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Poetry book review: Michael Dirda reviews 'Nox,' by Anne Carson

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 29, 2010; C03

NOX

By Anne Carson

New Directions. $29.95

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that there are no page numbers indicated above for "Nox," an elegy for her brother by the highly esteemed poet and classicist Anne Carson. This is because Carson's moving yet strikingly unconventional work arrives as a single accordioned sheet, folded into a handsome clamshell box -- a kind of reliquary, perhaps.

The assembled "text" of "Nox" itself is a mosaic of memories of Michael -- both the "starry lad he was" and the "windswept spirit" he became -- illustrated with family photographs, bits of artwork and various typographical scraps and orts. To this personalia, Carson juxtaposes her reflections on the nature of historical truth, according to Herodotus. "We want," she says, "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. It forms a lock against oblivion. Does it?"

"Nox" opens by reproducing the Roman poet Catullus's elegy for his brother, the one that ends "frater, ave atque vale"--"brother, hail and farewell." Carson then turns its ancient music into a kind of ground bass for her own memories of Michael: She takes each word of the poem and reproduces in facsimile, on her left-hand pages, the relevant definitions, with examples of usage, from a standard Latin-English dictionary. Given the original Catullan text and Carson's appropriation of it, these lexical entries soon gain a somber power all their own. Here's part of the entry for "miseras":

"Miseras . . . (of a person) that is to be pitied, sad, poor, wretched, unfortunate (applied to the actions of persons in a pitiable state) attended by misery, grievous, distressing; miserrima Dido: most sad Dido . . . nocte fratris quam ipso fratre miserior: made sadder by the brother's night than by the brother himself . . . solacium miserum: worthless consolation."

Carson is famously reticent about her private life, but "Nox" allows us to glimpse a bit of it. She grew up in Canada, with her mother and an older brother, Michael. There is no mention of a father. Photographs here suggest a modest, perhaps even working-class background; the household apparently moves several times, and at one point there's talk of a farm. In childhood, we learn, Michael was always getting into scrapes, hanging around with older kids and generally being a source of heartache for his mother. "What now oh what now?" is one of her plaints, when the boy is discovered with blood on his face. His four-years-younger sister would sometimes do his high school homework. He called her "professor" and "pinhead."

After Michael grows up, he starts to deal drugs and, in trouble with the law, flees Canada in 1978. Carson recalls her mother "standing at the kitchen sink scraping carrots. For years after he left, she would glance up every time a car came spinning along the road." Under an assumed name, Michael wanders in Europe and India for a while, sends an occasional laconic postcard to his mother and slips into poverty, drink and homelessness. From his one letter -- it is reproduced in fragments over several panels -- we learn that a woman he loved named Anna, "a blonde delighted girl," died during a period when he was locked up in a foreign jail.

Eventually, Michael marries a Dane, finds some kind of work in Copenhagen, acquires a dog. For the last seven years of his life, he never writes a word to his mother, despite a plea for an address "where I could mail a box for Christmas." After his mother's death, Michael does telephone Carson but has essentially nothing to say. When she asks him whether he is happy, he answers, "No. Oh no."

Michael's own death in 2000 is described only as having occurred "unexpectedly," and Carson doesn't even learn of it until two weeks after the fact. She visits the widow in Denmark, who shows her the church where Michael's memorial service took place:

"When my brother died his dog got angry, stayed angry, barking, growling, lashing, glaring, by day and night. He went to the door, he went to the window, he would not lie down. My brother's widow, it is said, took the dog to the church on the day of the funeral. Buster goes right up to the front of Sankt Johannes and raises himself on his paws on the edge of the coffin and as soon as he smells the fact, his anger stops."

At Michael's request, his ashes were cast into the sea near Helsingor Castle -- I presume this is the Elsinore of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Carson adds: "There is no stone as I say he had changed his name."

One must always be cautious in ascribing literal truthfulness to poets, even when they seem most autobiographical. Is the account of a broken marriage in Carson's dazzling "The Beauty of the Husband" based on personal experience? Without the author's confirmation, there's no way to know. Carson's first published work, "Eros the Bittersweet," proffers a brilliant reading of Sappho's poetry, later complemented by a superb translation of Sappho's surviving fragments titled "If Not, Winter." Should one then surmise that Carson is a lesbian? Of course not. Such guesswork is not only intrusive but also irrelevant.

But an elegy seems slightly different. Here a real man is being mourned by his real sister. "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." If "Nox" were shown to be entirely made up, we'd feel cheated: It matters that Milton's "Lycidas" commemorates the drowned Edward King, that Tennyson's "In Memoriam" honors a real Arthur Hallam. These are great works of art, but they are also testimonies, memorials, even what Carson calls her recent translations of Euripides, "Grief Lessons."

Still, Michael remains elusive, a mystery. "Always comforting to assume there is a secret behind what torments you," states one of the scraps seemingly pasted onto a page. Her brother's fugitiveness -- in the Latin sense more than the legal -- haunts Carson:

"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. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But 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. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end."

As Carson goes on to say, "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." And so "Nox" ends where it begins, as Michael disappears one last time: Ave atque vale.

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