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Anne Carson
New Directions, 2010
192 pp., 55.00

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Brett Foster

Epitaph in a Box

Anne Carson's elegy for her brother.

Recently I attended a Renaissance literature conference in St Louis. It was my first time giving a paper at this particular conference, but I could sense immediately an esprit that existed between members long loyal to the organization. I hasten to add that the atmosphere was welcoming to newcomers, and warmly so. At the conference-ending luncheon, the current president worked through his agenda as we attendees ate our salads, awaited our grilled chicken and eggplant. After some words of thanks to organizers and local hosts, and a few general announcements, he turned to more solemn business: two memorials for past presidents who had died in the past year. For the first, he read a short eulogy compiled from others' memories. The second person was remembered by a former graduate student, now a professor himself. Clearly emotional, yet maintaining composure, he made it clear how much his mentor had meant to him, and how valued she had been by many others in the room. Yet she was clearly a character, and he smartly added a couple of moments of levity or mischief. (When he had told her about his recent purchase of an iPod shuffle, she said simply, "Jackass.")

We all thought he had concluded, but he had prepared a PowerPoint presentation to share her life, comprising many photos he had found in her home. (This detail made it clear to me how close they were, and how he had almost surely been an important presence in her last days, and likely a help to surviving family in the days following.) The slide show, which lasted the length of two sweetly jangling guitar songs, began with a baby photo and soon turned to a succession of grainy snapshots: little girl with family in vacation settings; adolescent with spirited pose in a long wool dress; shots from the early '60s of a new mother with newborn child; '70s cocktail parties (with the distinctly faded colors of photos from that period); bright dress and perky hair during the '80s, leading to several images of an older, more distinguished, more somber academic in the 1990s and thereafter. The final photo featured the eulogist himself on graduation day, younger in his academic gown, proudly standing beside his beloved mentor.

These two memorials were moving, surprising, and a little awkward. I was used to seeing plain-type "in memoriam" columns in various newsletters or literary journals, but this felt like something entirely different; it was a real-time, flesh-and-blood effort by people, in the context of their organization's formal gathering, to honor the life and passing of colleagues. Nothing could be more fitting or touching, but here was the ambivalence: the deceased were in fact not known in intimate, daily ways. These tributes were not from family, close friends, or parishioners, but within the naturally more limited context of professional affiliation. Thus these memorials required an effort by the speakers, and on all of our parts as sympathetic, accepting listeners, to span a distance for the sake of elegy, and I was left with a mix of admiration, compassion, sadness, and discomfort—the last provoked by a squeamish sense that, as a newcomer to this gathering, I really had no business hearing and seeing these moving words and revealing images.

So too a reader might feel having made his way through Anne Carson's Nox. Part scholarly word-study, part memoir, part prose-poetic sequence, Nox is also a curious art object: an inventively designed facsimile of the author's notebook, which she calls an epitaph for her lost brother, who was four years older than she. It appears in a box, which may resemble at different times a shoebox of photos and mementos, a sepulcher recalling Roman burials, and a futile urn awaiting ashes that can never be recovered.

This sort of memorial may sound very different from the ones I recently witnessed—after all, Carson is remembering her own brother—yet the challenge of overcoming distance, of all that is unknown about the subject's true, lived life, is at the heart of Nox. How do you write in elegiac ways, or simply grieve, for someone with whom you long ago lost touch, and whom you may have been happy to see go? "I was glad he moved on," the author admits at the end of one description of her brother's obtrusive visit in 1978, the last time she ever saw him.

Odd as a kid, always out-of-step in interactions, estranged from his family eventually, and prone to silence for years at a time, Carson's brother Michael was not just distant from her. He had vanished from his family's life, and beforehand was always an enigma. "No one knew him," she writes, recalling how he used to run behind a group of boys too old to be his true friends. She ponders an early family photo, reprinted along with many others here, of these boys smiling from atop a tree house, with her brother at ground level, beside the trunk. The rope ladder was pulled up, she observes. He was isolated, alone even then.

These photos bestow upon Nox the ethos of the scrapbook, even as the tersely narrated bits of family history bring to mind a personal journal. (It was in fact the grainy photos in that PowerPoint presentation at the conference in St. Louis that made me think of Nox.) In this respect, Carson's strangely concocted book-box contributes to a popular trend of "grief studies," including Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Roland Barthes' Mourning Diary, Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story, and Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, among others.

The main object reproduced and explored in Nox is a letter, a single one, that Carson's brother Michael wrote to his mother. As Carson recounts in one brief, intense paragraph, their mother asked to see this letter on her deathbed. It was subsequently inherited by Carson. She wants it to say more than it is able to bear—and she wants us to know that she knows that. Its fragmentary revelations hint at the collective weight of all that remained mysterious and closed off in Michael. Thus different lines from the letter appear in both her brother's reprinted script and in typed lines meant to resemble short poems. Those latter versions of Michael's written words resemble other scraps of image and phrase that seem to be Carson's own poetry fragments. The entire letter itself is repeatedly reprinted at different states of being unfolded, creating a kind of stop-action effect in the reading experience as we ourselves unfold the accordion pages. The letter becomes more and more visible—but never enough, never more than the few bare sentences written there.

Carson explains that Michael left for good in 1978, and that he called only five times in twenty-two years. He died in 2000, and it took his widow, in Denmark, two weeks to find the sister's phone number among her deceased husband's belongings. "Who were you?" Carson asks in scrawled script on one early page, and later she confesses that because she has so few of her brother's words, she studies the sentences in his letter with an obsessive scrutiny, as if she were translating them.

The most touching part of the letter says simply "Love you. Love you. Michael." The signature is underlined. It is—is it right to say this?—the most mournable moment in the book, and the very limitations that Carson must struggle with as eulogist (above all, the enigma of Michael's nature) enable her to create a hauntingly powerful work of art, one that does not seek to hide the chasm between the siblings caused by the absence of shared experiences and personal feelings. Her goal, she says at one point, is "to load this space with muteness," and earlier, in one of the etymological excursions for which she is known, she explains how "mute" in its ancient impact was an onomatopoetic word to indicate opaqueness—the word shows the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding. She also connects it with mutmut—muttering—and both definitions cannily illuminate the procedure and ultimate effects of her own elegiac project. That image, of being allowed to see something hiding, nicely raises one concern readers may have: should we really be reading this? A few students have asked that question as we have considered together the various identities of this intriguing book. You can easily imagine the give-and-take of the conversation. Doesn't this feel too personal to read, or overlook, comfortably? Yes, but didn't Carson seek to have the notebook mass-produced? OK, but doesn't that make us question her motivations in publicizing her grief so broadly? Why is that? Why should we hold her wish to share this experience against her? And so on.

The elegy, of course, derives some of its traditional consolatory powers precisely from its ability to ritualize the inchoate aspects of grief, containing that overpowering emotion in lyrical, lasting form. In this respect, at least, Carson has before her an ancient model for her notebook project, and printing it is her age's best means of sharing it with others. That said, some of the visual aspects, all in the service of making this published version of her notebook feel intimate and singular, will give attentive readers pause, as they notice the "ghost script" or "shadow words" on the back of one accordion page, as if peeping through its opposite side, or even the backs of staples or the impression of letters having been pressed through a page by pen, or the crumpled appearance of some of the narrative passages, as if stuck into the notebook on a scrap carried around for some time, or of the creases of the pages being sewn. These details all are digitized tricks of the eye, a greater cluster of pixels, and to believe otherwise, however briefly—that is, to brush the finger slowly across what turns out to be completely smooth paper—is to feel palpably the book's design, and its designs, upon you.

A book like this puts you in touch with your own mortal existence, and that of your loved ones.

I have waited far too long to bring up the central model of elegy that Carson privileges throughout this book— Catullus' poem 101, his famous elegy to his own dead brother who died on distant shores. Catullus traveled from Verona to Asia Minor to visit what remained of his sibling, his gravesite, and likewise Carson describes her own trip to Denmark, where she had to settle for details from Michael's widow—an account of the scattering of his ashes on the sea, a translation of the memorial service, and so on. (Her summary of the service mentions dew and Christ and shooting stars and a merciful Psalm.)

The ending of Catullus' poem is one of the great occasions of elegiac expression—"Ave atque vale," or "Hail, and farewell"—compressing in three words the elegy's exalted effort to speak again to the dead, to reestablish a presence where there is a gaping absence, and, in the final word, while acknowledging that a goodbye must be said, to insist that it can be said on the mourner's terms, the farewell ritualized by the written form and the funeral rites that such elegiac verse often accompanied. Carson's own rendering of the poem appears near the end of Nox, although she says within that she has often tried to render Catullus' poem and finds it perfectly untranslatable. Nevertheless, her version offered here is striking, and students preferred some of her choices over various safer, cleaner versions placed side by side. Sometimes Carson's English line grabs our attention simply by following the Latin original with unusual closeness, as when she writes, "I arrive at these poor, brother, burials," which reflects exactly the position of Catullus' interjection. Elsewhere we heard more emotion conveyed in Carson's stretching of English expression—"oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me"—and in her bold choice in the final line: "and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell." How ringing that final repetition, to an ear conditioned to hear "Hail and farewell," or "hello and goodbye." The punning Carson no doubt has in mind "ave" as "fare well," but surely she is also making a defiant point at the expense of her model poem and its long tradition—that is, there can be no true greeting of the dead; to encounter them and to write about their memory is to enact a succession of goodbyes.

Another odd aspect of Carson's method, and the one that gives Nox its organizing principle, is the inclusion on the left sides of the accordion folds of detailed, strategically crafted entries for each word of Catullus' original poem. The entries at first seem common enough, as if filched wholesale from Lewis and Short's Latin Dictionary or the like, but upon closer look, they are full of curious illustrations, provocative translations or mistranslations, entries disturbingly suggesting that some words, when used often enough and in multiple contexts, will eventually come to mean their opposites. For instance, "accipe," a key imperative word in the poem, is said to mean "to take in one's grasp" but also "to receive," and in that latter context, not just to receive a gift, but "to receive (a blow)," "to be pierced." Likewise, "ad ultimam" means both "utterly" and "at the end of (a time)." At one point Carson puns on the sense of "entry" in the dictionary-entry sense by describing her experiencing her notebook as a "room I can never leave, but full of entries."

Invariably the accumulations of meanings for Catullus' Latin words drift down the page toward entries involving night, or "nox," and death. It is easy to skip over these later definitions, or even to disregard these pages entirely, but Carson's artfulness can be detected here, as phrases begin to grow and echo and haunt the book's soundscape: "corners of night," "dark as night," "Nothing is night's gift," "gifts owed to night," "bitter ash of men and nights," the Shakespearean "ill-starred," "carry or fetch away, transport; remove from life; whatever night grabs; drop," "night confiscates day," "old as night," "a man is not a night," "you go away in the middle of the night," "to pass on, leak out," "to escape, be forgotten," "just like him I was a negotiator with night." And so the connotations and implications build. Other inclusions surprise more: "nocte fratis" equates with "sick at heart," while "depressed, gloomy; night-colored thing" captures well the multiple meanings and emotional registers that the word "nox" comes to assume, just as different senses are already present in our word "gloomy."

My students have asked whether this book is a poem. It is a fair question. Nox is certainly not a book of poetry in the expected sense, but then again, it is not even a book in that sense. We have to approach the question of genre more flexibly, with more ingenuity. One complicated answer may be that yes, Nox is a book of poetry because it is by an author best known for her poetry, and so in classifying a hybrid text like this one we defer to that category. Moreover, marketers and reviewers have treated it as such. Mystified responses, however admiring ones, to a book's genre or deeper identity will hardly be a new experience for Carson. Her creative work is nearly always informed by her expertise as a classicist, as in her Autobiography of Red (subtitled a "novel in verse"), a surprisingly touching narrative about the mythological monster Geryon. The Beauty of the Husband explores divorce and also shows the scholar's hand by incorporating the poetry of John Keats throughout. Its more colorful subtitle is "A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos." Conversely, her literary identity has colored her classicist scholarship: her influential Eros the Bittersweet is a classical monologue that often reads like a prose poem, and she unsurprisingly translates as well. See, for example, Sappho's lyrics in her versions, which emphasize the fragmentariness of the original lines we possess, and, more recently, her striking retelling of Aesychlus' Oresteia.

Yet that response feels a little cagey. More directly, to read and reread Nox has been to feel compelled by and responsive to poetry's powers, its demands. The experience has caused me to slow down, to ponder the endless choices made here, to appreciate the displays of intellect, story, revealing detail, tradition, and, above all, form. This epitaph-in-a-box-presented-as-a-poem has made me highly attentive to a writer coming to grips with loss—both Carson's own efforts to come to grips with the difficult aspects of her lost brother, and the difficulty therefore in facing elegy's artistic imperatives. Nox is a poem insofar as it has made me newly aware of my own experience as a reader of charged language in meaningful forms. Finally, this book has held out for me some promise of correspondence, not unlike Michael's letter so emphasized here, but in a greater sense, too. A book like this puts you in touch with your own mortal existence, and that of your loved ones.

In one of her Martin Classical Lectures delivered at Oberlin College and collected in Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos and Paul Celan), Carson describes an epitaph as a marker on a grave, but also as a body that is made into a sign: "Epitaphs create a space of exchange between present and past by gaining a purchase on memory." In the solemnities into which Nox inducts us, we almost seem to take part in the grieving, as if the decelerated pace of our reading and encountering of these personal memories, such as they are, becomes our way of walking along in a long-after-the-fact cortege, joined from many points of entry.

Carson's encounter with her lost brother in the form of a book-epitaph may resonate particularly for some readers because its ragged, untidy efforts prompt a broader cultural reflection. Think of the data-nest that sometimes arises when someone with a strong online presence dies, in the form of tributes on a Facebook wall, or laments or commiserations in a Twitter thread. This, too, represents a kind of cortege undertaken from diverse sites. I cannot help but think of a recent article by Rob Walker on the state of our "digital afterlives," and how our recourse to social media, hand-held technologies, and all the rest may ensure for our loved ones a problem opposite from what Anne Carson faced in elegizing her brother—not a dearth of information from one unknown, but "fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff," as Walker puts it, about the already overly known. In such quantities, information risks becoming meaningless, uncontrolled, incapable of being formed in the elegiac sense, in this life or after it. This may well be just as great a challenge for future elegists as Carson's was, and already tech companies and web users are trying to locate solutions. So Facebook allows for a page to be converted to a "memorial" mode (it is estimated that 375,000 Facebook users die annually), and companies are springing up in response: TheDigitalBeyond, DataInherit, Entrustnet, VirtualEternity, DeathSwitch. Each in its way promises to help Internet users, who increasingly express themselves and preserve their histories online, to plan in advance how they will appear, and be findable, and be remembered in this virtual medium. One can hire these companies to organize the "digital litter" left behind on the web, or one can even make arrangements to remain active in digitally posthumous ways.

Closer to what Carson was left with, or not left with, one could set up through Entrustnet an "account incinerator" to make sure one's Gmail or Twitter history doesn't awkwardly outlive its registrant. Walker adds that we do not always need such active programs for deletion, and in fact the material that represents us online is far more fragile, perishable, and prone to becoming obsolete than we would care to think. In the end, Michael's condition, his unknowability, may not be quite so different from that of thousands of others, ourselves included, although we'd like to think otherwise.

Carson signals at the very end of Nox that she recognizes the transient nature of even her studied, determinedly assembled book. The final image features that earlier Catullus translation, but this time blurred and smudged, as seen through tears. Epitaphs, Carson says in Economy of the Unlost, "measure out a motion of exchange, pulling and calling," and despite the estrangement of the living brother and the blunt fact of his silence in death, readers will sense here what I earlier called correspondence. Maybe the writing itself, and the care taken in assembling the writing and presenting it to us, speak into that silence. Nothing is saved by this motion of exchange, Carson admits. "Except as writing. But that is not nothing."

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. His first collection of poems, The Garbage Eater, was published earlier this year by Northwestern University Press.

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