Antigonick (New Directions) is Anne Carson’s latest anachronistic rendition of a classic legend. With her choice of Sophokles’s Antigone, Carson dwells on the theme of mourning a sibling which was the impetus for Nox, but more interestingly to me, Antigonick is also like Nox in that it is much more than a literary text: it incorporates illustrations (by Bianca Stone) and a unique design (by Robert Currie) which go beyond decor to become aspects of Antigonick‘s poetic form.
In an illustrated book, the images usually contribute to or clarify the meaning of the text and vice versa. Antigonick demonstrates that illustrations and text can also interfere with one another in a codex, in which the turning of pages from right to left is the basic physical mechanism of reading. The heavily-inked black and red lettering of Carson’s text is as visually arresting as Stone’s drawings, which are printed on translucent vellum paper “to overlay the text” (to quote the copyright page). The lettering, in Carson’s hand, is irregular and smudgy, not simply difficult to read but contributing to the book’s difficult visual and physical poetics.
Stone’s ink-and-watercolor drawings include frigid landscapes, cozy rooms, a spool of thread, solemn men and women with cinderblocks instead of heads–none of which explicitly correspond to characters or scenes. Pictures and text alike are printed only on the recto side (appearing on the right-hand page). When a drawing’s vellum lies flat against the opaque paper beneath it, the text shines through the drawing. The words and the drawing interrupt and confuse one another halfway to being fully read. The lexical promise of a phrase wins my attention over the incomprehensibility of a man wrestling with a horse, for instance (click the images below to enlarge), so I turn the vellum over in order to read the page of text without the wrestlers’ interference. Now the image appears in reverse on the left, clear but somewhat dimmed through the fog of the vellum’s verso side. Seeking the best possible view of the picture before reading on, I turn back to the recto side of the vellum page and hold it just an inch above the pages beneath. The vellum now blurs out the text so that the image is clear and sharp.
This is an awkward interruption of ordinary page-turning. I could look at an individual page more comfortably if I were to tear it out and lay it flat on the table. But that would be to admit defeat and destroy the form rather than try to experience the form as the creators have offered it.
Again, it isn’t just for prettiness’ sake, all this complexity; the sum of these deliberate parts is a unique poetics in codex form. Carson uses line and spacing in dramatic and surprising ways, demonstrating that the white space between words and lines can actually be heard, can be deafening or delicate or anything in between, when deployed by a capable poet. There is a particular moment in the book which demonstrates, uncomplicated by drawings, Carson’s deliberate incorporation of page-turning as a poetic tool much like the poet’s line- or stanza-ending. Sadly I can’t give you a page number because the book doesn’t have them. The Chorus’s third speech begins at the top of a page and continues to the bottom:
YOUR Mt OLYMPOS GLOWS LIKE ONE WHITE STONE
AROUND THIS LAW:
NOTHING VAST ENTERS THE LIVES OF MORTALS WITHOUT RUIN
It’s a bleak sentiment with the page ends. Turning, the next page contains only this:
BUT OF COURSE THERE IS HOPE LOOK HERE COMES HOPE
TO TICKLE YOUR FEET
The outlook is brightening–quickly, turn the page again–to a lonely line:
THEN YOU NOTICE THE SOLES ARE ON FIRE
This double reversal from despair to hope to disillusionment, contrasted with the forward march of page-turning, is similar to the experience of classical tragedy: there are moments of hope, even when we already know that the ending will be dismal. In every re-reading there’s a thrill when Tiresias enters, a fleeting thought that just maybe he will have arrived in the nick of time to set Kreon straight and prevent an avalanche of suicides. Perhaps it is the persistence of this thrill despite our tacit awareness of impending death that Carson means to represent by the mute part, Nick, who is always measuring. I think that is part of it. It will be tough to know more about Nick without trying to put Antigonick on stage. More in this vein in a moment.
That there is a physical poetics in a book’s form is increasingly obvious. The e-book vs. print book discussion (clearly a hot topic with me) is evidence enough; I know that fascinating things are happening in digital bookmaking, but I’m always hanging out in brick-and-mortar bookstores, where one finds lots of cool print experiments to be excited about. Visual Editions is a fairly new British publisher to keep an eye on, though I think the qualification “Visual” is a bit too narrow; their books incorporate structurally as well as visually esoteric printing and binding techniques. Their first book, a new Tristram Shandy, aspires to Sterne’s original spirit of typographical experimentation. VE next published Jonathan Safran Foer’s infamous Tree of Codes. One dismissive reviewer compared Foer’s book to A Humument, saying that Foer did nothing that Tom Phillips hadn’t already done (and did it worse), but I disagree. Tree of Codes, like Antigonick, creates the possibility of looking at and through pages at the same time, resulting in the thrill and frustration of fragmented bits of text that interrupt each other. A Humument overlays text with color and line, a quality it too shares with Antigonick, but all three of these books negotiate the line between visual and textual experiences in radically different ways. The success of each is another question, not for me to try to answer here.
Speaking (above) of the page torn free of its binding, VE’s next book was Composition no. 1 by Marc Saporta, which can be read “in any order” because its pages are unbound loose sheets of paper in a box. (New Directions published a similar project a few years ago, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which has 27 chapters, 25 of which are to be rearranged at random.) VE’s latest, Kapow! by Adam Thirlwell, looks like it will have the reader spinning the book around page by page to read lines of text that go in all directions. Other interesting non-digital experiments in typography and bookbinding that I know of are House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, many issues of McSweeney’s (I especially like issue 36 which comes in a Head), and Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (coming out in September from Open Letter). I haven’t read enough of these to elaborate on this idea of the physical poetics of the book, but there seems to be plenty of subject matter for the makings of a theory.
The discussion of Antigonick‘s poetics must also strike out in a nearly diametrically opposed direction, because, lest we forget, Antigone is one of the greatest of classical tragedies. Antigonick does pose a few challenges to being read as a play. Unfortunately, some of the early returns I’ve encountered on the web write this off as a weakness of Carson’s work (and many of them all but ignore that of Stone and Currie). Take for instance this excerpt from the closing paragraph of a review that I find fairly unimaginative, even if I like the author’s use of the word “detonates”: “Though Carson, unlike Fagles and other translators, declines to parse the play’s ancient Greek into lines of English verse, a compact poetic violence nevertheless detonates in speech after speech. At the expense of stageability, she drives toward maximal intensity of expression.”
It’s true that the experience of Antigonick is largely dependent on the visual and physical aspects of the book which I’ve been detailing at length, and that these cannot be transported to the theatre intact. Before I offer my rebuttal, listen to Carson’s language:
KREON: DOTH THY BOLDNESS PUSH THEE EVEN TO THREATS
HAIMON: THREATS WHAT THREATS
KREON: THOU SHALT RUE THE DAY OF THY WITLESS
TEACHING HAIMON: IF YOU WEREN’T MY FATHER
I’D SAY YOU WERE MAD KREON: THOU WOMAN’S
CHATTEL SEEK NOT TO TICKLE ME HAIMON: YOU
TALK AND TALK AND NEVER LISTEN KREON:
SAYEST THOU SO, WELL NOW
I SAY THOU SHALT REVILE ME TO
THY COST FETCH OUT THE LOATHED
CREATURE LET HER DIE HARD AGAINST
HER BRIDGEGROOM NOW THIS VERY INSTANT BEFORE HIS
This is undeniably dialogue with which a pair of capable actors would have a field day. Difficult, no doubt, but for serious theatre artists, stageability is a non-issue when the language is truly at a “maximal intensity of expression,” so the point is hardly valid. To a serious theatre artist, anything can be stageable provided there’s a desire to stage it, and challenge combined with intensity of expression can result in as powerful a desire for staging as could be.
What the reviewer quoted above and others seem not to appreciate is that staging is to transform a text into a cooperative and communal human experience. A performance and a text are distinct forms occupying different ranges of experience, and the relationship between them is by transformation only. A company gathers resources from the text like language, characters, story, emotion; subjects them to the rehearsal process; invites an audience; and the text is left in the book on the shelf at home. But when you are at home reading the text, if you understand it to be a play, you are probably trying to imagine how the stage might look in this particular scene, and how the actor playing Tiresias will sound when he says to Kreon,
YOU’RE STANDING ON A RAZOR. I HEAR THE BIRDS THEY
‘RE BEBARBARIZMENIZED THEY’RE MAKING MONSTER
SOUNDS THE FIRES WON’T LIGHT THE RITES GO WRONG YOU
KNOW MY TECHNOLOGIES YOU KNOW THE FAILING OF THE
SIGN IS ITSELF A SIGN.
Antigonick is incomplete in book form because it also wants to be a play: needing human assistance to become a play, the text implicitly directs the reader to take to the stage. A thought-experiment isn’t enough to discover the emotional impact of the mute part Nick, with whom Antigone shares the title of this play. Nick presents a staging challenge, to be sure, and strange experiments will have to be conducted in the rehearsal room and on the stage if the performers and the audience are to make sense of him. I eagerly await the day I can be part of such experiments.