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  • Scott M Williamson

Antigonick a neck...

Updated: Jul 16

As I resume my mental health blog here (see below), I want to share some cultural content,

in the form of a short tribute to Anne Carson's and Bianca Stone's Antigonick, a version of Sophokles featuring graphic-novel-like illustrations and original script for the poet's updated translation:

Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson, illustrated by Bianca Stone (New Directions, 2012)

Carson's updated tragedy sacrifices textual fidelity in favor of imaginative, dramatically effective thrust. Her contemporary language and post-modern references (Hegel is one favorite) keep you guessing, as the language veers from surrealist ironies to meta-fiction pastiche to calculated violence. Her characters may be opaque simulacra of already-elusive ancient figures; her portraits vibrate with ancient and modern realism. The neorealist director Luchino Visconti achieved an inspired creative tension between melodrama & Neorealismo in his films and operas (starring Burt Lancaster and Maria Callas, respectively). Carson, too maintains this generative dialectic, this "negative capability" to hold opposites in tension. (This abstract construct might be the most useful cognitive tool we've yet found to engage duality. That's another post...)


Her stark, bare-skinned violence resonates with the Attic tragedies in which she specializes: versions of Herakles, Oresteia, and Euripides' Bacchae join her catalog of original works, from a most protean neoclassicist, poet, teacher, and director.


I’ve been reading Carson for over 20 years. I'm still baffled by some of her metaphors; I always love her leaping imagination, her wildly diverse, inclusive and subversive characters, lyrics, and scenes...


Boats for Cy Twombly (acrylic and water on canvas, 2019)

If you're new to Anne Carson, and into music, start with Decreation ("Poetry, Essays, Opera"). If the visual arts or graphic novels tickle your neurons, try Antigonick or H for H. Academics might start with the book-length essay, Eros, the Bittersweet or the pastiche collection, Glass, Irony, God.


Autobiography in Red is a queer novel-in-verse updating the stories of Herakles and his dragon-red lover, Geryon. It's sequel is the 21st c. quasi-dystopian book-length poem, red doc >.


Among her 1/2 dozen volumes of poetry, her book of "29 Tangos after John Keats," The Beauty of the Husband and Plainwater are also recommended...


Cy Twombly: Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons. A Carson myth-inspired essay appears in a monograph of contemporary artists paying tribute to Lexington's most famous rebellious artist son

Don’t let the 2500 yr.-old sources or the genre-hurtling labyrinths intimidate you. She takes her participants on unexpected journeys. Her multiverse is visionary as sci-fi fantasy and ancient as our origin stories. By holding the dialectics of old/new, sacred/profane, living/dead, artistic/mundane, and light/shadow in creative tension, she (typically) unites and transforms them, using her own alchemical blend of history, creative vision, and unpredictable pastiche.


Here are a few quotes from Antigonick I find particularly resonant:

CHORUS:

BLESSED BE THOSE WHOSE LIVES DO NOT TASTE EVIL / BUT IF SOME GOD SHAKES YOUR HOUSE / RUIN ARRIVES… IT COMES ROLLING THE BLACK NIGHT SALT UP FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR/ AND ALL YOUR THRASHED COASTS GROAN


I love the energy in her language. Poet Terrance Hayes calls this heat, identifying hot words & images, like "black night salt," which spark & ignite the line, and then drive the line/lyric forward.

ZEUS YOU WIN YOU ALWAYS WIN / THE WHOLE OXYGEN OF POWER / BELONGS TO YOU SLEEP CANNOT SEIZE IT / TIME DOES NOT TIRE IT / … NOTHING VAST ENTERS THE LIVES OF MORTALS WITHOUT RUIN


Whoa. The "whole oxygen of power." Carson has captured the spirit of stoic, Panhellenic tragedy in a phrase which resonates with the ever-suffocating nature of power. In what resembles a Zen koan, a Buddhist slogan, or a Judeo-Christian proverb, the shared concept of "what comes around goes around," reverberates across the closing line: "Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without ruin."


"A time to be born / a time to die," also works.


For inquiring minds, Carson's bio reads (in full): Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living. We know she knows when she's transgressing her originals.


Leda and the Swan, Torcello, Veneto, Italy, 2016

(CHORUS):

A WISE WORD: / IF EVIL LOOKS GOOD TO YOU / SOME GOD IS HEADING YOU ON THE HIGH ROAD TO RUIN


That quote connects to another book on the same shelf next to my reading chair. This is from Marlon James' latest novel, Moon Witch Spider King: "the last thing you have time for is fresh hate (p. 328).


HAIMON (SON OF KREON): NIGHT’S COMING ON… / DON’T HOARD YOUR OWN CUSTOM DON’T HAUL OLD ANGER UP OVER YOUR TONGUE AND YOUR MIND, THEY GROW BLIND.


Haimon challenges Kreon, like Black Panther (T'Challa) does his elders. The younger generation's wisdom reverses their roles: the older generation becomes the student. It's resonant and it is myth.

The Son-to-Father advice, "don't haul old anger up over your tongue and mind," captures an essential human dilemma, of processing and carefully managing such complex generational fireballs...

Bluhm: Rouge (`1956)

KREON [RE: HAIMON]: LET HIM GO / BIG MAN / I HAVE DREAMS TO DO


I absolutely love that statement, "I have dreams to do." It works out of context beautifully as an affirmation, a slogan to repeat, a reminder to create...


And our imagination may be thrown in an unexpected direction when we come upon Cupid or Amor: Love by any other name is still a heart-pricking arrow.

CHORUS: EROS, NO ONE CAN FIGHT YOU / EROS, YOU CLAMP DOWN ON EVERY LIVING THING/ … YOU CHANGE THE LEVELS OF A PERSON’S MIND /

...YOU PLAY WITH US


W. H. Auden’s famous lyric poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts," follows Kafka's axiom: "art is the axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart." This trope resonates in many formats, genres, periods and disciplines, from paintings and poems to operas, plays and films.


Auden describes this "Old Master" Renaissance landscape, featuring a large skiff entering the cliff-side harbor town, where foregrounded citizens proceed with their business, not noticing the body in the bottom-right corner of the canvas, legs and feet splashing the surface of the sea.


It is Icarus, having fallen. "A boy falling out of the sky," ignored by Samaritan & European alike, self-absorbed business-folk who "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."


Brueghel, the Elder, Landscape with Icarus

Here's the poem:


Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden


About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


George Enescu (Bucharest, Romania, 2019)

Here’s Carson channeling Homer's foundational account of warfare, The Iliad:


CHORUS:

NOW I COULD DIG UP THOSE CASE HISTORIES/… IT WOULDN’T HELP YOU / IT DIDN’T HELP ME / IT’S FRIDAY AFTERNOON / THERE GOES ANTIGONE BURIED ALIVE


If you’re familiar with Homer, one of the striking qualities of its story-telling is the plain, direct language used to describe violence and death. Like a film's quick cut, from an epic, embattled sandy beach to the close-up, gruesome details of a death meticulously described. The embodiment of shock value. In the face of such details, Greek stoicism may be the clearest path towards self-preservation...


That I write these posts is evidence of my well-being. I am more creative when I feel better, and feeling better helps me be creative and more productive. When I am quieter, less visible or present

it usually means I'm spending all my energy balancing work and life. Sometimes that balance leans towards professional projects and other times my wellness requires more attention. I'm glad to end this week on the positive side of the spectrum...


Patrick Shaw Cable (d. 2020; emeritus Curator at the Taubman Museum of Art)

P. S. I love this picture for many reasons. I miss my friend with whom I collaborated far too few times, and who would have been the first curator of "my" new collective, had he not died so unexpectedly in 2020. Patrick's smile and his ebullient passion for the shows he envisioned and realized inspire me. In fact, as I free up enough space to compose, I'm using Patrick's old music manuscript notebook to sketch. My friends at the museum cannot know how much that means to me.


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