I had looked forward to reading Anne Carson’s new poem, Antigonick.
I loved her book-length poem, Nox, an elegy for her brother Michael, brilliantly interwoven with Catullus’s elegy for his dead brother (Poem 101). Carson boldly explored the meaning of elegy, alternating long dictionary definitions of each word in Catullus CI (as if breaking up the words will lessen the grief) with scraps of biography and memories of Michael, cut-up bits of letters, childhood photos, and meditations on the relationship between history and elegy.
I know Catullus well, but if you don’t know Catullus in Latin, Nox might make you sweat a little.
Carson’s new poem, Antigonick, a postmodern interpretation of Sophocles’ Antigone, is not a translation of the Greek, despite the claims of some confused reviewers. Carson departs from the Greek of fifth-century Athens and intersperses her version with liberal allusions to German philosophy and 20th-century plays, novels, and lawyer jokes.
She adheres to the basic structure of Sophocles’s Antigone, but her dialogue is terser, less poetic, ironic, and sometimes even comic. Both versions begin with Antigone’s discussion with her sister, Ismene, of King Creon’s new edict, that their dead brother Polyneices must be thrown to the birds and dogs. Antigone knows she must bury him, because otherwise his soul cannot cross the River Styx. Ismene declines to help her, because it seems futile and to do so is punishable by death.
In Carson’s version, Antigone and her sister, Ismene, also discuss Creon’s edict, but begin by discussing Hegel.
So if you haven’t done your Hegel homework, and I haven’t, aside from knowing that Hegel wrote about Antigone in his Aesthetics, you are probably going to miss some of the meaning. Here are Carson’s first lines (And the lack of punctuation is Carson’s, not mine.)
ANTIGONE: WE BEGIN IN THE DARK AND BIRTH IS THE DEATH OF US ISMENE: WHO SAID THAT ANTIGONE: HEGEL ISMENE: SOUNDS MORE LIKE BECKETT ANTIGONE: HE WAS PARAPHRASING HEGEL
Later, Antigone talks at length about Hegel’s concepts of the conscious and unconscious.
My library doesn’t have the Hegel, so I’ll wait for my next book-buying spree to do my homework.
Although I admire Carson’s intriguing poem, I feel she is sometimes on uncertain ground. Creon drives a power boat (is this an allusion to Charon’s rowboat?), Antigone neurotically discusses Hegel not only with Ismene but with the chorus, who seem much brighter than Sophocles’s bunch, and the chorus bafflingly compares Creon’s wife to Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. (I recently reread Woolf, and think Carson got carried away with her love of 20th-century lit here, because Mrs. Ramsay and Eurydike don’t quite mesh for me.)
Then the design–text in shaky bold-face capital letters, little punctuation, and sometimes confounding illustrations by Bianca Stone–also distances us from Sophocles. Bianca Stone’s illustrations are on thinnish pages that overlay pages of text, but unfortunately they’re not thin enough: you can’t really read the text unless you flip the page.
Worst of all, there are no page numbers. I have marked many pages with tiny scraps of paper, and have underlined the word Hegel a couple of times, but can’t find the parts I meant to quote here. Why not number the pages?
Carson’s uneven poem is thought-provoking, but almost too much so: I am left with too many questions. We learn from the cast of characters that someone named Nick is onstage all the time, measuring. He says nothing. There is chatter about the nick of time, etc. Is he measuring the meter of the poem? Who is Nick? He doesn’t exit even at the end, but keeps measuring, we are told.
Carson is brilliant, and Antigonick is worth reading, but it is not a translation. Please, please don’t make that mistake. Read Sophocles, too.