This past Wednesday, audiences at Haverford College were treated to a unique array of stimulants during poet and classicist Anne Carson’s presentation of Cassandra Float Can (an essay on translation) and Bracko (an evocation of Sappho), collaborative pieces with Robert Currie, artist and Benjamin Miller, composer. The two creative pieces, though distinct in topic and production, functioned as an exceptional entity, combing literary criticism, poetry, dance, visual aids, and musical accompaniment.
The performance, sponsored by the John B. Hurford ’60 Arts and Humanities Center, the Distinguished Visitors Program, and the Provost’s Office at Haverford, inaugurated a new series, Classics and Beyond, organized by the Haverford Classics Department.
Carson is a renowned professor of Classics as well as a poet, essayist and translator. In addition to her many translations of classical writers such as Sappho and Euripides, Carson has published poems, essays, libretti, prose criticism and verse novels that effortlessly cross genres. Her awards and honors include the Lannan Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the MacArthur Fellowship.
Robert Currie, a frequent collaborator of Carson’s, is an artist based in New York. Benjamin Miller is composer and conductor for The Sensorium Saxophone Orchestra and solo and collaborative multiphonic soundscape improviser. He gives Graphic Score and Found Sound Workshops and is a member of The Glenn Branca Ensemble.
Deborah Roberts, professor and Chair of Classics at Haverford, helped bring the acclaimed trio to the Bi-Co. “My colleagues and I knew and admired Anne Carson’s work, and we knew that she had a considerable following among bi-college faculty and students,” Roberts said. “I have for some years included selections from her translations in my courses, and each time discovered that I have students who love her work. We also knew that she had in recent years turned increasingly to performance pieces of various kinds, so we thought a visit from her and her collaborators would work well for the new ‘Classics and Beyond’ series”.
The series marks a new initiative to include a more regular program of visitors to the HC Classics department, as a complement to the ‘Classics Colloquia’, currently held at Bryn Mawr. The series brings weekly scholars for lectures and presentations, throughout the year, fostering teas, gatherings, and discussions.
“In fall 2010 we started the ‘Senior Majors Visiting Speaker’ series, in which a scholar chosen by the bi-college senior Classics majors gives a public lecture followed by a reception,” Roberts said. “This performance by Carson, Currie, and Miller marks the inauguration of our second series, which we are calling ‘Classics and Beyond’ which will feature visitors who extend the reach of the field of Classics (and build connections with other fields) in any of a variety of ways, through readings, performances, symposia, installations, exhibits, or outreach projects”.
These two productions have certainly given the series an energetic, provocative start in their intellectual depth and creativity in visual representation.
“Both ‘Cassandra Float Can’ and ‘Bracko’ have been performed before, in different venues,” Roberts said. “’Bracko’ was originally a dance choreographed by Rashaun Mitchell. But each piece is made new in each new performance, partly by the use of local participants”.
This production included six bi-college students (Robindra Banerji, Zoe Fox, Jacob Horn, William Leeser, Jenna McKinley, Hannah Silverblank), one Penn professor (Sheila Murnaghan) and two Haverford professors (Aryeh Kosman and Deborah Roberts).
“Cassandra Float Can” focused on the figure of Cassandra, a Trojan prophetess and daughter of Priam in Greek epic and tragedy, who foretold the fall of the city’s lofty walls and later became the slave-prize of the Greek King Agamemnon. The performance-essay featured Carson herself reading her own prose, slowly and deliberately, savoring each word. She touched upon such ideas as the “veiling” of meaning in language and identity.
The most unique aspect of this performance was Carson’s juxtaposition of her focus on Cassandra with a discussion of the works of Gordon Maddow Clark, an artist who enjoyed physically “cutting” entire buildings to reveal new perspectives. As a “probing into a thin edge”, Clark attempted to form an abstract version of the former structure (just as language can do). Student volunteers carried photos of several of the artist’s works through the audience during the reading.
The next performance, “Bracko”, was an evocation of the poems of Sappho, a 7th Century BCE lyric poet whose majority of works are lost or largely fragmented. Interestingly, the musical score was based on a starmap over the island of Lesbos, where Sappho lived, on the night of her birth. Readers, including Carson, simultaneously read portions of Sappho’s poems (one reciting the non-missing prose, one continually saying the word “bracket” to indicate a missing section or word, and the other footnotes). Students filled the stage, forming their arms as physical “brackets”.
“Bracko” really highlighted the frustration and, equally, delight, which accompanies the ambiguity of fragmented ancient works. The texts can almost seem deliberately (though often distractingly) absent of certain portions, allowing the reader to him or herself fill in the gaps to create meaning.
“Cassandra Float Can” and “Bracko” truly carried through a night of visual, auditory, and intellectual delight for both the Classics academic community and a wider audience, effortlessly molding distinct themes and modes of expression.