More an experience than a read, Nox by Anne Carson splices abstraction–definitions, quotations, lessons in ancient Greek history–with the concrete specificity of family photographs, handwritten letters, and personal recollections that attempt to contain a fragile and fragmented relationship. The book concerns her older brother, Michael, who in adulthood fell into drugs and, finally, drifting under false identities. (In her words, he “ran away in 1978, rather than go to jail.”) Carson recalls her mother “standing at the kitchen sink scraping carrots. For years after he left, she would glance up every time a car came spinning along the road.” Under an assumed name, Michael wanders in Europe and India for a while, sends an occasional laconic postcard to his mother and slips into poverty, drink and homelessness. From his one letter — it is reproduced in fragments over several panels — we learn that a woman he loved named Anna, “a blonde delighted girl,” died during a period when he was locked up in a foreign jail. Her memories are not straight nonfiction, but rather poems becoming dialogues, essays becoming memoir, single words becoming sentence fragments. Nox is a public facsimile of a deeply private object: a scrapbook Carson put together as a memorial to her older brother, Michael, reproduced this unique collage, in full color, with such thorough devotion that some pages show nothing but the backs of staples.
Nox is a brilliantly curated heap of scraps. It’s both an elegy and a meta-elegy, a touching portrait of a dead brother and a declaration of the impossibility of creating portraits of dead brothers. The book opens with a puzzle: a wrinkled square of yellow paper containing a ten-line Latin poem—untranslated, unattributed, and unlabeled save for the Roman numeral CI. Anyone who is not (as Carson is) a classical scholar will most likely be stymied. But, right away, Nox begins to help. Its next page offers a dictionary definition of the poem’s first word, multas (“numerous, many …”), and this continues as the book moves forward: Most of Nox’s left-hand pages give dictionary entries that lead us, word by word, through the poem. It’s like a linguistic detective story. 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.)
Meanwhile, Nox’s right-hand pages keep piling up the scraps: photos, paintings, handwritten letters, passages from Herodotus, transcripts of conversations, international stamps. Carson threads these together with writing of her own until, little by little, a shadowy portrait of her brother begins to emerge. She treats her brother like a figure from antiquity who just happens to have grown up in the same houses she did and to have died 1,500-odd years after the fall of Rome. They weren’t close. As children he called her “Professor” and “Pinhead” and as adults they rarely spoke; in 22 year, he only called a handful of times. When she finally gets a hold of him to tell him their mother died, his only response was “I figured.” He was, in short, a total mystery. When he died, Carson didn’t find out until two weeks later. She never addresses any anger she might feel toward him for divorcing his family and destroying their mother, but it seems hidden beneath the surface of some of the stories she had chosen to show.
As the elegy rolls on, suspense builds around the most unlikely things. Will we ever see a picture of Michael as an adult? Will we ever find out how he died? Who was Anna? But Carson never offers any truths or solutions, maybe because she doesn’t have them. I’m not someone who loves poetry, or even understands it a lot of the time. But Nox is something special, that everyone should pore over.