preface to epitaph, anne carson and nox in london nov 2010


Anne Carson Iceland 2009 [Photo Einar Falur Ingolfsson]

[Notes on Carson’s London reading of Nox, a couple of years after the last advertised event -in the wake of Decreation and also at SBC- was cancelled. They posted themselves raw a few days ago, here they are at least spell-checked…]

The first and easy thing to say about my obvious need to catch Anne Carson reading in London [Southbank Centre Poetry International Festival opening event Tuesday Nov 3] is that having gone only to see/hear the most significant poet in the English language actually read, perform, be in public the whole event was an instructive delight.

Carson was the last on of 6 poets, all of whom were worth seeing/hearing -if not memorable as such or as yet- but notable for me were Mimi Khalvati; the poems, the range of forms including a very relaxed form of ghazal and the performance which was practised but bound up with the character, rhythm presence of the work; a rare thing actually. I realised that I’d thought of her [forgive me!] as establishment; sturdy and unspecial, and was wrong.

Kristiina Ehin from Tallinn in Estonia [as she kept on remarking as if it were the last surviving Indus Valley village in the middle of the Great Rann of Kachchh] was a fascinating and harder to weigh performance. Striking in appearance, with a lovely steely quiet, her work trawls deeply in the Baltic and specifically Estonian culture, language mythology and custom. There was a strangeness about it all that was affecting, though it’s possible that without the peculiar pronunciation which chimed so well with the peculiar sources, references and innocent passion within the work it might not read like much.

I was surprised too by Bill Manhire, whose work I didn’t know though he has a dim, too dim, familiarity to me. So it was a real surprise and pleasure to watch and listen to work I’d read only with reluctance come alive in the poet; who managed a nice physical twist and rhythm that is not something you affect in public. Great! I hate poet’s anecdotes but his were good, and were outdone by the poems in the end. Tight little things, sharp witted, but a long one built cleverly from a peculiarly expressed notice about fire alarms in a hotel in Copenhagen into something of compelling insistence.

Carson trumped all of this, of course. She’s something quite else; a different order of poet. Watching her I know she knows it somewhere in her body, but appears both to know and not to know. I guess that is precisely the tone of the work isn’t it? -knowingness and otherwise.

Nox I already admire greatly and treasure someone even aspiring to write work like this in our time. She read a selection from it; a peculiarly difficult thing to arrive at I would think -though there is not so much to choose from in fact. There were some, two I recall [I’ve not played back my recording of it yet] of the words from Catullus’ epitaph [101] for his brother which run through the ‘book’ on the left page, with their full etymological being running to some length. She read these as if they were poems in themselves; another example of a casually effective radicalism.

She also read some of the very moving segments that mourn the life and death [in 2000] of her own brother -another epitaph. At the end [as in the poem] she offered her own translation of the Catullus and it rang deep bells in me as she did so. Throughout I couldn’t avoid the obvious fact that here she was reading a real epitaph to a real brother, missed, loved, unable to leave alone -despite having not seen him for 30 years since he ran away from home and the law in Canada and began an initially India-centred wandering before the death of an adored girl broke him down.

If you’ve not read the poem, stop reading this and go right now to a place where you can; shelf, bookshop, library… I’m not going to critique it here nor, I realised as I walked out into a balmy early Winter night by the river and back to my Fruit Store, will it inspire any work of my own.

I say that because I wrote a very different but highly singular, urgent and condensed epitaph to a long lost brother myself, ten or eleven years ago. He was a brother of choice; by marriage not blood -the beautiful uncanniness of fraternal love. It’s a more convoluted story but I wrote my poem -an e.thing actually- after he also disappeared for 13 years, what now seems like quite a brief interlude! All the same elements were in play; he lived in my mind and I realised that it might be the only place he lived. I also actively wanted him to remain there, it was another choice, a wound but not one tended with self-pity or misery. No, it was a beautiful scar…

Anyway, I know how powerful that text can be from readings I’ve given of it and Carson was having that same effect on me. I was shaken by it and by this association, unable to pretend to dissociation, realising that I’m destined to return to the subject if not the object, who was recovered to life by means of that poem of mine a year later. A very tentative recovery by correspondence, followed by a return to the gloom of silence. A different silence, one almost as long now but different, as I say.

I left thinking that I would be reading something similar [it’s necessary that I inject some form of widely recognised modesty at this juncture right? There] in a similar hall in 10, 20 years. The same story, a banal one. As I walked, caught my hands on some hard green holly upon which the gold leaves of [Canadian Maple?] winter were predictably now mounted, I realised not only that I didn’t want to do that but that I’m spared it. That these poets’ epitaphs, which I’ve already written much earlier in my life than at least one of them [C. was nearly 30 when he wrote his, died soon after], are definitively endgames, afterwords, conclusive.

I realised that there was something I wanted to write, and walked composing out loud before reaching the Fruit Store and starting again over midnight to arrive at a precise and clear e.thing which is very different to the great poets’ epitaphs. It is about -and about isn’t really a fitting word- my access to the prefaratory, the pre- a word [or prefix] linked uncannily to the preposition per- [itself linked to the Sanskrit para- which GN Devy defines as a movement out, towards the other] which my young friend and Entertainer and I had searched for recently and formed a list that I then found only slightly more fully articulated in Carson’s Nox. I dwell there, with this pre-ness, this preface, beginning and future, the rhythm of that not one of endings, epitaphs and after-lifes [the ones constructed from this life; I’m all for the after-life of an exceptional line.].

It would be fair, decent, humble, generous to post that text in here wouldn’t it? But I’m not going to, certainly not now or yet. I suppose I’m thanking Anne Carson, not only for the poem she had written and the intense pleasure, inspiration and relief that it gives me that something so singular exists in the world but also because her reading of it was such a generous act. It’s explosive material and explodes within as it’s read and explosivity of this kind is unpredictable. It looked to me as if it was in her mind more than once during the reading that she didn’t really want to be doing it -and wondered how or why she was. That she might even recognise it as the mourning that it enacts, a kind of other-wordly or -timely ritual.

Mainly I’m thanking her for showing me the very end of that particular road, one I’ve travelled in my own way a long time ago, the absolutely emptied out mine of gold there. A sighting that allowed me to flash back and start another pathway towards the infinite or more specifically to a place where the centrality of death or mortality in life is one where life’s centrality to mortality is evident too. Do you see? -and why not think of it in Devendran terms? “We’ve known, we’ve known, we had a choice, we chose rejoice.” Why not think of it in Dhammapadan terms? “Fore-run by mind are mental states, Ruled by mind, made of mind.”

I hit those epitaphs hard and rebounded all the way to the prefaratory in a very concentrated period of time. That is how good Anne Carson’s writing is, this is the realm of condensed, crystalline absolutes. Everything is starkly clear when writing or poetry is this good. It is done. She has done it with finality. Which frees up the rest for the rest of us.

> Nox is available [again] here or the usual places…

> A good interview piece around Nox from Publisher’s Weekly, here.

“I guess it’s a memoir because it’s about memory, but I kept calling it an epitaph, which seems a more dignified form to me, because memoirs tend to be mostly about the memoirist and their salvation from some calamity or suffering. I didn’t want this to be about me mainly.”

“After pitching the idea to Knopf and realizing that the huge trade house “just didn’t get it,” Carson returned to New Directions, her earlier publisher, and to editor Declan Spring, who was game for trying the scanning-and-copying method … The result is breathtaking, evidence of visionary publishing at a moment when the book business is increasingly cynical.”

> ND editor Declan Spring’s blog on Carson [including James Laughlin’s first words; “I may have a book for you to work on, it’s by Anne Carson who writes like no other.”] and the making of Nox, here.

> Kristiina Ehin is published by Arc here.

> The Great Rann of Kachchh is in Gujarat; India’s most interesting and vital state and nowadays a secret beyond its shores, though hopefully not for too much longer…

5 thoughts on “preface to epitaph, anne carson and nox in london nov 2010

  1. Interesting remarks by Robin Robertson in The G.’s annual books that got away feature []

    RR: “I wish I’d published: “Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions), as Cape have brought out all the rest of Carson’s poetry, but her agent didn’t tell me it was delivered. It comes as an illustrated text in concertina form in a solander box: very complicated and expensive to produce. By the time I knew about it, New Directions had already gone to press. Through gritted teeth, I salute a magnificent book.”

    Cape’s [early, catch-up] editions of AC are distinctively fine, even collectible. Could it be that London publishing has earnt a rep for being a bit closed off to things, a tad unadventurous, dare I say? [a New Directions in London, for example, is a nonsensical thought!] RR is obviously, and I mean this genuinely, an exception; poet and publisher as he is [not least also of the damn fine poet Mark Doty]. No, the teeth, the grit, the magnificence and salute are all the real thing -and further admirable qualities.

    I should add the passage that preceded this;

    “The book: Waking up in Toytown by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). Sequel to Burnside’s childhood memoir A Lie About My Father describing how he tried to run away from drink, drug abuse and borderline mental illness – apophenia, a search for some overarching narrative of meaning – to what he hoped would be a normal life.

    Why it deserved better, by Robin Robertson, deputy publishing director: “It’s baffling to me that more people don’t read Burnside. He writes numinous, transfiguring poetry, terrifying and beautiful novels, and extraordinarily frank and disturbing autobiographies. Perhaps in this case it’s drug fatigue, but I’m inclined to think it’s to do with its sui generis qualities – and that some booksellers stocked it in children’s books . . .”

    I already re-read Carson but this piece [using the term “sui generis qualities” as a positive rather than a negative!] actually does make me want to go back to Burnside, and Robertson’s work too. It’s true that Burnside never quite clicked for me, but also that Cape stopped sending me his books two, perhaps three books ago! File under pending… and let’s hope I’m soon embarrassed.

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