On Reading Anne Carson's Nox
a personal essay by Lauren Crux
Nox (New Directions) is Anne Carson's newest book. It is written as a memorial to her brother, whose life was a mystery and who died suddenly in 2000. It is poetry, prose, translation, elegy, testimony, scrapbook, collage, literary object, monument, mystery, memorial. Hard to classify really, except that it is pure Anne Carson and a worthy read.
The book cascades to the floor. It's fold-out accordion pages pour from my lap like a kid's Slinky. I am upset, distressed that the pages will have been torn, bent, or ruined in some way by this tumble. I lean to pick it up, begin to fold it back in to itself, but some of the pages fold awkwardly and they begin to escape my grip and again unfold stretching to the floor. I grab for them, and part of the book falls back down; I grab with two hands, accidentally dumping the cat out of my lap in the process. Damn. It surprises me that I feel annoyed with one of the things I most like about this book—how it remains attached to itself, folded in, folding open; how it is both book and art object that one lifts out of its container and opens and reads a fold at a time, or perhaps spreads open like a fan for a long arcing view. Right now I am just frustrated with its unwieldiness. Aaargh, mutter, mutter. I start over, holding the book carefully as the cat settles in once more and I unfold the pages with careful focused intention.
I think about making notes on the pages of the book, to write the definition of "discandied" on the page in which it appears, because I keep forgetting what the word means, which seems funny to me, since my poetry group has had exuberant email wordplay about, Discandied: to melt, dissolve, thaw. For example, My first name used to be "Candy," but when I changed it to Lauren I discandied myself. (Audible groans.) My own memory of things I care about, not just short term, but long term, is melting, dissolving. (My first phone number as a little girl in Canada—Cherry 8838. Or was it 68? I thought I'd never forget this.)
I decide to write in the book, sparingly, but to break the pristine barrier nonetheless. I get up to get a pencil, dump the cat out of my lap (again) where he has just resettled, find the pencil, but then stop to look up (again) the definition of "discandied" (we are all outsourcing our memories); then I spend some time on the internet to see if I can find something written about the use of imagery and nostalgia in Nox, and in so doing I forget to write the definition of "discandied" in the book, although I do add it to my computer file named, "Words I like" where it joins company with "gnomic," "gimcrack," "lubricity," "lubrous," and the lovely "worriation."
I decide not to write on the pages of the book; it feels wrong somehow, but is that because I make things precious, or because this book is precious, and if the book is precious, why? Is it because the book itself is an artifact and I do not want to deface it, or should I add my own fragmentary meanderings to the fragments already so carefully placed?
And then I wonder, how will we tell each other (in my poetry group which meets this evening) which page to go to when we want to refer to something, or point something out? I imagine it will be awkward: "Open the book somewhere in the middle; find the image of the three yellow circles, the eggs, the sunny side up eggs, the ones Anne Carson's brother stubbed his cigarette in—find that page, or pages, then go two folded pages beyond that to where she writes. . . ." But as I go back to find the yellow circles, I discover that it is two yellow circles, not three. Already my memory has altered itself, and I look to see what "two pages later" is, and I find I will have to clarify: "Two folded pages later which takes us to the words, 'Repent means the pain again'" or I might say simply, "Two pages later on which we find on the left at the bottom, ipse triste, the sad one.'" Carson has sections numbered, e.g., 4.2, 4.3, so that we can locate ourselves in general throughout the book, but without page numbers there will always be a bit of wandering through.
My attention is fragmentary. I struggle with what to remember and where to find and what to make of things once I do remember and find them, perhaps only to lose them again. Luckily I love fragments—to read them, to write them—torn bits of paper, a fragment of Sappho, of Anne Carson. I think in fragments, remember in fragments. This book is perfect for me.
I am distracted, instead of going back to the book, to continue my re-reading, I remember I have to print out my name and address (office address only) and destination address and itinerary to put in my suitcase as per instructions for my upcoming trip to Paris and Berlin, and I accidentally make too many copies of my itinerary, which I have made multiples of anyway, in case I lose something, myself perhaps.
I flip through my journal trying to find where I wrote about "overtakelessness," das Unumgängliche, "that which cannot be gotten round or avoided or seen to the back of." I have read and re-read that page in the book where the word and its definition appear, and each time—a speechlessness overtakes me. There is so much in life, my life, our lives, that I cannot seem to get round, despite serious effort.
I cannot tell you on what page "overtakelessness" shows up; I know it is early in the book. I look in my journal, which, although it comes unnumbered, I have numbered for my own convenience, thinking one day I may want to refer to myself, hoping I have clearly marked where I have written in the definition of this German word which seems so useful to me, and to Anne Carson, but I soon abandon this task, because I can't find my entry, and now I am getting frustrated, so I return to the box, or rather, the book.
Ah, but here it is, I found it: in the first few pages, ten folds in (if you count the title page), you will see a smudged bit of fragment on the lower left page, on which appears the word "per," and below that word, the words, "see above per," okay, directly opposite that on the right hand page, (the first word at the top of the right hand page reads "Herodotus"), right across from "see above per," you will find "Overtakelessness"—Anne stares into the muteness of her brother he refuses to be "cooked"; ". . . there is something that facts lack."
The journey of psychoanalysis of which I am an informed practitioner, is the journey of the examined life: the facts as they are remembered or presented matter. We gather them about, but there is something that facts lack, and for that we have to be willing to meander, to write or speak without intention, to find out what wants to be said. From there, different kinds of truth emerge, and the possibilities of being in truth with oneself. Nox journeys through facts and fragments and images and memories to discover the something that facts lack. Our humanness. Nostalgia resonates in imagery, but because of the terse examination of memory, of facts, the work itself does not run aground on nostalgia. Nostalgia is sticky and leaves me feeling not quite well fed, like too much sugar and empty carbs for breakfast. This work is solid in its willingness not to be nailed down. It is a good meal.
There is a monument in the cemetery near where I live which is the only tombstone in the cemetery that gives me aesthetic pleasure. It is made of polished granite. A photograph of the head and shoulders of a Chinese woman sits prominently on the left hand upper-side of the monument. The woman looks imperious; I imagine she was the matriarch of a proud family. All the lettering, which is in Chinese, is in gold leaf and is kept renewed each year. It shines so brightly. A beacon. The photograph is sealed, protected from the elements, and even after many years, has not faded. When I walk past, I always pause to view the gravestone; I appreciate its restrained elegance, the care her family is taking of the monument. I have seen the family only once; they were gathered round, bowing in respect.
It would be soppy of me to say that I bow to Anne Carson. But I do hold her and this work of art, this book, this box, this monument, this testimony, this seeking, this metaphysics of life and death, in deep regard. I fold and unfold this book, delight in it as an object (and complain about it as an object). Yes, I hesitate to write in it, and get frustrated when I can't find the page I am looking for, and it unfolds all over me and the cat one more time. I also laugh, because I started out to write something entirely different, something about the use of photographs in Nox, and instead here I am wandering about, wonderfully wandering, wondering, about it all—life, death, connection, disconnection, grief, love . . . Such is the magic and worthiness of Nox.
As I get ready to end this writing (it is time to go out and buy the baguettes, the cheese, and the kale for a salad I am going to make for the poetry group; perhaps there will be time for a little exercise; it's a long drive to Stockton where our group is meeting). I return once more to my notes. And once more I wander off.
My girl cat has vanished. It's been days now, and storming. She's never done this before. But she was a risk-taker; no matter how much I called her in, she found a way to venture out. I assume she has been recycled as food for a coyote or bobcat or fox or owl (do owls eat small cats?). Thinking of the great cycle of life, death, life, round and round we go, gives my grief a location that helps in a small way to counter any sense of the meaninglessness of life and my own helplessness. I feel a heartache that tugs in on my chest, making breathing hard. She was my favorite. We had a good exchange going: I took care of her in my devoted particular way, and she took care of me in her particular way—my little limbic resonator. As Anne Carson makes clear throughout as she searches out her brother's story and hence part of her own story—who was he? who is she?—the not knowing makes grieving harder. Did my beloved cat suffer, or was it quick? It has been raining and storming for two days; I find the thought of a cold soggy death wrenching. I hope it was quick. But what if she is alive? Have I searched for her enough? Can she hear me? Some things we will not know.
My only sister has gone awol. She wrote a long detailed letter saying I was no longer in her life; that she was leaving, and no one would know where to. This has proven true. I am not ready to look for her. There have been too many years, too much hurt; too much disinterest, disconnection; too much, at times, inexplicable, although perhaps unintentional, cruelty. There is not a mystery that haunts me as it does Anne Carson—the dead woman, and why the brother had to leave—but there is a mystery nonetheless that I share: what happened to my sister? and in the course of what happened to her, what happened to me?
"Overtakelessness"—das Unumgängliche—" "That which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts—it remains beyond them." In my journal, above this quote I have written this from Alice Munro: "There's always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone."
I think love is hard no matter how you do it, and grief, well, grief like love, is complicated, but at least we know it is about love. I dreamt once that I was a refrigerator, which I thought was a rather heavy-handed metaphor from my psyche to me for the coldness I felt defined me. I thought once that I could not love. But I have learned that is not true. That it never was true.
Time to leave. I look forward to what sense of this book my group will create, each of us offering up her particular viewpoint. What will we remember together? How will we each hold, literally and metaphorically, this grey/granite/monument/box of a book? How will each of our lives unfold, tumble, crease and spill out? How will we be held? Each life a fragment.
Lauren Crux is a performance artist best known for her solo shows of performance monologue. Stories have always been a part of her life: how they are told and re-told, how they are interrupted, torn apart, and mended. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. For her day job, she is a psychotherapist in Santa Cruz, California.