A Review of
The Antigone Poems
Marie Slaight and Terrence Tasker
Paperback: Ataire Publications, 2014.
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Rowan Williams describes what he believes to be the essential movement of a poet. It begins with engagement with the world that leads to protest as a reaction to the condition of humans. From the experience of protest comes disillusionment with language and its power. Disillusionment gives way to silence. From silence the poet returns, ironically, to language and thus to a kind of grace because “the return to language requires an act of faith; and an acceptance of the probability of failure. It is, as such, an exercise in radical humility and an expression of the hope of ‘grace’, communication surviving the perils of words.” For Williams, the timbre of poetry should be shot through with irony, desperation, and prayer.
It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the poetic movement described by Williams is also the movement required of us by the church year in Lent and Easter. Lent is the ultimate engagement with the world and its pain, an unflinching examination of sin that leads through the disillusionment of the long weeks to the final silence of Good Friday where we encounter the death of Christ and the absence of God. Easter is Love’s return to language, and for Christians it represents our only hope for the future. But, at least in the affective sense, the grace is cheap and the hope empty without those first steps of the movement, the prayerful despair of Lent.
Myth and poetry are containers, and we always add something of ourselves to them in the reading and the telling. And so we Christians return to our journey, and read our fears and joys into the myths we absorb. During Lent we breath Lent into the things we read.
Enter The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight. It is an elegantly made collection of 32 short poems that includes six haunting charcoal drawings by Terrence Tasker.
Marie Slaight is a widely published poet, playwright, producer and performer for theater productions, film, and music. Terrence Tasker was a self-taught artist and filmmaker. In the 1970s, Slaight and Tasker founded Studio Altaire in Montreal as a theater and art gallery that staged late-night jazz concerts and poetry readings. Tasker died in 1992. After moving around a bit, Slaight settled in Sydney in 2008 and began Altaire Productions, which has produced a half-dozen films and published three books, including The Antigone Poems.
The book itself is a pleasing object. Perfect bound with thick cream-colored paper, it has the feel of a limited run art book. And while it will not be an especially small print run, the book will remain print-only “to maintain the integrity of the poetry and artwork.”
The charcoal drawings are mask-like, reminiscent of both the symbols of Greek tragedy and First Nation indigenous art (Tasker was born in Saskatchewan, Canada). The cover image displays a shadowy glaring mask hovering over a dark monolithic shape. Is it hair and shoulders, or a mesa, mountain or cairn, the setting sun causing the edges to glow?
The drawings haunt, but it is the poems that linger like a scar. It would be hard to find a more visceral (or sustained) poetics of suffering. Every poem bleeds.
Layered within a spiral of symbols and recurring images are all the themes of the original myth and the tragic Greek play: war, death, love, eros, betrayal, rebellion, punishment, exile, hopelessness, silence. In short, it is a Lenten mediation par excellence (too bad it won’t be released until May!). From Ash Wednesday:
We live our lives
The instant between life and death
To touch death always
That is the sun
To the Crucifixion:
Carve nails to my flesh
You draw blood. I drown.
It’s all there.
What you will not find is a straightforward retelling of the story of Antigone. We are meant to hold the myth in our minds while pouring in the additional imagery and emotion:
In every crevice
Keeping the Greek tragedy and the poems together in the same thought produces an electrifying tension; an alternation of repulsion and attraction that could send an electromagnetically propelled rocket all the way to the moon.
In Sophocles’ play, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. Her two brothers kill each other fighting over who will become the next King of Thebes, and her uncle Creon takes the throne instead. Creon declares one of Antigone’s brothers to be a traitor of the city and denies him a proper burial. Creon leaves his nephew’s body to rot outside the city walls. Antigone defies her uncle and symbolically buries her brother, covering his body with handfuls of dirt. For her rebellion, Antigone is walled up inside a room to die alone. Due to the intercessions of his wife and son (Antigone’s lover), Creon changes his mind and opens the wall only to find Antigone hung to death. His son and wife commit suicide soon after, and Creon is left alone. They call it tragedy for a reason after all.
It is a deeply political story. However, in The Antigone Poems, Antigone’s pain is personal, a bitter rumination on loss by a sister, a niece, and a lover.
One recurring image in the poems is earth.
Earth is torment
Earth is tears
This alludes to the ritual burial of Antigone’s brother, but in other places in the poems earth takes on a different resonance. It defiles (dirt does tend to make one dirty), and it is also associated with fertility and desire.
For Christians earth is where we come from and where we shall return. But it holds the promise of new life as well.
The most common image in the poems is of the sun. In the Greek play, the sun’s role is conventional. It is a marking of time, and it’s rising in the morning dispels fear and darkness. The sun is always a relief.
In the poems the sun is cruel and tormenting. One begins to wonder if the “lord of the ancient sun” who is mentioned several times is supposed to be Creon. In other instances, there is an attraction to the sun, even an erotic one. In the book’s longest piece, a stream-of-consciousness prose poem at the end of Chapter 1, the sun is both subjective and objective, referred to as both a “he” and an “it.” Antigone laments, “My only love today was the sun…now it’s gone-I’m cold…My hurting proves nothing-only that he has the power to pain”.
These tensions drive us to the heart of tragedy—love and betrayal. While some might be disappointed that the plot points of the Antigone story are often ignored, the poems evoke the spirit of Antigone more than the words of the Greek play are able to do by themselves. Plays usually need to be staged to be felt. Slaight has served us on paper the kind dramatic pathos that only the best actors in the best productions can give us. It is communication surviving the perils of ambiguity.
Like Antigone, Lent is about exile and loss. It is a mystery how poetry well-written—and the Antigone Poems are well-written—can conjure these feelings so authentically despite the mediation of the page. The Antigone Poems are a way of reflecting on loss, and Terrence Tasker’s masks become mirrors. But they do not result in a final devastation. These poems are not nihilist. Instead there is a hope intrinsic in hope’s absence. Perhaps it is their momentum, their paradoxical tension, that propels us forward, past the silence of exile and despair to a new birth of language, to an unlikely renewal of love.