The Antigone Poems
The Antigone Poems were written in the 1970’s by Marie Slaight as a collaboration with artist Terrence Tasker, whose charcoal drawings appear throughout the volume; they were published in 2014. I got a copy of the volume from Australia, where it was published by Altaire Productions, because I agreed to take part in the blog tour with TLC. The title alone got me interested; I’ve always been interested in the character of Antigone, whose teenage defiance and purity of belief in how the gods would have things done raises questions about her uncle’s–King Creon’s– authority.
At first the poems seem loosely, if at all, tied to the story of Antigone. They’re very short, just moments of emotion. The first one is “tormented” and mentions “anguish.” The next has a line about those who “dare death with their insouciance.” Wait, this is starting to sound like the Antigone I know. And look, in the third poem she mentions “the disorder/I hold sacred.” There’s the defiant teenage girl!
By the end of the fourth poem she is asking herself “where is my tongue?” because “if this perfume doesn’t burst/it will twist into venom.” That evokes the first idealism of youth. It’s all-or-nothing belief. You either let the young person run with it, or you try to disabuse her of some of her more outrageous notions and risk the full force of her bitterness against you, the messenger.
The fifth poem is short, mentioning “hysteria,” and then the sixth one is a longer prose poem which reads very much like something a teenage girl would write, full of “so much pain” and “my hurting proves nothing, only that he has the power to pain.” After that poem, the first charcoal drawing of a mask, and then Chapter Two begins.
Now she is “daughter of a dark sun/my loins moving” and “bound in blood,” anguished over her “daemon ancestry.” Antigone, of course, was the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, the product of incest. The character in The Antigone Poems, like any adolescent, is feeling the war between biology as destiny vs. individual free will. Is she a strong enough individual to make her will known? She imagines herself as brave enough, saying “take whip to my wilds./ You lash fear. I burn.” And thinks that “the violence of gods” will intervene. She is sure she is right. The poems that follow are about memory, fervor, and her belief that “to touch death always,/That is the sun.” This is the sure Antigone we know from Sophocles.
Another mask. Another chapter. The next poems are about regret. A lonely adolescent has made her choice and now envisions the details: “bowels break/blood breaks.”
The next mask is darker. The next chapter is about fear and fantasies of what her life could have been like. “Find my earth” she says. “Reclaim my desire.” But then “I remember only the rage” she says.
The last chapter begins with new resolve: “The wound/Aches/To be released.” There is no more need for words, “only the gaping, silent scream.” And then the wish: “Let the silence break this wall.”
The final poem begins
I wanted everything.
To live all lives, all deaths, encompass all women.
To smash every confine.”
It’s as if the poet has become Antigone, and hopes that the experience of reading the poems has allowed readers to experience what it could have been like to feel the frightening, utter clarity of her female and teenaged belief in what was right.
There’s a final mask, the cover mask, and then one more, as if to emphasize the point that such conviction wears many masks.
We admire Antigone’s conviction when we read her story. These poems make us experience the force of it. And yet, when we take a step back, how many of us have ever let ourselves or those we love insist on such utter purity of belief, such idealism given form by action?