Some books just do not work as books. So what is a writer to do when they want to express something which does not fit into the usual binding? It helps when you are Anne Carson, an established poet and classicist, and you are writing on an usual subject.
Nox (Latin for “night”) is an elegy, or as Carson says, and epitaph, for her estranged and now deceased brother, Michael. Battling drug use, Carson says he left the United States in the late 1970’s in order not to go to jail. She would never see him again, and only spoke to him six times in over 20 years. During that time he traveled under false names, fell in love with a woman and was devastated when she died young, was married twice, and already had his ashes scattered before his sister found out he was dead.
But this is no collection of stories about her brother; it is a scrapbook of pictures, fragments of letters, Carson’s own thoughts, and other items. Instead of fitting it into the regular book format, “Nox” comes is an accordion style book which comes in book shaped box.
So how does this book manage to succeed in tying together such arange of items? Catullus’ poem No. 101, an elegy written by the poet when he arrived at his brother’s grave. Catullus was a first century, BC, Roman poet, who learned too late of his brother’s death to be there in time for the burial. Carson provides the poem in Latin, and then gives the etymology of each word in the 63-word poem on the left hand side, while the items relating to her brother are on the right. Toward the end, you finally get the poem in English, although she says that translating the work does not work well as the meanings of some of the words are lost in other languages.
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.
Carson’s own words and arrangement of her brother’s show her poetic tendencies. A moving story of her brother always being on edge of others, is across the page from “sunt.” Carson gives the definition of “to be (continue) among the living; (of things) to be in existence.” Her story of her brother, one of the longest memories given, tells of a photograph she has of him (shown on the previous page) “about ten years old standing on the ground beneath a treehouse. Above him in the treehouse you can see three older boys gazing down. They have raised the ladder.” She wonders if his future drug use was found in this desire to be where he was not welcome, where he is on the edge. “No one knew him.”
In the end, what we have is a uniquely personal and moving meditation on death. Of course, we know death by contrasting it with life, but Carson does not pretend that our lives are made up of a simple narrative history. Instead, small elements, diverse elements, create a picture of who we are. She could write a detailed biography of her brother, and we would know less about who he is than we get from her own creation. In great part, this is because we know him only through Carson. And we know other people only through ourselves. It is not possible to know a person as they do themselves; relationships are quite simply that seeking to know another, and be known, in ways which are unique to each relationship. Carson’s brother’s absence for 22 years is an essential element of how she knows him, and she does not try to bridge the gap. That is the beauty of this epitaph. It explores a relationship as it was, and does not seek for more than what exists. As a result, she is respectful of her brother and his life without her, while not forgetting what she remembers of him. What better tribute could be offered?
Read more about Anne Carson at the Poetry Foundation