23 January 2011

Nox, by Anne Carson (no. 1)

To be honest, I'm not even sure if this book really qualifies as poetry. It isn't immediately recognisable as a poetry book - it's much thicker for a start, is in a box, and is concertina folded. And when you look at the pages, you don't find what you'd immediately recognise as poetry. There are fragments, photos, scribbles, things that appear to pieces of peeled paint, and lots and lots of definitions of Latin words.

But, when you read them, they feel like poetry, and it's by a poet, so I'm counting it.

I'm a big fan of Anne Carson. She's a Canadian poet and the author of what, if asked, I say is my favourite poem: 'The Glass Essay' (I've written about it a couple of times on this blog). She's better known, I think, as the author of Autobiography of Red - a kind of verse-novel retelling/revisioning of a Greek myth about the monster Geryon and his relationship with Herakles - which I also love, but not as much.

I asked for Nox for Christmas, and it duly arrived via the internet - I haven't seen it in Unity Welly, though I did paw it in Unity Auckland but didn't have enough room in my bag to bring it home. As I said, it's a big book. As a physical object, it's gorgeous. (Oh hey, here's a video showing it on Youtube.) It's a facsimile of a scrapbook Carson made as an epitaph for her brother after he died. It tells his story, sort of, in little fragments, snatches, glimpses, riddles almost. She only had little snatches of him, really, because he 'ran away' at some unspecified age (sometime in early adulthood) to avoid prison - I don't think we are told what for, but intimations are drug dealing or possibly something to do with the death of a girl he loved - though that might have been later. And after he skipped the country the only direct contact Carson had with him was about five phonecalls over twenty-two years. So, anyway, these story snippets are mostly on the right-hand pages.

The book begins with a reproduction of a typed, slightly water damaged, poem in Latin.

On many of the left-hand pages are definitions of Latin words, much as one might find in a Latin-to-English dictionary. The definitions (it took me a little bit to realise, I'm afraid, but I was a bit ill at the time, so forgive my slowness) are of the words in the poem, defining each word's various meanings, subtleties, layers, and gives the word in the context of a few phrases. While these definitions are not always easy to read, they are each like little poems. For example, the definition for aequora begins:
a smooth or level surface, expanse, surface; a level stretch of ground, plain; inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus? have we made it across the vast plain of the night?
Later, she tells us about the poem that begins the collection. It is by Catullus (poem 101), and he wrote it as an elegy for his brother, who had recently died. Carson, who teaches Classics at university, says how it had moved her, and how she tried several times to translate it, but:
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 never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101.
She does, further in to the book, include an English translation of the poem, but the real translation of the poem is the accumulation of these definitions, which show the weight and power that sits behind each word.

As well as highlighting one of the difficulties of translation, it also for me emphasised the power of poetry - in a good poem, each word has all those layers of meaning sitting behind it. It may mean one thing on the surface, but another thing below that, text and subtext, punning and play.

It's getting late, and I'm ranting a little now, but this is a rich book - not easy, perhaps, but rich in language and rich in ideas and meaning - and a book I suspect I will return to over and over.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a fantastic book and emblematic of where I would like my own poetry to be going. Thanks for the great review and the new ideas.