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This review is from: Nox (Hardcover)
This is an astonishing work. To speak cursorily, the work begins with a latin poem of Catullus' and then goes on to provide a dictionary translation of each word over its course, with anecdotes and pictures interspersed throughout either abstractly or explicitly depicting her mother and more often her brother. Her goal, I suspect, is to show the plurality of language, and the numerous possibilities for any word and thus the infinite possibilities should they be put side by side and reified in another language. As she says "the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of [words] that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate" will appear when attempting to translate. When she finally does translate the poem, it is evasive, inexact, and, most importantly, entirely subjective. Just as we (at least in Northrop Frye's estimation) create works anew in our mind, so does she, concretely, in transmutating Catullus' words to English and Carson's grasp thereon. The book ends, finally, with her translation more vividly rendered inefficient in a bleeding, crumpled fragment (a rip at the top, its medium reasserted at the bottom of the page; that is, a blank piece of paper concluding the book) expressing her inability to translate that original poem and thus asking us to individualize the poem in her directed latin lesson constituting the work.
This is not an easy work to understand, and, as one previous reviewer said, it is not, in the conventional sense, a 'book.' It doesn't follow an expected path--she lays her brother to rest in its cascading first words
overlaying a cursive, similarly cascading inscription of her brother's name--and thus concerns herself with how language associates with emotions, and the utter subjectivity of words which we often believe to express universal pains and joys. She is often terse, often distended, expatiating on matters of which she has little material (her brother's demise) and passing over experiences over which she presided (her mother's passing) but this is all to an overall goal, which is inextricably linked to that poem of Catullus' which opened the poem.
To consider its form for a moment, as it is unconventional. Whereas a normal work of literature is printed on a series of glued or sewn together pages which, if ripped out, don't disturb its physical sequence all too much, this is printed on a series of folded together panels, which, if separated in any way aside from first to last, would render the work a mess, with no page numbers to reorder it by. This work is a sequence of thoughts, a linear meditation driven by its material form and complemented by its content. Another note on this is an opening line of Carson's "I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds." You'll find this to be a rather dark work, but should you unfold the work and flip it over, you will find nothing but light; vacant, vacuous whiteness. She relegates that light to the obverse, acknowledging its insufficiency to express her purpose.
The work is elusive in spite of its subject matter--I don't feel that I know Carson for having read this--and it reminds me of a number of theorists I've read, who bicker between one another the ability or inability of words to express intangible things, but I don't know that any of them did such so capably as Anne Carson does in this work. She individualizes the work to herself but finally leaves it to her reader for conclusions, understanding the inability of words to universally reify what they nominally signify, and I cannot recommend this work enough to anybody, as I feel she realizes her goal beautifully.