When I was offered a chance by the publisher to read The Antigone Poems it was too intriguing to pass by. Originally written in the 1970s by Marie Slaight with charcoal drawings by Terrence Tasker, it was never published. Until now. The publisher, Altaire, has created a lovely book. The pages are cut slightly wider than the average book and the paper is thick and creamy and beautifully sets off the drawings and the often short spare poems that come one to a page and only on the right-hand side.
The poems are described as a retelling of the Antigone story, but they don’t actually retell the story; one can’t read them and compare them to Sophocles’ play, for instance. Nor can one read them and pick out, here is Antigone distressed over Creon’s edict denying her brother, Polynices, burial. Or here is Antigone standing up to Creon. What the poems do amount to is more of an interior emotional landscape that includes passion, anger, love, despair, and a range of other emotions that we can imagine Antigone would have felt.
Because the poems do not directly correlate to the story, a reader doesn’t necessarily have to know it in order to enjoy them. But of course it helps and adds to the pleasure. In case you don’t remember Antigone, she is one of two daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta. When Oedipus discovered his fate and left the city, his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, decided to take turns ruling Thebes. Eteocles got to go first and when his year was up he refused to allow Polynices his turn. So Polynices brought an army against Thebes and both brothers end up dead. Creon, brother of Jocasta, becomes ruler. He decides that Polynices was in the wrong and forbids him burial. Antigone cannot abide by this decision since it is more than an insult but goes against divine law. So she sneaks outside the gates and buries her brother. And gets caught. This being Greek tragedy, Antigone and several others are dead by the end of the story.
So how does this story play out in the interior landscape of these poems? The poems are short and spare and visually striking centered in the middle of the big pages of the book. It adds a feeling of the power that Antigone was up against when she defies Creon and how small and alone she was. The book begins with a poem that reminds me of epic Greek poetry and how they open with an invocation to the gods (The Iliad begins “Sing, Goddess”):
My bitter praises
The poems are filled with language and images of flames and pain and destruction:
The potency is shattering.
Only the night
Where is my tongue?
If this perfume doesn’t burst
It will twist into venom.
And there is betrayal too in one especially heart-wrenching frantic prose poem, longer than any poem in the book and written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness:
I feel betrayed- by what- no words- I only try so as to fill the gap-
whirling’s fast, stronger now- I need someone to hold me- so I can
hold it- my hurting proves nothing, only that he has the power to pain- I don’t give a damn- too much, all wrong, foolish, false- jesus- where is courage- I need it- eagles flying- no one will ever know- I don’t want it, can’t hold it- closer- to abandon- to core- I want home…
As you may have noticed from a few of the quotes, there is also much here about voice and speaking and words and being able to use them or not. I especially liked the several poems that focus just on words like this one that begins:
is afraid to speak.
Of the brutal metal
Of its words.
And later when there are no words:
Let the silence reverberate.
Let the silence break this wall.
The charcoal drawings sprinkled through the pages are mostly of faces drawn in such a way that they are evocative of masks, which is appropriate given the actors in Greek tragedy work masks. The facial expressions are stern and the eyes are often left blank, not filled in. It is terrifying in a way but also offers an invitation, pick up this mask and look through someone else’s eyes.
I don’t know why this book was never published until now. It seems a shame that is has gone so long without being known. But I am glad it is published now and I hope these powerful poems find their way into many hands.