Professor or Pinhead

Stephanie Burt

  • Nox by Anne Carson
    New Directions, 192 pp, £19.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 8112 1870 2

Some writers discover their powers gradually. Others – Anne Carson, for example – spring from the head of Zeus. With three books in four years during the mid-1990s, the Canadian poet, classical scholar, essayist and translator became suddenly prominent in North America; she had found readers in Britain as well by 2001, when The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos won the T.S. Eliot Prize. A memorial to Carson’s late brother, Michael, Nox has found as much attention, and as much praise, as any book by any poet in the past couple of years. The praise is disturbing, sometimes wrongheaded, and reflects a category mistake; it also makes a good excuse to look back at the spiky virtues of Carson’s work.

Carson was born in 1950 to a banker, and the family moved frequently. She embraced Latin, and then Greek, at high school; her poems describe, and interviews suggest, an early and troubled marriage, and a peripatetic youth. Studies at the University of Toronto and at St Andrews led to a PhD in classics and in 1988 to a job at McGill. Carson then began to teach at American universities, including UC-Berkeley, Emory, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and now NYU. Without obvious contemporary influences, and without clear ties to the world of creative writing, Carson the poet was more or less discovered by Ben Sonnenberg, then the editor of Grand Street, in the late 1980s. Her reputation emerged with the books that followed: Plainwater (1995), Glass, Irony and God (1995) and Autobiography of Red (1998), a mysterious narrative poem about a gay teenager who is also the ‘red monster’ Geryon of Greek myth. Carson’s first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), was a playful study in prose of Sappho, Plato, the limitless nature of desire and the origin of the alphabet. The essay – capaciously understood – is a form still important to her, and most of her more recent books have included prose essays with topics or jumping-off points from the classics: Men in the Off Hours (2000), for example, contains an essay entitled ‘Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War’.

Men in the Off Hours remains the most diverse, and the best, introduction to her prose and verse. Here is ‘Epitaph: Zion’:

Murderous little world once our objects had gazes. Our lives
Were fragile, the wind
Could dash them away. Here lies the refugee breather
Who drank a bowl of elsewhere.

First hear the lines, with their run of dactyls (‘murderous’, ‘world once our’, ‘objects had’) leading to the much slower, largely iambic last line. Then interpret, or track allusions: Rilke’s Death, a bluish drink in a saucer; the refugees of postwar Europe, bound for ‘Zion’ as in Israel-Palestine or as in the afterlife; perhaps a suicide; Greek pneuma, the spirit or breath of life. Like Carson’s other ‘Epitaphs’, it offers mysteries where no single solution will do. (Their look on the page, though not their sound, suggests the distichs of Greek epitaph that she discussed in her 1999 book, Economy of the Unlost.)

Men in the Off Hours is full of fragments that carry a similarly bizarre power. ‘New Rule’, a break-up poem, asks after

The night of hooks?

The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.

In another sequence Carson adapts Catullus, sometimes entertainingly, or outrageously:

On her lap one of the matted terriers.
She was combing around its genitals.
It grinned I grinned back.
It’s the one she calls Little Bottle after Deng Xiaoping.

The terrier replaces Lesbia’s sparrow: this louche woman – masturbating her lapdogs perhaps – unsettles the grinning observer. Carson’s Catullus uses the page as a canvas, or a stage:

No one but you she says she swore.
Why one night a god threw open the door.
I loved you more.
River.
River.
River.
River.
River.
River.
River.
River river river river river river river

Here Carson wants you to look up the Latin, or to look up a faithful translation, unless you have either by heart: in the original four-line poem, Catullus’ lover says she will marry nobody but him, not even Jupiter. Catullus then says that lovers’ oaths may as well be on ‘rapida aqua’, ‘swift water’. Carson’s ‘river’ therefore flows speedily down the page, to the sea, in the shape of an L for ‘liar’, or for the turns lovers’ dialogues take.

Carson’s writings show a brusque yet intimate manner with ancient texts, a fractured, anti-mellifluous cadence (especially in her verse), and a sense of discomfort: she seems at home nowhere, not in her own head, or in our time, or in the ancient world. Carson wrote in Economy of the Unlost that Paul Celan ‘uses language as if he were always translating’: we could say the same thing about her. Her translations usually sound like the rest of her poems, obtrusively contemporary but studiedly idiosyncratic, plainly weird (they may reflect their weird originals). You could also say that her poems sound like Carsonian translations, swivelling between the credible replication of complex syntactic patterns and the sound of conversation today:

In fact Odysseus would have been here long before now
but it seemed to his mind more profitable
to go to many lands acquiring stuff.

(‘Alive That Time’)

Carson’s individual lines and sentences fit a world of continual, often unpleasant surprise: ‘Sycamore trees at dawn are big, unbandaging themselves.’ ‘Coldness comes paring down from the moonbone in the sky.’ But she has never seemed satisfied with such creations: she has to accompany them by frame-breaking devices, strings of quotations, visual texts, ways to break out of the genre of mere poetry, the medium of the ordinary book. One of the sequences in Men in the Off Hours runs a different quotation from St Augustine at the bottom of every page; the next has a ticker (as on a news channel) made up from quotations, in French, from Antonin Artaud.

When I interviewed her ten years ago Carson suggested to me that she was losing interest in the separable poem, and in books of poems as they’re usually understood. She had already begun an opera libretto, The Mirror of Simple Souls, about the mystic Marguerite Porete, which she would publish in Decreation (2005) alongside more essays, something like a masque, and fine sets of new short poems. The title essay (also about women mystics) recalled her youthful fascination with books as things: ‘I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages.’ She has not published a collection of her own poems since.

She has, however, published translations of Euripides (Grief Lessons, 2006) and Aeschylus (An Oresteia, 2009). The closest precursor to Nox, though, must be If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002), whose facing-page versions present every surviving word that scholars believe Sappho wrote, from the world famous sentences, lines and stanzas (including the one that calls Eros ‘bittersweet’) to sparse marks on soiled papyrus scraps. What were frustrating remnants to students of Greek, sometimes become in Carson’s English desolately complete claims: ‘neither for me honey nor the honey bee’; ‘their heart grew cold/ they let their wings down.’ Other fragments produce minimalist visual poems, somewhere between e.e. cummings and Aram Saroyan. Carson’s version of fragment 87D consists of ten brackets, stacked vertically; beside the fourth is the single word ‘youth’.

This Sappho drew a reasonable objection from the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books, who attacked its reliance on white space, on aura. The Sappho of the best-known surviving stanzas was a poet, a singer, whose work Carson tried to re-create, but the Sappho in much of If Not, Winter was (he implied) an illusion, a ghostly projection of our collective relationship to antiquity, always before and behind us, never seen face to face. You might describe our whole classical heritage that way: ghosts of Solon in our laws, of Homer in our wars. You might also use the same description for death, that other great emptiness, which we can neither understand wholly, nor wholly ignore.

In Nox, as in If Not, Winter, emptiness and apparatus surround short classical texts and explore their aura, so that we encounter a book full of spaces where poems cannot be, spaces that say what we cannot have. In If Not, Winter what we can’t have is the real Sappho; in Nox what we can’t have is Carson’s brother, because the dead can’t be brought to life. Nox is no ordinary book of poetry: you can tell that much before you open it. The book comes in its own thick box, like a time capsule, or a receptacle for family photos (which the book does contain). Opened, the box reveals not a bound codex but a long folded-up page, like a screen or a scroll: it feels not only hand-crafted but archaic, like a saint’s relic. It says on the box that the edition of Nox you can buy duplicates the truly handmade, one-of-a-kind book Carson assembled after Michael died.

The book recalls, very sparely, Michael’s life: a rough one, in part by his own choice. Out of touch with his mother and sister, Michael and his wife ‘lived for two years on the street, sleeping in stairwells, eating once a week … drinking a lot’. Since his death in Denmark in 2000, Michael has retained a mystery analogous to that of Catullus’ brother, about whom we know (Carson says) nothing except through Catullus CI, the poem he wrote about his loss. That poem echoes throughout Nox.

The aspects of Nox that stand out and lend themselves to memory are not by and large the words that Carson chooses, nor the order in which she puts them (many pages contain none). Instead they are visual, typographical, the material aspects of book design, images, collage. The page after the copyright page says ‘Michael Michael Michael Michael Michael Michael’ in large, hasty cursive script, perhaps written with a Sharpie, with ‘Nox Frater Nox’ (‘night, brother, night’) printed in small bold capitals on top of it. The next page is blank, except for bleed-through from the Sharpie; the page after that displays a printed edition of Catullus CI – blurred as though wet from tears.

If you were reading Nox for the first time, you might take these pages as prefatory material, to be followed by more conventional writing. But you would be wrong; it’s almost all like that. The next page holds a rectangle of text, adapted from a Latin dictionary, defining multas, the first word of Catullus CI. (Each word in Catullus’ elegy eventually gets its own page.) Only after the definition of multas do we read words by Carson, words that settle into one of the oldest topics in elegy: the inadequacy of human language before death. ‘He’s dead,’ Carson writes. ‘Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was … So I began to think about history.’

Such a turn from the personal to the ancient (history means, among other things, Herodotus) is what we have come to expect: an essay follows, devoted in part to Michael, in part to Carson’s mother, and in part to ancient writers of history and pseudohistory. Carson scatters pieces of that essay, composed in short numbered sections, throughout Nox, where it gets interrupted, and overshadowed, by collage: scraps of a letter, in handwriting and again as printed text; stamps from countries where Michael travelled or lived; a letterhead from a hotel in Kashmir; impressions of staples and scissor cuts; scraps soaked in tea; grainy old photos, blank pages, photomontages of eggs and glass, yellow smudges of paint for broken yolks (which stand for dead parents), a crudely hand-drawn foot and leg with the caption: ‘Why do we blush before death?’

Readers of poetry may be surprised by the format, but regular viewers of artists’ books will not be; nor will readers who remember the fanzines of the 1980s and 1990s, the handmade and photocopied, often deliberately amateurish creations that combined their (often very young) authors’ music reviews with memoir, essay, slogan, collage, photography. Nox has much older precursors too: 19th and early 20th-century scrapbooks in which readers collected their favourite verse alongside photographs, engravings, postcards and handwritten memories. (You can see examples of these scrapbooks at Mike Chasar’s blog, Poetry and Popular Culture, mikechasar.blogspot.com.)

‘My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail,’ one section of Nox begins. ‘He wandered in Europe and India … He wrote only one letter, to my mother, that winter the girl died.’ That section appears again, interrupted by handwriting, presumably from Michael’s letter. It then appears a third time, bisected by one of the paper’s folds. Part of that text (‘My brother ran away …’) then shows up for a fourth time after the next fold, where half of it disappears off the edge (‘sent us postcards o’, ‘It is irremedi’). Through this and many other visual devices, the text in Nox disintegrates to be replaced by images – stamps, photographs – or, as in If Not, Winter, by a blank or nearly blank page. When text does appear we may find it striking or shocking (‘Like wind in your hair she had epilepsy her life was hell’), but we may also find ourselves looking, not listening. ‘Like wind … ’ appears in squat, bold sans serif, all caps; the brief essays take thin sans-serif Roman, while lyrical monostichs (‘He who has tears let him’) appear in more conventional, serif book font, though in italics. Michael’s words appear in bold, with each sentence given its own line: ‘Danes are hardworking./I am painting the flat.’ Carson, too, is ‘painting the flat’, making figurative the literal – or showily refusing to do so.

With its insistence on the visual, the material, the tactile, the circumstantial, on everything and anything but its mere words, Nox thus becomes a book, or an anti-book, about the futility of language in the face of death. The more we want words to retain their meaning, and the more we try to learn about people by means of words, the more we are arrested by fleeting, frustrating material traces. (It is a very Derridean point, and not the only one.) Letters – the mother’s, Michael’s, Anne’s – fail to reach senders, or else they fail to get a reply (‘She never got an address for him’). Catullus proves impossible to translate, but so did Michael: ‘Because our conversations were few (he phoned me maybe 5 times in 22 years) I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them.’ On one of the nearly blank pages, in the white-on-white impression created when pens bear down too hard, the words ‘LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE LIKE’ are just about visible. It is the ghost of a likeness, as Nox is the ghost of a book.

Everything in Nox points to a forever lost original: Catullus’ brother, Catullus’ living Latin, Carson’s brother, ‘the girl who died’, Carson’s handmade book. Without the materiality Carson labours to preserve, the names, words, pages, ghostly likenesses that appear in their place would amount to nothing, to lost breath: ‘when he telephoned me – out of the blue – about half a year after our mother died he had nothing to say.’ Michael himself seems to have rejected literary ambition unstintingly (‘he called me professor or pinhead’), and his position, after his death, can look like the correct one. The medium – not just the genre but the physical medium: box, printing methods and paper – becomes the message, and the message is that words will never do. ‘It is when you are asking about something,’ Carson says in Section 1.1, ‘that you realise you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.’ Nox is not so much a book as a thing: no wonder it is, literally, so heavy. And it is literally many other things: literal evidence of Michael’s life (the photographs, the handwriting samples); evidence that Carson has surpassed the bounds of literary language, of any language, in her attempt to express, and explore, her grief.

You might expect a work so insistent on its own material oddities, so dependent on prior texts, so dead-set against the standard codex book, to receive a warm welcome from the North American avant-garde. Nox did find a rapturous welcome, but not from that quarter. Instead it was celebrated in such places as the New Yorker, where Meghan O’Rourke called it ‘a luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of an elegy, which is why it evokes so effectively the felt chaos and unreality of loss’. New York magazine’s Sam Anderson called it ‘a literary object – the opposite of an e-reader designed to vanish in your palm’, and added: ‘The book radiates a kind of holy vibe.’

Few poets satisfy so clearly Eliot’s criterion for a major poet: each of Carson’s works casts light on all the rest. The future should look at everything she has written, Nox included: it is strange and affecting and hard to forget. But it is hard to imagine that the future will rate Nox as highly as reviewers did. It creates a double bind familiar from memoirs, and from the confessional poetry of two generations ago. If you like it, you like the pathos and the rawness of the personal document; if you don’t like it, you are attacking the genuine evidence of somebody’s real life. But Nox, the box, isn’t real life. Not even a box of snapshots is ‘real life’, as Carson’s own echoes of deconstruction remind us: here, too, are representations.

Words, for all their inadequacy, can do so much more complex work, as Carson knows: Catullus CI, for example, which she tells us she has been trying to translate since high school, even though ‘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.’ She then translates it anyway. Her version ends:

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.

This halting piece sounds most like Carson, and most attractive, where it sounds least idiomatic, without feeling antique: the duplicated ‘wrongly’, ‘mood of parents’. That last line has perhaps become, even to those (like myself) with not so hot Latin, so familiar as to make translation otiose, but the presentation makes it less familiar: the poem appears on yellowed – ‘antiqued’ – square paper, blurred so that ‘sad’ looks like ‘sod’.

Nox might well send you back through Carson’s other books looking for more about her family, or about grief. The brisk, scary preface to Grief Lessons begins:

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief … Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.

The swerve from the voice of a critic to the voice of anti-realist fiction (‘you’ is first the reader, then a character), the informal, terse approach to serious subjects, the insistent frame-breaking, the foundation in ancient writing: all these touches, endemic to Carson, point to the unsettlement, the disorientation, that the living find in the dead. In ‘The Life of Towns’, from Plainwater, grief resembles

gaps.
Between the teeth.
Of an old woman you.
Knew years ago.
When she was.
Beautiful the nerves pouring around in her like palace fire.

Plainwater also included prose about Michael, then estranged but still alive, or else about a fictive brother whose life resembled Carson’s brother’s real one. ‘It was late spring when he disappeared … Postcards came to us from farther and farther away, Vermont, Belgium, Crete … Then very early one morning, about three years after he left, he called from Copenhagen (collect).’ There follows ‘Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother’, in which Carson collaborates, or pretends to collaborate, with her newly death-obsessed sibling: ‘It is not up to him, whether he drowns. Or why.’

Even more unsettling are Carson’s treatments of her mother’s death. The sequence ‘Stops’, from Decreation, refracts her last years and days through understated description (‘It is February. Ice is general. One notices different degrees of ice’), along with a meditation on ‘Beckett’s Theory of Comedy’; there is also a direct address to the dead: ‘Eat your soup, mother, wherever you are in your mind.’ ‘Ordinary Time’, from Men in the Off Hours, contains no direct autobiography; 160 pages later, however, ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ begins: ‘My mother died the autumn I was writing this.’ All the epitaphs and resurrections, all the meditations on memory and creation throughout Men in the Off Hours turn out (whatever else they also do) to commemorate Carson’s mother, to respond to the fact of her death: ‘For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it. Death lines every moment of ordinary time.’ ‘Crossouts sustain me now,’ she writes. ‘I search out and cherish them like old photographs of my mother in happier times.’ ‘Appendix’ concludes with four crossed-out lines from a manuscript by Virginia Woolf, printed so that they form the same four-line shape as Carson’s ‘Epitaphs’: ‘Obviously it is impossible,’ part of Woolf’s cancelled sentence reads, ‘to/ compare the living with the dead.’ It is the kernel of Nox, put cleanly and sharply, on half an ordinary printed page.

Carson has continued to publish short poems (sometimes in the LRB), though she has not collected them; she remains not only an imaginative but even a whimsical maker of lines and words. Why not a sonnet about a toy pony, flippantly comic and then thunderously serious? How about a plainly self-conscious, awkwardly (winkingly) rhymed Shakespearean sonnet, with a Shakespearean allusion and a Petrarchan turn (‘But no,// you are alone’)? How about an epithalamion that morphs into something like its jubilant opposite, a personal greeting to liberty, to the Statue of Liberty? Why not a poem about ugly, anti-Yeatsian swans? (It begins: ‘You don’t often see swans looking bad.’) How about a ‘Twelve-Minute Prometheus’, in which the tortured title character says: ‘I’m too alone, the sun is hot, it’s not a good position to be in’? Nobody else could have written any of these poems; some are funny, some are horrifying, each is really something new. And yet Carson remains a writer who explores, over and over, the same themes: erotic obsession and the search for something, or someone, who always escapes; the allure of a realm beyond reason, for people who rely on reason, who want to give reasons; male rule, and women’s resistance to it (to phallogocentrism, if you like); all writing as inaccurate translation; language, and literature, as a ragged law, a way of attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible – for example, of death.

As for Nox, it is a moving document, a rapt exploration of a few more or less deconstructive ideas, a marvellous object of manufacture, a long trip through a short poem by Catullus, and a minor, memorable occurrence in the career of a major writer. Its rapturous reception testifies – through no fault of her own – to Carson’s celebrity, and to the aura her work holds, with its sources and blank spaces. That reception also testifies – again, through no fault of Carson’s – to the continuing prestige but diminished actual interest that poetry as such seems to hold these days. For many readers, and not a few editors, Nox and its ‘poetry of a kind you’re not used to’ has turned out to be poetry of the most welcome kind: a work you can admire and interpret simply by opening the box and unfolding the pages; a book of poems you don’t even have to read.