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The Grief Box

The Rhetorica Ad Herennium, an anonymous manual of rhetoric dating from the first century B.C.E., is also one of the first sources of the classical ars memorativa, or “art of memory,” an essential part of learning in the days before printing and the wide dispersal of books. The ars in ars memorativa is a matter of mastering mnemonic devices: associations of memories with places, structures, feelings. “If we set up images that are not many or vague but active,” the Ad Herennium instructs, “if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we ornament some of them…or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud…or by assigning certain comic effects to our images…that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily.”

Anne Carson’s Nox renews the practice of ars memorativa by turning it inside out: rather than cultivating her memory-images in private, she spills them onto the page, using a series of images and texts of “exceptional beauty or singular ugliness” to draw her readers into the challenge of remembering a very personal and almost incommunicable loss. This by itself is not new, of course; many works of literature over the last century have taken on some version of the same project. What sets Nox apart is how beautifully it works, as a concept, as a work of art, and, somewhat disconcertingly, as an object.

What does this mean, exactly? Nox sits on the table in front of you in a large, blue-gray archival box, the kind librarians use for holding rare or fragile books and manuscripts. On the cover is a slip of a black-and-white photograph showing a young boy in goggles and a bathing suit. The box slides open and you take out a two-inch-thick accordion-bound book, a single long strip of paper folded several hundred times, with card covers on either end. One side is blank and the other printed, so that you can turn the pages like an ordinary book. You could also, if you have a room about fifty feet long, stretch it out and walk alongside it as you read.

These pages contain a color facsimile of a collage Carson assembled as an elegy to her estranged brother, Michael, after his death in Denmark in 2000: cut-out printed pages of text, photographs, postage stamps, torn-up bits of notepaper, drawings. Like a scrapbook or a commonplace book, it contains the assembler’s idiosyncratic constructions of a thought process. In this case we have a Latin word and its definition on nearly every facing page, along with meditations on Herodotus, a deliberate mistranslation of an elegy by Catullus, a family photograph, and a sketched-in silhouette of one of the figures in the photograph, cryptic circles in yellow paint, erasures, and a scratched message, I HAD TO, illuminated by slashes of charcoal.

What arises out of these materials is an old and familiar story of a sibling who turned more and more mysterious as he grew up, until he vanished entirely from sight, sending only occasional postcards and not returning to see his dying mother. Michael was troubled, Carson writes, even as a young boy: “Wherever we went my brother wanted to make friends with boys too old for him. He ran behind them, mistook the rules, came home with a bloody nose…Years later, when he began to deal drugs, I got the old sinking feeling…No one knew him. He was the one who was old.” After leaving Canada as a young man to avoid prison, he traveled around the world, marrying and settling in Denmark some years before his death. Informed of his demise too late to attend the funeral, Carson travels to Copenhagen to meet his wife, who relays some information about him, but not much. Vast swaths of his life remain a mystery that Carson does not try to explain. Instead, ardent classicist that she is, she turns from elegy and mourning to history and investigation: “The asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” Even if, in this case, the facts are few, sparse, and “mute,” they are worth preserving, so that, as Herodotus says, they may not “go extinct.”

It is this very sparseness of a documentary record that allows Nox to succeed as a narrative: the silence around each salient fact or memory becomes a space that Carson can “ornament” as she chooses. Anyone who has read Carson’s translations of Sappho or her study of Simonides and Celan knows that she thrives on fragmentation, ambiguity, and unexplained lacunae of all kinds. The difference here, of course, is that her brother’s twenty-two-year silence was not intended as a literary effect, and this may be why Carson has taken the radical step of not producing a conventional book at all. In manuscript cultures, or “scribal” cultures, as Marshall McLuhan called them in The Gutenberg Galaxy, writing and reading was a personal transaction, with each book illustrated, graffitied, and annotated by hand. In this sense, each text was an extension of the ars memorativa, a record of what one had been taught and an aid for transmitting that knowledge to the next generation.

By refusing the conventions of print, Nox could have been an idiosyncratic, hermetic, willfully “personal” project, but Carson’s clear-eyed and unsentimental presentation of her brother’s life makes it feel, instead, like the only possible way to commemorate an almost traceless existence. At a time when “the end of the book” is a subject of endless debate, Nox feels both very new and very old; it combines the precious heft of text with the fleeting nature of a casual snapshot, a scrawled note, or a digital image. In life, and in literature, it presses us to answer the most urgent of questions: what do we value most in life, and how do we want to keep it? How will it survive us, if at all?

Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu. His new collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, will be published later this year.