Letter to Anne Carson: Work of Remembrance and Mourning

By | 1 February 2019

However one of the most engaging features of Nox is the second narrative about your brother Michael and your mother. Very much like the story of your translation of Catullus’s poem, I read Michael’s story as a work of translation. Like a true master you translate the memory of your brother Michael’s brief and tragic life into words. As I read his story, I begin to traverse an imagined journey with you, sharing your complex emotions about your brother and his sudden disappearance from your mother’s and your lives.

The two narratives, the one about translating Catullus’s Poem 101 which he composed as an elegy for a brother who had died in a land unknown to Catullus, and the one about Michael are printed on pages facing each other: on the left-had side I see a translator’s search for English equivalents of words in Catullus’s Latin poem, whereas on the right-hand side I find a polyphonic telling of Michael’s story. This polyphonic narrative consists of a bricolage of material that appears like pages from a scrapbook. It contains black and white photos from a family album, postage stamps, fragment of an aerogram envelope, scraps from a diary, bits of typed letters, parts of a conversation between you and your brother, pieces of collage-style artwork and words and phrases typed in italics on shreds of papers glued on the pages.

You may find it amusing that one day I typed the italicised words and phrases as separate lines on a sheet of paper. On the page they appeared like verses of a poem and when I read them aloud they began to sound like a poem.

The copy of your Nox that I have read was borrowed from the university library. And like all libraries it was marked and stamped by the library. The stamp, ‘Library of the University of Canberra’, appears on several pages inside and outside the book. It also carries a sticker with a bar code and a number. I am disappointed by this unwanted intrusion although I understand that’s what most libraries do: to mark the book with a stamp of their ownership.

I also found in Nox scraps of paper that a borrower had left in the book. They must have been used as bookmarks but they also carried brief comments pencilled on them. A book becomes a book only when it is read, I told myself and enjoyed the thought that there was someone else in Canberra who had left traces of his or her engagement with your book. However, what fascinates me most in Nox is the way it so astutely combines the events of remembering and mourning in each of the two juxtaposed narratives. I can decode their presence in the traces of your effort to translate Catullus’s Poem 101. And I can also see them in the way you tell Michael’s story. In one you map the story of your coming to terms with an elegy that Catullus wrote for his brother and in the second I read an elegy you have composed for your brother Michael. As with all elegies their purpose is to remember and mourn.

As I come to terms with the acts of remembering and mourning I have described above, I realise that Nox is infused with two other modes of mourning. The first of the two is the mourning of the loss that has occurred when Catullus’s Poem 101 is sent to a hospitable home created by your English translation. The source of the second mourning is much deeper; it originates from the realisation that words and stories, however powerful they might be, fail to capture the wholeness of a lived life; that something is always lost, is always left adrift. And this is the point where I begin to convince myself that only a master translator like you would have been able to conjure this magic of a book; a book utterly melancholic but equally joyous.

In a letter Celan wrote but didn’t send to his poet-friend Rene Char, I find words that make me think of the way I need to read poetry. ‘I have always tried to understand you,’ Celan writes, ‘to respond to you, to take your work like one takes a hand; and it was, of course, my hand that took yours, there where it was certain not to miss the encounter. To that in your work which did not, or not yet, open up to my comprehension, I respond with respect and by waiting; one can never pretend to comprehend completely; that would be disrespect in the face of the unknown that inhabits or come to inhabit the poet.’

I don’t know why Celan didn’t send the letter. I am sure Char would have appreciated the grace with which Celan responded to his work.

I like the idea that in order to respond to someone else’s poem, one has to take the poem like one takes a hand. The tactile element of the metaphor enchants me. Only by taking a hand followed by a handshake one can ensure that a real encounter with a poem can happen.

Celan’s biographer John Felstiner, whose English translation of Celan’s poem you cite in your Economy of the Unlost, notes that in 1958, Gisele, Celan’s artist wife, had created an etching that left a lasting impression on him. The etching depicts the converging of disparate fragments pulled together by a strong magnetic force. Celan gave the etching a double (French and German) title: Rencontre-Begegnung. Soon, Begegnung or encounter became one of the main fulcrums of Celan’s musings about poetry.

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