When I read the reviews of this work, I thought that the combination of raw pain and classical learning would appeal to me, and I was quite right. But it’s a bit hard to say what it is!
Physically, we have an accordion-style scrapbook in a box. In general, the left-hand page carries a dictionary entry relating to the words from Catullus 101, an elegy on the poet’s dead brother, while the right-hand side illustrates the troubled death and life of Carson’s brother Michael.
The title Nox is of course Latin for ‘night’, a word that doesn’t actually occur in the Catullus. Instead, the dictionary entries on the left-hand side are steadily invaded by the word nox in its various forms and by references to night, for instance:
munere—debita nocti munera gifts owed to night
cinerem—Troia virum et noctium acerba cinis Troy, bitter ash of men and nights
interea—contra ius interea solum nocte against the law yet only at night
quae—quod homo est non est hoc nox a man is not a night!
manantia—omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat the whole pointless night seeps out of his heart
atque—similiter atque ipse eram noctuabunda just like him I was a negotiator with night
vale—parum valent Graeci verbo the Greeks have no precise word for this (but we call it ‘night’)
Some at least of these are variations on phrases from Latin authors, for instance Troia virum et virtutum omnium acerba cinis (‘Troy, bitter ash of men and every noble deed’) from Catullus 68b.
The right-hand pages include some scraps of conversation with Michael (and with his widow):
and also some lines from other works of Carson’s, for instance As in some cave may lie a lightless pool.
And there is elucidation if you work at it:
Take the word “entry” as used of the arrangement of the contents of a lexicon.
What if you made a collection of lexical entries…
…I came to think of translating as a room,….,where one gropes for the light switch.
In one sense it is a room I can never leave, perhaps dreadful for that. At the same time, a place composed entirely of entries.
You could ask whether this–at least the right hand side of this–is something that ought to be exposed to the public gaze. Certainly the Canadian mother with the hard blue gaze on her deathbed is far too near my own experience for comfort. Of course, Catullus 101 doesn’t tell us anything at all about his brother, but I think that’s just playing by the rules of Roman elegy.