Nox ~ Anne Carson

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

I’ve already commented on the look and feel of this poem elegy from Anne Carson to her deceased brother. Carson takes a poem by the Roman poet Catullus as the base for her poem. As I wrote earlier, on the left side (the verso) of the page is a word for word translation of the Latin. On the right (the recto) is a collage of paper fragments, envelopes, old photographs, a drawing, a fragments of letters, scribbled out notes so as to be unreadable, a short poem: these are all somehow related to the words or the sections of the poem as she moves through translating their meaning. Catullus was a favorite of mine and a few of my friends in college. His poems seemed so radical, scandalous and fresh, given the fact of their ancient origins, which we couldn’t quite believe. There is a wonderful website dedicated to the poems, all of them offered in several languages (including audio of them being read in Latin).

Her brother was estranged from the family and living abroad, when he died in Copenhagen in 2000. Carson had heard from her brother “maybe” five times in twenty years. So this exploration is also a way to discover something about her brother. In the course of her translation work, she begins to think about other subjects: death, loneliness, history. Also the art of translation itself.

What is there to say about the dead?, really, she writes. There is the history though, and she begins to think about it. Historians use the term “autopsy” to describe their exhumation of the historical data. Carson is performing an autopsy on her brother. When Carson “thinks” about history, she does so in particularly poetic style:

History can be at once concrete and indecipherable. Historians can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide….In cigarette-smoke-soaked Copenhagen, under a wide thin sorrowful sky, as swans drift down the water,  I am looking a long time into the muteness of my brother. It resists me.

But why try and make sense out of a person’s being, his “history”? Knowing what and why “forms a lock against oblivion.”

It’s not until 7.1 (the sections on the recto are numbered 1.0, 1.1, 2.1, etc) that Carson addresses the Catullus poem 101, and its connection to her own poem. It was written as an elegy for his own dead brother, and it turns out that Carson has taken several stabs at translating it ever since she fell in love with it in high school. This is what she has to say about translations:

…I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

That’s a stop and think about it moment, as are many passages in this illuminating work.

Prowling words (which she does here, turning them over ever so gently in her hands) and the history of her brother, she picks up the light switch imagery again:

Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn your back to the page you were trying to translate.

Then her own translation of 101 appears in 7.2. Nearing the end, she picks up Herodotos (the father of modern history) again as he says

I have to say what is said. I don’t have to believe it myself.

Anne Carson’s nearly perfect book (in every way) is one that can be picked up and read again and again, finding deeper meaning with each reading. That’s just about the best possible thing one can say about a book.

Through many nations and many seas have I come
To carry out these wretched funeral rites, brother,
That at last I may give you this final gift in death
And that I might speak in vain to silent ashes.
Since fortune has borne you, yourself, away from me.
Oh, poor brother, snatched unfairly away from me,
Now, though, even these, which from antiquity and in the custom of our
parents, have been handed down, a gift of sadness in the rites, accept
them, flowing with many brotherly tears, And for eternity, my brother,
hail and farewell.

© copyright 11-12-1999 by Rob Shereda

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