The versatile poet and scholar breaks new ground by retelling an old story—the classical tragedy of the House of Atreus, as dramatized by the three greatest tragedians of Athens’s Golden Age.
Acting on a suggestion from a theater director friend, Carson (Grief Lessons, 2006, etc.) offers a sequential version of the often-told tale of murder, betrayal and revenge performed in the aftermath of the Trojan War, in free-verse translations of plays focused on King Agamemnon, his daughter Elektra and her brother Orestes, as told by Aiskhylos, Sophocles and Euripides, respectively. Each is prefaced by Carson’s brief “Introduction.” For example, she points out Aiskhylos’s emphasis on the role of captured Trojan princess Kassandra, who envisions the ruin ensuing from the war and from Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, which set his queen Klytaimestra onto her murderous path. Though the pace and dramatic momentum of each play never flags, readers may balk at Carson’s employment of conversational, colloquial and often jarringly anachronistic speech. Arresting coinages like “dreamvisible” and (as an adjective) “rawblood,” and superb use of animal imagery (e.g., Kassandra’s characterization of Agamemnon’s murderess as “a soft lion [that] tumbles in the master’s bed/awaiting him”), jostle with reductive language that labels the temptress Helen “that weapon of mass destruction” or permits a terrified slave to warn of “real bad shit happening.” Nevertheless, the lethal velocity of “Agamemnon,” the arc of guilt and doom that courses throughout “Elektra,” even the Euripidean melodrama of the ferocious closure enacted in “Orestes”—all grate on the reader’s nerves with unflinching intensity.
It’s a great narrative, whose savage grandeur holds an undiminished power to enthrall. But is Carson’s unconventional conflation of its components indeed “an Oresteia” for our time? That’s another story.