Reviews - December 2011

A careful assemblage

A review of 'Nox'



by Anne Carson

New Directions 2010, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8112-1870-2

Anne Carson’s newest book, Nox, seduced me immediately. The book in its clamshell case is a physical, touchable thing. Nox is an accordion-fold book, one forty-foot long page, folded to roughly the size of a half sheet of letter paper. It’s a tactile and visual delight to open the lid of the case and extract the stacked accordion-fold volume, to scan its palette of sepia tones and late, small bursts of color. Reading it is a sensory experience; the composition — a collage of text, photographs and drawings — engages the eye, and the narrative is engrossing and moving.

Carson writes on the back of the case that Nox is a replica of an epitaph she wrote for her brother Michael when he died. It is an elegy, built around an elegy written by the Roman poet Catullus over two thousand years ago for his dead brother (poem CI, or 101). Carson, a scholar and professor of the classics, has explained in interviews that she has always loved the poem. There also seem to be somewhat parallel circumstances: both brothers died far away, word didn’t reach the surviving sibling for some time, there was a journey to the place where the brother died.

A stained, smudged, typewritten reproduction of Catullus’s CI appears at the opening of Nox; Carson places her translation towards the end. Carson uses the Catullus elegy as the structural foundation for Nox, deconstructing CI word by word. She extracts each of the sixty-three Latin words from the poem in sequence and gives us a dictionary definition, presented on the left panel of each opened pair of folds. The right panel presents memoirs and reflection, remembered events, conversations, integrated with parts of photographs, line-drawn or painted images and other graphic elements. [1]

The book’s contents are further organized into ten numbered segments, as if the contents have been catalogued (1.0, 1.1), or put into a formal outline: ten segments of varying length. This is all to say that the work is highly structured and controlled. The careful assemblage gives shape to the content and to the ideas that form in the flow between definition and fragmented narrative. The structure creates correspondences, conceptual threads that link the two aspects.

The question of how to shape things is a primary consideration for Carson. She uses the Greek term morphe to explain her approach to Michael Silverblatt in a radio interview (the BookWorm series):

each idea [has] a certain shape, [and when] I found the word morphe it was to me just the right word for that, unlike “shape” in English which falls a bit short, morphe in Greek means the plastic contours that an idea has inside all your senses when you grasp it for the first time, the first moment, and it always seemed to me that a work should play out that same contour in its form …[2]  I can’t start writing something down until I get a sense of that morphe, and then it unfolds — I wouldn’t say naturally — but it unfolds, by keeping only to the contours of that form.

In Nox, the contours of the form are defined by correspondences between the two texts —  Latin definitions and personal narrative — but not solely. The integration of visual elements, disparate textual elements and overall design decisions point to Nox as an artist’s book.

Carson’s previous books also juxtapose classical literature with personal experience. She uses the ancient works as a prism through which to view and deconstruct her experience, so that her writing takes shape within juxtaposed fragments. Nox, however, is the first in which those thought processes and associations are made visible in the very form of the book.

That is, Nox is not only about reading. It’s about the way meaning unfolds in investigating the origins of remembrances and the definitions of the words that frame the experience, in associating the speculative with the definitive. Carson creates meaning through layers of curated intersections — text-text, text-graphic, graphic-graphic — that in the hands of a skilled semiotician would no doubt reveal similar intersections and correspondences between signs and signifiers.

In the text itself, however, one way Carson builds the complex of this remembrance is by linking the Latin definition to the content on the right side. When the Latin word doesn’t relate, she interjects something of her own. Her inventions most often introduce “night”  into the scope of the Latin word, creating a sotto voce thread, a low-murmuring voice that carries the title’s theme (nox is Latin for night). For example, with interea (in the meantime, meanwhile), she adds “against the law yet only at night.” With et (and what is more, too, also), she adds “and do you still doubt that consciousness vanishes at night?” With mutam (inarticulate or making no sound): “there was a better reason for not writing.”

It’s here that the poetry lies, to be excavated from Nox as artifacts from the midden of a life: a few objects, stray bits of conversation, scenes that hold the light, a letter, a feeling, a drawing, a photograph. Carson’s collage represents as complete a portrait of her lost brother as she can get.

There’s a telling quote from Herodotus near the end: “I have to say what is said. I don’t have to believe it myself.” This from the father of history, of the practice of writing down what happened, gives us a platform from which to gaze back on what we’ve read and the story we’ve gleaned. Carson gives us what is said by her brother, her mother, her brother’s widow, and what she herself said in the past. What she says now is a ghost-driven narrative, delivered as forensic or archeological evidence. In Nox, Carson expresses some carefully-thought-out suppositions about the few “said” episodes in Michael’s life and the memories of which she is a part. She leaves it to us to draw conclusions. And as we traverse the folds, the book reveals its story by accrual, through a curated experience of the artist’s personal narrative placed in the context of the classical tradition in poetry, and the subjects of death and family, loss and remembrance.

That Carson’s multifaceted explorations of her response to Michael’s life and death are almost too much to contain in the shape of a book is attested to by more than the unusual print format of Nox. As a book, Nox doesn’t lend itself to the standard author’s book-tour reading, and Carson, true to her restless seeking after the shape of things, has taken Nox to the stage. She has collaborated with Robert Currie and dancer/choreographer Rashaun Mitchell in a performance that integrates contemporary dance and music with Carson’s spoken word. Alastair Macauley, reviewing the performance for the New York Times, calls it an event “where different kinds of poetry become layered upon one another with extraordinary eloquence. Words, dance, translation, cultural commentary, lighting, music — all add discrete but overlapping zones of beauty, meaning, drama.” To this reviewer, the staging of this long poem with all the depth that the physicality of movement must provide fits both the morphe and the translation schema that frame Carson's approach to working with language.



[1] Anne Carson, interview by Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm, National Public Radio via KCRW, May 20, 2010.

[2] Alastair Macaulay, “Translating Poetry to the Stage, With or Without Words,”  New York Times, July 22, 2010.

Surprise of another 'impossible' category

A Review of 'Portrait and Dream'

Portrait and Dream

Portrait and Dream

by Bill Berkson

Coffee House Press 2009, 352 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1-56689-229-2

Bill Berkson’s Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems brings together fifty years of writing and sums up (so far) the singular career of an important poet, critic, and scholar of the New York School. Throughout the collection, a vast and particular lexicon is used to create landscapes with lines that extract and imbue the possibility of “living for the first time.” Through this language, which particularly categorizes not only in each total poem, but in each word, there comes the continuing surprise of another “impossible” category. Berkson’s poems reach into his own visceral pre- or post-history, perhaps our history, as the history of modern art “continues.” They are sleight and wrought, without a loss of love or a tinge of false cynicism, and are masterfully composed from a depth, which through this very assimilation, seems to disappear. Each poem allows for a “living” symbiosis between the language from this depth, and a language which wants to experience the feeling of every moment. Berkson’s poems bridge between these two fields. Writing often about the everyday experience, his “ordinary” sentences (or not) are appropriated as a “once in a lifetime” “experience” or poem. He writes:

which continues fully listened sees its image
           destroyed in the making
                                           which if artless would have (if) as true
      with a look
                its viewers
          it was particularly       Life

This brief quotation is taken from the poem “History” found in the earliest section of Portrait and Dream: “All You Want, 1959–1961.” Here we see Berkson writing in his twentieth year, beginning to create a continuity of poetics, which despite the logic of the sentence, resolves the crisis of self, and therefore art, with light and life (perhaps, in-light-of, life-like, or light-like).

From “Out There 1962–1972,” — the second book or section of the collection — Berkson would like to play on the title; for someone to be “out there” or “strange”; to be “out of there,” as in (having no more); or as in there as the antithetic to here, and the use of (out) to refer to something otherly,  perhaps metaphysically. He once commented to me that “Odysseus could be the king of the underworld, but he couldn’t see the light of day.”

The continuity of “impossible” or absolute, or other separate categories of sections takes a purgatorial turn “of life” or application of “metaphysical padding” here as I invert Berkson’s sequential order in this section (these four poems appear here in reverse, from “Out There: in this poem entitled “Light In Dark,”), Berkson writes:

Redundant pure
to be with a pleasure
in another light                      

                          in a flash
it’s cool here
light clouds balancing slightly
on your back
raised free
&easy by new flowers alarming presence
all or nothing so it must be
and is becoming as you see
there's a hand close by
on some grass patting down
ringing spaces anatomy of kisses!   


Buddhism says it is possible to get your mind together like the wings of abutterfly. It is also possible not to get your mind together and still exist,
like a
butterfly, but with no wings.


We walked quietly away
Straight through the mirror
Of uncontrollable pain.


Absentminded person
fades back and folds
between straight blue sheets
lulled to sleep
by early risers stepping backwards
through cold gate

The epigramic sense of the “preceding” poems (here in reversed order) “In The Breeze,” shares a node from “Light In Dark, breezy, where Berkson’s titles often operate and shift as active fragments or “life islands” of ordinary or exceptional categorization. A listing of poetics as “objects,” words, art and its antithesis (light in dark) as paintings, images or feelings, of us.

Through these passages “backwards,” perhaps the central node of Berkson’s typography or topography and depth crystallize and circumvent in his sentence or field which “as' a circle of light goes lifelik'e” (perhaps my imitation of Berkson’s line “the gray ball goes batty”). Here meaning connects through feeling, in which his lingual specificity limits every, or any other connotation of the poem, figural and abstract “portrait and dream … / oh truly modern art and amused and wrong /,” as he unwrites the underworld in his poem “Blue Is The Hero:” “scent which is a poor memory in our symbolist ears.”

If we can consider Berkson's transference of topograph (a geographical-verbo landscape) to the reanimation of life from otherlyness, we could consider the idea of a 'frankenstein' throughout his next successive book in the collection, "Parts of the Body, 1973-1983." The title plays on part as components or leavings, and body can refer to an anatomy of text, a lexical body. This ference or transference occurs in this collection as in the connectivness through the disparity of categories, from word to word, node to node, in title as well as (section) epigramic or not . In this lexical anatomy; life and "ordinary" poetic accountabilities are salvaged, / skin mirrors, nerve ends of dumb eclipse… / As prior excerpts from this poem which would retrospect to the beginnings of the prior manuscript (Out There), name not only usual conversational elements, but the transference of an a-priori literal language yielding an exemplification of a "metaphysicaly" shining "everyday" life / like… / an anatomy of melancholy. Berkson here borrowing Maldaror's title and specificity reasoning a subversiuon of a crime of aesthetics decontextualized into his own form, and cleared.

In the first poem "A-FRAME" from "Parts of the Body" where art (as in a painting) or language (as in the poem) create borders or "frames", as the sense of each different word or image create categories. Both the assimilated and dissimulated together occur here in language. As the history of western philosophy / or modern art represent the intelligence of feeling in the abstract, in the ancient or "metaphysical" world language is represented by the sprit. Here these concepts converge in Berkson's text with a dictionary.

The definition of A-frame is as follows: 1: a support structure shaped like the letter A. 2: A building typically having triangular front and back walls and a roof reaching to the ground.


air blue
ocean plain
and glowing
woman turning    
man on fire

Where perhaps the title's low end of (A-FRAME) could connote the crime of framing (someone or oneself). The top of the poem could be delineated as frameless; as the nature of the immaterial or spirit, begins the opening line / air blue . The poems' 'extinguishing edge' of fire or cyclical origin, can be said to surface or disappear, represented in the second line / ocean plain. As all life originates from the sea (and water puts out fire). Furthermore, human life occurs through the coupling of a man and a women.   (This line also simply defines 'the everyday' in Berkson's writing). The dictionary definition could refer to the singularity of body and spirit, but it also brings us home to a paradoxical living space whose rooftop is an extension of the ground.

In the last line of this essay I will excerpt from the last section of the book "After the Medusa (2001-2008)." As the title would play on The or This period of history, we should remind ourselves that the origins of Western philosophy and art are post-Greek, and we are modern or postmodern (or past that?). Further, with Berkson's own edge, the title plays on being after (being in pursuit, or over, a woman), or the archtype of woman, we or she are reflected or turned to stone, or past that….After….  


The no-singing elephant
in the sunny situation room

[…] Under twinkly blurs
deft circularity"

A review of 'Lake Antiquity: Poems 1996–2008'

Lake Antiquity: Poems 1996-2008

Lake Antiquity: Poems 1996-2008

by Brandon Downing

Fence Books 2009, 184 pages, $40, ISBN 9781934200278

In what may be an ironic gesture of the first degree, the subtitle of Brandon Downing’s Lake Antiquity reads “Poems: 1996–2008,” for one hundred and ninety pages, full color, about one square foot, numerous X-Acto blades, sticks of glue, ephemera, twelve years of labor.

Lake Antiquity is another iteration of the future of poetry. With this book, the argument what is poetry and what is not is moot.  To the reader on the lookout for irony, the subtitle works in the way a nonprofit would tack an “Inc.” after its name. To the diehard traditionalist, the anti-Flarfist beating his chest, defining this book as a collection of poems constitutes a gross misrepresentation. The text is more often than not as much a component of the collage as the collage itself. Rarely does the text surpass the purely visual element of the book. The term “art book” might be more apt, except not at all. The fact that the text is found and collaged is superseded by the majesty of the book. It is a visual poetic that delves into history long past and recent (Surrealism, Camp, the Pictures Movement, Flarf, etc.) while looking towards the future. 

Way back in 2006 when Dan Hoy published what many perceived as a polemic directed toward Flarf, there was still an active concern about what was permissible in poetry and what was not. That that is no longer a concern is made apparent by (at least one aspect of) the context in which Lake Antiquity was published.

When tolerance of uncertainty is taken to the brink, when it becomes clear that there will never be reconciliation, that which arouses the uncertainty, the object of thought let’s say, has achieved its purpose in a very pure way. There is no reconciliation in Lake Antiquity, nor need there be. Its nuance is fully conceived and perfectly executed, and it comes to us without apology. This book is relevant. In April 2010, at the Juniper Festival in Amherst, Massachusetts, Fence publisher Rebecca Wolff, participating on a panel called “The Future of Poetry,” declared poetry futile; anyone writing poetry in America who believes poetry is a form of activism engages in “gross relativism” and would be better suited teaching elementary school (that these toxic claims are couched in a discussion about the future of poetry is important). Backlash was minimal: nowhere were there the sort of rallying cries in defense of poetry, its future, or attacks on Wolff (except one, but she struck back). Her comments went largely unnoticed, even after she posted them verbatim on HTMLGIANT [1]. Perhaps this is because nobody really believed her — I didn’t, to be sure, because the release of Lake Antiquity by Wolff’s own presscontradicts her dour declamation. Actions louder than words?



1. Rebecca Woolf’s comment as posted to HTML Giant:

Here’s what I said at the Juniper Festival panel:

The Miseducation of Rebecca Wolff

Since this is a panel on the Future of Poetry, this assumes there is a past, which is a kind of history. So I’ll start with personal history.

I was an undergraduate student here, at UMass, having dropped out of Bennington, where I was a poetry major, which meant that I took poetry workshops. There were a few poetry seminars being offered but I had never heard of Rene Char and no one was able to convince me that it might be interesting to read about him and talk about him, etc. After two years in retail — a bookstore then a health-food store — I became a Massachusetts resident and moved to Northampton to conclude my education, or so I thought, in that at the time I had not heard of graduate school. I’m not kidding.

At UMass I took a Bachelor’s Degree with an Individual Concentration in Poetry and Self-Consciousness, a degree I made up myself, and which allowed me to take poetry workshops and to complement these with courses in Psychology, Comparative Literature, and Philosophy.

I went to Iowa because someone mentioned it to me — I applied only there, and it never occurred to me that I was going in preparation for a brilliant career in poetics or in the academy. I was going because they were going to pay me to write poetry for two years. At Iowa there were some seminars offered but again I really didn’t have any clue what they were talking about — Paul Celan, George Oppen, Michael Palmer — and so I just took workshops and a course in editing at the Iowa Review.

You could conclude from this brief and incomplete history that I have been exceedingly incurious, and that is one way of looking at it. I more like to see it that I was able to construe myself as a-historical. I was totally dedicated to writing poetry, and did so plentifully and with conviction, without any sense that this was something that I might do “for a living,” or, more importantly perhaps, that there was a poetry culture, or community, or telos or ethos of poetry. That I was nominally prepared for teaching by my MFA degree did not mean that I would enjoy teaching, or that it would come naturally to me. I continued to work in retail and service environments of various kinds until I started Fence.

Fence, then, has been my real education, and I guess you could say that it’s been a public education. In short, I was exceedingly unschooled in ideas, when I started Fence — all action, no talk — but have through it been exposed to most of the major historical/literary concepts and constructs which seem to persist (community, context, coterie, identity, subjectivity). I seem to be able to connect the dots. In addition, I have grown old, and attained a certain curmudgeonly perch.

The future of poetry: I see a lot of younger poets embracing historicity, and context, and also struggling with futility, as a theme and as a function of poetry. I also see a lot of poets exhibiting different approaches to dealing with what I will call “self-y-ness.” I concur with poetry’s futility, and wish to support it: Despite a growing self-congratulatory vibe amongst poets who feel that their projects, or their community involvements, represent a kind of trickling-down cloud of supercomputing intellectual progressivism, poetry is not activism, or at least not now it’s not. There have been times at which, contexts in which, poetry could be activism, but those times are gone for now in the United States of America, and to think otherwise is to engage in a gross relativism. Poets in the academy are in a position to do good in the abstract, but they would do much better to get teaching certificates and teach elementary school. Poets in the academy in general would do much better to disband and sign up for some community organizing for a year or two or three or four, or get a social work degree and help out with the infrastructure, or run for local government. Now that’s poetry.

Aside from what I see as the well-intentioned but misguided application of some of the best minds of our generation to materially irrelevant content, the proverbial fiddling while Rome is burning in the Emperor’s new clothes, on a day-to-day level as I continue to make Fence function I grow astonished at poetry’s self-seriousness, combined with its industriousness. I worry that poetry has become an obfuscating cloud, seeded with drops who would do well to condense, drop out, and soak in.

Lest I leave you thinking that I find nothing to applaud or encourage in the Future of Poetry for the next ten years, I want to leave you with at least a name-drop of a quartet of youngish poets, all of whom I publish: Khalil Huffman, Aaron Kunin, Ariana Reines, and Catherine Wagner. Each of these poets in different registers confronts or trumpets a complicated, implicated American selfhood; a haplessness of consciousness; and the language that yet comes upon us. Here’s a brief poem by Catherine Wagner. [followed by reading of poem from My New Job]