Monday, May 16, 2011


1.0 I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think, he's dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.

1.1 History and elegy are akin. The word "history" comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning "to ask." One who asks about things - about their dimensions, weight, location, moods, names, holiness, smell - is an historian. But the asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself. There was a man named Hekataios, who lived in the city of Miletos in the generation before Herodotos and who cannot be called an "historian" because Herodotos is regarded as the author of that role, but who composed (about 500 BC) a How To GO Around the Earth (with map) containing this (as I think of it) metaphor for his own activity:

He makes out of myrrh an egg as big as he can carry. Then he tests it to see if if he can carry it. After that he hollows out the egg and lays his father inside and plugs up the hollow. With father inside the egg weighs the same as before. Having plugged it up he carries the egg to Egypt to the tempt of the sun.

Hekataios is describing the sacred phoenix which lived in Arabia but came to Heliopolis in Egypt once every five hundred years to bury a father there. The phoenix mourns by shaping, weighing, testing, hollowing, plugging and carrying towards the light. He seems to take a clear view of necessity. And in the shadows that flash over him as he makes his way from Arabia to Egypt maybe he comes to see the immensity of the mechanism in which he is caught, the immense fragility of his own flying - composed as it is of these ceaselessly passing shadows carried backward by the very motion that devours them, his motion, his asking.

1.2 Autopsy is a term historians use of the "eyewitnessing" of data or events by the historian himself, a mode of authorial power. To withhold this authorization is also powerful. Herodotos carefully does not allege to have seen a phoenix, which comes only once every five hundred years, although he mentions the same legends as Kekataios. Herodotos likes to introduce such information with a word like "it is said" as one might use on dit or dicitur. When my brother died his dog got angry, stayed angry, barking, growling, lashing, glaring, by day and night. He went to the door, he went to the window, he would not lie down. My brother's widow, it is said, took the dog to the church on the day of the funeral. Buster goes right up to the front of the Sankt Johannes and raises himself on his paws on the edge of the coffin and as soon as he smells the fact, his anger stops. "To be nothing - is that not, after all, the most satisfactory fact in the whole world?" asks a dog in a novel I read once. I wonder what the smell of nothing is. Smell of autopsy.

-Anne Carson