Anne Carson, Classics professor, previous translator of Sappho and Stesichorus into English and prolific advocate of the cross-genre, has in the last few years begun to experiment with incorporating visual art as well as language into her work. Nox, her Catullus-inspired elegy to her brother, was filled with scrapbooked photographs and sketches, and Antigonick, her interpretation of the Sophocles play, follows that trend, incorporating whimsical yet dangerous drawings by the New York illustrator Bianca Stone.
Finding a foothold in any Carson work is notoriously and deliberately difficult. Her characteristic mix of references to both ancient and modern texts (Antigonick has Hegel, Holderlin, Woolf) and stark, angular sentences resist easy interpretation. Indeed, Carson even seems to have some fun with the idea in Antigonick, which is united by the motif of thread and needle – find the thread going through the work, she seems to say, I dare you.
The ‘nick’ of the title is both pun and image: ‘in the nick of time’, which is precisely what the main antagonist Kreon isn’t, with the nick of an open wound and the idea of thread, binding, feminine, minute, family-oriented. Different elements of these images surface at various points, and in an unskilled hand would become a gimmick to ‘renew’ an ancient text, but under Carson’s purview they form a complex net of reference, drawing us back to the central concerns of Greek tragedy: binding fate versus ‘sewing one’s own.’
Visually the work is off-putting, surreal, an art object: straggling red and black blocks of text, ostentatiously hand-written in all-caps with huge gaps and irregular punctuation. This is a work intended be considered as is, not simply as a guideline to performance. The lack of consistency in punctuation is one of Carson’s more consistent traits across her poetics, and in Antigonick it plays beautifully into the rhythms of the transmuted Greek, permeating the speech patterns with a sense of stripped-back purity. The dialogue’s stylised rigidity is perhaps Carson’s way of ‘translating’ the heavy, rich tone of the Sophocles, and it is one of the text’s great successes.
The tightly lyrical structure of a Greek tragedy is a piece of poetic mastery, as Carson well appreciates; the ‘thread’ motif also references the Greek Fates, who measure a man’s life on thread and sever it at its conclusion. Fate has a tricky role in Greek drama – the inevitability of destiny alongside the inherent dramatic engine of choices and their consequences – and Carson plays this tension to the full. Carson’s Antigone might consider Hegel, Kreon’s wife Euridike might be appallingly self-aware of her own very minor role in the tragic momentum, but the core dual structure of the Sophocles is preserved, with its mechanics exposed to the light. As a contemplation of the form, Antigonick is self-knowing to the point of occasional disruption, as when her Chorus makes glib puns (‘how is a Greek chorus like a lawyer/they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent’). However, its self-reflexivity, while an acquired taste, is both intimate and weirdly disturbing when it hits its stride.
One of Antigonick’s more distinct characteristics is the level on which the conflict is played: not merely dramatic but linguistic. Under Carson’s needle, Kreon becomes a tyrant of language as well as geography. He struts across the page collecting authoritative nouns and verbs in lurid red, and clashes with Antigone and Haimon, his loyal but rational son, on the exact meaning of concepts: rule, honour, obedience. Carson lets the essential struggles of the dialogue play out in linguistics and spatial poetry: her Antigone flies wildly around the page, her Kreon lashes. It is a staging as well as a rewriting of the text – one can almost see the characters on the stage-space, following her blueprint for abstract, blind, wilful movement.
Her Antigone is equally brutal and suffused with linguistic play. Carson’s first-person voices are typically muted, explosively anguished in a secretive, brittle manner, so her choice of this play in particular, featuring a famously passionate female character, is an interesting change of pace. While Kreon concerns himself with definitions, Antigone is preoccupied with concepts, which renders their arguments over her ‘transgression’ a particularly elegant bit of drama – they talk past each other on a completely epistemological level. Antigone is, as she notes herself, ‘a strange new kind of inbetween thing’ – a speaker whose signifiers are meaningless – and Carson lets her learn the language too late: ‘Next word is death’, she says to Kreon, and he obliges, ‘Death’.
An occasional criticism of Carson’s works in Greek translation is her penchant for the flatness of modern idiom – one reviewer called them her ‘vulgarisms’ – but in Antigonick they flourish as moments of dramatic bathos. Flatness of tone is Carson’s trick of the light, her exposure of an expression as problematic or a situation as constricted, and in a dramatic space as with Antigonick the result is intensely satisfying. The point is evident in a scene occasionally used to measure new interpretations of Antigone: the scene in which Antigone reproaches Ismene to save her own life. Kreon is notoriously silent in this scene, despite being present onstage, and how playwrights deal with this particular deliberate act of presence can charge the entirety of their interpretation. Carson’s method is to make Ismene descend into miserable, flailing cliché – ‘we/all/think/you’re/a/grand/girl’. The flatness is distortion brought on by Kreon’s presence, his pressure on her idiom. The impact on stage would doubtless be riveting.
The illustrations of Stone are, as is common with a Carson text, connected to the text in abstract and obscure ways: a chance word, a vision of a scene. Laid over the text like shrouds at particular intervals, they form their own corresponding but not necessarily companionable story. This is in fact an extension of Carson’s own ideas about translation: over her career she has adopted a policy of ‘collecting’ interpretations, often laying them alongside one another or worrying at them over the length of an entire text. The illustrations form another ‘translation’, mirroring and distorting Carson’s own.
Translation is once again Carson’s core concern, her true theme. In If Not, Winter, her much-celebrated translations of Sappho’s fragments, she embraced space and echo as a method of delighting in their partialness. One can almost sense a wistfulness for that sort of fragmentation in Antigonick. Carson works most sparklingly when she is assembling her own material; here Sophocles seems to inspire a tendency to prise apart, to excavate, that gives rise to some brilliantly startling segments but a lesser poetic triumph overall.