The Telegraph
Friday , August 22 , 2014
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When her brother died, after having disappeared from her life for more than twenty years, Anne Carson — poet, classicist, performer — made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. “This is a replica of it,” she writes about NOX (New Directions, $35), “as close as we could get.” These words appear on the back of the grey-green box that contains the book. It is an accordion-fold book, printed on what looks like cheap photocopying paper. It comes out of the box in unnumbered pages, like an unwieldy reptile. Inside, the quality of the printing is exquisitely trompe l’œil. Every physical element of the original that Carson had made is reproduced — with help from her partner, Robert Currie — with disconcerting precision: the creased and stained print-outs, photographs, paintings, stapled collages, the marks showing through the pages. So, the relentlessness with which Carson had made the book is retained in its mass-produced version, making the experience of reading it at once difficult and sensuous. I found myself unable to refrain from touching the staples and the paint, even when I knew that what I was touching was only a simulacrum of the real thing. You have to hold the book carefully too, for it could open out of your hands suddenly, releasing the blank white non-book that lies hidden in the folds of the book.

Perhaps this is what looking at another person’s grief ought to be like — not comfortable, not comforting, yet deeply pleasurable, offering a kind of knowledge or unknowing, taking us through private bewilderment into a disassembling of the personal. After making her book out of the “shards” of his life and death, the brother — his disappearances, his unhappiness — remains as much of a mystery to Carson as before. “I finally decided that understanding isn’t what grief is about. Or laments,” she tells The Paris Review, “They’re just about making something beautiful out of the ugly chaos you’re left with when someone dies. You want to make that good. And for me, making it good means making it into an object that’s exciting and beautiful to look at.” Carson has even collaborated with dancers to turn Nox into a performance.

At the heart of the book is Carson’s oddly halting translation of a great Latin elegy — Catullus’ poem 101, written for a brother who died in Troy when Catullus was living in Italy: “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.” Carson takes each word from the Latin original and puts it on the left-hand side of the page, followed by its lexical definition and usages. On the right-hand side, she places textual and visual fragments of her, and her mother’s, memories of the man, related to the word on the facing page. But her left-hand pages gradually begin to read like a dictionary gone mad, as the lists of usage become a kind of poetry — elaborations on the theme of night: “inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus? have we made it across the vast plane of night?…per noctem in nihilo vehi to vanish by night into nothing…nox nihil donat nothing is night’s gift…omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat the whole pointless night seeps out of the heart.”

It becomes impossible, in Nox, to keep the grain of the original voice and that of the translation apart, as language and life, literary history and personal history, translating and reflecting on translation, grieving and reflecting on grief, become inextricable from one another: “Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. 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.”