Carson, Anne Entries

An Oresteia: Agamemnon, Elektra, Orestes


I intended to write about each of these plays individually, but the power of the famous stories and the language as rendered by Anne Carson's stunning translation job, meant that I devoured the whole volume in three sittings and never got the chance to sit down at my computer before the book was over. I've gushed about Carson's own work and her beautiful Sappho translation, and this alternate Oresteia lives up to all my high expectations of her offerings.

But first, a little background: the original Oresteia is a tri-play cycle—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—by ancient Greek playwright Aiskhylos (often transliterated Aeschylus), which chronicles the murderous fall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War. Carson's alternate play cycle tells the same basic story and begins with the same play, Aiskhylos's Agamemnon (c. 458 BCE), but then diverges, offering a progression through time: the second installment of the cycle is Sophokles's Electra (c. 401-9 BCE), and the third is Euripides's Orestes (c. 408 BCE). Thus the reader can sense the shifting attitudes toward the same myths over the course of fifty-odd to a hundred years, as Athenian society became less optimistic, darker, more corrupt. Carson writes that the idea for the alternative cycle was originally brought to her by Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company in New York City, who wrote:

In Aiskhylos' hands the story of the house of Atreus is designed to end in a valedictory celebration of Athenian democracy and its newborn sense of justice; when Sophokles takes over the tale it becomes more complex and contradictory; with Euripides the design is completely turned on its head. We follow a trajectory from myth to mockery. What happened to effect this? History happened. Aiskhylos composed his Oresteia shortly after Athens' victory at the battle of Marathon, which marked the height of Athenian military and cultural supremacy; Euripides finished his Orestes almost a hundred years later as Athens headed for ruin, due to her protracted involvement in the Peloponnesian War...The house of Atreus, for these tragedians, was a way of talking about the fate of Athens.

Kulick makes a fascinating case, but I was concerned that, as a relative novice in ancient Greek literature, I wouldn't be able to pick up on the progression he outlines here. I needn't have worried. The stylistic differences among the three plays are so pronounced that, despite Agamemnon's messy end and Orestes's ostensible resolution, the reader is left feeling much surer of herself and the universe after finishing Aiskhylos's inferno of a play, than after making one's way through Euripides's altogether more ironic, darker offering.

For those not familiar with the famous story being told, it goes thusly: after Paris abducts Helen, her husband Menelaos and his brother Agamemnon, king of Argos, gather their forces to sail to Troy and get her back, beginning the Trojan War. But the goddess Artemis refuses to send the desired wind until Agamemnon sacrifices his own child, continuing a long history of child murder in his family. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, earning the hatred of his wife (her mother) Klytaimestra, and the ships set sail. Fast forward ten years, and Klytaimestra receives word that Troy has fallen; she and her lover Aigisthos, both intent on revenge for their own reasons, murder the returned Agamemnon and his prophetess sex-slave Kassandra, planning to rule Argos themselves in Agamemnon's stead. These are the events of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

As I mentioned, despite the bloody murder that makes up the body of this play, Aiskylos's language as rendered into English by Carson is such a bonfire blast of virtuosity that I finished it feeling almost giddy. The sense of gut-clenching foreboding and inevitability is pitch-perfect. The malignant patrimony lurking in the House of Atreus is a force of nature, and all the stories anyone tries to tell—be they about the war, or an allegorical tale, or a supposedly happy homecoming—are infected by it. The Greek invaders at Troy "beached in blood"; the chorus claims of one man's pet lion "That thing was a priest of ruin Bred in the / house. Sent by god." When the Chorus tells the story of Paris and Helen, the image of a house cursed by a phantom resonates between Klytaimestra and Agamemnon:

Alas for the house! Alas for the house and the
men of the house!
Alas for the marriage bed and the way she loved
her husband once!

There is silence there: he sits alone,
dishonored, baffled, mute.
In his longing for what is gone across the
a phantom seems to rule his house.

The idea of infection, of seepage from one evil to another, is everywhere in Agamemnon. Klytaimestra, after she convinces Agamemnon to enter the house on a red carpet, against his wishes, gives this masterful speech suffused with rage and grief for the "roots and leaves" of her own family that will never return, a vision of a happy homecoming that is irrevocably perverted by Iphigenia's murder and the consequent murder Klytaimestra herself is planning; a vision of perfection that only infuriates by its distance from the truth.

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
        we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
        be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
        many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
        man's life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
and shade the house against white dogstar
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

There are so many amazing and exhilarating passages in Agamemnon that I could continue quoting them all day, but in brief: the predominant feelings are of white-hot fury and dread, and of conflicting, equally strong concepts of justice. Everyone in Agamemnon believes with absolute certainty that he or she knows what justice is, and the tragedy comes out of the clashes between these mutually exclusive justice concepts.

In Sophokles and especially Euripides, on the other hand, people struggle to decide what is just, or sometimes knowingly act in opposition to what is just. In a few cases, they even seem to stop caring about justice, or about the tragedy unfolding all around them. (In the second two plays of the cycle, Agamemnon and Klytaimestra's son Orestes returns from exile, and he and his sister Elektra murder their mother and her lover. The citizens of Argos then must decide what to do with the two siblings.) Elektra, for example, finds the title character arrested, unable to either marry out of her mother's household or avenge her father on her own, crippled by her never-ending grief, which she admits is excessive by any social definition. "There is no pity / but mine, / oh Father, / for the pity of your butchering rawblood death," she cries, and "Lament is a pattern cut and fitted around / my mind" Unlike her mother before her, she witnesses herself becoming the next tool of the curse of the house of Atreus, but cannot avert the coming disaster:

By dread things I am compelled. I know
I see the trap closing.
I know what I am.
But while life is in me
I will not stop this violence.

"Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself," Elektra says. At the end of Agamemnon Klytaimestra believes she has ended the cycle of violence; she attempts to call a truce with the lineage's curse. But Elektra has no such illusions; part of her grief trap is that she recognizes she has been shaped to evil by the evil around her. The fact that Klytaimestra may deserve to die for the deeds she has committed, doesn't absolve Elektra and Orestes from their own guilt; there seems no escape from the cycle. But because the house's cycle of violence has become part of Elektra herself, to break it would be to go against her own selfhood; "I need one food," she says: "I must not violate Elektra." And to Klytaimestra:

Shame I do feel.
And I know there is something all wrong
        about me—
believe me. Sometimes I shock myself.
But there is a reason: you.
You never let up
this one same pressure of hatred on my life:
I am the shape you made me.

Elektra's tragedy is that of someone who has been made into the wrong shape, but who cannot now act against her nature.

From Aiskhylos's cleansing fire and Sophokles's self-regenerating corruption, Euripedes's vision seems almost farcical in its irony. Instead of an Elektra wracked by grief, her opening monologue in Orestes seems almost bored:

It's a known fact,
when the gods asked him to dinner he shot
        off his mouth.
So Tantalos begot Pelops, Pelops begot
you know all this don't you? the strife, the

We've heard it all before, she seems to say, and here we go again. Whereas Sophokles's Elektra is often sickened or horrified by the ways in which her evil situation has shaped her to itself, Euripides's Elektra is either too broken or too cynical to continue surprised at her family's bloodbath. Elektra and Orestes's tragedy in this last play seems, not so much that they have been sentenced to death for their mother's murder, but that the world in which they live is devoid of any overarching meaning or justice. Even the deus ex machina that saves them in the end seems ridiculous and almost random, much like the further murders they're attempting when Apollo arrives to sort them out, or the messenger's report on the democratic meeting called by the citizens of Argos to decide the siblings' fate. It's a far cry from the savage yet conflicting visions of justice held by the cast of Aiskhylos's Agamemnon.

There's far more in these three plays than I can do justice in a single blog entry, but suffice to say I fell utterly in love with the entire cycle, and can't wait to look into Carson's other Euripides translations, published in Grief Lessons. A note on her translation: as you can tell from the many excerpts above, it has a very modern feel, yet (I think) also gives the impression of agelessness. I've heard a few criticisms of places where people feel the language gets too modern, but I found it absolutely galvanizing; I could read Anne Carson's Aiskhylos all month and never wish myself elsewhere. That said, I believe in the usefulness of having multiple translations, especially of works as influential as these plays. If you love the excerpts above, you will love the whole book. If you prefer a different, more Victorian or Modernist feel, you have many translations to choose from. Personally, I only regret that Carson has not yet translated the rest of Aiskhylos's original Oresteia, as I would love to compare and contrast with this alternate version.


An Oresteia was my fourth book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.



Some straightforward observations about Anne Carson's elegy Nox: it comes in a large box, like a rectangular room. Inside the box is a free-floating accordion-style book, which though beautiful is difficult to hold comfortably in the hand; it bends and twists as one turns the pages. The book (the room) opens with an elegy by Catullus for his dead brother, in the original Latin, whose physical appearance is smudged and water-stained, and whose import is, of course, obscure to non-Latin-speaking readers. This entry-way then opens out in at least two directions: for the rest of the book, the left-hand pages contain lexicographical entries enumerating the shades of each word from the Catullus poem; while the right-hand pages gingerly prod the story of Carson's own brother—his haunted life and his sudden death. The non-Latin-speaking reader, attempting to allow the lexical entries to gradually elucidate Catullus's poem, performs a kind of reading gymnastics, holding the accordion-folded book open at the page she has reached, using one finger to mark the location of the Latin verse for easy reference, and balancing the whole outer box in either her palms or her lap.

I was drawn by the presentation of Nox, but I didn't realize at first how integral it is to the experience of meaning in the poem. Carson, like the reader, is handling an unwieldy object as she explores her brother's life and death: one she doesn't know quite how to approach, or hold together; one that threatens to slide out of her hands or unravel like the accordion-folded pages of Nox; one whose shadings and repercussions are difficult to tease out, reflecting one one another unexpectedly like a hall of mirrors. The necessity of supporting an unfamiliar shape makes one feel the full weight of the object in one's hands—this box or book, or the reality of a loved one's death. She writes, of the Catullus poem that begins and permeates her own work,

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. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

Carson's poem, like her concept of translation and grief, is three-dimensional in content as well as form. The parallel threads of lexicographical entries and personal passages (interspersed with reproductions of personal mementos—actual letters, photographs, letterhead) play off each other in an almost endlessly resonant way. I was surprised to find myself especially intrigued by the dictionary entries, suggesting as they do the wealth of connotative possibility lying just beneath the skin of language, and also how little of language lies in the words themselves. Supplied only with each word's definition, in the absence of a grammar relating them to one another, any understanding of Catullus's poem 101 remained frustratingly elusive. Take Carson's definition of the word vectus, which occurs in Catullus's opening line "Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus":


veho vehere vexi vectum

[cf. Skt vahati, Gk δχος, OHG wagan,
Eng wain] to convey from one place to
another by bodily effort, to carry (a
rider), to convey (of vehicles, ships,
etc.), to carry (of draught animals); (of
things, with diminished idea of motion)
to sustain a load; to cause to be
transported, bring; (of wind, water, etc.)
to carry along, bear along; in pericula
: driven into danger; (of time) to
carry with it, bring; to cause to extend
or stretch from one point to another; to
travel by some or other conveyance; to
travel by sea, sail; to ride, drive;
(poetical) to be carried on wings, fly;
vecta spolia: borne in triumph; per
noctem in nihilo vehi
: to vanish by
night into nothing; quod fugiens semel
hora vexit
: what the transient hour
brought once and only once.

Several things. The first, which struck me over and over with these entries, is that they are lovely. This reads as a poem in its own right, from the surface elements (bolded title at the top and narrow, verse-like formatting one the page), to its introduction and development of a theme, to the way it takes that theme to another level through juxtaposition of unexpected images and metaphors. The examples of usage, of course, speak to Carson's larger themes: "driven into danger"; "what the transient hour brought only once"; "to vanish by night into nothing"—all of these fragments swim into the realm of loss and death. Remarkably, the word "nox" (and also noctis, nocte, noctum, meaning "night"), never actually appears in poem 101, but is mentioned over and over in the definitions of the words Catullus does use: in the entry on multas we get "multa nox: late in the night, perhaps too late"; the entry on aequora gives us "inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus?: have we made it across the vast plain of night?"; and even an innocent conjunction like et (and) gives us "(et nocte): (you know it was night)." Gradually, then, "nox" becomes a kind of ghostly presence, suffusing the whole of poem 101 despite never being seen itself. Similarly, the narrator of Nox feels she never understood or even really saw her brother, but cannot escape the reality of his now-permanent absence.

These definitions also emphasize how many different shades of meaning a single word can have, and the difficulty in choosing a path on which to approach a piece of writing. If every one of the fifty-plus words in poem 101 has as many different senses as vectus, how is one to arrive at a single, "definitive" translation, or even a sense of the poem's meaning that will fit inside one's head? Is the word, in this instance, being used in a manner that contains its connotation of bodily effort, or in its poetic sense of being carried along by wings? Is it closer to connoting bearing a load, or being "driven into danger" oneself? Are we sailing, or driving? Is something being carried from one place to another, or caused to extend between the two points? All of these meanings inhere within the word itself; add to that the absence of a grammar specifying how these word-islands are linked together, and Carson's metaphorical room of meaning is dark indeed. Similarly island-like are the scraps of connection she manages to salvage from a lifetime of scant contact with her brother: the single letter he sent from Copenhagen; the two phone calls in five years; the body language of old photographs. How does it all connect? What is the grammar linking these disparate definitions and scattershot senses into a coherent picture?

Perhaps more germaine: if we can't fit it into a coherent picture, how do we make peace with the dead?

Mother is dead.
Yes I guess she is.
She had a lot of pain because of you.
Yes I guess she did.
Why didn't you write.
Well it was hard for me.
Are you sick.
Do you work.
Are you happy.
No. Oh no.

Nox is truly a beautiful, affecting piece, and I feel I've only started exploring its dark reaches.

A final note: I would be very interested to hear how a reader who knows or has studied Latin would interact with Carson's elegy, since so much of my own reading experience hinged on trying to make sense of an unknown yet oddly familiar language, and relating that to the speaker's attempts to make sense of death, which is also unknown yet familiar. I imagine, though, that even in the case of a poem in one's native language, the overwhelming number of interpretive possibilities represented by word-combinations would still hold true, as would Carson's own journey throughout these pages.


Nox is my second book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.

Library Day: If Not, Winter


There is something about the partial, the fragmented artwork, that gets me every time. Walking around the National Gallery in London, it was often the sketches, the preperatory and halfway chalked-in pieces that grabbed me, with their bare suggestiveness and uneven illusion. The places where the smooth edge gives way to the rough, where the immaculately shaded line gives way to the hasty implication of form, draws my eye without fail. I love works of art that require the viewer's own mind or imagination to bring them to "completion," to fill out the shapes and fill in the blanks. So it's not surprising that what is possibly my favorite book of poetry is also fragmentary: Anne Carson's translations of Sappho, entitled If Not, Winter.

I think my love for this book is due in equal measure to the stunningly beautiful translation of the parts of the poems that remain, and the spaces of silence where the papyrus has failed. In longer poems, those spaces function as beats of pure rhythm that our minds can fill with meaning or, if they choose, experience solely as pools of quiet. My favorite long poem is an awesome example of this:

I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me

with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.

And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want
to remind you.
                  ]and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets
and roses
            ]at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing

and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [ ] no dance
                ]no sound

To me, this poem would not be nearly so heart-wrenchingly beautiful if it weren't for the spaces of quiet that the poem travels into toward its end. It mirrors so wonderfully the process of comforting a weeping person, which at first is full of talking and crying, much movement of hands and words, and then gradually settles into a quieter, less verbal state. The repetition in the last, fragmentary stanza ("no grove / no dance / no sound"), with the spaces of quiet rhythm between the phrases, is like the touch of a soft hand stroking the back of a person whose weeping has trailed off into silence - or maybe a few brave hiccups. And its effectiveness gains even more from the implication that this isn't the end of the poem: that last bracket implies a continuation of the remembering, of the comforting, but it has been rendered without words by time. It seems to me that most acts of comforting share this quality: the slow meandering into quiet and physical, rather than verbal, communication, and the lack of a stark end-point. That last bracket, where the act of comforting continues, seems to me to mark an indefinite continuation, the analog of sitting quietly with someone for a space of time before one of you suggests taking a walk, or getting a cup of tea, or looks at your watch and says gently that you really should be going.

The shorter fragments have their own special beauty. The fact that they are fragments somehow lends a freedom to them, or me as I read them, so that they can exist as gorgeous pin-points of language, without any expectation of a more "complete" message. Paradoxically, this sometimes allows an image or message to come across with a clarity that probably would have been impossible if I'd been reading a non-fragentary text.

And I on a soft pillow
   will lay down my limbs.

Or this one:

      ]of desire
      ]for when I look at you
      ]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
      ]dewy riverbanks
      ]to last all night long
            ] [

Racy! I love the singular image, alone on a page:

"gathering flowers so very delicate a girl"

Some of the pieces don't even feel fragmentary, just very succinct, like this one:

with anger spreading in the chest
to guard against a vainly barking tongue

I could copy out this entire book with unmitigated glee. I treasure up phrases from it like balms to heal any wound. If Not, Winter is more dog-eared and sticky-note-marked than any other book of poetry I own; perhaps more so than ANY other book I own except my trusty Norton Anthologies of English Literature. Something in my perpetual lust for Sappho via Carson is intangible and difficult to explain, but, like Jesse "that damned lesbian" Helms, I know it when I see it. And, presumably unlike former Senator Helms, I keep coming back for more.

"Into desire shall I come."

"Open out the grace of your eyes."

"you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out."

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography