Anne Carson’s Nox is one of the strangest, most beautiful, most human books I’ve ever seen. It’s an elegy to her brother Michael, who died in 2000 and from whom she’d been almost completely estranged since 1978. After he died, Carson created a notebook—what she called an “epitaph”—that recorded her brother’s life and her own mourning. I’ll let Meghan O’Rourke describe it to you (because she was the first person to describe it to me):
“Nox” is as much an artifact as a piece of writing. The contents arrive not between two covers but in a box about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Inside is an accordion-style, full-color reproduction of the notebook, which incorporates pasted-in photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and a letter Michael once wrote home, along with fragments typed by Carson. The reproduction is done painstakingly, and conjures up an almost tactile sense of the handmade original. A mourner is always searching for traces of the lost one, and traces of that scrapbook’s physicality—bits of handwriting, stamps, stains—add testimonial force: this person existed.
Translation, the act of renaming, is clearly crucial to Carson’s method of coming to grips with loss. The first page is a yellowing, blurred poem in Latin: Catullus’ poem 101, an elegy for his brother, who also died on a distant shore. . . . Most of the left-hand pages that follow are given over to lexicographical entries, defining each word of the Catullus elegy. The right-hand pages meditate on the difficulty of elegizing a brother who had disappeared from Carson’s life long before his death.
It’s a book about process—the process of grieving and the process of translation. Something about reading Nox feels a little intrusive, like reading someone’s very private diary. But on the other hand, it also feels like Anne Carson is letting you check out the inside of her brain and look at the way her personal grief dovetails with her work as a poet and translator.
Here’s her translation of Catullus 101. Read Nox to understand how this one specific person, Anne Carson, got to this specific rendering of this poem.
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.
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.