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Issue 134


The poetry, translation and fiction of Anne Carson and Lydia Davis

BY Emily Stokes in Critic's Guides | 01 OCT 10

Anne Carson, Nox, 2010. Photograph: Kariann Hager Burleson.

Anne Carson is a poet interested in how literature fits into our lives and how, sometimes, it does not. In one of her finest early poems, ‘The Glass Essay’ (1995), she describes the experience of trying to read Emily Brontë while sitting at the kitchen table: ‘I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl,’ she writes, ‘but am covertly watching my mother.’ In another work, a prose-poem in a series titled ‘Short Talks’ (1992), she writes about reading Madame Bovary (1856) while in the backseat of a car, travelling through the Rocky Mountains, and how the two experiences merge: ‘Since those days,’ she writes, ‘I do not look at hair on female flesh without thinking, Deciduous?’

The Canadian poet’s latest work, Nox (2010), challenges the experience of reading in more fundamental ways. It is a book in a box, described on the outside case as the replica (‘as close as we could get’) of a book Carson made as an ‘epitaph’ for her brother, who died in 2000. The contents are displayed as the smooth, photographed pages of a scrapbook covered with labels, pages, snapshots and letters. When cradled in its case, you can turn its pages like any book – but, lifted out, it disintegrates alarmingly, unravelling into a long concertina. This is fitting: Nox is a book about self-containment, about the grief-stricken poet’s attempt to carry herself in public without falling apart. The issue of ‘closeness’ is also relevant; in the poem, Carson is mourning her brother while also working at a difficult translation, a poem by Catullus from the 1st century bce, ‘101’, in which the Roman poet describes the death of his brother. Translation, she finds, is a tricky, elusive experience, like being in a darkened room – ‘not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch.’ Carson has been working on this poem for years, she tells us, but has never managed to capture the ‘passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy’, to ‘approximate’ the poet’s diction.

As so often in Carson’s work, two projects merge. On the left-side of every page of Nox is a definition of a single word from the Catullus poem, apparently cut out from a dictionary. On the right, we are given an assortment of scraps, stories, pictures and narratives. As readers, we long for instructions – to know, for instance, whether the two sides are meant to come together. At times they seem to: a definition of the word ‘mutam’, for instance, is given alongside an account of the brother having ‘nothing to say’ in a phone conversation. At others, the relationship is less rewarding. Carson’s narrative, meanwhile, is long, meandering and obscure, picking out similarities between unlikely things – an egg-shaped box in Hekataios and the moment when her brother stubbed a cigarette out on the frying pan, ‘sunny side up’.

Nox is a strange work because it seems to have been given up before it has begun, like a pile of false-starts among a poet’s untidy desk. ‘I had wanted my elegy to be filled with light of all kinds,’ she writes. ‘But death makes us stingy.’ Clues to Carson’s mission are themselves like codes: the word ‘mute’, she writes, is regarded by linguists as ‘a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing itself to be seen hiding’. Over time, it becomes clear that ‘closeness’ is, for Carson, an impossibility; far from echoing the original, her translation is awkward and feels more scholarly than passionate. Similarly, her attempts to get closer to her brother leave her at a loss; she remembers his phone-calls as if she’d ‘been asked to translate them’, but also recalls other things – how he never sent a return address, how he called her ‘pinhead’ and ‘professor’. ‘Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light,’ she admits of her fastidious endeavours. ‘Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.’

American writer Lydia Davis is also interested in ‘little kidnaps’ – those moments when our attention is stolen away from what we are supposed to be looking at. Included in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2010) is a short story from 1997, ‘Foucault and Pencil’, in which the narrator, who is on the subway, is trying to do a translation but ends up taking notes about a recent argument with her counsellor instead. In ‘Examples of Confusion’ (1997) Davis describes the experience of reading a line of poetry while simultaneously eating a carrot. ‘I had not read the poetry, not consumed it,’ she writes, ‘because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.’

Davis, like Carson, is a translator and a teacher as well as a writer. Also, like Carson, her work has been described as experimental. Her fictions are often more like monologues than stories (occasionally they recall Thomas Bernhard); they’re small, acute observations, posted under titles suggesting that they’re exercises, instructions or examples of the kind that might be found in a textbook. This, for example, is ‘A Double Negative’ (2001) in its entirety: ‘At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.’

The experience of reading Davis and Carson can feel similar – and not simply because both are preoccupied with housework, grammar and handwriting. It is the experience of having one’s attention divided. In Carson’s case, this split comes in part with having one’s gaze shift between translation and the paraphernalia of death – but it also arises because, while reading Nox, part of one’s mind is working away at something else – not at translating the poem, or building a picture of the brother, but at forming an image of the poet. What kind of person, we wonder, would make this book? Who would type out small parts of a dictionary, print them out, tear them into rectangles, and stick them down? Why did she not have scissors? Why did she tamper with the dictionary definitions?

Similarly, reading one of Davis’ very short fictions, the reader becomes aware of what is hidden. This is perhaps felt most acutely in one of the writer’s most inventive stories, ‘We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders’ (2007), which, like Nox, makes use of a box of ready-mades (also real ones): 27 letters written by seventh-grade students to their fellow pupil, Stephen (Davis’ brother), to wish him well after an accident. The story has no narrative, but rather presents itself as the product of hard labour: an analysis of the content, style, handwriting and sophistication of each of the letters. It compares and contrasts them, critiquing each with impressive skill: ‘Billy T. is also concerned about Stephen’s food,’ she writes, ‘presumably in the hospital, although his use of the future tense makes this somewhat unclear: “I hope you will eat well”.’ In fact, the report is written with such confidence that it’s easy to forget that this study is also a story. At some point, however, our mind wanders – the analysis is so painstaking! – and we think about who is writing it: their motivations, their scenario. What Davis has constructed occurs off the page: the instinct that we are reading a response to something that has been lost.

I recently met Davis who was – as I had imagined she would be – neat and tidy, concise and witty. I wanted to know how her fiction and translations might be united. Davis wasn’t sure; perhaps, she thought, both showed that she liked grammar, and that she was a perfectionist. But later she told me about the experience of translating – how she, unlike many others in her profession, did not reread a book before she started to translate it. Instead, she said, she tried to keep her eyes on each word, rebuilding each sentence to be as close to the original as possible. If she re-read the text, she said, she worried that she would get bored – and also that her own interpretation might seep into her work. Like Carson, Davis is a fiercely faithful translator; her recent translation of Madame Bovary (2010) for example, sticks so closely to Gustave Flaubert’s original that it has even preserved his irregular capitalizations. It’s a modest approach – Davis does not claim to be creative – but a particular one, leading to translations that are occasionally awkward, reminding the reader of the close attention and hard labour that has created them.

In Davis’ ‘The Letter’ (1986), the narrator translates a text following a relationship break-up: ‘She did a lot of translation, just to keep the pain away.’ Writing in Nox, Carson declares: ‘Because of our conversations were so few (he phoned maybe 5 times in 22 years) I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them.’ To read the work of both writers is an unsettling experience – perhaps because it’s not like reading at all. Rather, it’s akin to being pushed up so close to something that you’re made to feel that you’re quite in the dark. The story comes not from the page, but from the part of the mind that wanders, like a hand groping for the light-switch.

Emily Stokes is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and a writer who lives in New York, USA.