The strange story of the life and death of poet Anne Carson's brother, Michael, is worthy of the unique boxed book-cum-scroll, called Nox (New Directions), that she created to tell it. Carson was born in Toronto in 1950, and her brother was four years older. (Carson is famously quiet on her own life and her family, this book offering a rare, if occluded, glimpse into her biography.) Michael left Carson and her mother in 1979, when he was 33, sent a couple of letters over the next 20 years, and resurfaced in 2000, just before his death.
During the intervening decades, Carson went on to become one of the most respected poets and scholars in the English language, achieving a most unusual distinction: she became a popular poet.
Carson studied the classics first in Toronto, where she earned her Ph.D., and then in Scotland, where she did postdoctoral work. After publishing Eros the Bittersweet (1986), her groundbreaking study of Eros in classic literature, she began publishing volumes of poetry, including her first full-length collection, Glass, Irony, and God (New Directions, 1992); Plainwater (Knopf, 1995); and her breakout book, Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), a novel in verse about a winged red creature seeking answers to questions about the nature of desire, which made narrative poetry accessible to a whole new generation of readers.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Carson steadily published books with Knopf that blurred the boundaries between traditional genres, including The Beauty of the Husband (2001), a mixed collection of verse and prose she subtitled “a fictional essay in 29 tangos,” and her most recent book of original work, Decreation (2005), which contains poetry, a long essay on sleep, and an experimental oratorio. Carson has also published many acclaimed translations, including her versions of Sappho, If Not, Winter (2002), and her most recent, An Oresteia (2009).
Carson doesn't have much faith in the notion of genre, or at least she pays very little fidelity to it, “I'm not sure if that's fair to the reader, but I just really have no idea what I'm writing most of the time,” she says, claiming, “I still feel most at home making things into blocks of prose”; “there are all these kinds of fun available in poetic forms, and I experiment with them from time to time, but I never feel very adept at any of that.” Her legions of fans would disagree.
A Lost Brother
“He left [in] 1979 and then he showed up on the telephone in the year 2000, which was quite a shock,” says Carson. “He just phoned me in my office one day,” calling her “Pinhead,” his childhood nickname for his brainy sister. “We made a plan to meet: I was going to go to Copenhagen”—where he was living at the time—“but a week before I was to go, I got a call that he had died. I did go and met his widow and his dog, but it was [a] totally different trip than I had planned.”
How does one mourn a loved one lost so long before his death? How reconcile distant memories of a shared childhood, the very formation of one's self, with completely separate adult lives? How understand a brother's sudden re-emergence followed by his death, the final vanishing? These are the questions Nox seeks the language to ask, though certainly not to answer.
Nox does not give a great deal of biographical information—Carson writes that her bother ran away “rather than go to jail,” wandering Europe and Asia on a false passport. The book doesn't tell his cause of death and claims he wrote only one letter to Carson's mother, after “that girl” (“the love of his life,” his widow says calmly) died. But this is not a book about information, though it flirts with memoir in its recounting of an unknown life whose details Carson simply can't fill in. But she doesn't want to. Nox, which Carson calls “an epitaph” (“nox” means night in Latin), is an act of mourning, of questioning, a kind of keening over someone who was as irretrievable in life as in death.
Carson began creating what would become Nox in 2001: “Michael passed away in the spring of 2000, so I started to make it the following winter,” says Carson. As a means of dealing with her brother's sudden death, of gathering together what information she did have about him, Carson bought a blank book and began taping and stapling in photographs, torn bits of letters, and passages of her own writing.
Of course, Carson's mind is spurred by the classics; she turned to a poem she had long been obsessed with by the Roman poet Catullus. Referred to as Catullus 101, the poem, in Carson's translation, concludes “into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.” To shape the book, Carson takes readers through the act of translating the poem word by word, alternating lexical entries about the original Latin with her own prose about her brother and the bits of collage mentioned above.
As far as what genre the book is, Carson is mostly concerned with what it's not: “I guess it's a memoir because it's about memory, but I kept calling it an epitaph, which seems a more dignified form to me, because memoirs tend to be mostly about the memoirist and their salvation from some calamity or suffering. I didn't want this to be about me mainly.”
All of these elements taken together become a stunning and heartbreaking exhibition of grief and wondering. Originally, Carson hadn't intended to publish it—“I kept it for a number of years as a book that I showed to one person at a time,” she says—but then, with the help of her friend Robert Currie, she found a way of reproducing the original collage journal so that it “would still be as intimate, so that when you read it you still feel that you are just one person reading it, so it doesn't seem like so much a violation because a fiction of privacy is maintained.”
Xeroxing and the Possibility of Time
The process of reproducing the original journal is a story unto itself. The book is not really a book of poetry, though that's how it's labeled. Carson says it was her editor's idea to call it poetry. The book is an extraordinary object to behold, and more extraordinary to read, but it's hardly accurate to even call it a “book.” It's perhaps 10 feet of paper, folded accordionlike, displaying as near a reproduction of Carson's original collage journal as is possible. The whole thing is folded and packed into a beautiful gray box.
What Robert Currie figured out was how, in a book about the passage of time, to reproduce the sense of lost time communicated by Carson's original collage—the faded letters, the dog-eared corners of the photos, the awkward way all of it was held to the page with staples and glue. According to Carson, Currie “thought of scanning it and then xeroxing the scans. We were in Berlin for a while at a place that had a xerox machine, and he fooled around with it at night, scanning and xeroxing and lifting the cover a bit so a little light gets in, so it has three-dimensionality. The scan is a digital method of reproduction, it has no decay in it, it has no time in it, but the xerox puts in the sense of the possibility of time.”
After pitching the idea to Knopf and realizing that the huge trade house “just didn't get it,” Carson returned to New Directions, her earlier publisher, and to editor Declan Spring, who was game for trying the scanning-and-copying method. “Declan,” Carson says, “was quite open to experimenting from the beginning, and they had to send it to China for something and to Canada for something else, but he never lost faith that the mechanical problems could be worked out and it would be a good idea and affordable.”
The result is breathtaking, evidence of visionary publishing at a moment when the book business is increasingly cynical. Carson's willingness to uncover her own grief will help others suffering losses, and will doubtlessly inspire other writers to look across the borders between genres and find new forms.