We want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say This is what he did and Here’s why.”
The personal odyssey that Carson enacts is situated through a variety of discourses, translation and history being the most prevalent. It is no coincidence that the first elegiac fragment in Nox mentions history:
I wanted to fill my elegy with lights 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.
Herodotus arrives soon after, and Carson, ever at the ready with her wealth of ancient Greek knowledge, reminds us that “the word ‘history’ comes from an ancient Greek verb . . . meaning ‘to ask.’” And so, that is what she begins to do: she asks questions of the darkness, of death, of trauma, and of language. Where does she arrive? To the side of her brother’s grave. (We arrive where we begin, for there is no arrival that is not contaminated by the illusion of the origin: Samuel Beckett: We are born astride a grave.)
1.1: Translation as the process of crossing the waters/the gaps/the fissures/the elemental forces that divide us all.
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
2: How can one ever arrive if one does not have a language to proclaim such an arrival? The arrival, therefore, never occurs. But neither does the departure.
2.1: Let us briefly speak of burials and of tombs. The presentation of the text is something to behold, a facsimile of an actual scrapbook Carson constructed after her brother’s death. It unfurls like a scroll and is filled with reproductions of pictures, personal letters, stamps, drawings, postcards: the ephemera of the disaster. One lifts the text out of a box, the box a metaphor, a “replica” of the coffin Michael rested in, an attempt, perhaps, to recreate the funeral Carson herself missed: “My brother’s widow takes me to the church called Sankt Johannes where the funeral was held two weeks ago. It is white and clean as an eggshell inside.” The text itself, then, as body, as synecdoche for what has been lost.
2.2: Michael’s image is emblazoned on the box, looking very much like a Greek Kouros. The connection must have been an obvious one for Carson to make. The Kouros: a symbol of vitality, almost always male, and representing the most glorious and beautiful aspects of one’s youthful existence. It is a symbol of what must always be lost.
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
3: The Latin original is donarem: Carson informs us that this means a variety of things:
to present, endow, reward (with); to provide; to honour; to present, grant, give (to); to confer, to grant power (to) . . . to yield as a product, give as a present, to gift . . .
(Slowly but surely over the course of Nox, Carson provides us with an English “translation” and definition of every word in the original Latin of Catullus’s poem, thereby situating her readers in the role of translator, as we are also situated in the role of historian because we are left to simply ask: What happened? But we are given something in place of all our pointless questioning.)
3.1: But what can one possibly gift to a lost loved one? Language? Is Nox itself meant to be that gift? If we agree that the gift is impossible, since, by its very definition, every gift asks for recompense, perhaps the only true gift is that which is given to the dead, for we know that nothing will ever return. There will be no recompense, nothing arriving in return, silence will reign: “There is no possibility I can think my way into his muteness.”
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
4: “His voice was like his voice with something else crusted on it, black, dense—it lighted up for a moment . . . then went dark again. All the years and time that had passed over him came streaming into me, all that history. What is a voice?” A distinctly postmodern question to ask of lyric poetry. Ironically, Nox is Carson’s most autobiographical work but also her most self-effacing as well. (She is a poet who guards her personal life. Does the Beauty of the Husband, for example, speak of her own busted marriage? We, her readers and contemporary historians, are left to ask questions.) We don’t find out, for example, how Michael’s life ended (perhaps Carson herself never found out, despite the fact that she did visit Copenhagen and talked to his widow.) We are never told why he had to flee from the law (although it most likely has something to do with his dealing of drugs). Regardless, we do not need to find out. Carson gives over her own story to a variety of different discourses, sublimating the concerns of the self into much larger literary forms and approaches. The “singular voice” of loss in Nox gives itself over to translation, history, the elegy, the lyric fragment, etc. What is lost in Nox are the most personal elements of that which we might call the speaking subject of the lyric. The death of the brother, in a sense, equals the death of the author, for Carson constantly makes us aware of the limits of her project, and the limits of her language.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
5: There is one poetic fragment that repeats itself four times in section two of Nox. It is quoted below almost in its entirety:
My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail. He wandered in Europe and India, seeking something, and sent us postcards or a Christmas gift, no return address. He was traveling on a false passport and living under other people’s names. This isn’t hard to arrange . . . The postcards were laconic. He wrote only one letter, to my mother, that winter the girl died.
Carson supplements this fragment with what appear to be small snippets of the actual letter that was sent, copied and affixed on the pages around her own writing (the dialectical exchange between the two texts multiplies the losses: we are presented with Carson grieving for her brother, Michael grieving for the dead girl—her name is Anna, we later learn—and, of course, their mother who grieves for her lost son.) Fortune tears us from one another, and leaves us only with questions. The insistence on representing the letter and the insistence on repeating this fragment attests to a need to arrive to a point of definition, of saying something tangible, concrete in regard to that which drove Carson’s brother away from her: “My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail.” And, as Fortune would have it, Michael does end up in a jail eventually, and tragedy strikes. The following is most likely Michael himself, untouched by Carson: “A week later they were waiting for three days they locked me up (no charge) and played games all I wanted was to phone Anna they told me she was dead.”
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
6: Is there any loss that is not a wrong? Is there anyone that is taken from us that we can honestly and sincerely say, They were rightly taken from me? I deserved to lose that person?
now still anyway this – what a distant mood of parents
7: The other lost loved one in Nox is Carson’s mother who plays the role of suffering Hecuba, she who cried for all her children killed during the Trojan War. This from a letter that appears to have been reconstructed—we never see the original, it seems— by Carson: “My dear Michael: For five years four months and seven days I’ve prayed for you . . .” And then, soon after, what appears to be a transcript of part of a conversation that Carson had with her brother, perhaps only months after their mother has died: “Mother is dead. Yes I guess she is. She had a lot of pain because of you. Yes I guess she did.”
7.1: Parents are one’s personal history in the flesh. It would also be interesting to consider Nox as a tale of orphanhood, of what it really means to lose all the tangible, human connections that bind us to that most personal of dynamics, the family unit. Family denies us the possibility of exclusion: one will always belong even if one belongs only in a sense of not belonging. But what happens when you alone are that center, you alone are the only one left to lay claim to that aspect of your identity? Can it even be said to exist anymore?
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
8: The registry of sad gifts: “My mother on her death bed (three years ago now) stops, raises her finger. There’s a box at home with all your letters in it do you want it? she asks (hard blue stare)— astonished I fumble, didn’t know she kept them—” “My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail. He wandered in Europe and India, seeking something, and sent us postcards or a Christmas gift, no return address.” “His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, so she did this.” And, finally, the sad gift of a translation, the hidden message of which is, Read this, you can never know the original, and you do not need to know the original. Yes, this is faulty, not true, impure, but it is the best one can do, it is the best I can ever do.
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
9: “(I remember) him huddling in the stairwell where we kept out coats and boots winter Sunday blood on his face about nice and my mother around him with all her hands crying What now of what now?”
9.1: And, waters of another sort: “My brother’s widow says she rented a boat and went up the coast to put his ashes in the sea, at the sunset, near the castle of Helsinor. She threw sunflowers after. You know what they do? (she asks me) they turn around on the water.” It only makes sense that Carson would evoke Hamlet, another drama of familial violence, betrayal, loss and misunderstanding, even if Carson is not arguing that she is Prince Hamlet. (Was Michael?) Nox as the night of “Good night, sweet prince.”
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.
10: The farewell as an opening and as the anticipation of the return. As mentioned above, one of Nox‘s first pages is Catullus’s poem 101 in the original Latin. Nox‘s last entry is a blurred, defaced, unreadable version of Carson’s translation, the translation the poet felt she could never truly arrive to. The translation, therefore, stands somewhere between readability and unreadability, somewhere between the farewell and the arrival that is sure to follow. But perhaps it is not even that, perhaps it is something far more radical: that what Carson finally accedes to is the very darkness of it all. This may be the final goodbye, the letting go of that which cannot be let go, the impossible return to the nothingness of it all. And this quote we are given from Virginia Woolf’s Flush: “‘To be nothing— is that not, after all, the most satisfactory fact in the whole world?”
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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