I had a birthday in July, and I received a copy of Anne Carson’s beautiful book-artifact Nox, in which she explores — in poetry, in Latin, in photography and letters and art, in what is said and not said — her relationship with her brother Michael, who has died. I had heard so much about it, primarily from Teresa and Jenny, that I was very excited to read it — to savor it, really, so it would last a long time. But at the beginning of August, a close friend of mine died, and I found I could not even open the book, or begin to think what it might mean to read it. So I set it aside for a while.
The week before Christmas, almost five months later, I found I could bear to read it. It’s a beautiful book-object, meticulously produced, for one thing. It’s a box, the shape and size of a large hardback book, and inside is a kind of scroll: pages all connected together in one long strand. On the verso of each page is a single word in Latin from Catullus’s Poem 101, and a somewhat freewheeling, uncited dictionary definition of the word in English. Almost every single definition includes some version of the word in the context of nox, or night. On the recto of each page, facing the Latin word, is Anne Carson’s meditation on her dead brother. This might be: a photograph, or a slice of a photograph; a short paragraph; a single line; a drawing; an excerpt from one of his letters home, or a piece of one, or a word from one; a memory. Each meditation usually has a loose connection to the word on the facing page.
So far, so complex, so deep. But Anne Carson had a difficult relationship with her brother. He ran away in 1978 to avoid a term in jail, and spent his life in Europe and India under a false passport and another name. He spent years at a time without writing home; his mother died believing he was dead. How to construct meaning from the fragments of such a life, from resentment and pain? The book may be one long strand, but Carson allows the life — or her knowledge of it — to be fragmented: pieces of letters, half-memories, solemn photographs that don’t yield up the thoughts of the people inhabiting them.
At times, the frustration is palpable. WHO WERE YOU, demands one page, the letters etched white on black. This is the question of history, of Herodotos, and also the question of Carson, of anyone left behind. It’s my question, too. I knew my friend well, but I’ll never know her any better than I do now. I’ll never hear another story about her missionary grandparents, or find out how she changes as she gets older, retires, has grandchildren. She is mute to me now. And that muteness, of course, those “silent ashes” of Catullus’s poem, are for all of us in the end.
Nox is an exceptionally rich piece of literature and art, facing the night with beauty and pain. It takes on the idea of history, of memory, of love and forgetfulness, of distance and a broken life, of what it is to be a sister to a brother who has disappeared. I am so glad I read it at last.