On Thursday the Canadian poet Anne Carson speaks at the Poetry Now festival. She tells PARUL SEHGAL about her elegy in verse for her late sibling, Michael
‘So, Pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?”
In 1979 Anne Carson’s brother fled Canada to escape being arrested for dealing drugs. For 22 years he roamed India and Europe under false passports, writing home infrequently and calling only half a dozen times. He resurfaced in 2000, calling the poet at her office, using his pet name, Pinhead, for his brainy younger sister. He lived in Copenhagen now. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to meet his wife and his dog. They made a plan, and a week before she was due to visit she received another call from Denmark. Her brother was dead.
“His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, and so she did this,” she writes in her astonishing elegy to her brother, Nox. “There is no stone and as I say he had changed his name,” she writes. Nox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is his headstone. In the months after her brother’s death Carson gathered his fragments, his letters and photographs. She pasted them into a blank book and inscribed his name, in her own hand, over and over again on the title page: Michael, Michael, Michael .
“He was such a puzzle,” she says. “I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” We meet at a cafe near New York University, where she is a “distinguished poet-in-residence” and a visiting professor in the creative-writing programme, and strain to be heard over the hissing cappuccino machines.
As visiting professor, in the autumn term, Carson teaches a typically idiosyncratic course on collaboration with her friend Robert Currie, who helped to design Nox. (“We just give the students tasks, like burn something and make something out of the ash.”) On Thursday Carson will deliver the keynote address at dlr Poetry Now, Ireland’s largest poetry festival, in Dún Laoghaire. She’s planning to talk about “untranslatable things” and draw on Detroit’s Heidelberg Project – prime Carson source material. In one of the American Midwest’s most ravaged cities, a local artist named Tyree Guyton has spent 25 years beautifying two blocks, salvaging materials and pasting them to the outsides of derelict houses. He’s covered houses with dolls, bicycle wheels, car parts. The ghost town gleams.
Pastiche, the reanimation of ruins, fragmentation, gleeful appropriation: these are Carson’s classic themes and methods, discernible in even her first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), which grew out of her PhD dissertation at the University of Toronto, a playful rereading of Sappho that made a case for the necessity of absence to desire. Lauded poetry collections and translations followed, notably Autobiography of Red (1998), a novel in verse that transported the myth of Geryon and Heracles to suburban Ontario, and The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), for which she became the first woman to be awarded the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. Her honours also include a Lannan award and a MacArthur fellowship; her most recent books are Decreation , a compilation of poetry, essay, and oratorio, and An Oresteia, a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Orestes .
The single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style, that is Nox might be her most personal and accessible book to date – a surprising claim, perhaps, for a book that invites the reader to peer over the translator’s shoulder and has two complementary texts. On the left-hand pages Carson translates Catullus 101, the Roman poet’s elegy for his own brother who died in a distant land, dedicating a lexical entry to each word. On the right-hand pages her ruminations on translation and her memories of her brother are interspersed with a bricolage of family snapshots and letters, stamps from Denmark and hotel stationary from Kashmir, detritus and clues. Just as every word of Catullus is painstakingly translated, as Carson pries open even the humblest preposition or utilitarian conjunction to reveal its associations, so too is the physicality of the book: the reproduction faithfully re-creates every staple’s shadow, every instance Carson’s pencil cuts into the page.
Nox is Latin for night, and Carson cries out repeatedly for light, elucidation: “I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds,” she writes, to “evoke the starry lad he once was.” And she applies her own profession, that of translation, to deciphering her brother through his correspondence, conceding defeat: “I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He never ends.”
EVEN IF SHADOWS remain stubborn, a picture emerges of Michael and the itinerant Carsons. Carson’s father was a bank manager; under the Canadian system he was obliged to move every three years; the scheme aimed to familiarise bankers with different communities. It was, Carson has described dryly, “hard on the family, good for the bank”. She sought refuge in her studies. To avoid typing lessons she took Latin and persuaded her teacher to give her Ancient Greek lessons during lunch.
“There’s something about Greek that seems to go deeper into words than any modern language,” she has said. “You’re down in the roots of where words work, whereas in English we’re at the top of the tree, in the branches, bouncing around. It was stunning to me, a revelation. And it continues to be stunning, continues to be like a harbour always welcoming…It’s a home, it’s a home in my mind.”
But Michael remained unmoored. Unhappy and unlucky, he was bullied and ignored: one snapshot inNox shows him standing alone by a tree; the boys aloft in the tree house have pulled the ladder up behind them. The “starry lad” turned furtive, turned to selling drugs. After leaving Canada he was homeless for a time. He married at least twice. He worked. Was he happy, Carson asks him over the phone. “No. Oh no.”
If, as Nox begins, “Herodotos is an historian who trains you as you read,” Nox trains the reader how to read it. Even though Carson laments, “Nothing in English can capture the slow, passionate surface of the Roman elegy,” her book’s curious design approximates just that. The reading feels slow, ceremonial, as she provides a dictionary definition of each Latin word in the poem, and invites the reader to play along. Word by word we consider the definitions (and her riffs on the definitions); she gives us the tools to make our own translation of Catullus.
It’s reading at its most mimetic: Carson makes the reader participate in translating the poem – and in deciphering her elusive elder brother. Carson credits Currie, her collaborator, for encouraging this complicity. “He thought it was important to have the reader enter into the reading physically, as I did when I was making the pages,” she says. “Having it in the box and having it unfold draws you in too. You can go back and forth, and you can turn it over.” She takes abundant pleasure in its heft and form. “I like to walk around ideas, but I’m not intrinsically spatial as a thinker. I make a page, which is a flat event. Currie has a way of observing any page and knowing how it would be in space. He added spatiality to these pages. The book’s publication happened to coincide with Kindle, and I’m so pleased that it’s so un-Kindle-isable.”
In a bizarre twist Carson’s ode to her vanished brother almost vanished itself. After completing her copy of Nox, and not yet harbouring any plans to publish it (“I didn’t think it possible”), she met a publisher of art books in Germany who offered to do a facsimile. He took the book with him and disappeared. “He stopped answering e-mails,” Carson says. “I’d resigned myself that I’d created this thing, that 10 or so people knew what it looked like, and that it was gone. And three years later it just reappeared in the mail from FedEx, with a note from his assistant saying, ‘We thought you might want this.’ ” She’s still amazingly unattached to the book, not at all precious or proprietary even given its personal subject matter. (“Do you have a long staircase?” she asks. “Drop it down and watch it unfold. I did.”)
She’s keen to see it used and appropriated and personalised. “Because the backs of the pages are blank, you can make your own book there. We did this with a class of eight-year-olds. They loved it.”
And even though Nox contains other elegies – Michael’s wife’s curt eulogy and Michael’s own anguished account of the death of a girlfriend in a letter to his mother – critics who group Nox with other accounts by the bereaved miss the point. “It’s not about grief. It’s about understanding other people and their histories as if we are all separate languages. That’s what I was trying to explore. Exploring grief would have made it a book about me, and I didn’t want that. Carl Sagan described the universe saying, ‘Well, it’s a million miles of dark empty space with nothing in it and no meaning, but there are a few places with light. We want to focus on the light places.’ I think that’s a good rubric.”
Anne Carson gives her talk The Untranslatable (In All of Us) at the Pavilion theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on Thursday at 8.30pm. The dlr Poetry Now festival continues until March 27th; poetrynow.ie. Nox is published by New Directions, £19.99