“As Clear as Complicated Air”—Anne Carson’s Antigonick

and/utterance and thought as clear as complicated air . . . he/ taught himself

—Anne Carson, Antigonick

When in the presence of so protean a creative intelligence as Anne Carson’s, I try to drop all preconceptions and follow where she decides to go. From my explorations of The Autobiography of Red and Nox, among others, I’ve learned that the journey will be rich. So when I spotted Carson’s latest book, Antigonick, in a bookstore, I snapped it up.

Even the cover’s title, ANTIGO     NICK (SOPHOKLES), signals a subversion of expectations. The book, ostensibly a translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, is illustrated with ink and watercolor drawings and hand-lettered (apparently in Carson’s own hand). Had Carson remade Antigone into something like a graphic novel? If so, why? I wondered briefly whether Carson hadn’t gone overboard, burying meaning in a pile of kitsch, but I set my doubts aside for a further look.

Right from her opening gambit, Carson catches us off-guard. The two other translations in my possession, by Robert Fagles and Seamus Heaney, both begin with direct references to the familial back story before moving on to the matter of the hour. Carson’s text, however, begins with this:

Almost no punctuation, no apparent line-breaks. Antigone and Ismene, like two snappish academics, debate sources that certainly weren’t ancient Greeks.

Carson even introduces a new character, Nick: “a mute part [always onstage, he measures things].” Her text continually complicates the air. In Fagles, the Chorus marks Creon’s first entrance with, “But look, the king of the realm is coming.” In Heaney, the words are “King Creon. All hail to Creon.” Carson’s Chorus proclaims, “HERE COMES KREON/ROWING HIS NEW POWERBOAT.”

The text creates one set of interpretive quandaries, Bianca Stone’s illustrations another. The illustrations, on translucent paper that allows the text to show through, offer a deft and appealing mix of whimsy and terror: a filament of thread vainly wrapping itself around utensils flying out of a pitcher; a horse lunging from its seat at a table strewn with plates of fish and a toppling bottle of wine. The subjects of the drawings shift, combine, and break apart. They tell a story of their own, and that’s part of the quandary: the stories in the images don’t seem to relate to the story in the text.

When Carson asked Stone to illustrate Antigonick, she encouraged Stone “to make drawings of some other world entirely, some other story.” This fit with Stone’s own predilections as an author of “poetry comics.” As Stone explained, “I’m interested in what it means to have a poem and an image together, and what that can do to further both, instead of taking away from either one.”

I thought back to Carson’s translation of fragments of Sappho, If Not, Winter, and how the fragments are depicted in the book. In her introduction to If Not, Winter, Carson wrote about the brackets:

Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.

In Antigonick, Carson also models that “free space of imaginal adventure” on the page.

On his first entrance, the Creon of Fagles’ translation delivers a stirring victory speech: “My countrymen,/the ship of state is safe,” he pronounces.

Of course you cannot know a man completely,
his character, his principles, sense of judgment,
not till he’s shown his colors, ruling the people,
making laws. Experience, that’s the test.

The words of Carson’s Kreon (the spelling Carson uses), visible behind Stone’s illustration of an unraveling spool of thread, are nothing but verbs and nouns, though the last “MINE” is a matter of dispute:


The  word “NICK” appears periodically, gathering in complexity and emotive power. When the guard delivers Antigone to him, Kreon says “HERE’S KREON, NICK OF TIME.” The meaning may seem straightforward here, but it keeps shifting. After Tiresias delivers his harrowing prophecy and Kreon is persuaded to free Antigone, the Chorus ends its ode with, “WE’RE STANDING/IN THE NICK OF TIME.”

Perhaps the most remarkable departure from conventional translation occurs on the entrance of Eurydice. In the play, Eurydice appears and delivers one brief speech to the messenger. From Heaney’s translation: “I am in dread . . . . Just say what happened.” She receives the news that her son and Antigone have killed themselves and exits.

In Carson’s text, Eurydike (in Carson’s spelling) begins her speech:


The experience of reading a translation, Carson shows us, must include more than reading the words rendered in our own language. We must also read with the knowledge that, in the end, there is no one final meaning to be had. As Carson wrote in Nox, her meditation on a Catullus poem and her own lost brother: “Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch.”

In Antigonick, Carson gives us the experience of translating as she lives it: a perilous art that no amount of experience and knowledge can surmount, an art in which no perfection, no absolute meaning, can ever be obtained. As she said in Nox of her efforts to translate Catullus 101:

I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends.

Ancient words, like all words, slip away from the meanings we want to give them. Even meanings we settle on in a given moment shape-shift over time.

Carson offers no introduction to Antigonick. She gives us only the words she chooses, as she chooses to present them in the book. The illustrations, which might have aided us in a conventional way, instead further complicate by telling a story different from the story told in words.

Yet something about the whole dazzles as each stumbling search for meaning brings up a glinting shard. In Antigonick, Carson gives us perhaps a greater, and certainly a different, gift, from that of the next new translation: she lets us in on the “imaginal adventure” that is the art of translation itself. If we go where she takes us, we, too, can sense

those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.


Listening List

O Graub! O Brautbett! (aria from Orff’s Antigonae)

Spotify listening lists include extracts from the operas of Carl Orff and Mikis Theodorakis here; Orff’s complete opera Antigonae (20th C) here; Theodorakis’ complete opera Antigone (20th C) here; and Tommaso Traetta’s complete opera Antigona (18th C) here. On Youtube, a performance of the complete Orff Antigonae can be found here, Love, Invincible in Battle, an aria from Theodorakis’ Antigone, can be found here, and ombra cara amorosa, an aria from Traetta’s Antigona, can be found here.

A summary of the story of Antigone can be found here, and a 19th century translation of the complete text here.

Postscript: Here is the text from Antigonick that includes the title of the post, followed by equivalent text from the other two translations:





And speech and thought, quick as the wind
and the mood and mind for law that rules the city—
all these he has taught himself


The wind is no more swift or mysterious
Than his mind and words; he has mastered thinking,
Roofed his house against hail and rain
And worked out laws for living together.

(The shelter/house exists in all three, but Heaney’s placement is embedded within the other concepts, hence its inclusion here.)

Credits: The quotations from Antigonick can be found here, from Robert Fagles’ translation of Antigone here, and from Seamus Heaney’s translation (The Burial at Thebes) here. The quotations relating to Bianca Stone can be found here. The quotations from Carson’s If Not, Winter and Nox (the closing quotation is from Nox) can be found here and here. As is true for all photographs on posts not otherwise credited, the photographs are my own.

25 thoughts on ““As Clear as Complicated Air”—Anne Carson’s Antigonick

  1. Jayne

    A very clever and interesting translation by Carson. A brave undertaking. I can’t imagine attempting to translate an ancient tragedy. I’m not so sure I’d enter the room never mind search for the light switch!

  2. Rubye Jack

    I love the examples you have here of Carson’s wry and dry humor – “nick of time”, “who said that? Hegel” “sounds more like Beckett”. Talk about lol.
    Also, I like the style in red and black print, and the unrelated drawings, which serve to make me think more about just what is really being said here..
    I may just have to buy Antigonick. Thanks Susan!

  3. wanderer

    Having slipped up and not commented on how wonderful was your last post, I’m rushing in to say this was a brilliant read notwithstanding I’m not too likely to add the book to my pile of ‘waitings’. As one who eschews certainty I especially resonate strongly with ‘there is no final meaning to be had’ and now, quite moved after listening to that lament, too marvelous for words, am having bad thoughts about Kreon/Creon and the like.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Isn’t that lament gorgeous (I assume you’re referring to the Orff)? I didn’t know it, but sent out a “call” to find examples of musical Antigones and someone responded with this. I was entranced by the entire Orff opera, and am so pleased to be able to share this with you.

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    I’m going to have to read this book. I fingered a copy of it in a bookstore a couple of months ago and put it back down, put off by the handwritten text. It’s a quirk, I don’t like book designs that mess around too much with typefaces or that reproduce or mimic handmade qualities (the same thing scared me away from ‘Nox’, with its faux masking tape, staples etc. I wish there was a ‘plain text’ version of these books for people like me). But seeing what her “translation” looks like (maybe there’s another word for it?) I definitely want to read it now.

    When you see how so simple -and relatively recent!- a poem as Williams’ ‘Young Woman at a Window’ can cause such wildly different readings (it’s truly extraordinary!), how much harder to get at a reading of an ancient text. One of the things I’ve always loved most about Carson is her ability to make ancient texts seem contemporary. If that involves some rewriting I don’t mind it since I trust Carson to take me to a place of poetic integrity. She’s the best of the best poets/readers working today.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      I, too, was put off by the handwritten text—not to mention the illustrations, which appeared to (and as I subsequently learned did) have no relation to the text. But I, too, trust Carson “to take me a place of poetic integrity,” so I persevered. I think not a translation, in the ordinary sense, but perhaps a “meta” translation, or a contemplation about translation, using a specific text. What say you? Also, here’s one for you re Beckett: I was able to find the Hegel reference (Walter Kaufmann, paraphrased: “He realized that at the center of the greatest tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles we find not a tragic hero but a tragic collision, and that the conflict is not between good and evil but between one-sided positions, each of which embodies some good”), but nothing that shed light on her citation of Beckett. Any ideas?

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        Anne Carson and Chris Tysh are working in the same general area here, except Tysh is using modern materials – Beckett in fact, along with Genet and Duras. She calls the process “transcreation”, explaining it thus:

        “I extend the concept of translation toward what we might call a transcreation, or a transcultural dialogue.” http://www.escapeintolife.com/blog/ravished-an-interview-with-chris-tysh/

        You can link from that interview to her ‘Molloy, the Flip Side’, a great poem that I had the privilege of reading.

        On the second point, I don’t see a reference to a specific passage in Beckett here. It just does sound very much like him. “Company’ and ‘How it Is’ come to mind.

  5. JMS

    Connecting the dots is often a brainteaser when it comes to your posts. I enjoyed this one in particular in that it refreshed my memory that Greek Mythology can often be an interesting parallel to current political times and that Ann Carson continues to find inventive ways to bring refreshing entertainment into my midst. Just when I was beginning to think “original thought” was dead as I surf through 300 channels of nonsense on the TV. I may be forced to do a one-click shop for Antigonick.

  6. Scott

    I like the the use of the abstract illustrations. Inspiration from a scene or setting leading to thoughts that don’t seem to relate. The idea that instead of taking away, they actually further eachother. Kind of the roots of creativity. Freedom. Nurturing.

  7. David

    Antigo Nick sounds very daunting to me – it strikes me that Carson is a bit like Harrison Birtwistle in that she takes the many complicated possibilities of a myth rather than its essence, what it might mean to us today in simpler terms. Perhaps I’m too conventional to take the plunge…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      You are hardly conventional, and, believe me, you are not alone in your response to the book (or at least what I’ve written about it here). I like your insight about Carson taking “the many complicated possibilities of a myth rather than its essence.” (I don’t know Birtwistle’s music, so I can’t make a comparison as to that.) I can’t know, of course, what Carson was intending here, but the best sense I can make of this book (different from others of hers) was that she was as much contemplating the art of translation as she was translating a particular text.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Oh, I wish you had written more! If I understand your comment, I would say that Carson’s text doesn’t at all speak to the ancient text unadorned, but rather what has accreted to it over time.

  8. Steve Schwartzman

    Call me a traditionalist if you will, but I wouldn’t use the word “translation” for a work that departs so much from the original text (one exception being Carson’s use of the Greek forms of the characters’ names). I’d say that this work was inspired by the original but isn’t a translation of it, at least not in the normal sense of the word.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      As I’ve noted to others, where I end up in my thinking about this book is that it is as much a meditation on the art of translation as anything else. Carson definitely knows how to translate in the “normal” sense. I can only think she’s after something different here.

  9. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    thank you for this great introduction into Carson’s work! I will put that book on my wish-list for Christmas – sounds so interesting in connection with the drawings. (And I wish a bit of time to read it thoughtfully). Thank you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      I’ll be interested to see what you think. I quite enjoyed the drawings, even though I didn’t really know what to make of them in the context of the book. It was quite a relief to learn that Carson had “instructed” Stone to tell an entirely unrelated story. After a bit—perhaps as the result of becoming hypnotized by this exoticism of the book, I began to imagine (hallucinate?) connections between image and text.

  10. shoreacres

    In an attempt to make sense of this, I read your other Carson posts, and smiled a bit at your reference to reading “hard books”. I fear Carson will remain forever a Hard Book for me. For one thing, I can’t escape the feeling that her work is less written than constructed. Nothing wrong with that, of course, especially if that’s what she set out to do, but I prefer reading to de-construction.

    Speaking of word-construction, I can’t help dragging out this tiny snippet from Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, despite (and please forgive) the slight vulgarity. Writing to DH Lawrence, Durrell’s novelist-character Pursewarden says, “My dear DHL. This side idolatry – I am simply trying not to copy your habit of building a Taj Mahal around anything as simple as a good f—“. I’ll give Carson this – no one has made me think of that passage in a good while.

    I was almost saddened by her observation that “Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light…” If it weren’t for the occasional flood of light, why would anyone write?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      You read the other Carson posts? Now that was surely above and beyond the call of duty! Just to reassure on this: Carson has done more conventional—and widely praised—translations. Her translation of Sappho is one; I think her Oresteia is another. If you ever decide to wade in these waters, I think the Oresteia might be a good place to start. Most of all, what I think she’s doing in Antigonick is playing, and, once I suspended all manner of disbelief, I found I had fun, too. Now, as for the occasional flood of light, dunno, but I sort of like her configuration: “And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.” (I love that word “discandied,” for one.)

  11. Dennis Aguinaldo (@dsaguinaldo)

    You’ve got me very interested in Anne Carson here. The last Antigone “re-do” that I embraced was Jean Anouilh’s. If I come across this Antigonick, I’ll take it . . . and run! Never looking back, never minding the police sirens!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Dennis: Go for it! I would love to know your thoughts on this (and vis-a-vis Bergvall’s Via, in comparison). And thanks for the reminder of Anouilh. I am going to see if I can get hold of it today (as compensation for having to return Filreis’s Stevens book to the library).

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