by Anne Carson,
New Directions, 2010,
illustrated, unpaged, $29.95,
Buy the Book
Anne Carson’s beautiful book in a box has already been excellently reviewed in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Believer, and the list goes on.
And so, despite my excitement at the prospect of writing this review, Nox’s two -inch thick bulk sat on my book pile, and continued to sit.
I read it three times, loved it, and it still sat. What could I say that hasn’t already been said, and said much better than I could say? I took it with me to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. My mother, seeing the cover image of Carson’s brother Michael as a ten-year-old boy in swim trunks, flippers and goggles, told me the picture looked exactly like my Uncle Carl. And so she wanted to read the book, but because of turkey distractions, she did not get around to it. I offered to leave the book with her, but she objected: “You’re the one who has to write the review. Won’t you need the book?”
In my mother’s comment about the cover image is a place to start. The book is essentially an elegy to Carson’s brother Michael, who died in 2000 in Copenhagen. It was, in Carson’s words, “a surprise to me.” Carson’s brother did in fact resemble a ten-year-old version of my uncle, but I have the distinct feeling that many people will recognize this goggled sliver of a boy as one of their own. He has that amorphous quality that radiates from the black-and-white photo, calling out, “I’m cute, and I’m prickly. I don’t want you to love me, but you won’t be able to help yourself, will you?”
Of course not. Such is the energy of the distant and the departed.
Who is this boy? And why am I compelled to like him?
Thus begins the asking. But the asking is not idle, as Carson says. To ask is an action, a moving forward in time until answer. As a child, I asked my mother so many questions — why are there tummies? why door panels? why church Latin? why armies? why flight? — that at times, when the onslaught of questions threatened to overwhelm my good mother, she’d respond, “Why is a cow?” Why indeed. I never knew the answer to this question. It often made me mad. How should I know? It made me ask more questions.
I love the old questions, Carson says. Why go on? Why language? What is a voice? Why is a cow?
This asking is something we carry with us, fashioning it into a thing that carries itself.
An accordion book in a box. A hollow book, and not so easy to carry.
My aunt, when I was a child, had a wall of bookshelves, hundreds of volumes. One of my brother’s and my favorite games with friends was to find the hollow book somewhere in the vast bookshelves that contained not words, but jewels — my aunt’s rings she had kept from her own grandmother’s treasures. My aunt didn’t particularly enjoy this game, but we couldn’t resist searching.
The searching has wings. And as we read Carson’s book, we become aware of all the questions of History, a phoenix, flying above us as we read.
A shadow crosses the page, wings, and in this passing shade we come to see the immensity of the mechanism in which we are caught, the incredible fragility of our own flight of shadows, and we are able to fly because of the motor of our asking. The asking makes our bones hollow.
“The immensity of the mechanism in which we are caught.” Such a beautiful phrase, and Carson uses so many others. I would mention the page number, but there aren’t any. What is this mechanism that catches us?
By far the strangest thing that humans do is history. Herodotus is firm on this, as Carson asserts.
The sad anthropologist was not wrong in saying that history allows the enslavement of humankind. A voluntary enslavement, much more pervasive than television or wireless hand-held devices. “What else can he do?” What else can we do? We, literally, asked for it. Like Herodotus, and Carson, we thus describe and are intoxicated by our efforts.
But this act of history is not grand; we collect “bits of muteness.” From whom? From those who have died? From Carson’s brother Michael, from Herodotus, from my aunt and yours and the others.
Muteness, according to Carson, possesses “a fundamental opacity” that sounds of loss; and the essence of loss is the asking. But, of course, there is no sound to the asking. This book does not speak.
To put it another way, there is something tangible in a lack.
And now we approach the end without really having begun. Dictionary entries of the Greek words in Catullus’ poem 101 on the death of his brother punctuate Nox at regular intervals, giving the illusion of knowledge, the solidity of the parts of speech. They almost function as answers to the asking. But they are only a given structure, empty even in their attractive form, because there is no meaning in suffering. One cannot define it. There is no answer. Carson calls it night, or in Latin, “nox.” On the final page, Catullus’ poem, even if one could read Greek, is blurred beyond recognition, set atop night paper.
Because it is so big and unwieldy, my copy of Nox has taken a beating, corners bent, cardboard ripped like a too -big heart, a too-big book in a small, paperback world. Where does this book fit? On my bookshelf? My apartment doesn’t have enough bookshelves, so we have many little stacks and piles of spillover books. Nox has sat on the top of the one closest to my writing desk for weeks. When I come into the room, it calls to me from its little hill that holds open the glass doors from the kitchen. I’ve been ignoring its call for so long — I don’t do reviews, too chalky — but now I have to start.
I can faintly hear the asking that Carson’s book provokes, questions from my own childhood as a ten-year- old, goggled boy, as well as arcs from the asking of later life, the heavier stuff, some realms I’ve lost, and vaster.
Why did Eric Brokaw die in that car crash? Why did Ralph Walker shoot himself at the old basketball courts?
I have begun to listen to them more closely, and to try to ask questions in return. What else can I do? The muteness has grown too loud to ignore.
— Jefferson Navicky