Sunday, November 13, 2011

Carson and Grief

Is it really true? Did I last post here on October 19th? Almost a month ago?
By then, I had finished Anne Carson's Nox, a moving, puzzling, challenging, and powerful work -- which I suppose you could say of anything she's written (here's my response to her marvellous Autobiography of Red. Nox is particularly notable for its form, a huge box of a book

out of which unfold an accordion of pages.
 The pages themselves purport to be facscimiles of Carson's personal journals, a collage of artifacts

representing her brother's life and her grief at his death. The frame-story, if you will, is her translation of the Latin poet Catullus' poem 101, an elegy for his brother who died, as did Carson's, far from home, in a distant land.
The left-hand pages offer, one by one, a lexicographic entry parsing the pronunciation and possible meanings and uses of each word in the poem, so that we see the work of translation as the work of mourning, grief layering centuries of grief. For me, having lost a brother suddenly when he was barely 19, myself 23, having -- with my family -- gone through his small collection of belongings discovering aspects of his life we'd scarcely intuited, the resonances of those griefs rangs loudly, folding me into their overtones.

Much has been written about this work; Meghan O'Rourke's New Yorker review here is a lovely essay in itself, placing Nox in the context of Carson's wider body of work. Here is O'Rourke's penultimate paragraph: Nox” is 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. Instead of imposing baroque form on the material, Carson lets Michael haunt the work, writing into its lacunae, through the eeriness of his handwriting, of the airmail stamps he used. Her method is less to try to solve the mystery of his life and death than to enact it, to dramatize the mourner’s mind as it seeks to understand what happens to the vanished. “It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself,” she writes. “Nox” is that asking: a questioning, unsentimental excursion into the meaning of not understanding.

For me, limited in time, aiming my scholarship elsewhere for now (a poor apology, I know), the text gestures, both in its form (the accordion-unruly pages contained in the box, a child's toy, the jack-in-a-box) and in its approach (the painstaking effort, word by word, at translation of another's grief; the right-hand pages' effort as discovery, retrieval of the lost loved one) at the space between melancholia and mourning, the danger Freud pointed to of becoming stuck in that former stage. Grief is sanctioned by all cultures, but the expectation is that we move past it, that we find -- as psychological counsellors term it -- "closure." Yet those of us who have experienced loss know that the closure is willed and artificial, that the deeper melancholia persists, ready to spring out when the lid gets opened unexpectedly.

Nox is a commitment, this big book, and frustrating in many ways, too sad in others, but its rewards are many and its beauty inarguable. If you've read it, I'd love a conversation. If not, consider picking it up for a winter's sojourn with grief made deep, wondrous, and scholarly.

*My good friend Tanis MacDonald presented a paper on Nox at a recent symposium, the proceedings of which will be published as part of the Canadian Literature Symposium series under the title Material Cultures. The usual academic-publishing lag will apply but watch for this via U of Ottawa Press; the proceedings collection will be edited by Jennifer Blair and Tom Allen.


  1. I didn't know this about your brother, F: my condolences, even though I know it's been years. And that un/covered life. I think the fact that the elegiac lost beloved in Nox is a brother is part of its compelling strangeness and strength. The shared childhood alongside the long silence. Did you read Mona Simpson's tribute to her brother Steve Jobs? Simpson's a novelist and a very good one so her style is different from Carson's (well, whose isn't?), but she works some of the same territory as Carson does in describing sibling adoration. Worth reading for sure.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Tanis, and I'll make sure to read Simpson's piece.