Ismene’s Survivable Resistance by Claire Gaskin Puncher&Wattman, 2021
In Sophocles’ play Antigone, the titular character is, inevitably, the star. Second up is Creon, Antigone’s uncle, who has decreed his nephew – Antigone’s brother – will not have a burial, and anyone who attempts to bury him will be killed. Next in line is Polynices, the dead brother who somehow, even in his complete absence, remains a primary character to the secondary Ismene, Antigone’s sister. Ismene is merely a prompt of dialogue in the opening scenes, speaking to inform plot and showcase Antigone’s righteousness. She’s a follower, full of uncertainty and, when tested, wish-washy. Antigone, in contrast, is steadfast and rogue, and she dies of these virtues – that and being buried alive for trying to bury her brother. It would seem Antigone’s resistance doesn’t do her any favours while Ismene’s gift for obeying is to live, so what is left of a secondary character when the primary one dies? Sophocles wrote many an Oedipus spin-off (and Antigone is one) but he did not write the play about Ismene. Claire Gaskin wrote the book.
Was I just a plot device in Antigone’s story
a disposable body at a crime scene
her shadow still on me
a gatekeeper in dreams
…………………………….‘Ismene’s Patent Foramen Oval closure’
Both Sophocles’ and Gaskin’s narratives exist in a man’s world, the congruence being the sisters and their mother as victims of their gender. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse stemming from fathers, brothers and lovers underlay all of the women’s trauma, but the Ismene in Ismene’s Survivable Resistance rises above the Greek tragedy ending to counter Antigone’s senseless death. In Gaskin’s book Ismene offers up a survivable resistance – poetry – and in reading this poetry we ask ourselves how would we gather grief and sit with it when the world is moving all around us? How would we make sense of the whole when there are so many parts? What if it were through words, pages, syllables and repetitions, ‘the pen making contact / a page sweating’, (‘Ismene is a boxing writing workshop’)?
Moving fluidly between the hinted-at Sophocles’ narrative and the modern day, Gaskin ensures relatability with grounded detail. Yes, Antigone seems to have died while holed up in a cave, but she also ‘wore leopard skin to the funerals’. In the same poem, ‘brothers’, ‘Polynices was the paperboy who bought the newsagency’ and ‘Eteocles with an orange paper crown on his head / told bad jokes at Christmas dinner’. It’s Ismene’s voice telling us this, and this: ‘I raise my hand in the meeting’. Six pages later we read a poem titled ‘Ismene in a Twelve Step Programme’. The connection between ‘meeting’ and ‘twelve-step program’ suggests a woman repeatedly abused, perhaps addicted to men who abuse, perhaps originating from the father and moving onto brother and lover, and the continuity between ‘meeting’ to ‘twelve-step program’ signals a progressive narrative in place. The abuses suffered by Ismene, Antigone and their mother Jocasta aren’t clear, however, meaning there are no overt descriptions, no beginning, middle or end as most narratives demand. Their abuses are in the past and in the present – the omnipresent. One way Gaskin manages this elusivity of narrative while maintaining a sense of story is through fracture and repetition.
Stylistically, Ismene’s thoughts move in staccato from one stanza to the next, often from one line to the next, creating a discombobulation of sorts within the character. The opening poem, ‘Ismene’s thirsts’ begins like this:
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 smells nutty
the first line I trusted
hot under a tree in the outback
a bag of lychees
declarations of love are not love
Ismene is not stable, nor is the timeline of her traumas. As survivors will tell you, traumatic memories tend to stand alone, no matter how lengthy the history, and what is most traumatic one day will be overpowered by another memory the next, so that piecing the tale together does not depend on ‘and’, ‘because’ and ‘then’, rather on image and image and image. Not new to Gaskin’s work is skilful repetition, where images or partial phrases are repeated or semi-repeated several pages on, images and phrases so uniquely fulfilled that the repetition is not only recognisable, it’s haunting. ‘A muddy pond of tea’ in ‘Ismene thirsts’ recurs in ‘brothers’: ‘fat drops of rain resounding in my pond of tea’. In ‘Ismene’ we read,
the weight of an old betrayal
a room inside my dreams I didn’t know was there
unsheathed splintered claws
walled in her word there was no room for me
the ceiling fan blades in my teaspoon
and, in ‘buried’, we read, ‘betrayal caught in the blades of the ceiling fan’. Even less obvious but just as powerful is the repetition of throats, which are important for voicing stories, and so fragile the mere mention might evoke a strangling:
the stopping is a window
into the womb
…………………………….– ‘the heavy lidded language’
closing the curtains
in the held vase of a throat
the moon is pulled smoothed
into edgeless stones
in the throat of the river
This book, full of repetition and slight variations of repetition – as is memory – highlights Gaskin’s editing prowess from single poem to linked poems to whole-of-work.
Most interesting to me in this work is the question of who the slippery Ismene is: ‘I start where the pen hits the page’ she says (‘Ismene dreams’) and ‘It just takes one poem to believe you’ (‘Ismene gardening’). Certainly not in Sophocles’ imagining, this re-imagining of an ancient woman in a contemporary setting presents a woman who is not one solid character but in fact a conglomeration of at least two and at most many, so the answer has to lie in recognition. Consider the nineteenth century painting by Emil Teschendorff titled Antigone and Ismene, displayed as the cover of Ismene’s Survivable Resistance. Antigone is serious with sensible dark clothing and hair, while Ismene wears off-the-shoulder white robes and has flowing blonde locks. For a man looking at the painting in 1896, Ismene as secondary character is the desirable one. For a woman looking at the painting one hundred years later, Antigone might be, but that’s because in 1996 we were still falling into binaries and stereotypes. As is the current protocol, Gaskin resists binaries and stereotypes. In this tightly woven collection she raises Ismene to the status of primary character, and in Ismene’s becoming of her own self, she becomes every woman. Both dreamy and bold, it’s a remarkable feminist text.
– Heather Taylor-Johnson
Heather Taylor-Johnson is an American Australian writer living on Kaurna land, Adelaide. Her fifth book of poetry is a verse novel called Rhymes with Hyenas, with Recent Work Press, and she’s soon to have a new collection with Wakefield Press called Alternative Hollywood Ending. She is the editor of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain, and her second novel, Jean Harley was Here, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Fiction She is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide and a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice.
Ismene’s Survivable Resistance is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/product/ismenes-survivable-resistance/