This essay examines two distinct modes of sonic disjunction in Rosanna Bruno and Anne Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic and Carson’s H of H Playbook. The Trojan Women shows how noticing sounds that are dislocated from expectations exposes hard truths about reality. H of H interrogates our “regular” mode of hearing other people and implies that there is a gap in how we can know others and know ourselves. Thus, though both are graphic texts, their power and effect are nonetheless garnered also through the sounds they describe and conjure in the minds of their readers.

What is sound to its hearers? It is both its own experience and also always an indicator of something else—a plane passing overhead or a child waking in the next room. At times, sounds are tasked with alerting listeners to something unanticipated, drawing attention to shortfalls in the expected configurations of experience: the tapping on a window that does not usually get tapped; the footsteps in a house where one thought one was alone; the sound of strain in a voice whose words are reporting that all is well. When listening to music or poetry, however, we both turn on certain modes of hearing and suspend others. In aesthetic contexts, sound is an indicator of different kinds of revelation and disjunction. One kind of sonic knowledge in these contexts mirrors the use of sound to signal the unexpected in life, namely sounds that reveal disjunctions in the values and realities of the world as presented. Another kind of knowledge arises when we hear gaps emerge between vocal patterns and the language expressed through these patterns.

Rosanna Bruno and Anne Carson’s The Trojan Women: A Comic (2021)and Carson’s H of H Playbook (2021) present these two distinct modes of sonic disjunction. Trojan Women shows how noticing sounds that are dislocated from expectations exposes hard truths about reality. H of H folds this disjointed mode of aurality into the normative texture of speech and sound, thus interrogating our “regular” mode of hearing other people and implying that there is always a gap in how we can know them and how they know themselves. Both show that only at the limits of human life, at the no, comes an alignment of sound and language, a silence that all humans, as sufferers, understand. Though these texts are both pointedly graphic in their presentation, their power and effect are nonetheless garnered also through the sounds they describe and conjure in the minds of their readers.

The Trojan Women: A Comic is billed on the title page as by Rosanna Bruno, with “text” by Anne Carson. My interpretation of the sounds of the book inevitably focuses on Carson’s text, but at times the disjunction between sonic text and image, or the envelopment of sonic text within an image, is the critical point, meaning that the work of both Bruno and Carson is relevant. The text itself contains the usual sonic elements from the toolbox that poetry skillfully deploys, including alliteration, artful repetition of phrases, and some informal attention to meter.1 It also uses sound to show important aspects of the grim world this play occupies, a fact signaled by Hekabe’s final pronouncement before the entrance of the chorus that “Troy is extinct./ And no bird sings.”2 Sounds tell a story here, and so does the absence of sound. The non-singing of the birds suggests less that there are no birds (it is Troy, not the birds, which is extinct) than that even birds deem the pleasures of song to be inappropriate to this milieu. The phrase also arguably reminds readers of the silence of the birds killed off by humans’ toxins in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)—another, vaster example of humans decimating populations for no apparently good reason.3 As John Mowitt has written regarding Silent Spring, “[s]ilence is here a sign, indeed a political (as opposed to either aesthetic or moral) sign that registers in her text as an ecological sounding. In effect silence is nature giving voice to nothing.”4 By the end of The Trojan Women: A Comic, silence—visually pronounced—plays an even more significant sonic and symbolic role.

Yet, at the same time, Hekabe’s pronouncement—“And no bird sings”—summons a different mode of listening, the listening of a modern reader of poetry who hears echoes of the more melodious woes in John Keats’ ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” whose first and final stanzas both end with the line taken up by Hekabe:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

  Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

  And no birds sing.

. . .

And this is why I sojourn here,

  Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake,

  And no birds sing.

In the Trojan Women of Euripides, Hekabe uses her final words before the chorus approaches to compare herself to a mother bird or, more literally, a mother to “winged birds,” and to announce that she is beginning her “scream, song.”5 Euripides’ Hekabe focuses, then, on the transformation through suffering of her own voice into an animalistic shriek. By contrast, the Hekabe of Bruno and Carson looks like an old dog, but speaks like a somewhat distanced observer, a cool inheritor of Keats’ English, who describes the horrors of her world rather than being completely immersed in it, in a mode not completely dissimilar to that of Poseidon in the prologue, suggesting that the Greeks “need a lesson! Why? . . . Because they squeak when they die.”6

The description of the Greeks as “squeaking”—pathetically? annoyingly?—at death shows us less about how humans sound and more about how these gods perceive, with Poseidon exhibiting a particularly disdainful attitude toward humans. This view of the divine reveals in turn what kind of world (a nasty one) we will find in The Trojan Women. More appropriate, it seems, are cries of grief and pain, those squeaks. Yet: “What are cries for?/ Can we strangle the muse?” Hekabe asks.7 The answer is evidently no, and it is arguably the case that Hekabe herself comes to value the use of “cries” and the muse more fully by the end of the book, a subtle transformation that puts her more in line with her Euripidean forebear singing her sorrow.

Thus the fact that Hekabe is portrayed visually as a mangy dog and that the chorus of Trojan women is depicted also as dogs and cows who will soon be “herded off”8 suggests a lifescape and soundscape where women are chattel, and freedom is felt only in their dwindling ability to vocalize their anguish through howls and moans. Howling becomes (not inaptly) a signal sonic effect of the book, such as when Hekabe asks, “Is that the city howling?” and Andromache replies, “It’s the smoke howling.”9 Howling takes on different valences as the subject of the sound shifts. The phrase “the city howling” suggests a kind of metonymy: the city stands in for its multitude of people, whose many voices are unified by their victimhood. The sonic image of “smoke howling,” by contrast, is a metaphor that shows the impact of the city’s destruction in enveloping, sonic terms. Combining the two images suggests an aural clash of the metaphorical howling of smoke, which is also metonymic itself for fire, smiting a howling multitude of tormented people. It is as if the event itself is too large or too terrible to be displayed directly: instead, the use of metaphors and metonymies, the deploying of sounds instead of statements, just like the depiction of animals instead of women, indicates that misdirection is a necessary step toward absorbing such suffering.

The sonic signals get more direct as the woes go deeper. At the most dire moments of distress, aural effects merge with linguistic ones. When Hekabe hears that her daughter Polyxena has been murdered over Achilles’ grave, she switches abruptly from colloquial English to the ancient Greek of Euripides’ version: οἴ ’γω τάλαινα,10 meaning o wretched me, as if only the “original” Greek sounds can convey certain depths of despair, and as if the despair that they communicate will be understood, transhistorically, by all. This very same dynamic occurs again shortly thereafter when Andromache is told that her baby son will be murdered. She too turns to ancient Greek with the cry “οἴμοι grief.”11 The horrific context makes clear the meaning of such sounds and suggests that an ancient language can be understood by all through the medium of pain. Alternatively (or simultaneously), for an audience of modern-day readers who may well not know ancient Greek, this moment can also be understood as a slip into the indecipherability, or incommunicability, of grief, as if in moments of unimaginable loss there is no hope of communication; there is only sound, or squeaks.

It goes on. Place is defined by roars: Greece is imagined through the relatively innocuous sonic image of the ocean roaring on the beach,12 while Troy is the place whose beaches roar “like women’s voices,/ for their husbands, their children,/ their mothers lost.”13 Troy is the city where women’s voices can only sound like loss that repeats in an endless, echoing delirium. Thus, the final words of the book are constructed from layers of echo. Hekabe says, “We can’t go on. We go on.”14 And the chorus, antiphonally echoing her, closes the book with “We go on” (Fig. 1).15 These lines not only echo each other, but also echo earlier passages in the book, when Hekabe says, “So it goes on,”16 and Andromache laments, “We can’t go on,” and Hekabe responds, “We don’t go on.”17 In the repetitive assonance of go and on, we hear an echoing chant that communicates the meaning of the play: for the main characters—Hekabe, Andromache, the chorus—life goes on past when life seems livable. The echo of go on, like the onomatopoeic word gong, signals its ringing, ceaseless repetition.

Moreover, in its relentless resonance, this ringing phrase also echoes one of the most famous cries of existential despair of the twentieth century, namely the final line of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The Unnameable is the final book in a trilogy by Beckett, which poses the problem of existence as an unending stream of suffering and doubt from which there is no clear escape; one must simply continue until one cannot. Here is the longer context of the final lines of the trilogy:

perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.18

The echoing of sound thus functions also at a referential and literary level, signaling beyond the text of The Trojan Women itself to a painful modern history of life as suffering into silence. In Beckett’s work, the voice of the novel finally dies away, and so it is too in Carson’s text (and any text). But in The Trojan Women this echoing, diminishing effect, which is also linguistic, is also visual, and the more sonic for being so.

The particularly, if unsurprisingly, synesthetic quality of Carson’s (and Bruno’s) expressions of sound in The Trojan Women bears noting. For the quality of sound—as heard in the mind’s ear of the reader—is communicated in at least two cases by the way words are made to stand in isolation, stark white against a nearly black, matted page. One example is a cacophonous mess of “no”s, a sloping, diminishing series, fading into darkness (Fig. 2).19 The other is the final page of the book, which shows the circling, enveloping darkness around a ship that carries the dog who is Hekabe to her doom, the page on which it is written: “We go on.” (Fig. 1)20 The blackness does not signify death—this would be an end and, in its way, a relief. Rather, the darkness and the silence it signifies suggest only that this suffering will no longer be heard.

FIG. 2:

“No no no no.” Carson and Bruno 2021: 20.

Sound in H of H Playbook works through a different set of modes. Here sonic effects are not merely described but are heard in the rhythm of language. In the early pages, the language of the book seems to be constructed entirely in a simple, sonic scheme of various formations of rhyming lines, if ones that are loose, slantwise, and seemingly offset by a kind of inlaid irony, as here:


I am H of H’s father – at least that’s one story.

Zeus claims to be the other (father): there begins H of H’s glory

and a fair amount of worry


There’s a joke in the rhyme of “ontologically,” but just as one tries to figure out what it is, Carson brings the aural question into full view in the following lines:


What’s it like to wear an eternal Olympian overall

held up by the burning straps of

mortal shortfall?

Dumb rhyme

for a complexity more sublime

than the self can ordinarily bear.

So there’s the question, or problem, once again of disjunction. Rhyme signals a kind of singsongy quality, something almost silly, buoyant, even childlike in its nursery-rhyme tenor. Yet in a story of “mortal shortfall” falling out in the murder of children, maybe such singsongy sound is more than one can bear. And perhaps that is what the book goes ahead to show us. Other characters enter with their own kind of rhyme scheme. The chorus starts with an a-a-b-c-c-b arrangement that loosens by their third stanza, while Megara rhymes more haphazardly, often ending a series of only-sometimes rhyming lines with a final repeating sound that seals off her sentiment:


I’m the H of H wife.

We’re a suppliant stack.

Every time a door creaks

the kids think he’s back.

I’m starving. We’re all starving.

Here come the border police, those goons in black.

The combination of casual language and simple rhymes communicates at once both a knowing, sardonic tone that seems to arise from the author’s awareness of adapting once again an old story (“I’m the H of H wife”) and her desire to make the drama emotionally affecting nonetheless (“I’m starving. We’re all starving.”). Tellingly, the more unironic the language, the less likely it is to rhyme.

After further rounds of ironically rhyming lines from Amphitryon, Megara, the tyrant Lykos, and the chorus, the rhymes abruptly stop with the much awaited entrance of H of H, who is called upon to save his family from Lykos. In what is called a “voiceover,” and plays out like a stream of consciousness, the wholly prosaic voice of H of H is heard:

H of H [voiceover]

All those years. Hitchhiking everywhere. Rock my pillow. Rain my liquor. Being told to throw myself into every kind of fire. Being given to believe I could burn away the weak parts, keep only one father (god), get rid of the other (the emotional), skip wife, skip kids, steal a Corvette, read dictionaries at night and beat the blue devils. And great acclaim being predicted for me based on my looks alone! And those being good times! So I get done with the Labours, I come home, I look in the mirror and the mirror is uninhabited.

The text, through its visual markers, as a paragraph justified on both sides, and its aural markers, as a series of sentences that lack clear rhythm or rhyme, tells its readers that they are now in a space of internality, the voice within, and perhaps even the nonperformative voice, perhaps a voice of truth. Of course, this passage does not lack all sonic, poetic qualities of repetition. It has repeating patterns of stress and consonance (“Rock my pillow. Rain my liquor.”) and makes use of anaphora throughout (“Being told . . . Being given . . . skip . . . skip . . . I . . . I . . . I . . .”). Nonetheless, the message of the prose and its striking lack of straight-up rhymes is that we are hearing a different level of reality, truth, and experience. A sonic equation emerges: rhyme signals a puppeted distance from the real; prose is offered as the voice beneath voice, the genuine, unmediated, and trustworthy.

H of H goes on for some pages monologuing in prose, narrating his past traumas, but when he finally talks to other characters, he too enters the mode of rhyme, a scheme that becomes more stringent as his wife answers him, as if sociality itself forces him into a (sonic) structure:

H of H:

O doors of my house!

O house of my hearth!

How gloriously

you shine out at me!

But what’s this strange array I see?

You’re all in black, you’re all in tears.


Get ready to change emotional gears.

H of H:

You take my breath.


We’re on the brink of death.

H of H rhymes just twice in the midst of his opening exclamation (“gloriously . . . at me . . . I see”), but Megara’s replies to him draw his own language into her rhyme scheme, even as she shifts his “emotional gears.” By the time he speaks again in a longer passage, he is fully immersed in his own short, starkly audible rhymes:

H of H:

He won’t.

I’m here.

His end is clear.

Rhyme, then, is the vocal sound of social performance, the drumbeat of each person compelled to play their part.

This sonic structure is underlined when Megara herself has a monologue in prose that is also called a “voiceover.” And so too with Iris & Madness and Amphitryon and Theseus: when they speak to other characters, they do so in rhyme; when they think their own thoughts, they do so in fully justified, prosaic paragraphs. These paragraphs are all said to be “voiceovers,” but they are in fact really voiceinners, or voiceentires; they play out the fantasy that there is a version of voice and self that, if heard, would transmit a person’s actual, unfiltered, internal experience.

But then comes the (un)expected twist, the great disruption—both to the world of H of H and to its sounds. After H of H, in madness, murders his wife and children, the rhymes disappear from the text altogether, though poetic line breaks remain. A settling of this new, terrible reality is thus made audible in the lack of rhyme, with pain now communicated openly between characters, and stays installed in sound until the chorus’s final rhyming lines. In these final painful pages, Carson uses a sonic effect that is similar to what can be seen, literally, in The Trojan Woman. In both books, a word gets isolated by itself on a two-page spread. When H of H learns that he murdered his wife and children, he says simply “Alas” (Fig. 3). In a dialogue in which H of H begs Theseus to let him kiss his father goodbye forever, Theseus says “No”; then Heracles answers “But I must”; and Theseus again says “No.” Each “no” is surrounded by two pages of blank space (Fig. 4). As in The Trojan Woman, the greater the blank space, the deeper the silence that surrounds the word and the clearer its sound. In both works, no is not just a word but is also a resonant, enveloping fact, a wholly human sound that echoes across the quiet page.

FIG. 3:

“H of H: Alas.” Carson 2021.


For example: “winds, waves, weather, travel by water, death by water, etc.” (Carson and Bruno 2021: 7); “I see it clearly./ I see my naked corpse cast out/ and all the ditches streaming winter rain and dirty snow./ I see me given to wild beasts to feed upon” (29); “Gone/ our offerings, our choirs, our echoing voices,/ our celebrations of you all night in the dark./ Gone the gold statues,/ the mooncakes,/ the sacred number twelve” (64).


Mowitt 2020: 211.


μάτηρ δ᾽ ὡσεί τις πτανοῖς/ ὄρνισιν, ὅπως ἐξάρξω ’γὼ/ κλαγγάν, μολπάν (Eur. Tro. 146–48).


Carson and Bruno 2021: 39, from Eur. Tro. 624.


Carson and Bruno 2021: 44. This is also a quote from the Greek: Eur. Tro. 720.


Beckett 1958: 476. (The book was originally published in French as L’Innommable in 1953.)


Carson 2021. The text of H of H Playbook lacks page numbers, and so none have been added here.

H of H Playbook
New York
, and
The Trojan Women: A Comic
New York
Silent Spring
“Out of Her Depths: Playing with Pauline Oliveros.”