I’ve followed Anne Carson’s work for many years. She’s a complex persona—part professor of classics, poet, novelist, essayist, critic and all around category buster—exploring a wide range of topics, approaches and methodologies. Meghan O’Rourke’s description is apt: “Anne Carson has somehow become a culture hero—the ‘anti-bourgeois’ variety of icon that, as Susan Sontag once noted, appeals by being ‘repetitive, obsessive, and impolite.'” But this is repetition, obsessiveness and impoliteness I can’t get enough of.
One of the most memorable Carson pieces for me is a short essay she wrote about one of my favorite all time plays, The Invention of Love*, Tom Stoppard’s extraordinarily erudite play that deals with the life of poet A. E. Houseman. (Carson’s piece was included in a handout and audience “aid” written by classicists and dramaturges when Stoppard’s play was performed in New York City a few years back. It is in my bookshelves, somewhere…) One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet, is a fascinating treatise on the role of eros in Ancient Greek culture and has developed a kind of cult following. Her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, permanently reframed my relationship with the Heraklean myth cycle.
So of course I would be interested in her latest conception. This is how Ben Ratliff begins his New York Times review of her most recent book, Nox:
Anne Carson’s new book comes in a box the color of a rainy day, with a sliver of a family snapshot on the front. Inside is a Xerox-quality reproduction of a notebook, made after the death of her brother, including text and photographs and letters, pasted-in inkjet printouts, handwriting, paintings and collage. “Nox” has no page numbers, and it’s accordion-folded. It carries a whiff of visual art multiple or gift shop souvenir or “Griffin & Sabine.” But trust me: it’s an Anne Carson book. Maybe her best.
Carson, a university classics professor by trade, is usually described as a poet, though that’s not her problem. None of her books contain all verse in any traditional sense — not counting her translations — and some contain none. There’s not much poetry in this one, yet the whole thing is poetry of a kind you’re not used to. Her words are often not very melodious. Even on the hot subjects of desire and impermanence (sex and death and all their implications), she’s analytical, pedagogical, privately plain-spoken, stonily amused. In “Nox,” the linkage of ideas approaches a kind of music; the language works only in their service, without much extra show.
Carson’s book is wrapped around the story of her real life brother Michael, a man who struggled with drugs and with staying out of jail, a drifter with whom Carson was never close. It doesn’t sound like a strong foundational start for a project of this scope. And yet based on Ratcliff’s review, it succeeds.
More from Ratliff’s review:
Every thought runs together in “Nox.” Elegy and history are cousins, she explains, because they’re both forms of autopsy. She describes translating as being in “a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch”; it’s her own nox. But Michael, whom she still does not understand, is her night as well, her dark room whose light will never go on. (“A brother never ends,” she writes.) Of course, her subject’s life was full of night, too: he traveled on a false passport. Even the dictionary entries are rolled into the big theme: the discussion about the metaphorical dark room leads her to talk of “entries” as endless ways into “a room I can never leave.” The book is totally recherché and weirdly clear, lingered over and neatly boxed, precious in the word’s best sense.
Her risk taking, her unpredictability, her exploratory mashing up of forms and functions, all part of what makes Carson’s work so compelling and inspiring. I love Ratliff’s phrase to describe this book—“weirdly clear”. It seems a fitting description of her work in general.
* If I could find my copy of that handout I’d quote from Anne Carson herself. But since I can’t, here’s a memorable description of Stoppard’s play by the old lion of the American Repertory Theater himself, Robert Brustein: “The Invention of Love (…) may well be the showiest of all of Stoppard’s intellectual exercises. (…) There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” Oh yeah. Bring it on.