Beyond the Box

Nox ,Ann Carson (£19.99, New Directions)
Da Happie Laand
, Robert Alan Jamieson (367pp, £12.99, Luath Press)

The same week a friend lends me her copy of Nox, Mike comes back from the library with Da Happie Land: 'Thought you'd like to see this' - though 'this' is not poems but a novel by Robert Alan Jamieson. It's a conjunction of two extraordinary books, both searching for someone lost.

Ann Carson's
Nox is an elegy for her brother. I don't remember seeing it reviewed in poetry magazines, but maybe that's because the only poem in it  immediately recognisable as one, is by Catullus. Here is poetry beyond the linear format, even beyond the page. The page. There is only one - a long concertina-fold of leaves you could open out for yards, or read packed like notebook pages folded into the front of the box (book). Or the back.

So what's on this page? Phrases, snatches of conversation, statements about the brother's life, 'definitions' of Latin words, stamps, old photos, blanks, doodles. And a 10-line poem by Catullus, one that Ann Carson has always liked. It's as much a visual as a textual piece: a phrase might be given it's power by a whole fold to itself. How little is left, this work demonstrates, when someone dies. Out of this little, comes an elegant and affecting work. Poem. A word at a time, the Catullus is 'translated', the definitions (always set on a left fold) including phrases, quotations and usage that resonate for Ann Carson, which she takes up and takes further.

An example:
cinerem, literally 'ashes'. Included the definition is the example Troia virum et noctium acerba cinis - 'Troy, bitter ash of men and nights'. This appears to generate the thought on the facing fold: 'His voice was like his voice with something else crusted on it, black dense'. (A fold or two before was a brief remembered conversation with her brother when Ann Carson tells him their mother has died.) It feels to me as if the Latin poem serves as a distancing device, taking us one step back from grief, returning us, then stepping back again. It shows us how long the process will be, word by word; it stages the thoughts.

It's a new format, but it's a recognisable voice, the one you try to remember lines from. One fold says only

     single motion which departed, leading itself by the hand


     Repent means 'the pain again'

There's her cooler, analytic voice too: 'I want to explain about the Catullus poem…'; 'In one sense it is a room I can never leave…'

Most extraordinary is the book itself. It's a facsimile of a notebook in which all the material has apparently been collected together. The quality of the reproduction is hard to believe: you can even see 'through' some of the pages to others. I
know it's a reproduction, yet I try to tuck in a piece of paper that seems to have come out of it's fold; I know it's not there, but I pick at a staple. I run my fingertips over 'indentations' from what's been scribbled on the previous fold. (There's only one part that doesn't convince, where there's some red 'paint' - it's thick - the trompe d'oeil works so well because it's a 2D representation of flat paper, nothing 3D.)

I look, I dip, I fold, I try to make sense of it, I go through the literal process of searching through the leaves, as Ann Carson has been searching for who her brother was. No end, no answer; everything just folds in together.

I read Da Happie Land first. It has a wonderful cover, title embossed on the board, and the author's name on a tracing paper dust jacket that partly alters what's underneath: a brilliant design, like the pentimento of the book itself. Then I saw the portfolio box, Nox. Invidious to think about another book alongside Ann Carson's? I expected it would be, but no - illuminating.
Robert Alan Jamieson's book also documents a search for the lost, and the impossibility of knowing someone. It's complex; the search here is doubled. An elderly retired minister of the Church of Scotland searches for a young man who visited him and left papers on the bed provided for him; in turn that young man searches for his missing and estranged father in Shetland. Robert Alan Jamieson allows himself a preface as 'editor' of the papers. Like Ann Carson, he is offering materials for the reader to run through, materials much more extensive than hers (this is a conventional novel format, though some pages have different type, and crossed out sections), and without the commentary that she brings to hers, but extraordinarily inventive. Why the father is missing, why the son in turn disappears… are there answers in the pages from the son's diary kept during his search? in letters to and from distant relatives, in a nineteenth century history of a Shetland parish, in Scottish history, in the archives of New Zetland, an island to the east of South Island NZ , where 'Zetlandic' is still spoken, in interviews with the last native speaker, someone who knew the father's grandmother? There's even an extensive grammar and vocabulary for Zetlandic. And a map of New Zetland. (If you're as much a map-addict as I am, you can enjoy turning that upside-down.)

It's almost an acknowledgement of too-muchness that the preface says 'I have included an amount of ephemera where the material is mentioned in the letters… For the general reader, these may be quickly passed over, yet I believe they have their role in the story as a whole'. There's a tremendous amount of material; it makes you search through it for the story, perhaps enacting the young man's search for his missing? murdered? drowned? father.

Like Ann Carson's materials, Robert Alan Jamieson's are interwoven. In
Da Happie Laand it's diary entries which act formally to pace the movement through the story / stories. This book, too, questions how well it is possible to know someone: can the son find his father, both literally, and figuratively in terms of understanding him? Can the reader understand the son, and his increasing disturbance? The range of materials which can be included in a novel of this length is much greater. What this allows Robert Alan to propose is that such explanations as there are could be rooted not just in personal traits or what friends and acquaintances (even gossip) can contribute, but in family history and even cultural history, both longer term and wider.

You have to attend very carefully to the first two or three pages… somehow I wasn't pulled into this searching process strongly enough at the outset. But after
Nox, I'm going to re-read. Supposing, I think, Da Happie Laand had been printed like Nox, no expense spared, in facsimile, and presented in an 'old brown leather briefcase', as assorted papers for you, the reader, to shuffle… That is, how much does the format contribute to the work? My answer, now, is much more than I would have thought.

     © Jane Routh 2011