You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Saturday, February 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: NOX by Anne Carson

NoxNox by Anne Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poet and classicist Anne Carson has created a beautiful thing here. And this is a remarkable achievement. I am going to sound snobby, but most often when poets produce an art piece, they more often than not get the art part wrong. So often, no matter the quality of the verse, the art that accompanies it looks either dated or intrusive, the work of an artist friend of middling talent who produces work that on its on is unlikely to ever receive serious attention. Even very good artists seem to flounder when brought into this kind of project. I know there are countless exceptions to this, but we've all seen this stuff.

Nox reproduces in accordion folds a commemorative book that Carson made after the death of her brother, Michael. It comes handsomely boxed, and the reproductions of the original pages capture the subtlest line of pasted white on white paper, the wrinkling that has comes from either water or too much Elmer's glue, the stains and marks that come from incised letters on the preceding page. There are both typed and handwritten texts, collage elements, and family photographs that appear to be from the 1950's.

The first page has a typed copy of a Latin poem, titled or possibly labeled  "CI." Other pages contain what promise to be a painstaking, dictionary definition of each word in the poem. These are possibly from an extant Latin dictionary, but the more one reads, the language is at times too rich, the definitions to apposite to Carson's project not to expect she has worked on them herself. Other pages reflect on the beginnings of history with Herodotus, and photographs and stories introduce the theme of Michael's disappearance to avoid prosecution for dealing drugs. That was in 1978. Although he is heard from only a handful of times, the family knows he travels through Europe and India. He dies in Copenhagen in 2000, years after both his parents have died. Carson goes to meet his widow.

The Latin poem is Catullus 101, and elegy on the death of his brother. Carson says that she has had trouble translating the poem, but she does offer a translation a little more than halfway through the book.

I have recently heard the word "closure" a great deal, as though that is always what all of us are seeking. This is not a work of closure, it's a work of context, of enriching that context so that the reader of this intensely private material feels not so much comfortable in it, but at least free to move around.

Towards the end there are two more quotes from Herodotus.

So much for what is said by the Egyptians: Let anyone who finds such things credible make use of them.    (2.123.1)

I have to say what is said. I don't have to believe it myself.  (7.152.3)

View all my reviews

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
    powerful and beautiful