Grief in Translation
Anne Carson’s Nox, Latin for night, is a new breed of manuscript in more ways than one. This collage-style-journal-turned-book defies categorization—novel, poem, pastiche? The physical format—a sturdy box packaging that houses an accordion-fold book with no spine—allows the reader the versatility to view as many or few pages at a time as they prefer. Once removed from the box-cover, the book becomes fragile and intimate appropriately mirroring its content.*
The work itself is essentially an elegy for Carson’s older brother, Michael, in light of his unexpected death in 2000. Carson hand-crafted the first version and later collaborated with Robert Currie, a colleague, to create the current reproducible format of the book.
Nox begins with a Latin elegy poem, which Carson translates word by word throughout the text using her own stylized definitions. Alongside these, the reader will find family photographs, excerpts from letters, unattributed quotations, drawings, paintings, and excerpts from the historical writings of Herodotos, Hekataios, Plutarch and others. All of these pieces interact to develop strong thematic lines related to night, ash, blush, grief, and our inability to know other people. Many of the photographs and negatives are cut and laid out on the page in the shape of a light switch as if to counter the prominence of night in the book.
The main narrative line gives a shrouded account of several memories and events from Carson’s relationship with her brother. However, while the death of a girlfriend is hinted at, the need to leave the country (perhaps drug-related), and the funeral Carson was unable to attend, many of the actual events are hazy. The more concretely-minded reader may find this ambiguity frustrating. While those with a love for the impressionistic and the mixing of mediums will likely be drawn in. This ambiguity seems to seek to support the themes related to the in ability to know a person and to translate grief and memories into language or art.
Interestingly, Carson appropriates time-tried dictionary and numeric forms of catalogue to create forward motion in her piece. As the reader moves through the catalogue of words and definitions, they participate in translating the poem. Likewise, the narrative sections are linked into exhibits using a numerical catalogue system (ex. 1.1, 1.2…5.2, 5.3). Reading the book is itself an act of excavation. The reader, with Carson, is encouraged to make sense of the linked artifacts. A lovely tribute in a startlingly original form.
*During a recent collaborative dance performance created by poet Anne Carson and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell, held in Miami’s Wynwood art district and put on in conjunction with the O, Miami county-wide poetry festival, the book was actually dropped from a balcony and proved to be remarkably sturdy.