Walking Backward Into Myth: H of H Playbook and Anne Carson’s Other Visual Translations
by Heather Green
“. . . say for example translate only one component of a poem, translate only one syntax, translate the syntax in its entirety, say translate the entire sonic landscape of the poem, say translate the spirit, the kinetics, the ghost that haunts it, say leave behind, leave out, alter the sense, say no they would never do that, would I do that, say I would do that, say do that to me, do that to me.”
—Sawako Nakayasu, Say Translation Is Art
In her writing studio, Anne Carson has multiple desks: one for writing, one for translating, one for drawing. As I read her new facsimile artist book, H of H Playbook, an innovative translation of Euripides’ Herakles, which includes Carson’s own drawings, it occurred to me that she would have used every desk in making this book. Or more likely, she made this work while away from home, using another workspace, as she has recently been in Iceland, working on a stage adaptation of her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, a book that’s also a mix of translation and adaptation, intertextuality and invention.
I also wondered what I could learn about the possibilities of translation by considering H of H Playbook and some of the other works Carson has created by combining the roles of author, translator, scholar, and artist. Each of these books—H of H Playbook, The Trojan Women, Nox, and Antigonick—is a translation across time, each one a new and singular work, a textual performance with an extra-linguistic visual element, each created in collaboration with an ancient Greek or Latin author, and, in some cases, with a living artist, too. These texts trouble the notion of “originality” and even the literary category of “translation.”
Anne Carson hardly needs an introduction—Classicist, poet, translator, playwright, artist, scholar, librettist—she, somewhat famously, “was born in Canada and teaches Ancient Greek for a living.” She began to blow minds in the literary world with Eros the Bittersweet, an academic study of language and desire, drawing in part on Sappho’s poetry, and then consolidated her place in almost every poet’s heart with her luminous collection of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter and her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, which is inspired by a translation of Stesischorus’ fragments about a mythical monster named Geryon (a figure who also appears in H of H). Though Carson has written works of poetry and essay, as well as hybrid works, less explicitly related to her work as a Classicist or translator, I’ll focus here on texts in which these various aspects of her work converge with visual art and, in some cases, the form of the artist book.
GRIEF LESSONS: HERAKLES
In 2006, Carson published a “straight” translation of Herakles, a play first performed in 416 BCE, in a collection titled Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (NYRB Classics). Carson’s enlightening preface, “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form,” begins with the oft-quoted maxim: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” The Euripides play begins with Herakles offstage; he has gone off to perform his labors and hasn’t yet returned to his family. His family—including his “human father” Amphitryon (who was somehow inhabited by Zeus, his other “father” during Herakles’ conception), his wife Megara, and his three children—is in Thebes, awaiting death at the hands of Lykos, the usurper of Herakles’ house. The chorus sings Herakles’ praises, recounting the glories of his labors. Herakles returns in the nick of time and rescues the family, slaying Lykos. Hot on the heels of this violent rescue, Iris appears, at Hera’s behest, with “Madness” (also known as Lyssa), and, through some horrible process of inception, causes Herakles to go mad and kill his family. Notably, in Euripides’ play, and in both of Carson’s versions of it, Herakles performs his labors before slaying his family, rather than, in the more common version of the myth, in penance for that act (Kovacs 304). Afterward, once he realizes what he’s done, Herakles is lost in grief, contemplating suicide, but his friend Theseus (whom Herakles has recently rescued from the underworld) appears and convinces him to carry on, after which they depart for Athens.
H OF H PLAYBOOK
The H of H Playbook is a small, rectangular book. On the black cover, above the title, is printed a small round image, which looks like a torn circle of paper pasted on the cover, a portal into the action. Above the portal, it says simply “Anne Carson.” The Library of Congress page, as well as the front matter in the book, lists Euripides as author, with Carson as “translator.” When I popped the ISBN into a citation generator, both Euripides and Anne Carson were listed as authors. In this moment, when the campaign to normalize the inclusion of translators’ names on book covers is gaining traction, this move, crediting Carson alone on the cover, and the complex attribution of authorship related to this book, is noteworthy. It also signals the degree to which Carson has reinvented the text. In Carson’s prior visual adaptation of a Euripides play, The Trojan Women: A Comic (New Directions, 2021), Euripides’ name appears above the title, and the attributions “by Rosanna Bruno” and “text by Anne Carson” sit near the bottom of the cover, signifiers that represent the nuanced layers of translation, creation, and co-creation.
The title, H of H Playbook, signals the drastic departure from the translation of Herakles included in Grief Lessons. H of H is a “playbook,” in several senses. It’s a book containing a script for a possible performance of a play, and it does include, like Carson’s first version, stage directions and character cues, though some speeches are designated, anachronistically, as “voiceovers” and the characters are indicated mostly using their initials, with Herakles designated as “H of H” throughout.
It’s also a “play in a book,” complete with color images that almost move, an intimate performance staged for one, in the form of a high-quality, color reproduction of a hand-made book. Perusing H of H, it appears the “original” book was about the size of a reporter’s notebook, turned to “landscape,” and had ecru-colored pages, upon which blocks of typed text, cut from white paper, were pasted. Many of the pages contain drawings and/or paintings—most also pasted in—some abstract, some figurative, and a few gestural images somewhere in between. The endpapers feature maps of Greece, with Thebes circled in red at the front of the book and Athens at the back, indicating Herakles’ move from Thebes to Athens at the end of the play. In both cases, the red marks appear to bleed through to the facing page. The pages are not numbered, and several are torn in half or so, both leading into the text and leading out at the end, possibly indicating the rising and falling of the curtain.
Finally, it is a playbook, in the sense of a manual used by a football coach, instructions on possible strategies for victory or domination. H of H describes and problematizes stereotypes of heroic strength and the demands of hyper-masculinity on Herakles—and, as a “playbook” presents itself as a darkly ironic guide to Herakles’ big moves.
If we’re satisfied with the double- or triple-entendre of “playbook,” we still must ask: what does “H of H” mean here? Carson asks the reader to pause, to fill in the blanks, perhaps to “translate” the title for oneself. I asked my kids, both passionate about Greek mythology, and they suggested “Herakles of Hera,” referencing Herakles’ fateful bond to jealous Hera, from whom his own name is taken. Because conceptions of heroism, and the problem of the hero, are crucial to Euripides’ play and Carson’s adaptation, I also read the title as “heroism of Herakles,” thinking about this passage, early on, when H of H talks about the reason for his “youthful delinquency”:
why? Because the universe was weak and I was strong. That was the whole story, that was the thrill of it. And my delinquency didn’t end until the day I realized how much greater a thrill could be got from saving the world than from ruining it. Really it was just a deeper deviltry.
Following the conversion to a “true” heroism, H of H realized: “I could defy the universe and switch the focus onto me. Me as hero. The adrenaline was unbelievable.” The page that follows contains a curious rendering of a glacier, a dark blue shape, tinged with white and red, on a light blue base, and the text: “And as if a glacier had glided into the room, there was my Heroism.”
I’ll hazard one more interpretation of the name: In a chilling connection to contemporary English usage, “H of H” is short for “Head of Household.” This interpretation highlights the weight of the expectations placed on Herakles as head of the family, in contrast to his other role as the hero, or Hero. The expectations are similar in that he has to save the day, often through an act of violence, and different in that, in the absence of a rescue situation, he must find a way to “put away the violence” and live without the aforementioned adrenaline rush of heroism when he’s at home. Just after H of H kills Lykos, in a “voiceover” by Megara, a speech that doesn’t appear to have a counterpart in Euripides’ play, Megara addresses the tension that arises when H of H’s hero role overlaps with family life:
Okay baby, he says. He stands, it’s like a glacier came into the room. A glacier is silence, until it snaps and crashes into the sea. I knew you’d save us, I say. . . After an event like a killing he always needs to go to sleep, then he’ll wake up feeling that cold clear thing he hates and it will be strange for a while and then we’ll see. We’ll see.
In the page containing the image of the glacier, written and drawn images echo one another. Both evoke the “Heroism” as a huge, cold mass in motion. Lynda Barry, author and comic artist, has spent a great deal of her career, as a teacher and a writer, reckoning with the notion of the “image,” how we communicate through images, how we dream and remember via images, and how we might somehow transcend the rational through written or drawn or painted images. In her book What It Is, in particular, Barry asks what it is that gets translated in a text, what essence do we suppose exists or, put another way, “What or where is a story before it becomes words?” (Barry 44).
Carson’s different iterations of Euripides’ Herakles evoke these same questions. In H of H Playbook, the images constructed through language in Carson’s poignant and surprising text are at times complemented by the illustrations, as in the case of the glacier above, and other times emotionally charged by them, as in the case of the image of “Iris & Madness” below. Cold and hot moments are signaled with blue and red, respectively. The bodies on the line are drawn in a shaky hand, and the chaos swirls on the page in the peak action. Taken more broadly, the arc of Carson’s career, moving from strictly textual and often scholarly books toward more visual and performance works, demonstrates one way of reckoning with Barry’s question of how to express what is essential, how to bring image and myth to life in a way that’s both thought-provoking and vital, in a way that connects to our shared humanity.
OTHER CARSON TRANSLATIONS INTO VISUAL TEXTS:
ANTIGONICK, THE TROJAN WOMEN, AND NOX
Before we get deeper into the discussion of H of H, let’s pause to look at Carson’s earlier translations published in book form with images. In 2012, Carson published an innovative translation of Sophokles’ Antigone—this innovation signaled by the title, Antigonick (New Directions)—in an edition, designed by Carson’s partner Robert Currie, in which the text is handwritten by Carson and accompanied by images by poet and artist Bianca Stone. These color images, many of which overlay the text on transparent pages, illustrate the mood and tone of the text more than the specific objects in the scenes. Repeated images of spools of thread, strange domestic interiors with power cords, cold landscapes with little boats, and vivid horses, create a dreamlike tangle of convergences and divergences from the text. Stone’s images resonate with the imagined temporal space of the play, as Antigonick references Hegel and Virginia Woolf while telling a new version of Antigone.
Earlier this year, Carson published, in collaboration with artist Rosanna Bruno, the aforementioned The Trojan Women: A Comic. In this graphic work, the translation of the Euripides play feels more in line with the “straight” translations in Grief Lessons than with H of H (though The Trojan Women is not included in Grief Lessons), with its many references to texts and events from the present day, but Bruno has added layers of wonder, interpretation, and thought-provoking anachronism in the images. Whereas Antigonick’s illustrations functioned like a hallucinatory vision of a radically translated text, The Trojan Women feels like a performance of the play itself. This is not to say that this text could not be performed, but that the visual elements are quite integrated into the text, with the drawn figures “speaking” the text, the scenes “staged” in the page layouts and panels, lit with the contrast between light and dark on the pages, and “performed,” with emotion, by the gestures and expressions of the dogs and other characters on the pages.
Most of the titular Trojan women and the chorus are portrayed as animals, indicating their “subhuman” status in the play, and the Greek army are “even less” human “ontologically and spiritually than animals,” so they are portrayed as “stuff and tools.” These images are built into the text by Carson and realized in the comic by Bruno. Helen of Troy is portrayed as a fox; the goddess Athene is depicted as an empty pair of overalls with an owl mask; Kassandra as the one human woman; Menelaos as a gearbox, and Andramache, shown below, is portrayed as “a poplar tree with trunk split and roots dragging out the back of the cart.” Because this text is portrayed in comic form, speech bubbles are employed rather than dialogue tags, and at times it’s difficult to discern which line is attributed to which interlocutor, forcing the reader into a closer consideration of the moment (Who speaks? Does it matter?). The images create many moments of bizarre pathos, where the comic or absurd intersects with the tragic, like the moment depicted here, when Hekabe, in dog form, discovers, via the report of a broken poplar tree, that her daughter has been murdered on Achilles’ grave, “as an offering” (39). The image shows Bruno’s “spotlighting,” with a light circle on the page, of Hekabe, a formerly imperious figure, now almost always lying down. It also includes a signature move of Carson’s, the Greek cry, often translated as “Alas,” left in Greek, because, as Carson says, it is “untranslatable but not meaningless.”
In 2010, prior to the publication of Antigonick and The Trojan Women, Carson released Nox (New Directions). Although Nox is built on the translation of a Latin poem, rather than a Greek play, as a facsimile copy of an artist book, it is in some ways the closest precedent for H of H Playbook in Carson’s oeuvre. Nox is a boxed edition of an accordion-folded book hand-made by Anne Carson, who was “assisted in the design and realization” by Robert Currie. The book, an elegy to Carson’s brother, reckons with his loss through the translation of Catullus’ Carmen 101, an elegy to Catullus’ brother who was lost in “the Troad,” or the part of Asia Minor around Troy. Carson lingers on each lexical item in the Catullus poem, thinking, and inviting us to think, through each preposition and noun, interspersing this meditation with recollections of her brother, his letters, artifacts of his life. The artist book form, as it does in H of H, gives the reader the feeling of peeking into a private, handmade object; in the case of Nox, one full of personal treasures, old photos and letters collaged into the pages. At its core, like H of H Playbook, Nox is at once a translation, a collaged book, and an exploration of grief.
Carson uses Catullus’ poem, and her translation of it, as a kind of crystalline structure, each word representing a juncture, while her own thoughts, etymological explorations, and images fill the space between. The poem is expanded, exploded, and filled with images and feeling. In a sense, we have the experience of reading Catullus 101 with her, or even through her eyes, a whorl of knowledge, memory, and loss imparted to us through the artwork and the text.
Shortly after Nox came out, and once I’d spent considerable time with it, I found myself in grief on a catamaran in the Pacific Ocean with a small group of family and friends. In the silence before we scattered my father’s ashes into the sea, my uncle pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and read from it a handwritten poem, a different English version of Catullus 101. Knowing what I then knew about the ancient lexicon of grief buried in that poem, I was startled by my recognition of the phrases, and, grateful to my uncle for reading this poem to his brother, I listened as I said one of many goodbyes.
THE TWOMBLY CONNECTION
When I first paged through Anne Carson’s drawings in the H of H Playbook, Cy Twombly’s mark-making immediately came to mind. Twombly is well-known as a painter who often incorporated poetry—lines of poems, sometimes partially effaced, or even the names of poets—and often poetry from ancient Greece and Rome, into his work. Twombly, like Carson, worked with translations and with visual images, though from a different angle. In Joshua Rivkin’s Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018), Rivkin writes: “He was an artist, as one poet put it, ‘of inverse ekphrasis: literature turned to a painting.’” Rivkin goes on to quote Twombly: “I like something to jumpstart me—usually a place or literary reference or event that took place. . . To give me a clarity of energy” (289). This resonates with Kate Briggs’ idea, from This Little Art, of translation as a “responsive and appropriative work” created on “the basis of the desired work whose energy source is the inclusion of a new and different vitality that comes from me” (119). The lines of poetry painted into Twombly’s canvases or used as titles seem crucially connected to the generative spark and the central mystery of the painting itself.
Catullus 101, its “farewell” and mourning, was important to Cy Twombly, too. Rivkin argues that the title for Twombly’s monumental painting, Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) is a conflation of a line from Catullus 46, a line sometimes translated as “Say goodbye, Catullus, to the plains of Asia Minor,” with Twombly’s own memory of Catullus 101, linked by their references to “the Troad,” the area around Troy, and “Asia Minor,” which includes that same area (284). Carson makes a similar argument in her own essay, “The Sheer Velocity and Ephemerality of Cy Twombly,” which includes her own fairly free translation of the line from Catullus 46: “I tell you, Catullus, leave Troy, leave the ground burning, they did.”
In Carson’s essay, she notes similarities between Twombly and Catullus: “Erudite allusion mixed with earthy expression features in the work of both,” and later, “To mingle together exposure and erasure, Eros and Thanatos, is a philosophic instinct and an artistic method that Twombly and Catullus share.” I would posit that all of the elements Carson here attributes to Twombly and Catullus apply to her work, broadly speaking, and, in particular, to her work in H of H. Whereas Catullus translated Greek poets, sometimes with radical interventions, Twombly, in his paintings, often conflated lines from different poets from various eras, languages, and traditions into one painting or one group of works. Carson, in H of H, with Euripides’ story as her canvas, makes palimpsestic references to texts as disparate as Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and a collection of grief memoirs from Chernobyl.
Near the end of H of H, when Iris appears with “Madness” to corrupt the mind of H of H, “Madness” does not, as in the Grief Lessons translation, plead with Iris to reconsider, but instead, in H of H, is fully conflated with Iris, identified with a single, evocative character tag “Iris & Madness,” portrayed as a chaotic swirl of color. This image itself evokes the swirl of violence suggested in a Twombly work engaged with a different myth, his Leda and the Swan.
In Chalk, Rivkin describes the experience of viewing Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor), the way one has to walk along the almost fifty feet of length, and, to take it in, “one chooses either intimacy and detail or scale and sweep” (281). This painting is, like a book, impossible to take in all at once. And, in a reversal of Twombly’s practice of punctuating his paintings with literary lines, Carson is punctuating her literary lines with painting and drawing. However, there is a key difference between an artist book and a painting, especially an enormous painting. Because H of H is a book, a personal object, one in this case made in a relatively affordable edition that can be experienced at home or in a library or even on the bus, intimacy of experience and perception of detail are built in. The pages require a tactile interaction and in H of H the line, that fundamental unit of drama, of poetry, and of drawing, veers from stable to unstable, from fragile to wild, from black to yellow to red, from a long, introspective story to a cry of grief.
“I GET DIZZY WHEN I TALK ABOUT GERYON.”
The play between “exposure and erasure” is present, in part, in the choices Carson makes as she pares the narrative of the play to its brutal emotional core. For example, the recounting of Herakles’ labors, which, in Euripides, is done by the chorus, is told here as a first-person account by H of H, which skips over some of the labors and dilates the telling of others, like Herakles’ encounter with Geryon.
As one of many readers who was profoundly moved by Autobiography of Red, I thrilled at the sight of Geryon’s name, and at the red drawings all over the pages that surrounded this part of H of H. Although Autobiography of Red and its sequel Red Doc> are inspired by a text by Stesichorus, the H of H and Geryon here seem like a double-exposed image, to be at once different characters and also the same as the Herakles and Geryon from the earlier books. Carson allows this Herakles, or H of H, to drift, quite poignantly, between the different tellings of his own tale. After killing Geryon, he says: “Brief pause. I’m walking backward into my own myth. I was trying to walk out.”
Carson has created, inside the larger contexts of Classical literature and contemporary literature, a unique context for her own translations, play, and experimentation, one in which readers can make connections among her essays, poetry, images, and translations and, occasionally, characters can wander between the worlds of her various texts.
H OF H: AN ELECTRIC COVER
If Nox expanded, like a balloon about to burst, an 11-line poem into a 192-page book, H of H moves the other way, distilling a play down to potent and poetic devastation, as if Carson followed the almost erotic imperative, in the epigraph above, written by Sawako Nakayasu in Say Translation Is Art: “translate the spirit, the kinetics, the ghost that haunts it, say leave behind, leave out, alter the sense, say no they would never do that, would I do that, say I would do that, say do that to me.”
“H of H”—harbinger of hurt, horror of hubris, heavy of heart—saves his abject family; then he slays them. Twombly’s images may contain an alarming velocity, but Euripides knew the pure speed of reversals of fortune. Carson, here, frequently presents dense blocks of text and figurative drawings in the early part of the book, slowing the reader’s pace, but the text moves quickly as the situation breaks down: more blank pages, fewer recognizable figures.
In Peter Gizzi’s introduction to Jack Spicer’s After Lorca—a book in which Spicer presents Lorca translations and adaptations, some apocryphal, and imagined correspondence with a then-deceased Lorca—Gizzi writes:
Spicer reminds us that poetry is an ancient medium meant to return the dead to the world of light and speech. . . He’s covering Lorca, not quite in the way a rock band covers a tune but in the way a bandage covers a fatal wound. . . Lorca may have been murdered, but he’s alive in this book and now too is Spicer. . . Its power can seize the invisible and give it purchase in this world.
We could say of Carson’s inventive translations and iterations of Euripides: he may be long dead, but he’s alive here, and so too, vividly, is Carson. She has worked with Euripides’ text, with the contemporary context, with wit and humor and intertextual tendrils, with “the line” in many of its forms, with rhyme and wordplay, with drawing and space in the margins, to “seize the invisible and give it purchase.” Perhaps in this case, the translation works both like a musical cover—perhaps Carson playing Euripides’ ancient songs on an electric guitar with an array of distortion pedals—and also like a “bandage” barely covering a deep human wound, her drawings and her proclivity for the color red letting some of the blood show through.
 Anne Carson and Robert Currie in Conversation With Sara Elkamel & NYU Undergrads — On Starting in the Middle (Washington Square Review)
 Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno: Trojan Women Book Launch (Bloodaxe Books)
Works Referenced and Cited
Barry, Lynda. What It Is. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008.
Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.
Carson, Anne. H of H Playbook. New Directions, 2021.
Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Knopf, 1998.
Carson, Anne. Nox. New Directions, 2010.
Euripides. Grief Lessons. Translated by Anne Carson. NYRB Classics, 2008.
Euripides and Anne Carson. The Trojan Women: A Comic. Illustrated by Rosanna Bruno. New Directions, 2021.
Gizzi, Peter, Introduction. After Lorca by Jack Spicer. NYRB Classics, 2021.
Kovaks, David, Introduction. Euripides Volume III. Suppliant Women. Electra. Heracles (Loeb Classical Library No. 9) by Euripides. Edited and Translated by David Kovacs. Harvard UP, 1998.
Nakayasu, Sawako. Say Translation Is Art. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020.
Rivkin, Joshua. Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly. Melville House, 2018.
Sophocles and Anne Carson. Antigonick. Illustrated by Bianca Stone. New Directions, 2012.
Images used with the kind permission of New Directions Publishing.
Heather Green is the author of the poetry collection No Other Rome (Akron Poetry Series, 2021) and the translator of Tristan Tzara’s Noontimes Won (Octopus Books, 2018) and Guide to the Heart Rail (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2017). Her writing and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Bennington Review, Poetry International, the New Yorker, and elsewhere and her recent translations of Tzara’s poetry are forthcoming in AGNI and Ploughshares. Green is an Assistant Professor in the School of Art at George Mason University.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 9, 2021