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antigone poemsThe Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight
Artwork by Terrence Tasker

Altaire 2014
Trade Paperback with Flaps
104 pages

This collection of poems, inspired by Sophocles’ class Greek Tragedy, Antigone, was written by Marie Slaight between the years 1972 and 1981; the artwork by Terrence Tasker was created between 1974 and 1979. Both were living in Montreal at the time, but as far as I can tell this is the first time the work has been collected and published (by the the Sydney-based arts production company Slaight is director of). This is a beautifully printed and bound book, almost square in shape, produced on high-quality paper.

Sophocles’ Antigone is a part of a trilogy of plays which includes Oedipus the King and Electra; the events of Antigone come after Oedipus but is considered the ‘first’ play. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta. I will turn to Wikipedia for this next bit, for the sake of convenience and my feeble memory: “Antigone is the subject of a popular story in which she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices, who was killed in battle between him and his brother Eteocles even though he is seen as a traitor to Thebes and the law forbids even mourning for him, punishable by death.” I haven’t finished reading the original play, which I hoped would give me some context and deeper understanding of Slaight’s poems, mostly due to work commitments.

Slaight’s poems – which I took to be in Antigone’s voice – are very short and can be read in several ways. You could read the poems as angst-riddled melodrama. You could read the poems as expressions of a tortured soul. You can read the poems – as you can many poems – as incomprehensible, simple words strung together into lines that befuddle rather than illuminate. You can read the poems as stark and beautiful and insightful glimpses into the darker side of human nature. I fear, despite frequent re-readings of the poems, both in order and as individual poems, that I am left largely untouched. I struggled to speak Slaight’s language, to pierce the myth and share a deeper meaning. Arranged into chapters, I first read the collection all the way through, trying not to rush (the poems are so short it’s easy to do). I came back to it later and went through them again, focussing on the those poems that did seem to stir some understanding within me (I often advise my students, when having to read something challenging, to start by focussing on what you do understand, and often the rest will become clear in context or on re-reads). This usually works, but somehow, I still felt like I was reading a foreign language, one I could pronounce but not grasp.

Some poems (all are untitled) seem on the verge of saying something profound:

We live our lives
The instant between life and death.
To touch death always,
That is the sun.

While others confound me, as I search for narrative meaning where perhaps there is none:

Daughter of a dark sun
My loins moving
Sweep scarlet over dawn

My peak carrying
Ice-frenzy to the fire
Where ecstasy balms

My lips of pain

Rising black…
Scarlet airs
Begging laughter.

When I am used
The innate language.

The potency is shattering.
Only the night
Holds jasmine.
Where is my tongue?

If this perfume doesn’t burst
It will twist into venom.

I’m the kind of person – the kind of reader – who wants to understand. And I don’t like to give up, admit defeat, or cry ignorance or stupidity. I could say that I read this at a bad time – busy with work, my mind distracted and stressed – but that doesn’t explain my struggle with these poems. Others have found depth and passion and soul in these poems. I would like that, very much. They do verge on the melodramatic for me, with many references to fires and flames and pain and blood and torture. I have limited patience for self-flagellation or self-indulgence, especially when deeper layers of meaning escape me. But there are moments when words are aligned that are beautiful on their own (my students can bare witness to the giddy delights I ascend to when I get excited over language and beautiful-sounding words!).

Copyright: Terrence Tasker

Copyright: Terrence Tasker

Perhaps in conversation these poems come alive. Often our understanding grows and deepens and matures through discussion, and I haven’t been able to discuss these with anyone. Perhaps, too, I long for narrative. You won’t learn anything about Antigone’s story from this collection, which according to the (finely written) blurb is “an intensely personal invocation of the Sophocles tragedy” that “questions power, punishment and one of mythology’s oldest themes: rebellion.” I keep going back to this description, then back to the poems, trying to find this understanding. My brain grows tired, I cannot think, let alone feel. Not even turning to Tasker’s artworks helps to illuminate what could possibly be called postmodern poetry (I do love the cover though).

Ultimately, poetry is an intimate thing – more so than any other literary form, I tend to think, it reveals more and opens the composer wide to scrutiny. Writing is a brave thing, a creative outlet that makes us strong while also leaving us vulnerable. And enjoyment or enlightenment is often, if not always, subjective. These poems didn’t click with me. I was so looking forward to reading them and experiencing them in a visceral way, but it just didn’t happen. For others, though, the magic could just as easily be there.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours

tlc tour host-1


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