Guide to Greece
by George Kalogeris
(Louisiana State University Press, 148 pages, $24.95)
Imagine you are a second-generation Greek-American, and you are in graduate school studying and translating some of the great Greek poets of the twentieth century. Imagine too you have come home to your working-class neighborhood, and are visiting your parents, sitting with them in their kitchen, talking about those poets over a green formica table. They don’t go much for Cavafy and his high-diction, and they are put off by the Marxist attitudes of Ritsos. Instead, they treasure Seferis and ask you to read some of his poetry out loud. Now imagine it is decades later, and you are writing poetry on that same kitchen table. You remember the voices of your now-deceased parents, thinking to yourself how they would also have loved Mandelstam. They might have thought the Russian’s poetry was of the same order as that of Seferis. They might have said the verses of both poets were trapézika. A word, George Kalogeris tells us, that means the writings of these poets were songs meant “to be sung across the kitchen table.”
The scene I am describing is from “Ambassador of the Dead,” a poem we meet early on in George Kalogeris’ expansive and masterful new book of poetry, Guide to Greece. What happens next in this poem strikes a keynote in this collection. As soon as Kalogeris remembers the word trapézika, the ghosts or shades of his parents, he tells us, “appear in the table’s reflection.” They look up and out at him “as if they were thirsting for something to drink.” What they ask of him, writes Kalogeris, is to “read us some more Seferi.” These voices of the dead beckon the poet with a sound “as soft of as the hiss of the surf” in the poetry of Seferis.
No small part of the emotional energy in this thrilling moment comes from the way in which the poem has tacitly recalled and incorporated that profoundly affecting scene in Book XI of the Odyssey. The long-delayed warrior has dug a pit in the sand on a far island, and performed a ritual sacrifice that opens an entrance into the underworld. Multitudes of shades, attracted by the blood from the sacrifice, are moving toward the portal. Following Circe’s instructions, Odysseus talks to no one–including his own mother–because he must first speak with the shade of Tiresias, who will tell him how he can find his way back to Ithaka. Only then does Odysseus allow the ghost of his mother to approach the portal he has opened. Since her son is still living, his mother wants to know what he is doing there at this entrance to the underworld. For his part, Odysseus wants to know how his wife and child have fared in his absence. Odysseus longs to embrace his mother, and three times tries to put his arms around her. Each time “she went sifting through my hands, impalpable / as shadows are, and wavering like a dream.” Crying out in protest and perplexity, he wonders if this meeting is mere hallucination. He is like a child bewildered by the facts of mortality, but filled with a deep longing that those facts were otherwise.
The green formica kitchen table in Kalogeris’ poem is a direct descendant of that portal Odysseus dug in the sand, and Kalogeris’ Guide to Greece overall is a descendant of Book XI of the Odyssey. In this collection Kalogeris’ poetry not only opens a portal into a landscape of the dead. Throughout his Guide he is also asking, probing, wondering what exactly a cultural inheritance consists of. Kalogeris’ cultural legacy includes the great works and stories of classical antiquity, but it also makes room for a host of family legends, immigrant memories, stories of religious feast-days and secular rituals, and the many ways the “old-country” continues to live and breathe within one’s inner-life and present-tense experience. This also includes Kalogeris’ translations of half-dozen poems by those twentieth-century Greek poets mentioned earlier. And then at the portal of this book is the shade of an antecedent Greek text, the “first” Guide to Greece, written by Pausanias, a second-century (C.E.) prose writer who over the course of twenty-years trekked over mainland Greece, visiting ruins and sacred sites.
A word about Pausanias. He wrote at a time when Greece was occupied as an extension of the Roman Empire. As Kalogeris tells us, what Pausanias wrote was in effect a prose guide-book for Roman tourists. But in a Greece under occupation he was doing more than serving the tourists. By offering brief histories and mythic tales associated with the places he visited, he was doing a cultural geography, like Herodotus centuries before him, saving from oblivion some remnants of meaning and accomplishment. The figure of Pausanias wanders through the landscape of Kalogeris’ Guide. Sometimes Kalogeris writes about Pausanias, but at other times addresses him directly. Occasionally Kalogeris seems to adopt Pausanias as a persona, and at least once offers some of his own translations from the antecedent Guide. One could think of Pausanias as Kalogeris’ companion in his contemporary journey through the Greece he carries within, but I think it more apt to see Pausanias as yet another of those “shades” crowding the portal, wanting to speak and wanting to be heard. In that way we can think of Pausanias as a quasi-parent to Kalogeris’ Guide. It is also worth pointing out, as the poet does in an endnote, that some of the sites Pausanias visited and wrote about were places connected with Kalogeris’ “ancestral parentage.”
But as much as Pausanias is a companion, he is also a foil. Kalogeris’ Guide to Greece is not written for tourists. There is nothing breezy or superficial in these poems, and they obviously are not information-driven prose. Instead, Kalogeris’ mastery of the pentameter line gives his poetry a colloquial yet fully ceremonial feel to it. “Basil,” the prologue poem in the collection, recalls his father ritually blessing the house the poet grew up in.
Sometimes on Sundays, while we were still asleep,
My father blessed the house with a basil leaf
And a little glass half-filled with holy water.
The sprig was from our next-door neighbor’s garden.
And the holy water seemed no different to us
Than faucet water, although it came from church,
In clear plastic tubes that looked like medicine bottles
When they were filled with light on the kitchen shelf.
What is also hinted at in these lines is the poet’s desire to probe and question what exactly this blessing meant or still means to him. In the abstract, a cultural legacy seems a vast and amorphous term, barely a concept, but when brought down to specific lives and human endeavors, the legacy can become a source of wonder and possible wisdom. Later in the poem, Kalogeris recalls that before he knew it the whole house smelled of basil.
By the morning glimmer left on everything
The water happened to touch, drawing a bead
On the dilating bead that brightened the bureau’s brass handle,
And kept you focused on the here and now.
The poem ends with another ceremonial sprinkle from the basil twig at the father’s funeral, where the priest performs the same ritual before the altar, “where the sleeper refused to wake.”
Perhaps in the spirit of Pausanias, Kalogeris discovers some of the wisdom of his cultural inheritance in surprising places. In “The Deaf-Blind Girl,” Kalogeris recalls his time working in an institution as an attendant for a profoundly autistic child, one who had as an infant blinded herself with her own hands. She had to wear a styrofoam helmet and was often in restraints to keep her from self-harm. She was, recalls the poet, “the one we called Antigone.” The only times she seemed to find any pleasure was when she was standing at the sink, washing her hands in the flowing water. At those moments she would, Kalogeris tells us, unclench her hands like “flower buds” opening up, and only at those times would she open her otherwise clenched eyes. At the end of the poem, Kalogeris describes her standing before the flowing water, her gray-blue unseeing eyes open, and looking as if “she had solved the Sphinx’s riddle.” With the girl’s nickname given her by the staff, with this reference to the Sphinx, the poem thus conjures a Sophoclean universe of arbitrary, undeserved, unjust suffering. The etymology of the name Antigone tells us that this “spellbound little girl” is a daughter who is, ironically, worthy of her parents. There in the school for the deaf and blind, she is indeed an avatar of the maimed offspring of Oedipus.
That running water-faucet, like the green formica kitchen table, becomes a portal, and this time the mythic figure of Antigone rises to the surface. The short poem “Cricket Song” shows us another way in which the wisdom of the past can be alive in the present.
Titivízei. Those twittering cries the blackbird
Makes when it descends to drink from a pure
Mountain spring in late Seferis, a word
That seemed to draw on demotic roots so obscure
I couldn’t find it in any of my dictionaries–
Nothing from Oxford’s Modern and Byzantine Greek,
Or Liddell and Scott. Then I looked it up in your eyes,
Incredulous as you turned from the kitchen sink
To enlighten my ignorance with a terse couplet
Fresh from your girlhood, a song about what the crickets
Sing at the height of summer. The dripping faucet
Gleams, like a source that goes back to those early poets
Who loved to sing so much they forgot to eat,
So the gods turned the poets into creatures so tiny
That now they feed on the dew. Titivízei.
This story of how the Muses turned those early poets into cicadas is recounted in Plato’s Phaedrus, but what matters most here is the insight that has made its way down to this moment in the kitchen. Its genealogy ranges from Plato to Seferis, and through folk-tales over the centuries, through countless repetitions, until the poet’s mother recalls it at the kitchen sink. It is a living tradition.
But how is such a tradition kept alive? We should recall that Mnemosyne–the goddess of memory in Greek mythology–was the mother of the muses. The goddesses of the arts in effect were born out of memory crossed with the lightning energies of their father, Zeus. Thus the work they inspire is inevitably to some extent based on a foundation of remembering. Kalogeris’ poetry suggests that memory, whether it belongs to an individual or an entire culture, is not a storehouse packed with this or that artifact. It is not passive, but active, and its activity in part requires desire and choice. One has to want to remember in order to remember.
George Kalogeris’ Guide to Greece does not map a place called Greece, either past or present. What it maps is his desire to know what Greece has given him, and how it might matter in his life. He wants to know in the poem “Athanasios,” for example, what it meant to have had icons lit by votive candles in his childhood bedroom, the faces of a saint and the Virgin etching themselves into his consciousness. In another poem, “Iconostasis,” he wants to know what it means to hear the legend of monks on Crete who, when invaded, would disassemble an altarpiece, hide it among neighboring farms, and then reassemble it when the barbarians had left. In that poem he wants to conjure a moment when, the altarpiece back together, the believers stood before it praying, “face to face with the images of God.”
In “Clearing My Throat,” Kalogeris says that his own coughing “sounded exactly / like my father, who never got past sixty.” He recalls his father “still trying to cough it up / Struggling hard to tell me something in Greek.” However, since the “bloodless shades” cannot speak, the best his father could do now was “speak” to him through this cough. Though there is whimsy in this poem, it too shows us memory in action, crossing boundaries of space and time, this life and whatever life there is beyond. The Greece that Kalogeris guides us through, the one that he carries within, is composed of both individual and cultural memories, layer upon layer of them, each in dramatized, dynamic interaction with one another. In the process of reading these poems, this poet’s inheritance will for a while belong to the reader too. Kalogeris’ Guide to Greece is thus, in a word, trapézika.