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Anne Carson
New Directions, 2012
180 pp., 70.37

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Sarah Ruden

Tragedy Privatized

Anne Carson's Antigonick.

Who's old enough to know this joke?

Q. Where does a five-hundred-pound gorilla sleep?
A. Anywhere he wants.

To me, Anne Carson is a literary gorilla—exotic, powerful, yet arousing a protective instinct in my homey breast. I say a genius writes anything she wants. Alas.

In Antigonick, Carson's new translation of Sophocles' Antigone, the brightness—I think that's really a fair term—of the original tragedy is erased. It is erased with all of Carson's verve and authority, but the result is still so distressing that I'm brought to a conundrum: If this is literature now, the most heightened version of our reality, then I prefer the fantasy of the Harry Potter books, for what it's worth, which is roughly nothing. But who cares what I prefer? The gorilla is fast asleep across my legs, but that's, well, just a fact on the ground.

Carson's publications—poems, translations, essays, all enriched by if not based on her expertise in Classical Greek—tend toward the exquisitely visual and tactile. Her Nox [Latin for "Night"], on the death of her brother, is a paper-accordion scrapbook in a cardboard library box of the kind that protects a fragile old book. I react to her books, to start with, with my senses. For Antigonick, that entails a comparison of the physical book with what I know about the outward experience of watching an Athenian tragedy.

The plays were part of national festivals open to all male—if not also female—citizens. The City Dionysia—the festival at which Antigone debuted, around 442 BC—also welcomed foreigners and showed off Athens' wealth and culture to them. Festival plays, three of them back to back in a single day, took place in large outdoor theaters, in natural light. Rich men produced the dramas as a special gift to the commonwealth, competing in the magnificence of costumes, music, dance, and of course the poetry that made up the texts. Tragedians with the status of Major League pitchers today composed the ...

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