Anne Carson’s Tragedy-in-Translation: Antigonick

There are things other than red string that might disorient the reader of Antigonick. The Meta-textual introduction of Eurydice, for example . . .

Anne Carson, sketch by B. Lussier

Anne Carson’s Antigonick* is a colorful riff on Sophocles’ Antigone, and the poet’s fourth book of tragedy-in-translation.  If we separate the elements that make the book uniquely Carson, we don’t find much that she hasn’t done before.  We find her dry humor, her keen intelligence, her love for visual art, and her knack for updating ancient Greek tragedy with contemporary vernacular. Although we are familiar with all of these things from other books by Carson, Antigonick combines them in a new way.  The result is her most compelling book of translation yet (scholars may argue about whether it can be categorized as “translation” at all, but readers of poetry will enjoy it regardless).

 

For more than a decade, Carson has been on a mission to make translating dead Greek poets into a sexy, trendy act through translations that often have at least as much Carson in them as they do Aristophanes, Sophocles, or Euripides.  Although Electra (Oxford UP, 2001) was her first book-length translation of tragedy, it was with If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, published in stunning full color by Knopf in 2002, that she began to gain serious attention for her translation work.

 

More recently, she published Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (New York Review of Books, 2006) and her version of Sophocles’ Oresteia (An Oresteia, Faber & Faber, 2009).  Both were fun to read, like all of Carson’s translations of tragedy, largely because of her wicked, dead-pan sense of humor.  Often apparent in her original poetry, it provides amusing tension when injected into the voices of unlikable characters like Clytemnestra (“Oh stop whining,” says the legendary murderess to the Chorus as they mourn the loss of their king, Agamemnon).  Scholars don’t always like this kind of thing, but those who want to chuckle while reading Greek tragedy love it.

 

In 2010, Carson returned to the book-as-art mode of If Not: Winter with Nox (New Directions).  Nox is a captivating art object, an “accordioned” scroll-in-a-box that uses the translation of an elegy by Catullus as the backbone to an original, fragmented tragedy.  Whereas An Oresteia, Grief Lessons, and other books between Nox and Fragments of Sappho were sexy texts in traditional book form, Nox was a somewhat inscrutable personal text in a trend-setting format. Antigonick brings both elements together to form a book that is both objet d’art and one hell of an enjoyable read.

A slideshow of text and artwork from Antigonick (artwork by Bianca Stone):

(click images to peel through at a fervent pace)

 

The artwork in Nox was Carson’s own, but Antigonick is a collaboration with artist Bianca Stone and designer Robert Currie.  The result is a more polished, fully realized artistic vision to go with the more polished, fully realized text that is Sophocles’ Antigone.  Carson either contributed to the content of the artwork, or Stone was very familiar with the poet’s past work, both textual and performance—red string, or thread, is found throughout the book.  At the beginning of  “Episode Five,” for example, appears a sketch of a horse with red string tangled around its legs.  Fans will know that Carson has a performance piece called “String Talks”—a collaboration between herself, dancers from the Merce Cunningham company, and Robert Currie (who is Carson’s husband as well as collaborator)—in which dancers wind red string around the stage, around bricks, and around Carson herself as she reads.

 

Artwork by Bianca Stone

Visual art is similarly juxtaposed with literature in Antigonick–another way in which the book combines elements of Carson’s previous creative output.  The red thread itself does not directly relate to the text that it appears on top of in Antigonick, but it didn’t directly relate to the selections from Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992) that Carson read during her “String Theory” performances, either.  It’s safe to say that Carson simply likes the mutability of the metaphor; interpretations can certainly be made about the reason for the red thread to be present, but in a post-modern world, no interpretation can be certain.

 

In that vein, Katina Rogers (over at Black Ink/White Page) addresses Antigonick, writing of the sense of confusion she often feels when reading Carson’s work (Rogers has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature, so if she’s confused, the rest of us certainly shouldn’t feel bad if we sometimes are as well):

 

“This feeling is not isolated to Antigonick; I often feel a sense of disorientation from Carson’s work. Looking through some notes on Autobiography of Red (which I simply loved), I realize the same feeling occurred there: I was utterly puzzled by certain elements and choices. (Especially the final “interview” with Stesichoros–I would love to know how people read that.)”

 
There are things other than red string that might disorient the reader of Antigonick.  The meta-textual introduction of Eurydice, for example:

 
“THIS IS EURYDIKE’S MONOLOGUE IT’S HER ONLY SPEECH IN THE PLAY,” says Eurydike when she comes on stage. “YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHO SHE IS THAT’S OK. LIKE POOR MRS RAMSEY WHO DIED IN A BRACKET IN TO THE LIGHTHOUSE SHE’S THE WIFE OF THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD . . . .”

 

Artwork by Bianca Stone

Carson is a scholar of Greek tragedy as well as a translator, so it makes sense that she would have an opinion about the role of Eurydice in Antigone, and it is amusing to have that opinion come out of the character’s own mouth.  It often seems that Carson’s reason for doing things is simply to have fun–she has fun with the format of her books, with language (“How is a Greek chorus like a lawyer / They’re both in the business of searching for a precedent,” says the chorus of Antigonick at one point), and with her characters.  Antigonick, in fact, begins with a joke that plays off of the fact that the Greek tragedians have been frequently mined by writers and philosophers over past century, and it announces Carson’s intent to have a good time with her re-telling of this very old tale:

 

[ENTER ANTIGONE AND ISMENE]: ANTIGONE: WE BEGIN IN THE DARK AND THE BIRTH OF DEATH IS US  ISMENE: WHO SAID THAT  ANTIGONE: HEGEL  ISMENE: SOUNDS MORE LIKE BECKETT  ANTIGONE: HE WAS PARAPHRASING HEGEL

 

Following Anne Carson’s career is more interesting than following those of most other living poets, because we can never be sure exactly what she’s going to do next, but we can be fairly certain that it will somehow fit into the Carsonesque world of images, techniques, and voices that the poet has developed over the course of her career.   It will likely be heart-breaking, it will probably be hilarious, and it will certainly be smartly done.  This explains why Jennifer Reiky writes in the Southern Review, “When a poet is a sure hit like Anne Carson, I don’t feel compelled to read reviews before I buy the book.”

 

Text from Antigonick

*This review doesn’t address Carson’s odd title choice, because Nicholas Mirzoeff has already done an interesting job of it.  His thoughts on the matter can be found here.  

More Anne Carson:

Read our review of Carson’s Nox.
See videos of Carson’s “performance” reading at movingpoems.com.

 
 
 
 

More Bianca Stone:

Visit Stone’s “Poetry Comics.”
Visit Stone’s New Directions author page.
Follow Stone on twitter, @biancastone.