Catullus by Night: Anne Carson’s Nox

July 23, 2011

A town crier proclaimed the Valerian funeral. Musicians, torchbearers, hired mourners and dancing clowns preceded the body through the streets. Masks and images representing his entire gens, the family line of illustrious ancestors, and then the body itself, were carried beyond the city limits. Laid on a pyre with symbolic goods, the corpse had its eyes opened, kissed, and closed again, and was set alight by a close relative. Afterwards, the ashes were doused with a libation of wine, collected in an urn, and placed in a family memorial.

All this—the munere mortis—the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus missed. Hearing the news of his brother’s death, he had perhaps hurriedly engaged the first transport to where his brother’s remains were installed—we think, but do not know, in Asia Minor—or, more likely, knowing he would be too late in any case, traveled leisurely when his business brought him in that direction. He wrote no surviving verse in reaction to hearing of the death or on his journey, as we imagine Ovid might have done. He wrote no considered meditation on the durability of relationships or the fleeting nature of mortality, as Horace might have done. He composed no lapidary epitaph. He did not satirize the ostentation and hypocrisy of mourning rituals. He did not make historical or allegorical connections. An elegy seems too public a word for the words at hand, ten lines, catalogued as carmen—a song—number 101 in his surviving corpus of 116 poems:

Multas per gentes et multa per æquora uectus
aduenio 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 hæc prisco quæ more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, aue atque uale. [1]

Catullus (who lived during the first half of the first century B. C. E.) has often been tagged as the most contemporary of Latin poets for the twentieth—and now the beginning of the twenty-first—century. It is hard to think of him, say, as a forerunner of confessional poetry because he seems too comfortably one of us to be a forerunner of anything. He just is as much a confessional poet as Anne Sexton or W. D. Snodgrass. He can sound as beat as Gregory Corso, as formal as John Hollander. In the strange distorting telescope of time, he translates fluently into our own language. But while Horace, Vergil, Ovid, and Juvenal have been appropriated by later poets for their own cultural agendas, Catullus has resisted such colonization simply by remaining himself. Although it is impossible not to take him personally, through the long centuries he has served as nobody’s Enlightenment model, and most assuredly nobody’s guide through the Afterlife—until now—until the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.

"When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book," she writes on the back of Nox, [2] published not as a codex, but as a scroll folded by pages into a casing as solemnly packaged as a mausoleum. The memorial begins with Multas per gentes and is punctuated by a deconstruction of the poem through slightly doctored unattributed dictionary definitions for each word as it appears.

            aequor aequoris neuter noun
            [AEQUUS] a smooth or level surface, expanse, surface; a level stretch of ground, plain; inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus? have we made it across the vast plain of night? the surface of the sea especially as considered as calm and flat, a part of the sea; per aperta volans aequora soaring over open sea; the waters of a river, lake, sea; tibi rident aequari ponti the waters of the sea laugh up at you.

This creates a slow-moving translation, which, like an Ikea purchase, requires some assembly by the reader. No published translation of #101 I know, for instance, catches the nuance of aequora that the speaker’s passage to his brother’s grave is over calm seas, and yet that condition is implicit in the word. The living brother has had an easy journey. The whole poem is rich in these multiple implications in the words, and any translation that tries to convey the movement and simplicity of the original will miss much. Translators often work from “literal” explications de texte. In Nox, Carson turns the reader into the translator. Her method is that of the historian Herodotus, “who trains you as you read. It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do.” (1.3)

The translator of a work with such rich history and resonance has a different responsibility from the translator of a new writer. A poem that has been worked and reworked in a thousand different voices becomes liberated by democracy. The new translator can feel free to lose what may be lost without fear that it is lost forever—somebody else’s version has picked up that stitch in dropping another. (In my own translation, for instance, I let go of the ave of ave atque vale, assuming it to be already stuck in almost every reader’s brain almost to the point of cliché—or, if not, quickly retrievable. What I lose is the original pathos of goodbye following so hard on the useless hello.) Each separate version is a testament to the dictum that every translation is a single critical reading. Multiple translations speak to one another in a conversation as lively as if the translators were in one room, in one reading group, at one time.

I want to explain about the Catullus poem . . . I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. . . . No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. . . . I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, 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. (7.1)

Multas per gentes itself stands out, unique among the whole slight surviving œuvre of Catullus. It has nothing of the flippant, the mythological, or the derivative. The words reproduce the inferias—movement toward the site, the presentation, the incineration, and the quenching of the ashes with the speaker’s own tears. Its focus remains more closely on the mourner than on the mourned, and the latter comes alive only through the attention of the  speaker, and yet there is no sense of self-indulgence or self-pity. The love it expresses is philia, not eros. The poem simply replaces the missed ritual, and becomes it, in both meanings of the word “becomes.” (The only other poem I know that achieves nearly the same kind of emotional economy and balance is Ezra Pound’s “Causa.”)

Anne Carson has de/reconstructed Catullus before, most notably in her book Men in the Off Hours, published in 2000, the year her brother Michael died in Denmark, far away from her across the sea. It is a curious effect that her mannered reductions there, her concrete reflections and riffs, feel more old-fashioned, more limited, than the original texts. These are not translations, nor hardly imitations. Odi et amo (#85) becomes a stuttering repetition of the words hate, love, why, and I, (ay ay ay ay ay!) several times times longer than the original distich. Carson’s take on #101 there begins with a declarative rubric emphasizing autobiography: “Catullus buries his brother.”

Multitudes brushed past me oceans I don’t know.
Brother wine milk honey flowers.
Flowers milk honey brother wine.
How long does it take the sound to die away?
I a brother.
Cut out carefully the words for wine milk honey flowers.
Drop them into a bag.
Mix carefully.
Pour onto your dirty skeleton.
what sound? (p. 45)

If anything, this version reads like a recipe for Nox, with the operative instruction, “Cut out carefully the words . . .” for this is how she has constructed Nox as a trompe-l’oeil collage of scholarly gloss, biographical and autobiographical fragments, and repeated evocative words shored against Michael’s ruin.

The immediacy of unfulfilled sibling closeness underlies Nox as it does Multas per gentes. But Anne Carson’s work, like Catullus’s, tells us nothing about the specific, individual relationship between the siblings, the storms and reconciliations, conflicts and ambiguities of love and rivalry—all those elements that fuel Catullus’s and much of Carson’s other poetry. The passage from 7.1 quoted above concludes: “A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.” Song #101 testifies to its own space and the bridging of space between a writer and a brother, but little more.

Catullus apparently died young, and we can assume his brother did too, even if we assume the brother an elder, as Michael was Anne’s by four years. My older brother and I trade Latin translations and commentary back and forth among our own storms and calms, and we have done so from time to time ever since he introduced me to Roman poetry more than a half century ago in our own school days. He has his version of #101 and I have mine, each very different from the other.  It is difficult indeed to regard the original only as a text, a literary exercise, and an attempted translation only as a critical reading. From this perspective, I understand profoundly what Anne Carson is doing in writing Nox and bringing this offering not only to Michael, but also to us. We take the poem to heart. Every single variant reading of Multas per gentes  is fraught with personal import in our own slow fraternal progress to the tomb.

[1] The poem has been translated many times by many hands (including, improbably, by Aubrey Beardsley). Carson’s version of 101, appearing in Nox opposite her definition of prisco, “belonging to a former time,” goes:

          Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
          I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
          so I could give you the last gift owed to death
          and talk (why?) with mute ash.
          Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
          oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
          now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
          handed down as the sad gift for burials—
          accept soaked with tears of a brother
          and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell. Return to Text

[2] “Nox” is the Latin word for night. It appears nowhere in Multas per gentes, but in a line from the fifth poem of Catullus’s carmina—“nox est perpetua una dormienda”—it corresponds with 101 through the key word of the last line, perpetuum: “Suns are able to set and rise again, / but when once and for all our own brief light has set / it is perpetual night, one perpetual sleep.” Return to Text