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The Millions Year in Reading: Jane Hirshfield on Anne Carson's NOX

First appeared:  http://www.themillions.com/2012/12/a-year-in-reading-jane-hirshfield.html

 

Published as poetry, Anne Carson’s Nox is closer by far to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz than to any book of pocketable lyrics. Ultimately uncategorizable, this physically onomatopoetic facing of the death of a long-absent, long-estranged brother comes (as effects or ashes do) in a box. The pages not sewn, not glued, but accordion-folded into one inseparable, extendable fan of grief. On the left-hand pages: an OED style meditation on each Latin word of the saddest elegy ever written, that of Catullus for his own brother. The scholarship is visibly stained by its originating situation — almost every entry holds some reference to night, to vanishment. On the right-hand pages: meditations on history-gathering itself, familial photos, single lines of thought or perception, stories — a record of how the mind scratches against the obdurate to raise some glint of comprehension. Both typography and images take the form of ransom notes, rubbings, recollections, glimpsed parts of an unfathomable whole. There is a story. What matters — as always, in matters of literature — is the penumbra around it in every direction.

A book can be a battering ram against the doors of the actual. The intention is not to break but to break into. Resistance, in electrical circuitry, is both the manifestation of the objective world’s recalcitrance and the part that throws heat and light. I have perhaps made Nox sound difficult, depressing, a book of distance. I suppose it is — I owned it for a year before I could bring myself to read it through fully. The density demanded it simply sit near at hand, a mute and almost mineral presence. Bring yourself to enter, it becomes rivetting, a daredevil-defiant and heartbroken confrontation of fracture. The welding torch’s ferocity arcs through it, drawing the eye it burns.