Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part III): Antigonick & the new ancient (cont.)

My dear R.,

A fragile, smoky morning in the city. I am sorry it's taken me so long to write. My excuse is not extraordinary. I have not been eaten been dingoes (A strange plural!), hélas, a good indication we're not in a Leigh Stein poem. Nonetheless, it is mythic everyday. Ben Kopel might approve (or not). Forgive. I said tomorrow. I didn't say which one. 

Of late, I am time-haunted, which is why I was doubly delighted when you applied, in your last, the phrase "new ancient" to describe "a poetics in which everything & nothing is mythic, in which it’s okay to write about Facebook & Philomena with equal reverence . . . a sentimentality that collapses boundaries and divisions in much the same way prior rejections of sentimentality claimed to, and sometimes did." (You do have a way with aesthetic categories, do you know? You throw them off like a lathe throws sparks, tossing off little coruscants on your way to making something real in four dimensions.)  Why Antigone?, you ask, rightly, I think, in reference to Carson's new translation. I'm going to set aside that question just for the moment to mark a few coincidences that may matter later on. 

On Sunday afternoon, I went to see (for the second time) Christian Marclay's The Clock , a twenty-four hour film montage composed of found clips of clocks & people talking about time. It's synchronized to the official time of whatever location it happens to be showing in so that for the minute of, say, 11:19 in real time, the clocks in the film show 11:19. This time I stayed from 12:45 p.m. to 4:22 p.m., excruciatingly aware of the time but intermittently surprised at how quickly the hours had gone by. This, I gather, is the intent. 

The work is a feat of editing, sonically & visually, musical cues bleeding into one another, an actor in a black-and-white film startled, suddenly, by the entrance of one from a world of color. A remix par excellence. Each hour is its own act, like a chapter in a high modernist novel. It is sublime in the mathematical sense, which may be reason enough to distrust it. Many of the films from which Marclay quotes you recognize. More are obscure to you. The actors begin to drink in the afternoon. Late lunches are toyed with. Afternoon teas are spread on the celluloid tables, afternoon delights on the beds. (I note I have slipped into the passive voice.) Audrey Hepburn hefts her cello case & Maggie Cheung arranges an intimate dinner for her boss & his mistress. Matt Damon gives a weary television interview in one bit & shows up sometime later looking like his own son, sullenly slouched in an armchair. Incidental clocks in bedrooms & train stations are somehow more affecting than plot-pregnant stopwatches & ticking time bombs. The work inspires this kind of declarative recounting. You take what little you can before you emerge wincing into the light. You don't have to ask what time it is.

Afterwards, you will see them everywhere, clocks in the wild. They will scratch--gently, persistently--at some heretofore callused site debrided by The Clock: some occluded faculty, suddenly cleared of congestion. Call it the time-piece, maybe. 

It was the twenty-ninth of July the day I saw The Clock, also the day, as I learned this morning, of filmmaker Chris Marker's death--& (fearful symmetry) his birth ninety-one years before. His films have meant a lot to me. They are obsessed with time, time & memory. I remember thinking, as I walked out of The Clock, how much it might owe to Marker's film essays & (though bloated to lugubrious proportions) the poetics of his most famous work, the brilliant-cut time-travel montage La Jetée. I read somewhere that Marclay makes a sort of cameo in his prodigy by way of a found footage pocket-watch monogramed with the initials C.M. I don't know whether any samples of Chris Marker's work appear in The Clock but I do know that my impulse is to pluck that watch from the frame & give it to someone else. I am a little sad just now.     

You gave me a pocket-watch once. I confess it keeps imperfect time & that is one reason I like it so much.

Time, if I may return to that other question, might be a reasonable address both to why Antigone? & to the new ancient. As I pointed out in my first letter, to the dramatis personae of Antigonick, Anne Carson adds the role of Nick "a mute part [always onstage, he measures things]." It's part of a larger strategy of anachronism, which is, itself, a witty commentary on the ways we track--& fail to track--time. ("WE'RE STANDING IN THE NICK OF TIME," she writes.) Antigone, like most Greek tragedies, is often referred to as "timeless" or "universal," by which people mean that it's relevant in all times or to all people or something like that, essentially meaningless truisms &, more importantly, some of the least interesting things you can say about it. Carson's translation works against that interpretation by making us aware of how alien this text really is, how particular to a distant cultural moment, how much work it takes to drag a wisp of language across the millennia & weave it over in a new tongue, like tuning your fancy new condenser mic to the echo of a signal that died a few thousand years ago. So a stiff dose of anachronism is inevitable, one way or another--anachronism may be at the heart of what you mean by "new ancient"--& Antigonick is ruthless in its accession to this demand. 

I've writ a little bit already about how Bianca Stone's illustrations to the text might inform the material experience of reading Antigonick. They make it a little like (though not exactly like) reading things that explicitly categorize themselves as comics. That's already a different way of conceptualizing the "fate" of a dramatic translation, formally speaking, to link it to the very particular ways in which the physical images in the codex interact with the words they obscure & reveal by turns (Recall that the illustrations are printed on semi-transclucent paper & that Carson handwrites the text.). It's a play that need not be acted out to be performed (though, of course, readings can be & have been staged). The text in itself "performs." It performs its thingness. It performs the contemporaneity of its materials.

Add to this the translation's opening lines: 
Carson's theoretical heritage is on ostentatious display here but it's not just purposeless anachronism (or erudition), I think. She's drawing our attention to the ways in which her encounter with the text of Antigone---& ours--already requires a number of temporal disjunctions. The twentieth century (Beckett) & the eighteenth century (Hegel) are past to various degrees & in various ways & their inclusion here makes us aware of how. Better, I think, to read this as a series of fine historical delineations rather than as undifferentiated temporal quagmire. We are being reminded of how words & sentiments come to us: the longer they are repeated & passed on, the more they become encrusted with historically specific provisos & addenda. It is perfectly logical, in Carson' twenty-first century Antigone, that Sophocles--as well as Ismene & her sister--can't get past all the Beckett & Hegel they've read because neither can we. 

Carson's strategy of anachronism, her "new ancient," is similarly at work in the way she shifts registers of dialogue, from high metrical speech to slangy colloquialisms, sometimes (tra-gic-com-ic-al-ly) within the space of the same speech. Here's the entrance of the blind prophet Teiresias. It's always a party when he shows up:

                                                      THIS BOY IS DEAD STOP KILLING HIM

 & this is why Antigone, at least a little of it, time, I mean, how it just won't stop, & the dead boy & how he keeps dying. It's the story of a moody teenaged girl defying the world. No, it's about the law of the gods & the laws of the state. Or no again, it's about conflicting ethical imperatives or how you react in the face of extreme temperaments or how to rule & what we owe the dead & who we bury & who we mourn & who is living & who is not & who is left & who has disappeared half-way through the antistrophe without even a proper goodbye. It will mean some of these things to you or all of them or none, depending on what you come from, on who you are & when[EXEUNT OMNES EXCEPT NICK WHO CONTINUES  


It's not a solution, it's just a few semes to mark the time. So delighted, always, to meet you letter for letter, though never

measure for measure,


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part II): Antigonick continued; Leigh Stein's Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012) & Ben Kopel's Victory (H_NGM_N BKS, 2012)

Dear (r),

I am thinking, as you suggest, of Antigone & knick-knacks.  Thank you for the preview of Carson’s Antigone-translation, which I am saving for an upcoming voyage.  (It’s already packed!)  Of course I don’t want you to give too much away (a little Greek Tragedy humor for you there) but I do have some questions I want to ask you.

Namely, why Antigone?

I ask because I just read Leigh Stein’s Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012), a classical trope- & pop culture-infused collection of poems that sometimes reads as a choose-your-own-adventure story.  The book’s loose assortment of modern myths culminates in a series of “dispatches from the future” completely keyed in to the current trend towards the normal paranormal: “In the future, I’m your mother./My name is Carol” (99).  Also sometimes in these poems people get eaten by dingoes.

I guess in some sense I have the same kind of affinity for Leigh Stein that she describes in “A Brief History Of My Life Part VII”: “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I/have in common are our preoccupations//with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize/a kinship there, as if those two things mattered//more than anything” (73).  For weight loss, substitute invented traditions; for fame, the literary figure with which you most identify.  Stein’s poems are riddled with the young female protagonists of the literary canon, so that her allusive opus reads like a chick-lit rewrite of an Intro to World Literature syllabus.  I mean that in a good way:

“[...] he does get to go to the underworld, and the rest
of the movie is all about her life as a priestess

because when she asked if she could go with
him he said no, but I know that if I put you

back together I would follow you
to the underworld even if you said

you didn’t want me to, even if you said
there were not enough seats in your chariot

or riverboat or rickshaw because when two
people spend as much time together in a small,

enclosed space such as we have in this one,
they will follow each other to future small,

enclosed spaces.  This is a pretty long book
inscription, but when you leave I want you

to keep this with you at all times, in case
you need a curse, a lament, a mirage

or incantation.  To speak the name of the dead
is to make them live again.  I will never forget

when I was just your sister in the acacia
tree of our childhood and at night the chariots

and thrones and arrows and birds and twins
in the stars foretold our future ruin.  I’ve heard

it said that he who loves you swallows stones
for you while your enemy waits for you

to birth a son to avenge his father’s death
by causing a tempest to flood the earth.
-from “How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs,” 54-56


“[...] Sometimes we put ourselves
in danger just to live and tell about it.

And sometimes we put ourselves in danger
because our fathers betroth us to murderers.”
-from “Epistolaphobia,” 49


“[...] you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do [...]”

                                    -from “Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness,” 45

& finally

“I used to think I was waiting for a steady shoulder,

for someone to come along and appreciate my
somnambulism, my prophetic knowledge

of the ultimate destiny of mankind, someone
to be with when all the lights in the world go out,

but look what happened to them.  Theseus killed
the beast, and they got married and then sailed

to an island, where he abandoned Ariadne in her sleep.
And when she woke she hanged herself.  Why

did she hang herself?  And if I find the reason am I
less susceptible?  Both unanswerable questions, and

yet I still go home with him, submit to a strange
bed in which I lay awake all night, without him,

listening to the restless pacing of something familiar
in the room beneath us, the haunt I cannot kill.”

                                    -from “Keeping the Minotaur at Bay,” 26

Of course, dear (r), I selected that last passage in part for its deployment of “somnambulism,” because I want to think again about the current categories and concepts at play in experimental poetry.  (I’m using the e-word, I know; accept it here & I promise I’ll address it later.)   We’ve talked at length about sleep/somnambulism/somniloquy, & we’ve begun to think through domestic science fiction & the normal paranormal.  But I think in Antigonick & in Dispatch from the Future we glimpse a trend in contemporary poetry at once more subtle & more old-school.  Let’s call it the new ancient.

The new ancient underscores another new book, Ben Kopel’s striking collection, Victory (H_NGM_N BKS, 2012).  It’s a sparse and compelling account of the mythic everyday:

Like A Song Unsung

without a sound I was born to make air bags bloom.
when I asked why
my mother told me I’ll tell you when you’re younger.
When I was younger
I found myself the only werewolf in a city made of
silver, spending Friday

afternoons keying my favorite name into car doors.
Do you have a name?
Do you have a head?  My head is full of plastic fangs
and sheet music and
squirrel skulls.  I hid the rest of their bones behind the
school because

I didn’t want you to see me for what I was because I want
a clawfoot bathtub
full of what I want.  You want to be incredible.  If we are
to ever be together
you must walk out of this matinee with my head held
high above you while

there’s still some daylight left outside of you.


My (r), I’m not looking for resonances with the Antigone story.  (“What I bury/stays buried.//What I see/I’ve seen” (73).)  I’m not even really trying to suss out the allusions—they might be there, but they’re nowhere near as explicit as Stein’s.  All I mean to say is this: I suspect that part of what makes these poems so good is their manipulation of those effects that make a story mythic—fate, burial, monsters.  Kopel addresses this aesthetic directly in the poem “A Map Is A Place Is A Thing,” which I quote here in its entirety:

We all recognize the need
to alter the ending.

We can and we will
even when we won’t

let it become.  We have no name.
Naming alone is understanding.

We have no idea.  No book of legends.
No land.  No map.  We bracket sections,

combining longer and shorter lines.
We are left with what accounts for leaving.

We live the way we live.
The world changes us.


Of course, we see Adrienne Rich here.  And this is where I want to come back to the word “experimental.”  Stein borrows a neologism from Edna St. Vincent Millay; Kopel includes a handful of poems with titles like “Do You Want New Sincerity Or Do You Want The Truth?”  But Stein & Kopel are sincere or sentimental or post-confessional or counter-experimental in an extremely experimental way, in a way that’s self-aware, that resists and manipulates and critiques the sins and expectations and guilty pleasures incumbent upon the poet:

“In the attic of everything
there is a bird
with one wing
& his heart is true
& nothing like mine.”

--Kopel, from “There Is A Question I Am Forever Waiting To Be Asked,” 69


“[...] Once I’d been unleashed

from thoughts of my own death I was free
to be loved in the way I always knew I’d deserved:

reciprocally, in Fiji, our bodies lithe and bronzed
like gods, but at the same time I felt like a vampire,

and none of my friends could relate.  They were jealous
of my book deal, my time spent at the ashram

while they were here, suffering another winter,
their unsexiness a fluorescent sign that blinks all night.”

                                    --Stein, from “Immortality,” 85

Beyond a reliance on the allusive & the literary, Dispatch from the Future & Victory offer a poetics in which everything & nothing is mythic, in which it’s okay to write about Facebook & Philomena with equal reverence.  It’s a sentimentality that collapses boundaries and divisions in much the same way prior rejections of sentimentality claimed to, and sometimes did.  I’m calling it the new ancient, because I have to call it something, even though to do so isn’t really in keeping with the projects these volumes activate.  (Do You Want The New Ancient Or Do You Want The Whole Story?)  Leave it to Anne Carson to translate Antigone while somehow remaining one step ahead of the contemporary poetic curve.

But really, (r), why Antigone?


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part I): Antigonick, Anne Carson & Bianca Stone, New Directions (2012)

Dear R.,

For these melting days there is no better palliative than a pitcher of iced white tea. I like mine with cardamom. You have to start with about a quart of cool filtered water. Heat it in a pot until it's just barely simmering, then throw in a few tablespoons of white tea leaves (or four teabags if you're feeling plebeian, which I often am). Let the solution steep for two to three minutes, then stir in (but only if you like) about a teaspoon of cardamom. Pour into the pitcher of your choice (I prefer glass, slightly cracked) & chill. Serve with strawberries or watermelon. That's it!

Anne Carson has a new book out, always a cause for joy. I list all titles & subtitles here: Antognick (Sophokles), "translated by Anne Carson, illustrated by Bianca Stone." Yes, it's Anne Carson's Sophokles, that is, Anne Carson's Antigone. A couple things about that: 

1) "Translated" is the chosen verb but Antognick feels like more or other than a translation in the catholic sense. It is a response to Antigone with certain additions & elisions (nicks!) that ask you to translate that "translated." An example: the addition to the dramatis personae of "Nick a mute part [always onstage, he measures things]." Translatedness, in Carson, is more, though than the outgrowth of her particular style of post-post-post-modern playfulness (Elegant stutter of "p"s).

2) Part of the sense that translation has become a word in a foreign language seems like a natural step in the development of Carson's poetics. Antigonick bears certain superficial resemblances to her previous book Nox (2010), which drew a great deal of attention to its materiality. An elegy for her brother in which translation of Catullus's 101 was the idée fixe, Nox also thought deeply about the act of translation, though much of its self-reflexivity was more overt (almost every word in the translation was accompanied by a lexical entry that illustrated the difficulties of translation) than what you'll find in Antigonick. But it was the book's physicality that was, perhaps, most commented upon. Printed on a thick, single sheet of accordion-folded paper & tucked into a black box, each copy of Nox reproduced the manuscript on which Carson had originally written, drawn, & pinned old family photos. Antigonick is a slightly more orthodox text object--a regular old codex--but, like many contemporary comics, it is hand-lettered. The hand in question is (I think) Carson's own. Her printing is both heavy & wavering at once. The inks she uses are black & red. This is to say nothing of 

3) Bianca Stone's delicate, menacing illustrations: 

You can just see in the second image how the transparent paper on which the images are printed often allows the text from the next page to show through, so that image & text work together by, literally, touching one another & retreating. It's a material enactment of how the images relate notionally to the dramatic action rather than as direct--I mean, yes I think I mean--translations. Or I suppose I could say that, taken together, text and image are translations of a mood. Illustration as Eleusinian Mystery.

R! I've got quite a bit more to say about the text itself, not merely the packaging, but time escapes me (& I did promise I would post this today.)! I suppose I'll have to leave the rest for tomorrow, which is always 

riper for tragedy.  


(Images via poetrycomics.com, newdirectionspublishing.tumblr.com)