Anne Carson’s Nox doesn’t look or behave like any other book of poetry (or prose) out there. It’s not a book in the traditional sense; the usual binary of verso and recto is confounded by one long page that accordions out of a coffin-like box. But its physical shape isn’t the only thing that makes Nox so special; the text itself is an assemblage of words and images so artfully arranged that they make us reconsider not only what poetry can do—and should do—but even what a book is.
Like B. S. Johnson’s book-in-a-box, The Unfortunates, Nox will change the way you read. It’s a reproduction of the handmade book Carson lovingly wrote and assembled after the death of her estranged older brother, Michael. “When my brother died,” she tells us, “I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” It contains her own poetry, translations, photographs, canceled stamps, letterhead, you name it. From those artifacts the details of her relationship with Michael, of his life on the run, and ultimately of his demise, come with dirgelike slowness. We learn that he had legal problems, was homeless for some time in Europe, and that he rarely wrote home. His distance makes his death all the more tragic. “When my brother died (unexpectedly) his widow couldn’t find a phone number for me among his papers until two weeks later. While I swept my porch and bought apples and sat by the window in the evening with the radio on, his death came wandering slowly towards me across the sea.”
Interspersed throughout this long lament are Latin dictionary definitions, most of which contain uses of the word nox (which means “night”). Carson uses these definitions to brilliant effect. You will learn expressions like “nocte fratris quam ipso fratre miserior: made sadder by the brother’s night than by the brother himself” and “multa nox: late in the night, perhaps too late” and “patiens noctis: liable to endure death, mortal.” These definitions function a little bit like Moby-Dick’s cetology chapters in that they provide some technical and intellectual (and somehow spiritual?) context while actively disrupting the reader’s equilibrium in unpredictable and fruitful ways. These excursions to different prose styles force us to stay sharp and focus more closely on every syllable, as in: “Repent means ‘the pain again.’”
It can’t be easy to put one’s private grief on public display, much less in such an audacious manner. One might wonder why these salable reproductions of Nox
exist at all. (And as I understand it, the publisher is also selling one hundred autographed, limited editions of Nox for $150. I badly want one.) Carson clearly draws inspiration from Catullus, who wrote his poem 101 “for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is known of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there.” Her translation of poem 101 follows shortly thereafter. It’s devastating. Like Catullus, Carson has built a stunningly beautiful public monument to a man we would not have heard of otherwise. In the process of immortalizing someone so anonymous and so short-lived, she asks us to look again at our basic assumptions about literature and its purposes.
A book doesn’t have to be just a book. Nox, for instance, is also a beautiful and inspiring expression of sibling love.