“A Line that Bears its Leveling Pain”: The Craft of George Kalogeris’ Winthropos

Winthropos
by George Kalogeris
(LSU Press, 2021, 106 pages, $20.95)

Winthropos, the title of George Kalogeris’s brilliant and moving new book of poems, signals in that one word its project: to explore the poet’s hybrid existence, straddling two cultures, Greek and American, and to try to make sense of a home that is, uneasily, but invigoratingly and profoundly, always “in between.” So, in the title poem, deceptively light and simple, the poet’s father asks him (he’s a child), what he will do if he gets lost:

And if you get lost, Yorgáki, what will you do?
“I’ll find some older people and tell them my name.”
Anything else? “I’ll tell them where I live.”

And where is that? “Forty-five Locust Ave.”
And where is that? “Winthrop.” Then comes his vague,
Winthrop, Yorgáki? Or is it Winthropos…

We meet the poet first as his father addresses him, Yorgáki, in Greek. And in his joking Greekifying of the Massachusetts town’s name, we have the predicaments the book as a whole seeks to address: how to find oneself when one is lost, and how not to be lost when one’s home will always present a dilemma of translation. How do we name what carries over from the past? The adult poet remembers the conversation, in “late middle age” (having lost his way, as if in a dark wood):

Only now that I’m older than he ever was,
And even in late middle age wherever I am
In my life I still don’t have the foggiest clue,

Do I hear the rhyme. Obvious, unavoidable.
It tells me the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle
Is Anthropos. My father pulling my leg.

Yorgáki, Winthropos, Anthropos? Who am I when I’m at home? Who is asking, and in what language? There are many different ways of being lost. One way the poet finds himself, following his father’s cues, is in rhymes, riddles, and ancient literature. He listens to the sounds of names he has been given, and something else comes rippling from the rhymes. When the Sphinx encounters you at a crossroads, you must recognize yourself, Anthropos, as the mysterious creature that goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, three in the evening. Your identity will shift from child, to adult, to an elder who walks with a cane. If you can recognize yourself in these shifts, you will not be lost.

In the carefully shaped arc of Winthropos, as a whole, Kalogeris traces such shifts in his own experience. Though the first poem is shaped by his father’s loving speech, in the second poem he is “Talking to Myself About Poetry.” And we learn that it was, precisely, the loss of his father, when he was twenty-four, that led him to start “writing verse, in earnest.” Halfway through Winthropos we will again hear his father call him by name, Yorgo, but it will be in a poem called “Hades,” ending “Down there where nothing breaks the silence.” The loss of his father profoundly shakes his life, but his father’s “rhymes” can help him move forward on his own. He revives his mother’s voice, too, in “Talking to Myself About Poetry”:

Just saying: “My heart was in my mouth, Meroúla”
Sings back the nightingale in your mother’s voice.
Whatever you do, do not give up on it.

By the third poem, though, the profoundly moving, “Baby Monitor,” the poet listens in the dark for the now much feebler voice of his mother, as the grown child takes care of his failing parent.

In fact, the poetic line becomes a kind of lifeline, bearing the voices of the past into the present, long after the speakers are gone. “Talking to Myself About Poetry” opens with this injunction:

Whatever you do, do not give up on it.
Keep listening for someone walking behind you—
However faint those footfalls, they’re not unheard.

Trust that your language, lost in the deep dark wood
Of your larynx, will find another poet’s guidance
To read you back to yourself, and break the silence.

When your voice falters, think of your mother’s voice, your father’s voice, the voices of (as the poem goes on to mention) Antonio Machado, Seamus Heaney, Juan de la Cruz. Think of Zbigniew Herbert, or Adam Zagajewski, or Leopardi (poets convened in other poems in Winthropos). Think of “Rilke Rereading Hölderlin,” or Cavafy, or Emerson. Kalogeris’ poems carry on a sustained conversation with the myriad writers who have sustained him. What “Talking to Myself,” reminds us is that the most important lines are not simply read, but spoken, summoned like the heart into the mouth of the speaker, given breath and body there. The “deep dark wood / Of your larynx” is a Dantean crossroads, where both voice and speaker, about to fail, may lean on the heartfelt guides who have come before.

The father’s play on words, Winthropos /Anthropos, offers a pattern that Kalogeris returns to often. A Greek word will be offered up, like a talisman, tried out like a key. “Dandelions,” for example, begins with the weed’s Greek name:

Horta. A weed. But also their low-key way
Of exhorting how lucky we were. At those gatherings
When the tables were laden but the feast off limits,
Until they had told us again about the “greens

Of the dandelion.” And how salty they were when boiled
In the soot-black cauldrons of their turbulent epoch.
Those slender swaying tendrils, just fortifying
Enough to keep whole families alive.

Horta. Glottal clump with the pull of its
Uprootedness tenaciously intact.
Sinewy handfuls scavenged on scrawny goat-paths.
And we the seedlings of elders scattered like puffballs….

The Greek name, its etymology and mouthfeel, connects the dandelions to the immigrants who honor them – and tell their stories – at family gatherings. It is Kalogeris’ distinct gift to endow the description of the sounds of the word, its “Glottal clump with the pull of its / Uprootedness tenaciously intact,” with the character and qualities of both the weed and the people who honor it. “Dandelions” recalls the “kitchen table songs” of his previous book, Guide to Greece, in which, as Fred Marchant has written, the table becomes a portal to the past, “the great works and stories of classical antiquity,” but also to “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.”1

There are many kitchen-table poems in Winthropos, unpacking the mysteries of “Peponia” (honeydew melons, stored in their crates in the cellar); or of stafýlia, the shining fruit in “Weighing Grapes.” In the beautiful, darkly complex poem, “Mavro Daphne” (black laurel), the myth of the nymph’s transformation is distilled in the grapes fermenting in the cellar. However, a shift of emphasis accumulates. The melons, the grapes, and the wine are not on the kitchen table, but down in the cellar, in the dark. Increasingly, the effort to retrieve and unpack their names feels like a descent into Hades, into the mysteries of death. When Kalogeris touches the jars of wine, they send “a strange chill through me as I came to grips / With what I was sent to fetch.”

Mavro Daphne. It sloshed against my chest
When I carried a jar upstairs, as if its Greek
Concoction was ready to burst from the airtight cork

That was stuck in its throat.

Instead, the wine speaks in “slow secretions,”

As if the bitter essence of certain ominous
Things—like the fate of Aunt Pota’s older brother,
Shot in the head at the end of the civil war—

Was being instilled without my being told.
But it won’t mature, till those indelible Rorschach
Blots on the basement floor keep spreading further,

Becoming my own, as they darken, flesh and blood.

How do the stories of the dead seep through and speak? Somehow, they have to become the poet’s own.

Ultimately, Winthropos features somewhat less of the kitchen table than its predecessor did, and something more of the grave-side and the hospital bed, less of the family feast and more of the self in extremis. There is more urgency to the exploration of connections to the familial past, as these connections threaten to become extinguished. Two related motifs recur with greater frequency: the failing, mortal body (of relatives and friends), and the faltering voice (often, the poet’s own). The struggle to hear and understand the voice of the past is more difficult, as is the related struggle to articulate it and make it clear in the present. One thinks, for example, of the “tremulous speaker” in the near-heart-breaking poem, “Baby Monitor”:

She’s sound asleep. Or her Alzheimer’s is. I can hear
Each breath she takes through the monitor I keep
On my desk, hooked up as it is to the one upstairs,

Beside her bed. The kind of listening
Device that’s used for keeping track of infants.
The tremulous speaker could fit in the palm of your hand.

A little green light pulses every time
It picks up any trace of my mother’s voice.
Babble of baby talk and muffled whimpers.

Those garbled bits expelled from her speech machine,
Its plastic speaker propped all night on its stand,
Calling out softly some rhythmical ruminant something

So automatic it might be dreaming out loud,
In my mother’s oblivious voice—O Sibylline
Machine that makes the incomprehensible clear:

“…and please help her…and please guide him…and stop
It from spreading to the kidneys, please, dear Lord…
And make that enough to meet their mortgage payments…”

I’m privy to a prayer that no one else
Can hear. At least tonight. Some primal psalm
Where all are nameless, but none of them forgotten.

And please and please and please goes the little green pulsing light.

This understated, moving poem shows Kalogeris’ deft and subtle control of shifting diction. The low-key, almost flat scene-setting of the first two stanzas, flickers to life with the sound of the word, “tremulous.” The poem itself, then, takes on the work of the “speaker,” registering the difficult texture of the “Babble,” and “garbled bits” of the middle stanzas, and then slowly metamorphosing into something more musical:

…some rhythmical ruminant something
So automatic it might be dreaming out loud,
In my mother’s oblivious voice.

The tact of these lines, spelling out the eerie quasi-ventriloquism of the listening device is astonishing. It prepares the way for the sudden apostrophe, “O Sibylline / Machine that makes the incomprehensible clear.” And then, at last, the voice and its (intermittent) prayers break through. There’s a kinship between these overheard scraps of prayer, and the elderly voices in Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “The Moose,” overheard in the back of a bus on a long ride through a dark wood:

in the creakings and noises,
an old conversation
not concerning us,
but recognizable, somewhere,
back in the bus,
Grandparents’ voices

uninterruptedly talking,
in Eternity…
[…]
“Yes…” that peculiar
affirmative. “Yes…”
A sharp, indrawn breath,
half-groan, half-acceptance,
that means “Life’s like that.
We know it (also death).”

Kalogeris, like Bishop, can shift, as if effortlessly, from the ordinary to the almost otherworldly. His mother seems to drift toward another dimension, her prayers becoming naturalized into pattern. But Kalogeris’ poem is bleaker than Bishop’s; the listener is alone, “privy to a prayer that no one else / Can hear.” And yet, there is a kind of comfort in this account of her prayers, “Some primal psalm / Where all are nameless, but none of them forgotten.” The monitor hears the prayers, and so does the poem. How many works of translation are being performed here, and what are the boundaries we are carried across? In the final line of the poem, both speaker and listener are merged into the “please and please and please” of “the little green pulsing light,” in the sustaining momentum of the poetic line.

The poet’s repeated insistence, “Whatever you do, do not give up on it,” echoes a line from Miklós Radnóti’s “Seventh Eclogue,” translated by Kalogeris (published in Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation): “Concentrate on the line / A line that bears its leveling pain.” Radnóti’s poem, written in a labor camp in Yugoslavia in World War II, was found in his raincoat pocket after his corpse was exhumed. Late at night, behind barbed wire, listening to groans, Radnóti dreams of home:

Are the homes we left still standing? The ones
…………..We so often describe in our letters home,
Even as the bombs are falling? The groans all sound the same
…………..When I close my eyes, but who can predict
If the man on my right will wake to see
…………..His home intact? And is there a home
For the poem with stately measure, a place where people still love
…………..To recite hexameter lines by heart—

Given the state we’re in? Concentrate on the line,
…………..A line that bears its leveling pain
Without the slash of accent marks. Call it a lifeline,
…………..Inching along the page like a slug
In the dark, but not so dark that you don’t pick up the gleam
…………..Of its slime, if the mind’s glow is steady
As a searchlight. Concentrate on Homer’s meter,
…………..As the line squiggles blind as an earthworm.

Reciting the line, concentrating on Homer’s meter, is not a form of escape; it does not block out the poet’s predicament. It doesn’t restore his home, or restore him to the company of those who “still love to recite hexameter lines by heart.” If anything, it calls them further into question. But it gives the poet a way to measure out the dark, “inching along,” like blind Homer, like the blind earthworm. It gives him away to steady “the mind’s glow.” Throughout Winthropos, we feel the urgency and necessity of this fragile line, and the kinds of leveling pain it is asked to bear. It is Kalogeris’ craft, the subtlety and grace of his measured lines (most often, though not exclusively, pentameter) that makes meter matter, like a heartbeat or a pulse.

In “Reciting Henry Vaughn in the MRI,” a chemo patient recites Henry Vaughan’s “The Night”:

Music he felt in the marrow of his bones,

Sore as they were from the aftereffects of chemo.
And as his stressed-out body was being scanned
By ultra-violet, cancer-detecting rays,

The vigilant meter kept trying its level best
To steady him, until he felt suffused
By the visionary poem’s illumination:

“There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling
Darkness.” And saying that, it leaves no doubt
Devotion’s beautiful verse believes what it says

About salvation, alive as we are to the dead
Metaphysical poet’s voice as it speaks to us
From out of the dark abyss he’s singing about.

There’s a comfortingly peculiar division of labor here: the “vigilant meter…trying its level best,” and the “beautiful verse believes what it says.” It is as if the recited poem takes over the work of steadying and believing from the “stressed-out body,” and the patient merely witnesses the effort, at least “until the conveyor belt had carried him out / Of the concrete portal, out of the lyric poem’s / Hermetic seal.” After that, however, as the poem concludes, “not even tender / Henry Vaughan could help him get through the night. / And the via negativa was just that.”

As counterbalance to poems that carry us to the extinction of the voice and of the self, Winthropos also gives us poems like “Speech Class,” and “Berlitz School of Language,” about the struggle to articulate and develop a voice. In “Speech Class,” Kalogeris remembers the torment of grammar school Enunciation classes, and the escape from that torment in walking along the ocean:

…walking home from school along Shore Drive,
Thálassa spoke to me in my parents’ tongue,
The syllables as palpable as pebbles—
And me, by the waves, its fluent Demosthenes.

But I really wasn’t at home in that language, either.
Betwixt and between, I stopped at the frothing lip
Of switchback currents. On protean Winthrop Beach.
When the sky turned overcast, and the whole Atlantic

Went dark as a blackboard chalked by the scavenger’s shriek.
Then cloudy water, my favorite teacher. The old
Shape-shifter: “Repeat after me: I’m nobody,
But I can become whoever you want me to be.”

Demosthenes, who overcame his stammer by practicing speaking with pebbles in his mouth, becomes the model for Kalogeris here, though the pebbles are replaced by difficult sounds of English words. The sea speaks to him in his parents’ Greek, Thálassa, but he can’t retreat to the past; he “really wasn’t at home in that language, either.” He has to live in the present, on “protean Winthrop Beach,” where the ocean has an English name, Atlantic. If you get lost, Yorgáki, what will you do? Where is the language in which you can be at home? Faced with the dark blackboard of the cloudy water, the poet takes his cue from shape-shifting Proteus, submerged here in an adjective. His name, at this boundary, will be neither George nor Yorgáki, but nobody, able to shift and change as the switchback currents demand. He will scavenge, like the gulls, and make his poems by embracing their slippery sounds, turning them to his own ends:

If I can catch that shrill, re-circling cry
At just that right spontaneous pitch, I’m back
in Third Grade, hearing the prepubescent screech
of laughter I caused by saying: I was in Speech Class

With Mrs. Sea Gull. Whose name was really Segal—
But not what I said when stern Miss Radcliffe asked me
To state the reason for my tardiness.
It was Poetry that made me late, for my life—

And here’s my note, Miss Radcliffe. Mark it down
As wingéd words, but only if the lift
And let-down is one fell swoop of updraft. Then redraft.
Enunciation lessons with Mrs. Sea Gull.

Kalogeris’ Protean craft makes his understated poems vehicles of profound feeling. The variety, grace, and subtlety of his music creates lines able to bear all kinds of “leveling pain.” In Winthropos, he confronts dislocation, disease, disaster. The strength and variety of these lines stem from his dedication and devotion to what has made him, the love of his family, languages, and culture. He has crafted what he can out of the gifts he has been given, gifts that feel acutest at the moments they are most threatened, consoling through deep losses they cannot, of course, restore. Kalogeris acknowledges the limits of craft in the penultimate poem of the book, “Daedalos,” fixing on that ingenious craftsman as he registers the failure of his tools to save his child, the

………………………………………………..primordial maker,

Depicting himself in the act of suspending grief,
The chisel fallen free from his outstretched hands—

The father still trying to catch his falling son
Falling forever through all the brilliant skies

Of his spurious creation. And the tool falling too.

This poem rhymes Daedalos with other figures of parental grief: Emerson, grieving the loss of his son Waldo, the goddess Demeter mourning Persephone, and his own Aunt Efstathía, inconsolable over the loss of her son, Petro. Kalogeris confronts this last scene plainly and directly, his

Aunt Efstathía, lying facedown on the earth,
Screaming into the ground the name of her son,

Petro, begging the stones to take her to Petro.

It is not unlike the moment when King Lear is forced to bear the death of Cordelia: “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.” And the priest and the elders, aghast, don’t know what to do. And yet, though the grief is tragic, Kalogeris’ poem is pastoral, offering consolation from an unexpected quarter, his mother:

And now my totally-out-of-it mother steps out
Of oblivion, as if part of a ritual

Too old to ever be touched by memory loss.
Ella, kaïménei. “Get up, wretch.” And she does—

My aunt with blades of grass on her long black dress,
My mother absentmindedly picking them off.

Embracing, they slap each other on the back
And across both shoulder blades, in that village way

Greek women show their mutual, hovering grief.

Paradoxically, his mother can speak because she herself is hardly there, moved to speak from the reflex of ritual forms, rather than in her own person. The power of her exhortation, “Get up, wretch,” is, it seems, both miraculous and ordinary, no stranger than the impulse to pick the blades of grass, “absentmindedly,” off of her sister’s dress. The clarity and deep feeling of this scene is remarkable. It is one more scene, like so many in this book, of voices being summoned to sustain us when we are ready to give up. And yet here, it is not the Protean poet, but his failing mother, who speaks. The poem closes with a description of daedala, primitive wooden figurines. Their featurelessness is compared to his aunt’s shock, to “Emerson’s blank bewilderment,” and to the ways that loss and grief have the power to unmake us, ways that an artist’s craft is powerless to refute. When self and craft seem to fail, Winthropos suggests that what keeps us going is the comfort embodied in the simple forms of these inherited figures, keeping us company, even though – as the poem admits in its final line – “We still don’t know what they are.” With this image, Winthropos has come full circle, bringing us back to the poet at a crossroads, in “Talking to Myself About Poetry”:

Whatever you do, do not give up on it.
Keep listening for someone walking behind you—
However faint those footfalls they’re not unheard.

The reader, invited into this beautiful book, is, like the poet, sustained by the undying rhythms Kalogeris has listened for and crafted into lines that move us most powerfully when they are most acutely aware of the limits of their own power.

 

1 Note: See “Trapézika: A Review of George Kalogeris’ Guide to GreeceTrapézika: A Review of George Kalogeris’ Guide to Greece | Literary Matters

Jennifer Clarvoe

Jennifer Clarvoe

Jennifer Clarvoe’s first book of poems, Invisible Tender, won the Poets Out Loud Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A Rome Prize afforded her time to work on her second book, Counter-Amores. She has received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the James Merrill House. Recently retired from teaching at Kenyon College, she lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and is working on poems for her third book.
Jennifer Clarvoe

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Author: Jennifer Clarvoe

Jennifer Clarvoe’s first book of poems, Invisible Tender, won the Poets Out Loud Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A Rome Prize afforded her time to work on her second book, Counter-Amores. She has received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the James Merrill House. Recently retired from teaching at Kenyon College, she lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and is working on poems for her third book.