Of Anne Carson’s cast of characters for H of H Playbook, all determined to outrun the reader, Amphitryon asks the question before you do. Amphitryon, father of H of H, says, "What's it like to wear an eternal Olympian overall / held up by the burning straps of / mortal shortfall?" and then interrupts himself with what brings pause. “Dumb rhyme / for a complexity more sublime / than the self can ordinarily bear,” he says. Amphitryon poses questions, asks why? of everything. Why does this have to happen? Why treat tragedies like this? Why does this artistic experiment exist, repeat?
Even within the bounds of Carson’s own repertoire, H of H Playbook is precedented. H of H Playbook comes long after Carson’s collaboration with illustrator Bianca Stone for the hardcover Antigonick (2012), and the more recent “Todtnauberg,” Carson’s comic for the Jewish Currents Paul Celan folio, but H of H Playbook does not follow quietly. This playbook is a grand directorial gesture toward a performance that can unfold without stage, setting or actor.
H of H is Herakles, for he has completed the Labours. Perhaps even the Herakles of Euripides, if you are persuaded by the paratext. The paratext is persuasive, after all. The first words of the Chorus are juxtaposed with an illustration of a deconstructed pair of scissors. The text bleeds into illustration into page into the hand. The playbook makes of the reader a foot-tapping, rhyme-singing, arrived-too-late witness. Carson wills into action such elemental things as a reader’s peripheral vision, sense of belief, even that which the reader is acquainted with as memory.
H of H recalls Atlas and the episode of returning a burden: “I told him I’d just drop it. He believed me.” Carson operates a great currency of belief: belief is the reciprocal exchange into which the reader is lured, only to witness such belief as the primary causal force in H of H’s narrative. Belief becomes a continuous production of ruin and wonder. How do we believe? And how do we believe Anne Carson? And at what point does it stop, the believing oneself? Like H of H before Atlas, like H of H at any point in this journey, we seem to have no back up plan. What back up is there, to belief? Carson’s characteristic authorial presence, the odd metaphors and elevated themes make deliberate exits so the abandoned reader can answer that question. The protagonist answers before you, of course. In his opening voiceover, H of H says, “the mirror is uninhabited.”
At first glance, I am almost compelled to say nowhere in its script does H of H Playbook violate the conventions of Athenian Greek Tragedy. Not any more than Euripides does, anyway. Its commitment to largeness, its tell-not-show grandeur, its heavily accentuated inability to overcome dramatic irony all bring forth a performance. There could almost be a doubling actor changing masks beyond the rustling of the page. “Suffering like that. You need old words,” says Theseus, friend of H of H. Where else does H of H go, he who has more memories than Labours, more memories than conversations, more memories than words? So it is that this cast of characters is drawn to the oddness of metaphor. Why does Megara say H of H is like a glacier that is silent until it snaps? Why are the shortfalls of humanity the straps of overalls, Amphitryon? It seems as if none of them can craft the ringing metaphors of an ancient Dionysia until it happens to them. And it happens to them.
It is a fragile book. It is odd in its ratios and the fear of damaging the (red) binding of the spine interrupted me steadily through my one-sitting read. The distinct style of art threatened me too: I could leave my own mark easily upon it if I bent it the wrong way, if I kept my coffee on the same table. All aspects of this book implicated me, for H of H Playbook has a sharp gaze. The gaze narrows steadily, latches on so securely that there is an unmistakable name. And there are no page numbers, there is no finding your way back.
ALHS is a poet and critic from India. Her poems have appeared in PRISM International and as a pagefiftyone press micro-broadside, and her reviews in SPAM Zine and amberflora. She lives and writes on the unceded land of the Lək̓ʷəŋən peoples, where she is a student and research assistant at University of Victoria.