Antigonick by Anne Carson (illustrated by Bianca Stone), Bloodaxe, 112pp, £15
It’s ironic that the Canadian poet, academic and translator Anne Carson has chosen to concentrate her formidable attentions on dead languages. It’s hard to think of a writer more committed to unspringing language from habitual usage, wrenching words back into an almost unnerving intensity. Unlike more cautious translators, she also likes to play with, not resolve, the problems of fragmentation associated with her period – an interest in absence that extends powerfully to her own hybrid work.
In the prickly, tender Autobiography of Red, she refashioned the myth of Geryon and the tenth labour of Heracles into a modern gay love story that works riddlingly around questions of possession, loss and desire. Her translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, flaunts the gaps in the text, making eerie art out of the missing as well as the extant. And in her last publication, Nox, she created an extraordinary mourning document: a book in a box, which used Catullus’s “Poem 101” as the foundation for building a memorial of words and images to her dead brother.
There’s a natural kinship between the heat of that work and Sophocles’s Antigone, a play that centres on a sister’s act of mourning and its horrific costs. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta: mother and son who were also, through ignorance, husband and wife. In Carson’s version, her brothers, Eteokles and Polyneikes, have fought and died on opposite sides of the Theban civil war. The city’s new ruler, Kreon, has decreed that only Eteokles will receive burial, while Polyneikes will be left where he lies. Antigone cannot accept this and so she buries her brother herself, pouring dust and water on his body. In punishment, Kreon has her walled up in a cave, despite her eloquent defence and the pleadings of Haimon, his son and her husband-to-be. By the end of the play, both Antigone and Haimon have killed themselves, along with Eurydike, Kreon’s wife.
After Antigone has been taken away by the guards, the chorus usually runs through precedents to the terrible punishment awaiting her. Instead, Carson furnishes them with strophe and antistrophe on the similarity between a Greek chorus and a lawyer, ending by concluding flatly, as Sophocles doesn’t: “It’s Friday afternoon/there goes Antigone to be buried alive/is there/any way/we can say/this is normal/. . . /no not really.” Likewise, when Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, enters the stage to give her single speech, she introduces herself as being “like poor Mrs Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world”.
These discontinuities are enhanced by Bianca Stone’s distinctive, riddling images, printed on transparent paper, so the hand-lettered words beneath ghost through. Horses, chairs, reels of cotton, faceless humans and objects that resemble both gates and ladders reappear in ingenious combinations. Many seem to signify entrapment; all convey a profound unease.
Before Kreon sentences Antigone, they debate which is greater, natural or city law. Infuriated, Kreon brandishes an ugly phrase: “Enemy is always enemy alive or dead.” It’s not hard to see why a play so deeply concerned with war and individual morality might have remained in currency. Antigone has been so influential in western culture that in 1984 George Steiner was moved to compile Antigones, his examination of its representations in theatre, art and literature. Brecht had his Antigone perform with a door strapped to her back, while in The Burial at Thebes Seamus Heaney made sharp parallels with the Troubles.
But why the nick? Early on, Kreon appears in the “nick of time”. The phrase crops up again, gathering momentum. It also seems to be represented in Stone’s images of a figure passing through a cleft of rock. This is where Carson’s best work is staged: in the uncanny gateway between the temporal and the timeless; in the nick between the world of powerboats and the sublime, terrifying realm of the dead and the still lively gods.