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.