Friday, 25 March 2011

(A) Night with Anne Carson

Photograph by Einar Falur Ingólfsson

Anne Carson’s Nox (New York: New Directions Books, 2010) is very hard to talk about because it is a lot of things. And it has quite a bit of thingness to it. Written after the death of her brother, it is an extended exploration of Catullus’s Poem 101, itself written after the death of his brother. Because the elegy is stunning, I reproduce it here:
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus
--aduenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
--et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
--heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
--tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
--atque in perpetuum, frater, aue atque uale.
Produced on a single long sheet of paper, folded like an accordion and stored in a box, it is not a book but feels like it is at a point somewhere between a papyrus roll and a codex. A meeting of Greek and Latin, the old and the new. Anne Carson is a distinguished classicist and this powerfully liminal bookness can not be accidental. She seems to be exploring the very nature of how we read in its most physical dimension. When one reads it, it is almost easier to handle the pages while leaving it inside the box, like one is rummaging through Carson’s most personal effects. A box of memories, a box of memory, even.1 It is a livre d’artiste, with the word artiste including poet: at once a book-object, art-book, a book-poem, a page. When open, the left hand side has a ‘dictionary’ entry for each word of Catullus 101, while the right hand page will have pieces of paper glued on, family photos, scraps of letters written by her brother Michael, pieces of her own mind. The sections are numbered 1—10, subdivided 1.1, 1.2 and so on. I place the word dictionary in scare quotes there because even these entries, which look ‘official’, are in fact her own, highly nuanced understanding and definition of the word: it, too, becomes another mode of expression. It is encylopaedic, like a poetic Isidore of Seville: Truth from Words.2 Thus, the poem unfolds along parallel lines, etymology, translation on one side, recuperation, recreation, history (his-story) on the other, both constantly intersecting, nourishing each other. The book is almost impossible to “cite” in the tradition sense: it must be experienced.

Nox opens by thinking about history, its closeness to elegy. History comes from the Greek ‘to ask’ (ἱστωρεῖν): ‘One who asks about things - about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell - is an historian’. The word ‘autopsy’ is used by historians to mean eyewitnessing. “To withhold this authorization is also powerful. Herodotus carefully does not allege to have seen a phoenix, which comes only once every five hundred years... Herodotus likes to introduce such information with a word like λέγεται: ‘it is said,’ as one might use on dit or dicitur” (1.2). This leads to Carson repeating what she had heard about her brother’s dog and his reaction to Michael’s death, calming down once he put his paws on the coffin. Putting together the tiny scraps of information Michael revealed about himself, his few letters home, his few telephone conversations, Carson proceeds on this recuperation, meditation, creating both a history and an elegy. All the while, each word of Catullus 101 slowly works on the reader, with an insistent slowness that becomes inescapable. In section 7.1 Carson says that Catullus 101 has always exerted a powerful force on her:

Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. 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. I have never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, 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 does not end.

Photo: Hannah Whittaker/New York Magazine

That image of the tree showing its silvery leaves in the wind is a festivity that is revealed to us, that to which we have access. Carson has used the image of the tree to capture the difference between Greek and English: “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.” This is not an either/or, it is a both. Without one, there is not the other. Feeling around for the roots makes us understand what we are doing when we are bouncing around in those branches.3

Another important dimension to this book is that it is a facsimile: from the Latin fac make (imperative of facere) and simile like (neuter of similis), make like. On the back of the box Carson writes: ‘When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.’ This is like the original but not the original: that is, it is untranslatable, like Catullus 101. Replica is a suggestive word to use: replicatio means a folding or rolling back again (of a book, for example), while in English it also means a reply, or a reproduction. In a sense, this is a replicatio, a rolling back of the original, and it is a reply to her brother, a reply with an address that he never left. That poignant ‘as close as we could get’ does not just refer to the accuracy of the facsimile, but to the closeness it brings them, brother and sister. In a famous essay, Walter Benjamin talked about the age of mechanical reproduction taking something away from the ‘aura’ of the work of art. The reproduction points relentlessly to its original, and to that which it is not: ‘The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity... The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical–and, of course, not only technical–reproducibility’.4 In a very wonderful analysis of this idea of authenticity and reproducibility, Michael Camille looked at the way in which facsimiles of the Très Riches Heures are packaged and sought to examine how, in fact, the facsimile emphasized the aura of authenticity by pointing up its rarity. The facsimile became the only means of accessing the manuscript, something Camille noted was the effect of the publicity material released by Faksimilé-Verlag Luzern: ‘After the facsimile has been produced the original will be locked away forever!’5 When one opens out the page(s) of Nox, it becomes apparent that the back side of the page is white. In the language of manuscripts, its recto is blank, while we read its verso. In a wonderful interview with Parul Seghal in the Irish Times Carson says that “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.” We are invited to make our own reply. In many ways, that is what makes Nox so powerful, the way it invites, the way the reader participates and experiences, and shares. As Seghal says: “Nox trains the reader how to read it”.

Benjamin also says in his essay on mechanical reproduction: ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space’ (p. 214). But in talking about the technical challenges for the book, Carson has spoken of how her friend and collaborator Robert Currie thought about the book: “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 possibilities afforded the kind of quality reproduction that can now be made and the nature of the very design of Nox extend even to Benjamin’s sense of the production lacking ‘time and space’. In other words, Nox is an event in 3D, an encounter occuring in time and space.

The Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Poetry Now Festival festival opened in heady style with a lecture by Belinda McKeon earlier in the day entitled “The Eye of the Poem” in which she discussed the idea of attention and attentiveness, the poem as object of attention, the reader as object of the poem’s intention. With generous and penetrating reference to all of the poets reading this year, she explored the notion of how attention concretizes both that which is in the poem and the reader encountering the poem. The lecture will be available as a podcast and will repay attention.

Anne Carson delivered the opening address at this year's DLR Poetry Now Festival: The Untranslatable (In All of Us).6 It was with great excitement and not a little trepidation that I made my way to hear it. Speaking while images were projected onto a screen, it was two lectures, one in images and one in words. She talked about silence and cliché, and what happens when we arrive at the untranslatable. She discussed the plant Odysseus is given by Hermes to resist the power of Circe: μῶλυ (Od. 10. 305), a word that belongs to the gods. She then reflected on the trials of Joan of Arc, described as fraught with translation issues: thousands of words passed between her and the lawyers, all being translated back and forth between her French and the Latin of the lawyers. But Joan’s response to a question on the nature of the voices she heard resisted translation, it was a language of the gods: “The light comes in the name of the voice”. With great ease, Carson then moved on to talking about Bacon and his “Brutality of Facts”, examining the surface of the work, its painted, violent reality and the continual drive to eradicate narrative, his attempts to “destroy clarity with clarity”. She set up a dichotomy between cliché and catastrophe, one the opposite of the other. The cliché is the question, it allows us not to think, or to think the already thought; the catastrophe is the answer.7 She then looked at translating the colour purple from the Greek word κάλχη, referring to the purplefish, but which leads to the verb καλχαινειν, to make dark and troublous (like a stormy sea), to ponder deeply (LSJ). When Hölderlin came to Sophokles’ Antigone: “You are obviously grown dark in mind over some piece of news” (Soph. Antig. 20: τί δ᾽ ἔστι; δηλοῖς γάρ τι καλχαίνουσ᾽ ἔπος) he translated it with: “Du seheinst ein rotes Wort zu färben”, You seem to colour a red word, you dye your words red. This “deadly literalism” as Carson calls it leads her to think about his madness and the madness that is in translation, as well as the silence that falls within the word. But if cliché and catastrophe seem to offer two ways (only), one of naming, one of chaos, translation offers a third place to be, between naming and namelessness. She ended with Paul Celan’s poem in praise of Hölderlin (‘Tübingen, January’) and his neologism Pallaksch, which sometimes meant yes, and sometimes meant no. Perhaps a word from the gods, meaning yes and meaning no. A good one for a translator to tackle, a middle way between cliché and catastrophe.

It was a stunning, sensitive and graceful offering, received gratefully by an audience in rapture.

McKeon’s meditations on attentiveness and the power of poetry to keep us in its aim, as well as Carson’s consideration of translatability, καλχαινειν, cliché and catastrophe took on a very sharp focus as the audience realized that the DLR Poetry Now Festival will no longer exist in its current format. It is to be incorporated into another literary festival (‘Mountains to Sea Book Festival’), in a much reduced scale. I greatly regret this loss of an individual identity for the Poetry Festival, especially considering how long it has taken to establish and build up. Financial pressure is certainly part of it, but other pressures of audience and accessibility have undoubtedly played their part, all with concerns of metrics and measurability, impact and the perceived elitism of poetry. It all makes me fear that we are all now much too close to a kind of cliché and catastrophe that have nothing to do with poetry.


1 See the remarks by Jess Row (here) on memory, the ars memorativa, esp. via the Rhetorica ad Herennium. The box in which Nox comes is not just like that archivists use for precious and delicate books or manuscripts, it might also be the room Carson likens to translation itself.

2 To paraphrase the title of John Henderson, The Medieval World of Isidore Seville: Truth from Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

3 And cf. “Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” Carson, Autobiography of Red, p. 3.

4 See Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' in Illuminations, ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), pp. 211-244, with citation from p. 214.

5 See Michael Camille, 'The Très Riches Heures: An Illuminated Manuscript in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Critical Inquiry, 17 (1990), 72-107, at p. 72. For further fascinating work on facsimiles, see Sandra Hindman and Nina Rowe (eds), Manuscript Illumination in The Modern Age: Recovery and Reconstruction (Evanston, Il: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2001).

For reviews of Nox see that of Meghan O'Rourke in The New Yorker; Andrew Motion in The Guardian; Sam Anderson in New York Magazine; Ben Ratliff in The New York Times; Michael Dirda in The Washington Post; Peter Stothard in the TLS; Tom Payne in The Telegraph; Jess Row in The New Republic

Not strictly speaking a review, but excerpts from a reading, an interpretation can be seen here:

and here

6 There is a transcription(?) of another slightly modified version of the lecture here.

7 Cf. καταστροφή, an overturning, sudden turn, conclusion (LSJ)


Emerging Writer said...

Thanks for this write up. More coherent than mine here

Miglior acque said...

Thanks for this Emerging Writer. The podcasts will be up in a couple of weeks I understand.


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