Professor or pinhead? knick-knack or knockout? Stephen Burt on Anne Carson

By Harriet Staff

Is Anne Carson's Nox a knick-knack or a knockout? Maybe something in between? In the London Review of Books, Stephen Burt reviews not only Nox, but also the volume's ecstatic reception:

A memorial to Carson’s late brother, Michael, Nox has found as much attention, and as much praise, as any book by any poet in the past couple of years. The praise is disturbing, sometimes wrongheaded, and reflects a category mistake; it also makes a good excuse to look back at the spiky virtues of Carson’s work.

Burt invites us on a quick tour of Carson's achievements, detailing her dual allegiances to scholarship and creative writing; classics and contemporaries; books and art. He offers this heartbreaking interpretation of her tone:

Carson’s writings show a brusque yet intimate manner with ancient texts, a fractured, anti-mellifluous cadence (especially in her verse), and a sense of discomfort: she seems at home nowhere, not in her own head, or in our time, or in the ancient world. Carson wrote in Economy of the Unlost that Paul Celan ‘uses language as if he were always translating’: we could say the same thing about her.

Translation lies at the heart of Nox, which explores the death of Carson's brother through the lens of a Catullus poem.

One of the most striking aspect of the book is its format (click here for images). Nox is a book-in-a-box that fans out of its cardboard container like an accordian. Carson fills its pages with smudged words and images that, taken together, provide a portrait of grief. Burt handily contextualizes the book's appearance:

Readers of poetry may be surprised by the format, but regular viewers of artists’ books will not be; nor will readers who remember the fanzines of the 1980s and 1990s, the handmade and photocopied, often deliberately amateurish creations that combined their (often very young) authors’ music reviews with memoir, essay, slogan, collage, photography. Nox has much older precursors too: 19th and early 20th-century scrapbooks in which readers collected their favourite verse alongside photographs, engravings, postcards and handwritten memories. (You can see examples of these scrapbooks at Mike Chasar’s blog, Poetry and Popular Culture,

Burt himself seems surprised by the book's critical reception. Rather than the North American avant-garde, he writes, mainstream publications seized on this peculiar work. It was celebrated, he writes,

in such places as the New Yorker, where Meghan O’Rourke called it ‘a luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of an elegy, which is why it evokes so effectively the felt chaos and unreality of loss’. New York magazine’s Sam Anderson called it ‘a literary object – the opposite of an e-reader designed to vanish in your palm’, and added: ‘The book radiates a kind of holy vibe.’

What could stimulate critics to such adjectival highs? (Discandied?) Suggests Burt, both perceptively and crushingly:

Its rapturous reception testifies – through no fault of her own – to Carson’s celebrity, and to the aura her work holds, with its sources and blank spaces. That reception also testifies – again, through no fault of Carson’s – to the continuing prestige but diminished actual interest that poetry as such seems to hold these days. For many readers, and not a few editors, Nox and its ‘poetry of a kind you’re not used to’ has turned out to be poetry of the most welcome kind: a work you can admire and interpret simply by opening the box and unfolding the pages; a book of poems you don’t even have to read.

To read the full piece, click here (unfortunately, you'll need either a subscription or a kind friend who's willing to let you borrow hers).

Originally Published: July 14th, 2011