Book review: Anne Carson's modern reworking of ancient Greek tragedy

Anne Carson's H Of H Playbook is an experimental, modern-day reworking of the ancient Greek tragedy of Hercules. PHOTO: NEW DIRECTIONS

H Of H Playbook

By Anne Carson
Play/New Directions/Hardcover/112 pages/$35.80/OpenTrolley
4 out of 5

Acclaimed poet Anne Carson's H Of H Playbook is an experimental, modern-day reworking of the ancient Greek tragedy of Herakles, better known as Hercules.

Carson's work has often defied categorisation and this is no exception.

Like her earlier outing, Nox (2010), it plays with the materiality of the book form. It has a scrapbook-like quality - snippets of text look like they have been cut and pasted onto the page, interspersed with sketches and small abstract art renderings.

"By a thread hangs our fate./H of H is late./We are suppliants at an altar/being hounded by the totalitarian cracker/who's seized power in Thebes." So begins the play with these lines from Herakles' mortal father, who has just stepped out of an Airstream trailer, a type of American caravan.

This is not Carson's best book - that would be a tall order. But fans of the translator and respected classics scholar will be pleased to find it bears the usual hallmarks of her writing: unquestionably erudite, but also lucid, sharp - and supremely funny.

It follows a similar trajectory to Euripides' 5th century BC play Herakles. While the hero is in the underworld finishing the last of his 12 labours - fetching the triple-headed dog Cerberus - his father, wife and young children are sentenced to death by the usurper of the throne in Thebes. He returns in time to save them, but later slaughters his wife and children in a fit of madness.

This is not the first time Herakles has appeared in Carson's retellings of Greek mythology. In her epic poem The Autobiography Of Red: A Novel In Verse (1998), the Greek hero and the winged red monster Geryon are modern-day gay lovers.

H Of H Playbook, too, is a refreshing take, peppering its source material with digressions and allusions to Russian revolutionary Lenin, the Chernobyl disaster and even Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park.

In doing so, Carson commits a slew of infidelities, but gives Euripides' play a quickness and a vitality that may have been lost in more doggedly faithful translations.

While it does not flinch from the horror of Herakles' actions, Carson's play, tone-wise, seems like the inverse of a tragedy.

It is full of absurd rhymes and lines written in a language that is heightened, but also candid and colloquial: "You say you shared a wife with Zeus?/ So H of H has double vintage juice?/Hmmmm."

But there is method to this madness. As the play self-reflexively notes, this is "Dumb rhyme/for a complexity more sublime/than the self can ordinarily bear".

It hints at a deeper truth. In the face of a horrific tragedy, what can one do but look away?

Forget social media poet Rupi Kaur. If there is anyone capable of making well-written verse accessible in the age of Instagram, it is Carson.

If you like this, read: The Beauty Of The Husband: A Fictional Essay In 29 Tangos (Vintage Books, 2001, $29.74, available here), Carson's book of poems about a disintegrating relationship.

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