July 7, 2012
Questions, questions, so many questions. “Why is Antigone a horse?” is one, but we’ll get to that. Not only is Antigonick the first of Anne Carson‘s translations to combine text with visual elements but — described variously as poetry, as a comic-book, a play text, translation, artists’ book, objet d’art — it’s also the first of her books to vault more genre boundaries than a literary showjumper.
There were also words and pictures in her previous book, the book fetishist’s wet dream, NOX (reviewed here by Sophie Mayer): a book in a box which folded out like an accordion, one long facsimile of typed poems, photos and collages which created a book-as-epitaph, a powerful and intense personal memoir of her brother after his death. It’s harder to make any broader formal comparisons than “they both use words and pictures” though. The NOX text and collages were created from poems and real artefacts from Carson’s relationship with her brother, while Antigonick is a translation of an ancient Greek play which includes artwork. Print mag said that “in its very form, NOX embodies the complexity of loss”. The complexity of the sibling relationship was achieved by the relatively straightforward juxtaposition of words and pictures. There are some thematic similarities between the two works (this tells the story of Antigone who wishes to bury the unmourned body of her brother), but in terms of form Antigonick is more complex and ambitious than NOX. It is a highly complicated, variously communicated work, drawing on multiple forms and mediums, and challenging its own definition in the process of reading.
First things first. This isn’t an Anne Carson book. NOX was compiled solely by Carson, while Antigonick is a translation which has been published in collaboration with artist Bianca Stone and designer Robert Currie, more in-keeping with the tradition of artists’ books than play texts. Carson’s previous translations, including Euripedes, Aiskhylos and Sophokles, all provided introductory notes but no such help is given here, just the names of the three collaborators and their jobs: translation, illustration, design. Look, says the book, here are words and pictures, where the artwork is printed on translucent vellum so it can be laid over either the left or right hand page, or else viewed as a totally separate page. You figure it out.
There’s never any text on the left-hand page of a spread. The left-hand always starts with either a blank page or a mostly blank page showing the occasional ghost of a rectangle, the suggestion of an empty frame or comics panel. This blankness interrupts the reading of the text. Pause. Stop what you were doing. Start again, it says. So every spread starts with a sense of emptiness, loss, the white page wiping the mind clean. Conversely, there is always text on the right hand page of every spread, whether a few words or a full page of busy play text blocked in black capital letters, with names and occasional other words blocked in red ink. In the middle of thirty three of these fifty one spreads is a full page of translucent vellum, all of which (bar one) bear illustrations through which you can see all or some of the text behind.
The way the book is bound means each vellum page automatically sits over the right-hand page. As our Western reading tradition dictates, we start on the left-hand page, moving onto the right-hand page and so on. The play text itself is the clearest dictator of forward motion, and so it is natural to imagine that you would read the images in this sequence as well, left page, then right. Words and pictures are to be read together in deliberate sequence — on these grounds alone, it should be simple to define the work as a comic book (Bloodaxe themselves describe it as a “comic-book presentation” of Antigone). There are complications though, and as the images are not fixed in one solid place around the text, the images themselves must be read in stages: 1) laid over the right-hand page, with the text coming through; 2) lifted off the right-hand page, so the text is no longer visible and we can scrutinise the image alone; 3) turned and laid onto the left-hand page, so we now reread the image in reverse, keeping it always in the corner of our eye as we approach the facing text. (The lone text, number four, comes last, after we have finished reading the image.)
The effect of the first mode of reading the image means that both image and text are viewed simultaneously as a singular object. The resulting effect is variable: on some you can read both image and text clearly as they don’t overlap; some text pages are dense with text which overrun and confound the image; some images are so darkly inked they make the text behind illegible, or only visible in isolated words. Legibility is not the point here. Words are stripped of their context, transformed into visual art. They do not rely on the narrative for meaning and we are invited to view these hybrid pages as art objects in their own right. Andrei Molotiu, author of Abstract Comics, might say this is because the utilitarian function of both art and text has been removed. The word becomes a component of art. In the most extreme case, each letter reverts to an oblique symbol, a visual metaphor for thought. The reading experience invites comparison with pages from Tom Phillips‘ A HUMUMENT or William Blake. The reactions we have to these individual pages are then carried into our subsequent reading of the text and reaction to the overall narrative.
The effect of the second mode of reading the image, lifting the vellum page off the text, is curious. The text is gone. The collaboration is gone. It is once again a straightforward illustration (often featuring a horse). This is the next step. How do you like my image now? asks the book. Do you feel bereft of words? Perhaps you feel relieved that the confusion has lessened?
The effect of the third mode of reading the image, once the page has been turned and the image laid onto the opposite left-hand page, is one of déjà vu. The art is printed on the other side of the paper only, so there is already a slight blurring of the lines, a sense of artwork once-removed. Where action is shown in the artwork, it generally moves (or gallops) off towards the edge of the book, i.e. to the right-hand side in the first instance, then to the left-hand side once the page has been turned. Action flows out of the book from gutter to page edge in both directions, running out of the book, following a life of its own escaping. We see the illustration in the present, turn the page, watch it move into the past. The reader is offered the ability to read image and text either separately or together or, rather, both separately and together, moving the eye both forwards and backwards through the book, forwards and backwards through time.
And what of the comics panel, this ghost of a frame that occasionally sits on the blank left-hand page? In comics, a panel is a moment of time, contained, and action is generally understood to occur between the panels. Once you remove the panel border and start to bleed images off the page, the space becomes timeless, unconstrained, and the reader is thrown directly into the action. The very first image, when laid across the frame of the left-hand page, fits it closely but not perfectly. The lines of the frame are uneven. There is a slant. This gives the sense that they have been laid down imperfectly. The effect feels deliberate though, as if to say This work is not rushed, but know it was guided by passion. Feel our urgency. There are later pages though where the artwork is aligned perfectly with the frame. Nothing has been left to chance, says the book, Nothing is an accident. Some comics creators such as Warren Ellis talk about a comics page as a stanza — one part of a whole structure (poem), made of carefully constructed individual panels (lines). If anything then, the image of this comics panel fading in and out suggests that the collaborators see one page of Antigonick as a single panel, rather than a stanza. Perhaps it even suggests that a whole spread is a single panel — including the vellum overlaid artworks. These complex spreads become dense panels which demand to be read in multiple ways. Singular reading is impossible, unless you wilfully decide to ignore all non-text pages, in which case you devalue the design and lose the richness of the intermedia effects. As for the importance of the images, perhaps John Berger says it best: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.”
It’s too simplistic to call Antigonick a hybrid of words and pictures or an illustrated manuscript. It plays around with the seen and the unseen, the present and the past, and asks the reader to fill in the blanks. The reader must interpret, not just look; translate, not just read. The act of reading itself becomes an act of discovery and experimentation in a way that is impossible with a text-only page. To read Antigonick, you must also deconstruct your ability to read, assembling and dismantling the pages as you go. There is a history of this in visual or fluxus poetry and artists’ books, but it is found less frequently in a trade publication like this. In this time of uncertainty in the publishing industry, in the early days of digital publishing, the production values and care of the book’s design are very telling, and may hint at one possible future direction for the printed book.
* * *
But hey! says the book You’ve got to talk about the words too, you know! And perhaps I should have made it clear earlier that Carson’s translation is both urgent and compelling even before you factor in the intriguing reading process and form. It keeps the notion of itself as play text, keeping the format of character name, colon, then spoken text. Stage directions are in brackets. But she abandons the line break in between characters’ lines, running them together. The key word here is urgency. Punctuation is often abandoned. Sentences run into each other insistently and often at accelerating pace. White space is used between phrases and words as breathing space, emphatic space, space which generates its own meanings, a physical pause to work with and against the art, with and against the reader. I’m not going to read this for you, says the book, But you can follow my lead.
The translation keeps the shape of the play but introduces contemporary references where Carson wants to explore new areas. Hegel and Beckett are mentioned on the first page. This translation of Sophokles tragedy is concerned with tragedy, with theories of tragedy, and there are many interesting clues to follow up in the text. She also makes points about the role of women throughout, perhaps most bluntly with Eurydike’s arrival on stage, when she starts as follows:
Carson is also not afraid to do more, sometimes cutting out tracts of monologue in order to communicate meaning in a different way. With Kreon for example, she turns him into a wall of nouns on the page, something which enhances our understanding of his character and of the text, rather breaking up or impacting negatively on our relationship with the text. Kreon arrives on a speedboat, a contemporary response to this figurehead from a different culture, a different age. And it’s funny. You would be forgiven for not anticipating the extent to which humour is employed in the text. It’s funny. In places, it’s hilarious. On the first page Antigone’s severe spirit of determination is described by her sister as “your thunder look” but there are many examples to choose from. The text is a delight.
The language is insistent, childlike, stubborn, emphatic, mixing powerful imperative with bathetic humour and unexpectedly touching, affecting moments of emotion. Anne Carson’s mastery over language is evidenced in the ease with which she communicates complex thoughts in such a deceptively simple way.
But I come back to urgency, the text’s main uniting characteristic. All the text is handwritten, and in places, the original pencil marks can be seen behind it, still rubbed out. My pages, though printed here and bound, were originated by the human hand, says the book. Don’t you forget it. The colours of the text, red and black, bleed through the vellum, but are made even bolder once the page is turned and you see them against the stark white background. All the names are in red, a colour of warning, blood, violence, danger and love. The effect is one of immediacy, of compulsion. The book itself is hardbacked and the shape and size of a journal or diary, a scrapbook, personal memoir. There are spelling mistakes. But it is all deliberate, infused with urgency, choreographed by the book’s design, arresting the reading process at the start of each new spread. New white page, calm down, start again, says the book. Think before you read. This choreography of alternating reading speeds and pace, this paradox, mirrors the text’s own concerns with time, with human custom, action and desire in the face of eternity.
And what about the mysterious Nick in the title? The book title itself is written ANTIGO NICK across the cover. Is it a cheap pun? A translator’s liberty? An exercise in word art? As Eurydike asks in the text itself, what is a Nick? The Nick of Time? Old Nick? Nick the word whose meaning has been lost? In comics, showing multiple panels on a single page mean showing past present and future all on one page together. We are told in the cast list that Nick, a character invented by Carson in this translation, is a mute part [always onstage, he measures things]. The phrase “Nick of time” is used in the text, by which we infer that he measures time. Time, death, tragedy, grief, hope. The very title breaks the name in half and would be worthy of an essay in itself. It brings us back to Hegel. Perhaps I can offer Michael Lista‘s thoughts on the Hegelian context, saying that Carson “reframes the myth as the struggle of the personality against time.” (More about that here.)
Personality does permeate the book though, despite all the complex modes of reading and interactions with the text. For example, what difference does it make to know that the lettering was done by Anne Carson herself? This in itself is a stamp of personal authorship. And what difference does it make knowing that her brother died and she memorialised him in a previous book? This book is dedicated to someone else though, Ruth Stone. She is the American poet, grandmother of the artist, but a reader would presume the familial relation even without this specific knowledge. How much of a difference should we allow this personal knowledge to make to us? Do we start to read it as a personal translation made public? An academic translation given the illusion of diary notation? Antigonick walks the line between personal and public, spontaneity and structure. How far we want to let ourselves be influenced by this is a different matter. Speaking for myself, I welcome the personal in this instance. The use of personal seems to infuse the work with power, charge. Antigone later says “Hegel says people want to see their lives on stage”. She later exclaims “Who suffers more than I?” Perhaps we are all voyeurs of personal tragedy? Grief, any grief, is of course highly personal. There can be no universal for the grieving individual. So perhaps it’s only in a highly personal story that we find any sense of meaning to extract for ourselves?
There are other questions too, things which also have an undeniable effect on us when we find out, but how much we should let them affect us is debatable. For example, the student is a former student of Carson’s. The designer is Anne Carson’s husband. What possible difference does or should this make to our reading?
There is undeniably something personal about the artwork too. Much of it is drawn in rooms which bear no relation to the text. The mountains beyond seem repeating, a specific location. And the horses. Let’s talk about the horses. Why is Antigone, or the impression of Antigone, represented so often as a horse? Perhaps this mention of horses in the text can give us a clue:
Mankind uses the horse to grind down the earth, by extension, the land, soil, natural resource, the human spirit. Turning Antigone into a metaphor, into a horse, increases the possibilities for symbolism, and this is one immediate example of how illustration in comics can be used to work on the imagination, rather than take away the possibilities the imagination is allowed to create. What is a horse to me? To you? How many different horses are shown in the art? How do they work with or fight against the text? Do they do both? How much is pure design and how much is left to chance? Regardless to the answers to these questions, this is a vindication of the collaboration of words and images. Enhancement, not diminishment.
Further unexpected contemporary images and symbols which don’t occur in the text are brought in too, whether a breeze block, a kettle or a Star Trek badge. The artwork paints its own allusions and opens further doors for the imagination than reside in the text. The artist Bianca Stone posted these two images on her blog earlier on in the year, before the book came out. We can’t bring this to a reading of the book, but does seeing them now change anything about the way we want to read the image of horse in the book? Where should we draw the line with what we bring to the text?
Image by Bianca Stone
The questions don’t end there. There is a question of the way Carson has chosen to translate certain words. Nick Mirzoeff makes an eloquent case for this as an explicitly political translation, highlighting word choices like “anarchy” over softer terms such as “unruly” preferred in traditional translations. He talks about the current world recession, the economic collapse in Greece, talks about the riots and how individuals are taking the values of kinship over those dictated by the state, and sees Antigone as the ultimate expression of civil disobedience, anarchy in the State. How much does this make a difference to us as readers? In this context, he draws attention to the word LAW which appears in red blocked capital letters. While we’re drawing attention to this, should I even mention that she wrote a previous sequence “The Glass Essay” in which the protagonist (whether it relates to real events or not is unstated) has gone through a relationship breakup with a man referred to in the poem only as “Law”?
But this is Greek tragedy: a work that comes with its own chorus built in, its own audience for the characters. A book needs a reader to be read, and as soon as we do we become complicit with the chorus, asking questions, looking for answers. The text asks us “How is a Greek chorus like a lawyer” and answers “They’re both in the business of searching for a precedent”. This is also what the critic does — tries to understand the book in the context of what has come before. It also, here, means the reader, trying to navigate the world of this book, trying to learn how to read this new form. The book becomes an unusual collaboration with the reader, with words and pictures, the perfect metaphor for the way in which all books are a collaboration with the reader, all books are waiting to come to life only when they are read.
One of the more dramatic chorus speeches spills a few short words across a single page, talking of “This terribly quiet customer”. Mirzoeff might incorporate this into a discussion on politics, but it is also a comment on the reader as customer, as consumer of books. We grind the ground with horses, stories, fictions. We are involved in narrative text, our consumption of it making us necessary partners in the publication of the work.
To go back to the title of this essay then, to ask what the hell Antigonick is and try to understand why it matters, is simpler than all this might have made it seem. Antigonick invites us to forget any critical or commercial obsession with genre, definition and categorisation, and see instead a work which is uniquely communicated in the form which has been chosen for it: the book. The book form, here, is the perfect expression of the work’s own concern with space and time. It articulates the importance of the book as medium for communication and, in this strange period in human history we find ourselves, in this infancy of digital publishing, it shows us just what a book is capable of. Look at me, says the book, Aren’t I amazing?
Chrissy Williams lives in London, has had work in The Rialto, Horizon Review, Anon, Fuselit, Rising and Southbank Poetry and was included in The Rialto’s Young Poets feature, S/S/Y/K/4 and in the anthology Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt). Her pamphlet The Jam Trap has just been published. She works on the Poetry Library’s poetry magazine archive.
No comments yet.
A Twitter Poetry Experiment
Close Reading: 6:30AM by Andrew McMillan
Close Reading: Tribe by John Clegg
Close Reading: Gnosis by Kayo Chingonyi
Close Reading: The Ship of Theseus by Harriet Moore
Close Reading: The Winter Empress by Laura Marsh
EDINBURGH FRINGE: Opposition
EDINBURGH FRINGE: Luke Wright's Cynical Ballads
EDINBURGH FRINGE: Whistle by Martin Figura
EDINBURGH FRINGE: How to Be a Leader by Tim Clare
Teresa: I saw Skittles at the Edinburgh Fringe 2011 and it really was this goo...
Tom Corbett: Thank you Jon Stone for a really excellent review of Another Use of Ca...
chris mills: Brilliant! Especially the bit about the manual....