A Review of Anne Carson's Nox
(New Directions, 2010, $29.95)
Cooper Renner

Carson's Nox is really three books in one. The core text -- the one which most readers will attend to most closely -- consists chiefly of a prose memoir about her older brother, who died unexpectedly a decade ago, and scrapbook-style accompaniments: old photographs, foreign postage stamps, torn pieces from (or based upon?) her brother's letters, and stray stand-alone texts, some no longer than a line, which attach directly or obliquely to the main text. Elegies, to be sure, always hold loss at their hearts but particularly so when the living and the dead have been estranged, whether emotionally or geographically. Carson's interactions with her brother in the last half of his life were intermittent and unpredictable -- he lived abroad under an assumed name after being a suspect in the death of a young woman, and their contacts happened, or not, as he chose. The memoir of necessity reveals the inner life of the memoirist at her discretion; the elegy treats of another, a portrait from outside. Of this somewhat contradictory matter, Carson fashions an appealing whole, in prose that is nimble, lean and affecting.
The second 'book', placed on alternating pages with the memoir, is the work of Carson the academic: a word-by-word lexicographical elucidation of Roman poet Catullus' poem 101, an elegy to his brother. General readers will be forgiven for skimming this commentary upon the etymology, definition and usage of so many words which most recognize, if at all, only as roots of English words. Toward the end, however, of many of these entries, Carson provides idiomatic or specialized examples of the word under consideration which often expand -- even if indirectly -- the text of the adjacent section of the memoir. This interplay creates the third book, the real book if you will -- the echoing of Carson's contemporary reverie against the ancient poet's words. About three-quarters of the way into the whole, Carson places her translation of Catullus, one brother's gift to another, the only gift the surviving have for the lost -- a word of farewell.
What most readers will notice first, to be sure, is the book's format. It is printed accordion-style, the pages continually unfolding from front cover to back and housed in a box over two inches thick. This format allows the reader to flip pages, as in a book, creating the semblance of a sequence of two-page spreads, or to reveal multiple pages at a time, giving a more scroll-like effect and complimenting the scrapbook elements of the book: the blue ink in the excerpts of a handwritten letter; the somewhat dim black-and-white photos over half a century old; the bright flat colors of the postage stamps. A notable element of many of the photographs is the strong presence of shadows, often of human beings -- especially appropriate to a memoir of a brother who vanished. Likewise affecting are the images of the children -- Anne and her brother -- with the almost inherent nostalgic sadness of the young in decades past.
Carson has an enormous audience for a contemporary American poet, particularly one who does not operate within the bounds of the plain speech tradition. That audience will most certainly welcome this most personal of her books, and the inventive production may draw in new readers as attuned to design as to content.