Anne Carson’s writing does not concern itself with the question of genre, though it’s probably most accurate to think of her as a poet. Frequently she draws her materials from the distant past, often taking classical literature as a starting point. She does not derive from these sources so much as denature them, reimagine something so simultaneously different and indebted, that it can only be called new. Not only in the telling but in the shape, the formal properties. This is how tradition works in literature, by alchemical transmutation. The voice in Carson’s poems is not old or old-fashioned in the least, but neither is it contemporary, exactly; it must speak from behind a mask, must draw its truth from the credit its fiction bestows, must speak in a disembodied-seeming, or detached, voice. Oddly timeless, probably the air of myth never far in her lines. And when I asked Carson why she’s drawn to working from behind a mask, she answered, “Does anyone really like their own face?”
The power of the mask comes then partly in the lived reality of the actual voice—the actual person—speaking from behind it, from the personal suffering worn and heard now through an alien face. One of Carson’s recent books is Nox, and it’s a demonstration of the way all language is always a mask, even when it seems to be at its most intimate. The work shows her immense, restless talent: in Nox the poet tells the story, if that’s the word, of her brother’s tragic life and dying, but tells it by way of an echoing and obsessive translation—an extended riff, really—on Catullus’s Poem 101, “for his brother who died in the Troad.” Nox is a book, but it comes in a box, like remains in an urn, like a body in a coffin. And it’s a facsimile of a notebook Carson kept in the aftermath of her brother’s death, a representation that echoes a living thing, a simulacrum not only of a past, but of an act of grief and life.
JESSE NATHAN: How did the form for Nox emerge? Why that title?
ANNE CARSON: The title is a reference to verses 5 and 6 of Catullus’s poem 5, here in the translation of Sir Richard Burton, 1894:
Love we (my Lesbia!) and live we our day,
While all stern sayings crabbed sages say,
At one doit’s value let us price and prize!
The Suns can westward sink again to rise
But we, extinguished once our tiny light,
Perforce shall slumber through one lasting night!
Kiss me a thousand times, then hundred more,
Then thousand others, then a new five-score,
Still other thousand other hundred store.
Last when the sums to many thousands grow,
The tale let’s trouble till no more we know,
Nor envious wight despiteful shall misween us
Knowing how many kisses have been kissed between us.
The relevant verses in Latin are:
….nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetual una dormienda….
for us, once our brief light has set,
there is one perpetual night (nox) of sleep to be slept.
The form came about somewhat by happenstance. The winter after he died, I had made a sort of remembrance of my brother by pasting and gluing and painting the pages of an empty book, which I passed around to friends or people who knew my brother, without expectation of publishing it. Then a friend of mine who often worked with the publisher Steidl suggested it to him. Steidl took the book off to Germany and promptly lost it somewhere in his studio. For three years, Herr Steidl failed to answer my phone calls. One day the book showed up on my porch (in Michigan) in a FedEx box with no letter or explanation. At that point, it seemed prudent to prevent the thing from vanishing again. Currie and I took it to New Directions, who agreed and began by scanning the pages. The scans proved unacceptable—too glossy, sort of a cookbook look. So Currie started messing around with ways of copying pages and found that bad Xerox gives a good sense of the original surface, almost three-dimensional in effect. Bad Xerox means put the machine on “color” setting and leave the cover partly open so some errant light gets in. C. also thought the book should convey the immediacy of a hand-made object so he devised the book in a box with accordion folds. We used to tell people to take it to a second-floor window and drop it—the folds are quite strong and the pages make a wonderful fluttering sound as they unfurl.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.