Review: Nox, Anne Carson

Yes, I bought it. I bought it, and it was amazing. Y’all talked me into it. I was stacking the deck, really, by asking for advice from a bunch of people who I know can’t stick to their own book-buying bans, let alone propose that others do so. It’s like when I call up Social Sister to ask her if I should buy a pair of cute shoes.

To recapitulate, Nox is a version of the journal Anne Carson made after her brother died. They had been estranged for years, and she heard of his death several weeks after it had happened, because it took that long for his widow to find Anne Carson’s phone number. The organizing principle of the book is a poem by Catullus in which he travels to his brother’s grave, reaching it only long after his brother has died. It’s a beautiful poem, difficult to translate because its rhythms are so crucial to it, though Anne Carson does give it a try, late in the book.

In If Not, Winter, her translation of Sappho, Anne Carson proved that she is a fan of the fragment. Nox is equally a creation of fragments. We see scraps of a letter from Carson’s brother, a few sentences that she remembers him saying in their rare conversations, a photograph or two of Carson and her brother as children, short excerpts from Herodotus or from a book on haiku. As in If Not, Winter, and to similar evocative effect, Carson leaves the reader to wonder (as she wonders herself) what might fill in those gaps.

Each verso in Nox includes a single word from the Catullus poem, formatted as a dictionary entry. Midwayish through the book Carson plays with the double meaning of “entry” as an item in a dictionary and “entry” as a way in to something (a way in to her brother). What seems at first a straightforward definition of mutam becomes something slightly else in Carson’s hands. She gives the examples “mutum dico, I do not say a word; tempus magis mutum a litteris, there was a better reason for not writing”, and on the opposite page:

What he needed from me I have no idea. When I caught up to him in high school (he was older by four years) he liked me to do his homework but that wasn’t it. My moral advice he brushed aside, you’re different. He called me professor or pinhead, epithets implying intellectual respect but we never had a conversation about ideas in our life. And when he telephoned me — out of the blue — about half a year after our mother died he had nothing to say.

I took a (very dull) philosophy of art class in college, and I remember one of the things we talked about as a possible element in defining art was that a piece of art was something that had been purposefully assembled to convey an emotion. I’m not saying that has to be the definition, but it’s a definition that Carson’s book fits. Nox feels assembled rather than written, almost more like an artifact than a book. I like liminal (entry again!) art objects, that hover on the border between art and the everyday (Cf. this, just because I really liked it when I saw it and now I want to share it.). Nox is something like a book, and something like a private journal, and something like a mixed-media painting.

As I was reading Nox (very slowly, over several consecutive nights, to make it last longer), I felt intensely grateful to my awesome Latin teacher, for giving me so many of Catullus’s poems in Latin, and making Catullus a poet who matters to me. My Latin teacher was devoted to her subject in a way that few of my teachers have been, and I can still hear her voice in my head every time I approach a Latin text. Nox resonated with me immediately because Catullus has been living in my brain for years, pledging eternal-but-qualified love to Lesbia and trudging drearily across many lands and over many oceans to say his hail and farewell to his long-dead brother.

(This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy Nox without having read Catullus before, because I am confident that you can. It’s beautiful and elegiac, and Anne Carson translates the poem anyway, eventually.)

Speaking of Latin things, who here knew that Cinderella actually named Gus-Gus Octavius? Get it? Get it? ROMAN EMPIRE JOKE ALERT. (Octavius = Caesar Augustus) If someone from work hadn’t mentioned this to me, I would never have known, because I think Cinderella is saccharine and have no intention of ever rewatching it. But this Octavius business makes me feel very slightly a teeny bit fond of it.

I WANT THIS. I WANT IT.

I went into Bongs & Noodles today, (the one in Union Square — yes, I know, why would you go to B&N if you are at Union Square when the Strand is right there? and the answer is, I had to buy some non-book items for upcoming birthdays), and as I was heading single-mindedly for the non-book items section, I beheld a display table of books from small presses. So I swung sideways and espied a book that was not so much a book and more of a box. A box by Anne Carson, called Nox.

The reasons I thought I was going to be disappointed when I opened the box Nox:

1. Anne Carson and Anne Sexton are the same person.*
*Fun fact: No, they aren’t. Anne Carson translated Sappho, and Anne Sexton hit her children and killed herself.

2. Anne Carson killed herself over thirty years ago**, therefore all her stuff has already been published, therefore this will just be fragments o’ crap they are trying to make interesting by putting them into a book and then putting the book in a fetching little box.
**No, she didn’t. That was Anne Sexton. Stop it, brain.

3. I love things that come in nice boxes. Not only do they have a prearranged storage unit that makes them seem tidy even when strewn around my room like all my other stuff, but also they feel like a present. The publisher knows this and is trying to seduce me.

4. Many things look pretty because someone came up with a good marketing scheme, but then when you dig a bit deeper, they turn out to be not nearly as awesome as the marketing scheme that made you want to dig a bit deeper.

5. I read how Zachary Mason (whoa, y’all, I never reviewed The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Stand by.), whom I will of course be marrying someday, sent The Lost Books of the Odyssey to reviewers inside of a little wooden Trojan horse. No box containing a book will ever win more than that.

But then I opened the box, and the book wasn’t a book, but one long, foldy paper that folded out accordion-style. And the first page after the copyright and acknowledgments contained a smudgy copy of Catullus 101, the poem he wrote after going to see his brother’s grave. I may have shrieked out loud. It was like running into an old friend unexpectedly. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you, but I love Catullus. I love him. (I wrote I love him three more times, but deleted them because I know you get the picture with me just saying it twice.) He has such a lovely, human variety of poems — some of them are whimsical, some are pining, some are vindictive, some are really filthy, and some — like 101 — are heartbreaking. I am utterly fond of that poem and realized last year that I remembered a surprisingly high percentage of it from memorizing it in a grade school Latin class. Catullus travels to his brother’s grave, getting there of course long after his brother has died. He says he’s come ut…mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem, to speak in vain to his brother’s silent ashes.

Anne Carson the poet and classicist created a journal of scraps and reflections following her brother’s death, and Nox, this book in a box, is the closest approximation to that journal that she could manage. Each fold-out verso contains a single word from the Catullus poem, with a translation of that word and some examples of its use. The rectos have a variety of things on them, memories and photographs and thoughts about history and night-time and memory.

There is nothing not great about this. Except, obviously, that Anne Carson’s brother died. The book is in a box. It’s Catullus. It’s Anne Carson-not-Sexton, whose haunting, evocative scraps of translated Sappho in If Not, Winter won my heart, as if my heart needed winning. (Catullus adored Sappho’s poetry, by the way. Catullus loved Sappho so much that when he had to use a fake name for his married girlfriend so her husband wouldn’t catch on, he nicknamed her “Lesbia” after Sappho’s island home of Lesbos.) The papers fold out.

Okay, this is not a review. I didn’t read the book yet although I really really want to. I didn’t buy it because I am about to get a bunch of new books from another source, and since I am poor, and new books are not a regular feature in my life, I’d rather space out the new book acquisitions. My plan was to wait until some week when I was having a really, really bad day, and then buy the book for myself as a lovely treat. Only it occurred to me that Nox is published by New Directions Publishing Company, and it is a small press, and what if I waited and then when I went to buy Nox I couldn’t find it? That would make a bad day worse, not better. Thoughts?

P.S. Frances of Nonsuch Book loved it, and has pictures. Ditto Emily of Evening All Afternoon.