Ismene’s Survivable Resistance by Claire Gaskin Puncher & Wattmann, 2021
This review is based on Dominique’s launch speech which was delivered virtually on 28 August 2021 as part of the Cherry Poets series of readings
Ismene was the daughter and half-sister of Oedipus, daughter and granddaughter of Jocasta, and sister of Antigone, Eteocles, and Polynices. She appears in the wings of several of Sophocles’ Theban plays, but is an important character in Antigone. We know the plot. Oedipus is dead. He has left Thebes to be ruled for alternate years by his sons Eteocles and Polynices. While Eteocles is on the throne they have quarrelled and Polynices has attacked the city. The brothers kill each other and their uncle Creon now rules. The sisters Antigone and Ismene keep on living at the palace. Creon, having buried Eteocles with full honours, has decreed that Polynices’ body remains outside the city to rot. There is a penalty of death for anyone who attempts to bury him. Reluctant to challenge Creon and the laws of the state, Ismene attempts to prevent Antigone from going ahead with the rebellious plan that seals her fate, but refuses to help her. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Ismene is the compliant one. Therefore, she is not in the limelight and her voice is ultimately unheard. As the chorus puts it in Jean Anouilh’s version of the play: ‘In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquillity’.
There is no tranquillity in Claire Gaskin’s fourth poetry collection, Ismene’s Survivable Resistance. Though Gaskin draws on Sophocles’ plot and constellation of characters, this is not a tragedy. The tragedy has already occurred. As in Eurydice Speaks, Gaskin assumes the voice of the voiceless in a contemporary setting. Here Ismene is a poet grappling with her traumatic past. The reader of her poems is in the position of witness.
These are poems of memory and survival brought to life through beguiling lyric and dramatic telling. They bring a way of living, thinking, feeling and seeing in the aftermath of trauma into immediate focus and deliver emotional depth and resonance. Indeed, Claire Gaskin writes knowingly about life and not life, love and not love. She homes in on the importance of things that bring a family together and tear them apart.
One sees how suitable the plot of Antigone is, both as a means to explore what survivable resistance is and may play out dramatically and stylistically. As in a play, there is no table of contents in Ismene’s Survivable Resistance. This is no doubt to enhance the narrative thrust of the collection. ‘Ismene’s thirsts’ functions as a prologue. It introduces the collection’s poetic intent, time, place and themes of grief, trauma and will to survival. The opening stanza not only announces, but performs Gaskin’s poetics, one that dismantles binary oppositions, juxtaposes registers of language and sets alongside unrelated images in surrealist fashion:
in this binary library
a murder of fictions
crows gather in corners
it is work to witness
one side limp
I called an ambulance
this memory nutty
the first line I trusted
hot under a tree in the outback
The first three poems introduce the idea of trauma as intergenerational as Ismene expresses regret, dismay and ambivalence as well as distrust of language as a means of communication. In ‘constancy’ Ismene’s compliance, powerlessness, propensity to dissociation and susceptibility to ellipsis are presented as consequences of a trauma that does not end: ‘I can rest out of sight but not in focus’ . ‘Breath’, on the other hand clarifies Ismene’s impulse to write as ‘the bone on bone of marginalia / where thought meets movement’, thereby invoking the genesis of the collection, with ‘survivable resistance’ at its core.
But what is ‘survivable resistance’? Gaskin ponders the question in ‘Ismene in a Twelve Step Programme’. Ismene answers:
Polynices was already dead
I know the Greek Tragedy thing once it is set in motion it
must play out
but I’m still here to feel the sun on my body and the water to
witness my blaring heart
my abuser was giving me admission
something my family could never give me
I have to grip the arms of my chair to stay present
I use sex to avoid intimacy
did she love Polynices more than life
is that love
she made him her god
I get that she felt he was irreplaceable
what was I
but so was she
I could bury my dead in private
she needed it to be seen by other
is to survive it to comply
she died to what they call sanity logic law so I could live
If there is a heart in Ismene’s Survivable Resistance, this is it. Here Gaskin defines what ‘survivable resistance’ might mean in the context of tragedy, but Ismene’s answer is a non-answer—I hear a question mark in the phrase ‘is to survive it to comply’. But there is no question mark. The lack of punctuation, syntactic gaps, unfinished sentences and line breaks introduce ambiguity and ambivalence in the text. The speaker is alive, yet struggles to live. It’s as though writing back to the sister who ‘died to what they call sanity logic law so I could live’ is the only way towards ‘survivable resistance’. And indeed, in the poem ‘mother of mercy’ written in the third person, arguably because Ismene has become an Antigone, poetry turns out to be the only way of ‘survivable resistance’.
If this poem is the heart of the collection, it is also a turning point. It interrogates inner and outer states of being, physically, psychologically and linguistically. Here, Ismene makes a bid for escape. The persona now experiences a growing sense of unease and impatience, yet seems determined to overcome her predicament. She remembers: ‘I couldn’t stay in the house of Creon / I took off’. This memory propels the narrative forward and enhances the energy in the writing. Breath stops after ‘I took off’. Feeling is suppressed. Breathless, Ismene recounts, how she changed the direction of her life and fell in love with someone who would only repeat and revive the trauma.
There is no chorus in Ismene’s Survivable Resistance.
There is a chorus. But not one that consists of people whose function is to establish and sustain a link between audience and actors. It is an other kind of chorus. One whose purpose is to remind the reader that this is not a play, but poetry in the making where ‘words form and fail at the point of touch’ and where ‘the space between reader and writer keeps shifting and shaping my becoming’. Here the chorus is mind body language inside out. Imploded. Exploded. It highlights that ‘to write is survivable resistance against erasure’.
More than anywhere else in Claire Gaskin’s work, in this book body and mind mesh, inside and outside merge, perception and memory fuse. Then separate again—most strikingly in ‘Ismene reads her psych’s book on dissociation’, but already in ‘the body lesson’ and elsewhere. In fact, body and mind and language are inseparable. Language is subjectivity’s binding agent: ‘I am matter I do matter’. Language is also what joins self and other as Antigone becomes the witness of trauma and Ismene a resistant adept at ‘making secrets self-know’.
I want to end this review with ‘mother of mercy’ because it is an affirmation of poetry’s power. An affirmation of freedom. An affirmation of life.
she looks down and inward at her poetry because there is no one above her
she is not an intermediary
she is not inside not outside but sheltered
it is her survivable resistance
not either side but in-between
‘Sheltered’ is the keyword in this poem. To be sheltered is opposed to the claustrophobic interior space of a self collapsed onto self, held back by the father who used to prevent Ismene from going out with a slap in the face. Held back by a patriarchal system that gagged her until she feels she has ‘the authority’ to speak up, ‘let go and allow love being’ .
Jean Anouilh, Antigone, Methuen, London, p. 35.
– Dominique Hecq
A Belgian-born poet, Dominique Hecq lives in Melbourne. Hecq writes across genres and sometimes across tongues. Her works include a novel, three collections of short stories and eleven books of poetry. Tracks (2020) and Songlines (2021) are her latest offerings. With Eugen Bacon, she also co-authored Speculate (2021), a collection of microlit. Hecq is a Pushcart nominee and a recipient of the 2018 International Best Poets Prize administered by the International Poetry Translation and Research Centre in conjunction with the International Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ismene’s Survivable Resistance by Claire Gaskin is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/ismenes-survivable-resistance/