Poetry book review: The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight with drawings by Terrence Tasker

It would be an understatement to say that the story behind the publication of The Antigone Poems is unusual. Created at intermittent times during the 1970s, betwixt the cities of Montreal and Toronto, this dark volume is a collaborative effort between poet Marie Slaight and her friend, artist Terrence Tasker.

Forty years later, and long after the death of Tasker in 1992, Slaight has published The Antigone Poems as her first collection, standing as a tribute to the hitherto unknown Tasker. The collection is published by Altaire Productions and Publications, a company based in Sydney, founded by Slaight herself.

Separated into five chapters, speckled sporadically with Tasker’s bleak charcoals, The Antigone Poems loosely recounts the Greek myth of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, and the child born out of incest with his mother, Jocasta. Over the years, Antigone has been depicted in many fashions, but always, ultimately, suffers as a rebel within her family, defying her parents’ wishes.

Thus, the poetry emerges as deeply disturbed, vicious, and dark, with few moments of respite. It reads like walking through a dark forest searching for food, and I began to find sustenance in the brief flashes of beauty Slaight allows. One phrase stood out like a rose amongst thorns: ‘the potency is shattering/only the night/holds jasmine’.

What I found especially poignant was the reflection of the stark tone of the poems within the empty choice of layout. A single stanza, a fleeting glimpse of a thought hangs suspended in the middle of a vast blank double page, which leaves every second page totally bare. This adds to a sense of anxious isolation, mirrored in the phrasing: ‘loneliness/gut in an ache/no joy/no pain/only the blackened thrust’.

Holistically, however, this despairing imagery hints at not only the suffering of Antigone, but the universal suffering of all women, indicated in what might be the collection’s strongest moment, its final page, where Slaight expresses: ‘I wanted everything/to live all lives, all deaths, encompass all women/to smash every confine’.

Even the beauty of the book itself, in its physical form, seems to defy the blackness of the poetry. Elegantly bound and satisfyingly heavy despite its small size, The Antigone Poems seemed to bore a hole in my bag while I carried it around, like a fireball, or a deep memory.

It seems serendipitous that a decades-old, Canadian, and relatively obscure volume has made its way to be published in Sydney, and this, along with the crisply chosen, haunting words and frankly terrifying charcoals, adds to the vast appeal of The Antigone Poems.

Louise Jaques is an emerging poet and her piece, ‘Synaesthesia’, was recently published in the 28th UTS Writers’ Anthology, ‘Sight Lines’.

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