In “Catullus 101,” the Roman poet writes an elegy for his brother, who died alone and far from home. This poem, which famously ends “Ave atque vale,” or “hail and farewell,” has inspired the elegies of generations of poets, from Alfred Lord Tennyson to Billy Collins. In her latest book, “Nox,” poet Anne Carson uses Catullus’ elegy as a lens through which to understand the death of her own brother. “I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy,” Carson writes. “No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind.” However, though Carson claims that there is no satisfactory existing translation of the Latin poem, “Nox” impressively reveals her own personal—and heartbreaking—understanding of Catullus’ words.
This is by no means Carson’s first foray into classical literature. A professor of the Classics at the University of Michigan, Carson has translated works such as “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho,” and more recently, “An Oresteia.” Her “Autobiography of Red” is a collection of narrative verse told from the point of view of the mythical figure Geryon. This latest book combines her skills as translator and poet; here, her careful translation of Catullus’ poem is combined with a series of short, narrative prose poems.
Advertised as a “book in a box,” “Nox” is an attempted reproduction of Carson’s journal from her period of mourning after the death of her brother. In addition to pieces of Catullus’ poem and Carson’s own writing, Carson has included reproductions of postcards and letters from her brother and mother, photographs of her family, and her own abstract sketches. The pages are designed to fold out in accordion style, so that in theory it is possible to view Carson’s entire book as one long page.
The decision to design the book in such an unusual fashion is questionable; the accordion-like pages are more difficult to handle than the leaves of a traditional book, and the hefty box that contains them is far more unwieldy than an average hardcover tome. An edition of “Nox” in which the poems, translations, letters, and photographs appeared as regular pages would be equally effective in recreating the poet’s attempt to understand her own grief.
It is, after all, Carson’s delicate efforts toward finding consolation that provide the driving force of her book. Towards the beginning of her journal, it seems that Carson tries to comfort herself through telling the story of her brother’s life: “My brother ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail. He wandered in Europe and India, seeking something, and sent us postcards or a Christmas gift, no return address. He was traveling on a false passport and living under other people’s names. This isn’t hard to arrange. It is irremediable. I don’t know how he made his decisions in those days. The postcards were laconic. He wrote only one letter, to my mother, the winter that girl died.” This exact wording is repeated several times, presented side by side with a reproduction of the one letter her brother wrote, as if by telling this narrative over and over, Carson hopes to come to an understanding of her brother’s inscrutable actions.
Interspersed with her exploration of the layers of her brother’s life, Carson similarly examines the layers of each individual word in Catullus’ elegy. Rather than attempting a simple translation, Carson displays entire dictionary entries on each Latin word in sequence with its appearance in Catullus’ poem. For the word “aequora,” for instance, she not only includes the direct definition—“a smooth or level surface”—but also an example of its usage, the translation of which is: “have we made it across the vast plain of night?” By including these long definitions alongside her own prose poems, Carson encourages a reading of each definition as if it were a poem in itself. Moreover, in presenting the many possible meanings of each Latin word, Carson creates a kind of translation that allows for the nuances that she feels are lost in any attempt to translate Catullus into English.
Carson also brings her translator’s eye to the words of her emotionally and physically distant brother. “Because our conversations were few (he phoned me maybe 5 times in 22 years) I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them,” she writes. In translating, it is necessary to parse each word in an attempt to understand how it relates, thematically and grammatically, to every other word in the poem in which it appears. Carson studies with similar rigor each inexplicable decision her brother made and every conversation she had with him. Definition by definition, poem by poem, Carson slowly creates a portrait, not of her deceased brother’s personality or character, but of the effect of his absence on his family, both before and after his death.
Early on, Carson uses history as a way into her discussion of elegy, focusing on the Greek writer Herodotos: “Herodotos is an historian who trains you as you read. It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do.” The study of history often raises more questions, Herodotos argues, than it resolves. Carson’s elegy is indeed similar to Herodotos’ concept of history. Although she does not fully arrive at an understanding of her brother’s life, Carson seems to find consolation through the very process that Herodotos describes. In its collage of images, definitions, and poetry, “Nox,” creates a powerful visual and literary rendering of this poet’s searching, collecting, doubting, and blaming in the wake of the death of her mysterious but much mourned brother.
—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at email@example.com.