One challenge any artist faces when taking on existing material is to balance what the public knows about a subject or character against the new story the artist wishes to tell. Stray too far from the original and you lose the power that your subject already possesses; stick too slavishly to the original and you won’t give the public any reason to experience your art.
Antigone’s story has been ripe for adaptation almost since it first appeared. The most popular version of her story came from Sophocles, but Euripedes also penned one (in which Antigone both survives and marries, thanks to some interference from Dionysius). It’s been turned into operas and plays multiple times–Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes is an extraordinary version of the story, as is Anne Carson’s remarkable Antigonick–and here, a collection of poems titled The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight.
So what does Slaight bring to Antigone’s story? It’s worth noting that her collection is actually a collaboration with the visual artist Terrence Tasker (who died in 1992), and the images are striking–dark and muddy, like the original story. They’re not simply illustration—they let the reader know from the cover that we won’t be straying too far from the brutality that fills the Antigone story.
The poems are earthy as well, like Lacryma Christi, the wine made from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. You can taste the ash, the death brought on from previous eruptions
Like scattered dynamite
Gypsy shackle sacred
Wrists bound in blood
Most of the poems in this collection are short, enigmatic pieces which seek to convey emotion rather than narrative structure. Indeed, if not for the title, it would be difficult to locate these poems inside the Antigone story. And yet Slaight does give us a sense of anguish that her Antigone experienced while facing Creon’s decree to leave her brother unburied and unhonored.
It’s in Book IV where the traditional Antigone seems to come through most, the Antigone who is facing exile at least, death at worst, for disobeying the orders of her king.
And are we corpses clutching?
(The gnawed bone,
the splintered throat.)
Find my earth.
Reclaim my desire.
Book V does a good job of placing us in the walled up tomb with Antigone just before she hangs herself. Her Antigone is first philosophical:
And is the enslavement an ode to a greater liberation
Or is it a dead rat in my hand?
and then resigned:
I can’t face the dirt
Without this dream of barbaric
Lust and grandeur…
And thus does Antigone die. Or does she? Slaight is silent on this point—the tale ends the only way it can, in darkness, leaving the reader to work it out for themselves just what has happened in this tragedy.
It’s been said there are only a handful of stories, and they’ve already been written. The story of Antigone is timeless not for when it was written but because it is still relevant. Which is part of why this collection works so well. This is still the human condition even presented anew or used as a vessel for Slaight’s beautiful verse. With The Antigone Poems, Marie Slaight adds a new and original spin to the bounty of lore surrounding this most intriguing character.