Thursday, January 19, 2017


"A narcissistic exercise in bookbinding" is how a grumpy review in Walrus referred to Nox, an unusual work by Anne Carson that straddles the boundary between visual art and the written word.

It consists of a single sheet approximately 80 feet in length, but folded accordion-style to fit into a sturdy cardboard box.

It's an elegy for her enigmatic older brother, Michael, who died in the year 2000. He left the country to avoid going to jail, and spent the remainder of his life wandering about the world under a false passport.

Occasional postcards arrived but never communicated much. In death as in life he remained a mystery. His photo on the cover reflects this perfectly.

The departure point for this work is a brief poem by Catullus about his own brother who died in a distant land. It appears in Latin at the beginning of the book. Thereafter it is dissected, word by word, on the left side of two-page spreads, with all the various permutations that each word can take.

For example, an entire page is devoted to the word "et"!  Who knew such a tiny word could mean so much? Carson opens it up in much the same way the physical work unfolds.

On pages facing these explications are details of her brother's life. Translation thus becomes a metaphor for her attempt to understand him.

"I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch."

History is just as slippery. When Herodotus is invoked, it is with the caution that history often "produces no clear or helpful account."

Visually Nox is a collage, a scrapbook containing chopped-up photos and torn bits of paper. Even Carson's text appears on slips of paper. The single letter that Michael wrote home appears in pieces throughout as a sort of physical metaphor of Carson's fragmented knowledge of him.

Many pages are so brief, so elliptical, that the meaning is clouded, yet the cumulative effect is compelling. "No one knew him," she writes. He was mute in the sense of "a certain fundamental opacity of a human being."

It made me think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as applied to human quanta.

Nox is Latin for "night," a suitable title for a book about such a shadowy figure. In a way, we are all like Michael.