Unwriting the Books of the Dead: Anne Carson and Robert Currie on Translation, Collaboration, and History

Andrew David King
October 6, 2012
Comments 3

Before Anne Carson took the odes of Gaius Valerius Catullus as cartographical tools for navigating the all-too-unmappable space of her brother Michael’s death, Louis Zukofsky translated them. In the preface to the 1969 edition in which they were published, he wrote that his work “follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin—tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him.” And each homophonic recreation kept to that description: “…descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus” from Catullus’s 112th poem became “descended: Naso, mool ’tis – is it pathic, cuss” in Zukofsky’s ear. In Carson’s Nox, where Catullus’s poem 101 serves as a semantic jumping-off point and a sonic drone note, sense experience is likewise a search for correlates—a search to find meanings, but also to find ways of making meanings when they’re not so easily found.

Less a book than an art object (though the distinction is dubious), Carson and her collaborator Robert Currie reconstructed via Nox the “epitaph” she made for her brother after his passing. Like Catullus’s poem 101, which oscillates in and out of focus across Nox, Carson’s act of remembrance also moves from one degree of decipherability to another: the process of grief, of both forging and mourning, takes place on a gradient scale where the known and the unknown are not themselves polar coordinates but possible values in a sea of valences. This sea, this shifting topography, is not so much a limbo or purgatory as an unlit hallway where vestiges of the familiar guide one forward. Of the years of working on a translation of poem 101, she writes that she “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.” Throughout Nox, the light switch is toggled on, and then off again—and “translation” comes to indicate not just the endeavor to move from one expression to its contextual equivalent, but to separate the inseparable, to parse the influx of history into the present and the present back into history.

Somewhere in this whirlpool, human forms cut through. But when they appear, they appear almost apophatically: as outlines, as names violently scrawled, as crease-worn letters, as shadows on snow. And as Carson scrutinizes the phenomena of definition—and as the work’s accordion-style, stitched-together pages unfold—definition itself becomes not a foothold toward certainty but another vaguely familiar room where one must look for light. Paul Mann, writing in a 1974 article for Translation Review about Zukofsky’s translations of Catullus, observed that, for most translators, “the name Zukofsky represents a scandal.” His treatment of the ancient poet came to signify “grotesque infidelity, gratuitous distortion, the deliberate abuse of a poem for the translator’s own aesthetic satisfaction.” More than exalting a descent into relativism, Carson’s work in Nox as well as Antigonick—the vibrant, anachronistic translation of Euripides she, Currie, and illustrator Bianca Stone recently put together—shows how the nails holding up all grand narratives, whether of enshrined history or of one’s own life and losses, aren’t so much nails but the ideas of nails. Slippage is no error, but a modus operandi, one unsure of the idea that translators could ever work outside of their own pursuits of “aesthetic satisfaction.” One doubtful, also, of linear time: “It is for God to fix the time who knows no time,” Carson states in Nox, a vague echo of a verse from the first chapter of the book of Acts: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”

The materiality of Nox is impossible to sift from its poetry, from its function, which is primarily elegiac. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics describes the elegy as intending to “lament, praise and console in the face of loss,” and each of these facets is felt as much in the work’s physical aspects as in its written ones. The two are so closely wedded, in fact, that they resemble each other. The text in Nox is often actually the image of text, and at various times the text is obscured, the accompanying images shattered or made partial. The photograph, in particular, undergoes this fracturing, a technique Carson comments on in the interview printed below; by extension, what we associate with the photograph—mimesis, accuracy, verisimilitude—also becomes porous and permeable. (“It was a photograph just like the old days. Or was it?” she writes, and “It was a photograph he never took, no one here took it.”) The picture’s subject, like that of the text, is destroyed in its making; he or she or it is rent. The work, as an “epitaph,” performs the labor of a monument but refuses to ignore the inevitable effacement all monuments, no matter how sturdily built, will sustain. Brandon Brown, the author of the recent experimental translation of Catullus titled The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, remarks in that collection on the irredeemable failure of the project of preservation: “As if prosody were a redemptive tactic against the total loss effected by death.” “As if”—the persona behind Nox knows this, but moves forward, undeterred, with all the hardness of the title’s one syllable; like an urn or a cocoon, almost, its physical incarnation is both a resolution of lamentation and of praise. Unwilling to declare one separate from the other, its pages are physically and thematically continuous—and though they begin and end, one gets the sense that the hallway they open onto does not. It remains, instead, the receptacle of the panoply of emotions grief brings. “Why do we blush before death?” Carson asks. And then, an imperative, on the same page of what looks to be a crushed flower: “If you are writing an elegy begin with the blush.” Blush: the color of awe, of shame; a halfway color.

Antigonick, Carson’s translation of Euripides, is just as colorful and synesthetic as Nox, but replaces the dark room of translation with the comparably daunting white of the page. Ostensibly a portrait of fifth-century BCE Greece, Antigonick deflates the centuries between then and now to incorporate characters who attribute their thoughts to Beckett or Hegel. A wholly new character, the titular Nick, is also brought in—a silent background presence who measures things onstage while the play goes on, as though the ambition of empirical clarity were an addictive habit. One so addictive, in fact, that not even the tragedy of Antigone’s fate can outlive it. As in Nox, the paradox of definitions looms large: “OH WHO KNOWS HOW THESE DEFINITIONS WORK DOWN THERE,” Antigone says to Kreon after she’s caught attempting to bury her slain brother. “ENEMY IS ALWAYS ENEMY,” Kreon replies, exposing the tautology of one-to-one meanings. Antigonick, like Nox (and like the multifarious meanings of its title), is also a bricolage of materials. Stone’s illustrations are at once ahistorical and time-specific, featuring everything from horses, people with cinderblock heads, the fixtures of middle class North American life; the aesthetic is decidedly modern, but also reminiscent of the themes of burial and entombment (or lack thereof) running through Antigonick. What’s more, the images are printed on translucent vellum, so that the text—which is hand-lettered onto the page—floats up hazily through it, like underwater artifacts seen from above.

Though it may be the case that Carson’s brother was lost to her “long before he died,” as Meghan O’Rourke wrote in The New Yorker, the cumulative effect of Nox—and of Antigonick—convinces one of the ongoingness of human impressions, echoes of the self long after the self’s gone. “Put the past away you have to,” she recounts her brother saying—but Carson defies him both by assembling his memorial and by writing, with what resembles black crayon, “I / HAD / TO.” This sense of compulsion risks eclipsing truth while it simultaneously tries to illuminate it: Herodotus is quoted as saying that he doesn’t have to believe the testimonies he records, and Plutarch as mocking Herodotus for refusing to practice further discernment. But Carson seems to endorse neither. Instead, her genre-bending works pursue an “autopsy,” as she writes, of experience, while fluctuating between commitment and skepticism; the starkness of her projects belie what she described in an interview with KCRW host Michael Silverblatt as “a real joy in the making.” And the history of Nox as a project is not altogether alien to the narrative it houses. As critic Parul Sehgal writes, Nox was almost lost—it was returned to Carson three years after she’d loaned it to a German bookmaker; she’d resigned herself to its disappearance before it came back in the mail. Akin to figures of myth and legend, whose voices carry through to the present day in damaged form, the likeness of Carson’s brother can appear timeless despite being tied to temporal events. He also escapes, or prevents, perfect representation, though his ghostly residue stays. “He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears,” Carson writes on one of the last pages in Nox. His death becomes part of a whole that “remains beyond” facts, a whole that draws Carson into the dim room of translation. “In one sense it is a room I can never leave, perhaps dreadful for that,” she notes. But the possibility of lucidity still lingers: “At the same time, a place composed entirely of entries.”

Last month, I corresponded with Anne and her collaborator, Robert, about the thinking behind Nox and Antigonick, the relationship between text and image, translation, the nature of the elegy, and the variety of interdisciplinary and hybrid collaborations they’ve undertaken—including a dance adaptation of Nox. Our conversation is reprinted below.

The Kenyon Review: In Nox, you outline elegy’s affinity to history. Does the elegy, as act or as poetic form, share its lineage with anything else? Is it a poetic mode, an existential mode, or perhaps both or neither?

Anne Carson: “Elegy” was a polyvalent genre in ancient Greek poetry, used in the archaic period for exhorting troops to battle, outlining political views, pithy military wisdom, mild erotic description, consolation after shipwreck, and meditation on drunkenness. It was not until the time of Simonides of Keos that epitaphs for the dead began to be written in elegiac couplets and so to become almost synonymous with that genre functionally. That’s why I used epitaph as well as elegy when referring to Nox. I did not use couplets but I did have in mind a range of function and tone.

The cover of Nox (via napalm nikki; Flickr/Creative Commons)

KR: I couldn’t help but think, reading Nox, about the materiality of the work alongside the materiality of the body—and about mind-body dualism as a model for the “book” versus the “text” it contains. I think Nox asks some relevant questions about identity: whether or not there is such a thing as a person without a body (the addressee, more or less, in Nox), or a text without a physical incarnation. When constructing the work, did you find that the process of grief, of negotiating death and absence, lent itself easily to a physical correlate? Was there something about Nox’s subject matter that necessitated it taking the form that it did?

AC: It is hard to answer this as Nox was not originally made as a fold-out book in a box: that was a compromise arrived at for purposes of publishing. Originally it was simply a hand-made book (at first empty) that I filled with stuff and thoughts. I don’t recall considering mind-body dualism, but certainly, it is a strange thing that people bodily disappear on us while remaining very present otherwise.

KR: There seems to be some thematic affiliation between Nox and Antigonick, as both of the texts consider the relationship between the living and the deceased. But they also seem to grapple with the sense of obligation in that relationship: Antigone toward Polyneices, and you toward your brother. Did a sense of this sort of obligation affect your composition of Nox? What—if anything—was owed?

AC: No, the Antigone translation was a whim. I wanted to try translating Sophokles because I had done too much Euripides.

Robert Currie: Recently the headline on The Onionwas something like, “Deathrate remains stubbornly at 100%.”

Nox (via rocketlass; Flickr/Creative Commons)

KR: Susan Sontag wrote that “print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images.” I was curious to know if there was any rubric ordaining how the photographs in Nox appeared. More generally, I wanted to ask how you see photography and writing interacting, especially seeing that the photograph as an object appears more in Nox than in your other projects. Where do the ontologies of photography and writing overlap, and where do they diverge?

AC: Not sure what you mean by a rubric. The rule I gave myself in making Nox was to try do something different on each page—not to work out a technique and reiterate it page after page. So I was trying to endlessly vary and surprise the way of using visual elements, both photographic and other. Became more interested in the overall effect of the designed page than the specific content of the photograph. Realized that most photographs are better when cut. The more you cut, the more story they gather.

From left to right: Ólöf Arnalds, Robert Currie, Kjartan Sveinsson, Anne Carson, and Penelope Thomas at a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Tiffany Oelfke)

KR: I was also thinking about recurrent nods to photography in your work—particularly in Autobiography of Red, which includes a collection of textual sketches called “photographs” toward the end. Each has a prelude or subtitle of sorts, and the last two really probe the weird metaphysic of the film’s negative: “It was a photograph just like the old days. Or was it?” and “It was a photograph he never took, no one here took it.” There’s a sense, here, of time being stepped out of. And “XLVI. PHOTOGRAPHS: #1748” is the title of the last “photograph,” a reference to the numbered Dickinson poem reproduced in the beginning of the book, a poem that ends, “The only secret people keep / Is Immortality.” What are your thoughts on the photograph as documentary device, as opposed to text being used for the same purpose? Does photography tap into some unattainable, immortal thing that text can’t, something that would make it more “honest”?

AC: What I like about photographs, especially my own, usually, is the title.

KR: Your work frequently smudges the (arguably questionable) line between facticity and invention; Plato and Baudrillard and Whitman, for instance, are quoted in the contexts of more “fictional” worlds. What do you think this blending achieves? Are there “facts” to be deviated from in the first place?

AC: Yes, there are facts. Blending makes them hit the mind in a new way.

Pages from Antigonick (courtesy of New Directions)

KR: George Steiner (a KR contributor), writing about Antigonick in TLS, claims that translation “should embody an act of thanks to the original. It should celebrate its own dependence on its source.” Brandon Brown, in The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, writes that translation “is an artwork of appropriation. And yet much of contemporary translation as much as contemporary works of appropriation purport to cancel the somatic vehicle for lyric material…” He goes on to say that such work “excludes her [the translator’s] body from the scene of translation,” which consists of someone making “something out of something else.” When translating, or working with any ancient text in a new way, how does one move between honoring the “source” and the “somatic vehicle” that brings that source into the present by the act of translation? In other words—should the mark one leaves on translations be resisted, celebrated, or neither?

AC: I don’t think I know what either of these quotes means. A translation usually has a specific purpose. If it is a commission for a certain theatre director or company, the translator will be given parameters as to what kind of translation is required. If it’s a free adventure of creativity, the translator will have their own attitude to that. I generally try to work first and most attentively out of the grammar, syntax, allusions of the original while keeping the language alive in a way that interests me, then later crazy it up if that seems appropriate. I put Hegel and Brecht into Antigonick because those readings of her are part of how she lives in our minds. I put Beckett in because Antigone would have liked him.

An excerpt from Antigonick (courtesy of New Directions)

KR: What’s the most important part of any artistic collaboration, or the most difficult thing to get past? How do you resolve differences or divergent thoughts when you’re thinking about a project together?

AC: Trust.

RC: Trust as defined in a lot of different ways; trust of critical response, aesthetic integrity. Here’s another way: Anne and I were living in Iceland at an art installation (Roni Horn’s “Library of Water”) and were asked to create something for an evening at the library put on by Artangel (a London arts organization). We asked Icelandic composer Kjartan Sveinsson if he would write a couple of songs using sonnets AC [Anne] had written about and for Roni H. He said he would be delighted. We gave him the texts and heard nothing for months, really until the evening prior to the event. Yikes. Kjartan arrived with singer Ólöf Arnalds and a pump harmonium. What they did that evening was stunning and fit beautifully with what Anne, Ragnheidur (the librarian), and I did. This was trust the work would get done. [Those interested can find recordings of the collaboration here and here.]

KR: In the past, you’ve both collaborated with choreographers, performers, and musicians—such as with your “Bracko” piece with Rashaun Mitchell and Marcie Munnerlyn, Mitchell with Silas Riener, Antigonick illustrator Bianca Stone, and Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed—and have taught on collaboration in a workshop at Cornell. How is collaboration or co-creation altered when artists with different technical backgrounds get together?

RC: It alters it completely, surprising all involved. The addition of artists with different skills or interests is a way of finding the fractures. We are lucky that all of the artists you have mentioned and others we work with have extraordinary skills unlike ours and a willingness to find a way to work with a collective spirit. This is the willingness to take a unique book, Nox, turn it into something to be shared, and finally (at least for now) a dance (Rashaun Mitchell, Silas Reiner, Ben Miller). In our classes at NYU as well as at Cornell, we not only ask them to work together, we ask them now that it is done what can it become. Collaboration is also a great way to spend time with people whose company we enjoy. P.S.: Rashaun and Silas have just been nominated for Bessie Awards for their work in the performance Nox.

Robert Currie and Anne Carson at the same performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art (photo by Tiffany Oelfke)

KR: Anne, you said in an interview with Parul Sehgal that you “like to walk around ideas” but that you’re “not intrinsically spatial as a thinker”; Robert, you’ve mentioned that the goal of the collaborative, multimedia workshop at Cornell was to ultimately “make them [the students] better writers.” When you’re both working on a project together, does the text underwrite its material manifestation (if this distinction is comprehensible)? Or are there times when the material comes first, and the text morphs to adapt to it?

RC: We have always begun with the words. They are always the armature for any work we do—so far.

KR: In If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, brackets are used to represent missing stanzas and lines, thereby lending some materiality—and some “there there,” to recall Stein—to those absences. What was it like to hand-letter every letter in Antigonick? Did this, too, maybe give the text more “there”-ness, or is the intended effect (if there is one) something else?

AC: Currie did the pencil underwriting and therefore all the measuring. I did the pen over top, so my part was fun.

Anne Carson (via federico novaro; Flickr/Creative Commons)

KR: In the assignment “Instructions for Folding” that you both composed for Paperbag, you mention that the lines were “generated randomly from a list of 25 lines, of which there are four sets.” Have chance operations been a major part of any other undertaking for either of you?

AC: Yes, everything we’ve done together.

RC: We use a random number generator a lot.

KR: Anne, in the introduction Paula Rabinowitz delivered for you in 2009 at the University of Minnesota, she described you as “frustrated with the compulsory courses required to complete an undergraduate liberal arts degree—in particular the study of Milton…” during your undergraduate career. How has your relationship with the academy—and maybe Milton—changed since then? How has pedagogy influenced your craft, or vice versa?

AC: I still don’t read much Milton, on the other hand my craft as you call it would have gone nowhere without the study of Greek, Latin, and language in general as a formal procedure.

RC: What a surprise when she wrote Anne. I’ve known Paula since 1980 and it was lovely to see her after many years.

Nox (via *D Paris*; Flickr/Creative Commons)

KR: I wanted to ask about the tone of the translation in Antigonick by comparing a line translated by R.C. Jebb in the late 1800s to yours. Whereas Jebb has Antigone saying, “Consider if thou wilt share the toil and the deed,” you translated, “IF YOU JOIN ME IF YOU JOIN IN MY ACTION.” This passage in particular seems very Stein-esque; did you have any conscious influences or models, sonic or stylistic, for your translation as you performed it?

AC: No models, just wanted a clear emphatic sound that says exactly what the Greek does.

KR: What was it about Beckett and Hegel that prompted you to refer to them so often (especially Hegel) in this translation? I tried to find something resembling the declaration with which Antigone begins—“WE BEGIN IN THE DARK AND BIRTH IS THE DEATH OF US”—but the closest thing I could find was a line from Waiting for Godot in which Estragon says, “We are all born mad. Some remain so.” Seeing that Antigone and Ismene debate the quote’s authorship, I was wondering if there was a reason you began with this sentence—is it inspired by the first line of Sophocles’ text, or by another source?

AC: Sheer sensationalism.

An illustration from Antigonick by Bianca Stone (courtesy of New Directions)

KR: In Antigonick, the illustrated pages are translucent, allowing marks from the subsequent page to “float up” and embed itself in the image. And many of the images seem to pertain to the text only obliquely, if at all: dining tables, mountain ranges, the furnishings of a middle-class residence. In addition to this, the book’s use of white space works both an aesthetic and semantic device. Can you tell me about the process of coming up with these features and deciding how they would engage with each other?

RC: We asked Bianca to limit the figurative and I believe after a couple of readings asked her not to revisit the text. We chose the order and placement of the images using a random number generator. We didn’t want them to simply recreate the narrative of the page. I have always liked the idea of what is happening, literally behind what we are seeing; the images were sort of like what is happening in the neighbor’s kitchen just behind Kreon. (The cover photo is from Iceland, by the way, and that lone figure in the crack of the earth is Kjartan.)

KR: Robert, how do you approach the act of “translating” a piece of text into something material? Is this a wrong way to characterize what you’ve done with Nox and Antigonick? Are there any hard-and-fast methods you go by, or do you proceed by intuition?

RC: It’s different each time. Nox was a beautiful piece that Anne had made and had been lost for a number of years when it resurfaced we were resolved to find a way to publish it. So in the case of Nox we were just searching for a way to replicate the intimacy of Anne’s original and were lucky enough to find all the lovely folks at New Directions willing to take it on. Antigonick (also from New Directions) was an experiment in making something more rather than something evocative. As far as the other visual and performance work we have made I always think spatially, always think of language as sculptural, and always think of scale.

A poem by Carson on the Boston waterfront (via AnnahojY; Flickr/Creative Commons)

KR: Anne, you mentioned in an interview with Suicide Girls that you’re currently “translating Euripides’ ‘Bakkhai’ for the Alameida theater in London,” and Random House recently announced that Red Doc>, a sequel to Autobiography of Red, would be forthcoming next March. Do you anticipate taking these works, too, as catalysts for further collaborations—multimedia or theatrical?

AC: Yes.

3 thoughts on “Unwriting the Books of the Dead: Anne Carson and Robert Currie on Translation, Collaboration, and History

  1. I’m so glad I came across this – currently writing on Nox for my PhD thesis and it’s great to get something for my bibliography.

  2. That clearly reminds me. Back in 90s I was just a schoolgirl absorbed however with Catullus and Ovidius. My first English rendition from Guy Valerius Catullus was “Marcus Tullius, a patron speechful…” that sun after ended up at my series of “ancient passages”…

  3. “…the mark of the translator” this reader would find as personified in “nick” of the
    “Antigonick” work and in the “blush” as contending with the discovery Frazer made in “The Golden Bough.” The darkroom of the translator and his work with the text are of course mind and body, as is his entering the “underworld,” self creating as the thread
    Is woven. We need be faithful to the original even as we accept his departure as
    empirical fact, that may be true to Frazer in the body of the work; celebration has been the custom after harvest.

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