Nox (2010), Anne Carson’s book-in-a-box on the death of her brother Michael, has garnered many names in its decade of existence: “conceptual poem” (Nolan 94), “art-book” (Fleming 64), “grief-work” (Fleming 66), “quasi-artist’s book” (Brillenburg Wurth 228), “camp object” (Plate 98), “accordion-style […] pastiche of fragments” (Wiesenthal 189), or even “long-poem epitaph” (Wiesenthal 195).
According to its blurb, Nox, Latin for “night” or “darkness”, is not only an epitaph but also an elegy. It is not a classical elegy, however, as the work is designed as an accordion book enclosed in a box, thus teasing out visual connections with the idea of a tombstone. The question is, of course, whose death we are looking at: Michael’s or the author’s (MacDonald 58)? After all, Nox is a highly remediatized work that seems to be hiding the author’s presence, containing reproductions of photographs, letters, stamps, pieces of typewritten text—which are often numbered—collages, drawings, and dictionary entries, which she collected in response to his death.
These reproductions came about through a combination of scanning and xeroxing Carson’s handmade pages. The result is a fold-out book in a grey box with an incredible eye for detail: yellowed pages, reproduced staples, and three-dimensional effects give readers the impression of holding Carson’s original notebook in their hands. The material process of reading, in which the reader gradually unfolds the screenfold, can be read as a reflection of Michael’s life—or even his body—that is slowly revealed through the physical manipulation of the book. With the turn of each page, the reader discovers a new aspect of Michael’s life on the basis of these visual elements.
The starting point of the work is “who were you” (Nox, 2.1) and this metaphorical search for Michael, from whom the author was estranged when he died in 2000, is accompanied throughout the work by a translation of Catullus’ poem 101 from Latin into English. The Roman author wrote this poem in response to the death of his own brother. Carson’s translation and remediation of poem 101 allows her to explore issues relating to historiography, loss, and joy.
Carson presents herself here as both a researcher-archivist and sister, who has subjected a personal, delicate notebook to rigorous analysis only to conclude that she will never be able to reproduce either the poem or her brother adequately. The fact that Nox appears to be aware of the impossibility of capturing and representing Michael’s life satisfactorily, as the many metafictional comments on historiography suggest, does not make this hypermedial work any less haunting.
Nox can be understood as an attempt at completely unravelling and exhausting the life of Carson’s brother on the basis of a digitalized notebook in order to get to know him after the fact. The reader’s physical engagement with the accordion format mirrors the gradual unravelling of his life.
The work oscillates between personal reflection and factual analysis, thus seemingly objectifying Michael without, however, claiming to have arrived at a successful representation of his life. Just like the speaker realizes that she will never be able to come up with a satisfactory translation of poem 101, she acknowledges that Michael will always elude her grasp and resist her “transactional order” (Nox, 1.3), yet she continues to seek him out through these scraps. In this sense, the conceptual work reiterates the point that there is no such thing as a “coherent self” (Wiesenthal 208).
By duplicating this quest for Carson’s brother on two levels, namely the documentary search through a personal yet commercialised archive on the one hand, and the personal translation of Catullus’ poem on the other, Nox operates in a field of tension between reason and affect. As the speaker remarks, “there is something that facts lack” (Nox, 1.3). Carson cannot get to know her brother solely on the basis of factual documents; this analysis needs to be supplemented by an affective process of collecting, organizing, and manipulating both these fragments and Catullus’ poem—and the reader is invited to join her on this quest. The work therefore demonstrates that contemporary attempts at exhaustive representation can be both exact and incomplete.
“It’s not about grief. It’s about understanding other people and their histories as if we are all separate languages. That’s what I was trying to explore. Exploring grief would have made it a book about me, and I didn’t want that. ... [Michael] was such a puzzle. I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” (Carson 2011)
“It is hard to answer this as Nox was not originally made as a fold-out book in a box: that was a compromise arrived at for purposes of publishing. Originally it was simply a hand-made book (at first empty) that I filled with stuff and thoughts.” (King 2012)
“What Robert Currie figured out was how, in a book about the passage of time, to reproduce the sense of lost time communicated by Carson’s original collage—the faded letters, the dog-eared corners of the photos, the awkward way all of it was held to the page with staples and glue. According to Carson, Currie ‘thought of scanning it and then xeroxing the scans. We were in Berlin for a while at a place that had a xerox machine, and he fooled around with it at night, scanning and xeroxing and lifting the cover a bit so a little light gets in, so it has three-dimensionality.’” (Teicher 2010)