During a six-month period when I first began writing poetry, I read three writers whose work has been shaping my own for the past thirty-two years. This personal triptych of literary works—the poetry of John Keats, “pallid, chill and drear,” who died of tuberculosis in Italy at twenty five, leaving behind poems replete with classical references; James Joyce’s Ulysses, his loose retelling of Homer’s epic poem, in which the penultimate chapter culminates in a poignant meeting of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom; and Sophocles’ Antigone, a tragedy about a woman who followed her convictions in the face of a death sentence—sparked alchemy in me with a power I am only now beginning to fully understand.
The characters of Antigone and Creon have represented the struggle between the individual and the state for more than two millennia. The questions of power, holding true to an individual moral code, and ultimate sacrifice for one’s beliefs were awe-inspiring to me when I first encountered the play. As an obedient girl, raised in a traditional Italian-American family, Antigone was my first Jungian shadow figure. Her courage and conviction have inhabited my imagination and psyche for over thirty years without losing their pull.
I wanted to write a series of poems about Antigone, but it wasn’t until my daughter was diagnosed with profound autism and intractable epilepsy and almost everyone around me—doctors, friends, colleagues, and even her own father—told me that she was a lost cause that I understood what Antigone had done. And why. Yet I still didn’t write the poems that called to me during the long hours I spent on the bathroom floor trying to teach my daughter how to bathe herself or while struggling to sleep during my radiation treatment for head and neck cancer.
It wasn’t until Trump’s inauguration, his blatant disregard for truth and facts, his incessant narcissistic and cruel outbursts, his misogyny, and his brutal detention of refugees at the border that I realized how I could write a book about Antigone and Creon that was political and personal—a collection of poems that would address both my own story and protest our contemporary political landscape.
In my third collection, If Some God Shakes Your House (Four Way Books, March 2023), lyric persona poems in the imagined and timeless voice of Antigone serve as counterpoint to memento mori sonnets and political prose poems about the country caught in the tight fist of the Trump administration. The prose poems were written during a tumultuous time in American politics, admittedly from a position of relative privilege but still filtered through the lens of being a woman with a disability and having a daughter with an even more severe disability. The last poem in the collection was written the day after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court. I had already submitted the finished manuscript to my editors and the galleys were about to go off to the printer but they allowed me to include “June 24, 2022,” which now seems inevitable within the narrative of the book. In this poem, I recall how “I pleaded with them not to force me to have the baby. As if my body already knew, at seven weeks pregnant, how sick she was and how the architecture of my life would be destroyed.
Instead of helping me, my husband ordered a psychiatric consult. He was a doctor, so he convinced the attending physician that I was hysterical and didn’t know my own mind. Anyone with a mind knows this has always been about control. Because I love my daughter more than myself, there are some decisions that still shut every door.”
The title of my book comes from Anne Carson’s brilliant translation of Sophocles, Antigonick, and expresses the way some actions, decisions, or events (what the ancient Greeks would call “fate”) can have a profound and lasting effect on one’s entire life:
Blessed be they whose lives do not taste of evil
but if some god shakes your house
ruin does not leave
it comes tolling over the generations
it comes rolling the black night salt up from the ocean floor
and all your thrashed coasts groan
Both of my teachers at Columbia, Richard Howard and Lucie Brock-Broido, were known for their long persona poems, and I was taught that the best persona poems marry your voice to the imagined voice of the other. Many of the poems in my first book, much of which was written in my MFA program, included long poems, but over the course of my three books, I have come to appreciate writing the short lyric poem, including sonnets. The Antigone poems of this collection are brief and use the received tragedy of Sophocles’ Antigone. Knowing that her uncle has issued a death sentence to anyone who buries or even mourns her brother Polynices, who fought against their other brother in a civil war, Antigone bravely disregards her uncle’s edict even though her loyalty to Polynices will ensure her death. Antigone is described in the play as someone who is “in love with the impossible.” Being a poet and being a mother, one is similarly in love with the impossible. As I write in “Nothing Can Cure Her,” “Never has a mother’s love saved her child—/ from disease, from rape, from guns.” My daughter’s autism diagnosis thrust me into “undiscovered countries” (to quote Virginia Woolf) of solitude. In On Being Ill, Woolf writes: “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.”
We live in a society that refuses to grapple with (or even hear about) problems that cannot be fixed. I immediately recognized by the way that I was treated by most people around me, including her own father, that if I was going to remain loyal to my daughter and do everything I could to help her live the best life possible, I would be alone in that mission. I was like Antigone, in love with the impossible, and I had to accept that I would invariably sacrifice myself—my health, my time, my career—to do what needed to be done to keep her safe and to teach her as much as possible so she could eventually have enough skills to survive in the world when I was too sick or old to take care of her. One of my favorite poets, Alice Oswald, writes: “The Greeks thought of language as a veil which protects us from the brightness of things. I think poetry is a tear in that veil.” This is one of the attributes of poetry that both inspires and consoles me the most. Only by looking at the “brightness of things” do we truly experience life and become able to survive the seemingly impossible. My Antigone is married to sorrow because she cannot turn away from what lies beyond the veil. In the first poem in the book, I write:
They have never
understood me. It’s not
a death wish that made me
tend to you, my love,
even though I knew
nothing could save you.
I couldn’t let go—
our legs side by side,
as we slept, the flowers
you lined up in the soil,
after I picked them.
How you wouldn’t accept
they were dead.
That planting them again
would not let them bloom.
Where the classical Antigone buries and reburies her brother’s corpse, my Antigone willingly enters the vast and isolating forest of severe autism, where her daughter’s maladaptive behaviors are often dangerous to herself and her caretakers. (The poems dwell on a metaphorical burial rather than a literal one. In the eyes of most people, my daughter is as good as dead, so to invest her with the dignity she deserves is a moral decision that the Antigone in these poems cannot compromise.) Severe autism is seldom discussed in art, in autism awareness groups, and in the news. With the changes in the description of the autism spectrum, many people who are on the spectrum live independent lives full of intellectual and/or artistic talent. With the important rise of the neurodiverse advocating for themselves and disability rights gaining acceptance, there is an important acceptance and appreciation of autism.
But an inadvertent consequence of this movement is that my daughter—who is 22 years old but has the cognition of a 22-month-old, who cannot wash herself, cannot speak except to recite lines from Sesame Street, and who would walk into traffic, unaware that cars can kill her—is erased and made invisible. Yes, Greta Thunberg’s autism may be a superpower, but there is nothing felicitous about the kind of devastating neurological disorder that my daughter has. The severity of her condition means I have had to be her voice, her protector, her advocate, usually at a detriment to myself. If I had a choice, I would do the same again and again. This is the heart of my Antigone. The heart of the mother who will not stop mourning for her sick child and will not stop trying to help her, no matter how futile.
Every semester, I teach Gregory Orr’s thoughts on the use of myth in lyric poetry to my students, and I agree with his thesis that one of the things that continues to compel poets to retell myths or to use myth to tell their own stories is that our collective consciousness already knows the “plot” and the poet can focus on the aspects of the myth that are most relevant to the poet’s individual messages. As both a mother and a writer, one of the most painful things about my daughter’s autism is that she cannot use language to express how she feels and what she thinks. As an empathic person, the thing that hurts me most is the extent of my daughter’s suffering because of her autism and epilepsy. As much as I try to imagine the lives and emotions of others (in reading and writing persona poems), I do not want to imagine her interior world. Even though I believe that one can never “know” another “person” or the multiple and layered selves and personas that make up a “person” (we are lucky if we ever really know ourselves), one of the great tragedies of autism is that the afflicted person is in many ways even more “unknowable.” These poems do not try to portray my daughter’s experience, only my response to her suffering and the long process of acceptance that I will not be able to take care of her, in my own home, forever.
In an interview on NPR, Edward Hirsch said, “One of the things that happens to everyone who is grief-stricken …is there comes a time when everyone else just wants you to get over it, but of course you don’t get over it. You get stronger; you try and live on; you endure; you change; but you don’t get over it. You carry it with you.” This heavy weight that poets, in their empathy, carry is as heavy as the stone that Sisyphus pushes up the hill or the one that Creon ordered to seal the cave after Antigone was buried alive. But just as Camus imagines Sisyphus as happy, my Antigone is satisfied knowing she has done what she believed was right, no matter the cost. The sustaining gift of poetry is that although I have given up most of my life to my daughter’s care, I have not given up writing. When some god shook my house, I turned my grief into song.