Eleni Vakalo | Before Lyricism | Ugly Duckling Press $18.00

Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism appears in Ugly Duckling Press’ ‘Lost Literature’ series. Among other authors in this series are Laura Riding, Man Ray, Duchamp and Cesar Vallejo. Vakalo, herself, was clearly a very important figure in post-war Greek culture; having studied Art History at the Sorbonne, she and her husband, Yiorgos Vakalo, founded a school of Art and Design, at which she taught. She wrote seven books of art history, was a newspaper art critic and published fourteen volumes of poetry. Of these, Before Lyricism comprises six book-length poems published between 1954 and 1966, and the book notes that these six had been gathered into a single sequence by Vakalo, herself. Something else to note is that Vakalo had been born in Istanbul in 1921, and her parents moved to Athens in 1922, so Vakalo, herself, was part of the great exchange of populations which occurred in those years; an exchange which these days might be called something else. One other important thing which colours this book is that Greek poetry of the early and mid-twentieth century was much influenced by the reading of French surrealism of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which Vakalo, herself, must have been exposed to during her stay in Paris. Vakalo’s excellent translator, Karen Emmerich, doesn’t mention this in her detailed and very useful afterword and perhaps I am making too much of this. However, the approaches of surrealism seem so present in the book that I find it a little strange that the word doesn’t occur at all.

Emmerich’s afterword also outlines the difficulties of translating Vakalo’s Greek. As Emmerich notes, Greek is an inflected language in which nouns are declined into gender and case, and verbs conjugated in tenses and persons. Vakalo played extensively with grammar from the start of her writing. As Emmerich notes, again, where grammatical function is shown with ending, a writer can move subjects and objects, for example, around the sentence in the knowledge that their grammatical ‘place’ will be understood and that ambiguities will be ironed out by the endings. However, Vakalo constantly undermines these kinds of understanding. Emmerich give the example of the fifteen short lines of the poem ‘Digression about the Spider’, in which there is no main verb, i.e. the sentence isn’t actually a sentence there are three nouns which could act as subjects and several nouns which act as either subjects or objects. Vakalo also extensively uses what is known in English as the ‘dangling participle’ as in ‘Mooing loudly, the farmer guided his cows across the road.’ Here the ‘ing’ form (the present participle) floats free, to amusing effect. Emmerich comments that ‘nearly all Vakalo’s participles dangle.’ The result of all this grammatical jiggery-pokery is that, in Greek, the poems will tend to float as entities; their directness relentlessly undermined. It should be noted here, though, that the book is not a bi-lingual edition. It is a testament to Emmerich’s success as a translator that at least some of that airy-ness is present in so many of these translations.

One of the French poets who may have influenced Vakalo is Yves Bonnefoy. Vakalo’s poem ‘My Dove’ from the sequence ‘The Meaning of the Blind’ seems directly inspired by Bonnefoy’s ‘Douve’ poems from 1953. Vakalo’s sequence dates from 1962, and the particular ‘My Dove’ poem seems to pick on the phoenix-like quality of Bonnefoy’s ‘Douve’, ‘Its feathers engulfed by hot blood / Sometimes cracking the window / Gently / The departing breeze takes one / Lays it on the grass with the dew / And sends it away/ Death quivering with that heat / And it’s barely dawn’. Here Vakalo plays off the imaginary with the exquisitely real, which is one of Bonnefoy’s brilliances. On the one hand, we have the precise, visual detail of the breeze catching the feather and laying it on the grass with the dew. On the other, we have the presence of the cracked window, and the animation of death. Elsewhere in this sequence, the surrealism comes more to the surface, ‘It was darkness and the great silent clot of wind that when it stands waiting is a dense king // And I had to visit the embassy of the unbridled where you sense but don’t feel until the time comes’ As Emmerich notes in her introduction, Vakalo cheerfully eschews punctuation, thus the ‘things’ in the passage run through and into each other. However, if we go back to the title of the sequence, ‘The Meaning of the Blind’ some sense of how these items might actually relate to each other does emerge.

Preceding ‘The Meaning of the Blind’ by three years is the sequence ‘Description of the Body’. Again the title might conflate two of Vakalo’s key themes the sense of artistic depiction and the clear sensuousness of much of Valako’s world. It is in this sequence, in particular, that Vakalo’s brilliance as a poet is perhaps most clearly shown. It is a real pity that the Greek originals are not published here as the language pushes and noses around ideas of the body, sensations and how the body might be found in the world, as in this example, ‘The body you see with simple limbs, some again at rest, with slight constant tremors, the dull light bodies collect and the other from the sun they hide on days that suddenly turn dark, conceives // The great silent proliferations, in our sleep, of the lives of leaves’. Other than the commas, there is no other punctuation here. And, as Emmerich comments in her afterword, Vakalo the art historian, deployed the lines very carefully upon the page; thus, in this edition, poem fragments are placed in space in the centre of a page, or put at the bottom of the page, so you almost come upon them on the white extent. In the case of ‘Description of the body’, the depiction of the body and the words on the page almost become one. Vakalo creates a kind of phenomenology bodily placement and sensation, and I wondered if she had come across this very same thing in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty which was published in the ‘fifties.

At first the passage seems like a simple description of the body, ‘you see with simple limbs’; although we might ask what exactly is ‘simple’ about the limbs? And how are ‘some’ of the limbs at rest, while others are not. Then the bodies collect ‘dull light’ and ‘the other from the sun’. Do we assume that ‘the other’ means ‘the other light’ and that the noun is elided, here or is there a different ‘other’ involved? A sunlight which is held in the body and hidden on dark days to conceive, how? And then the suddenly move into sleep and ‘leaves’. Again, we might wonder if there was a rhyme in the original Greek between ‘conceive’ and ‘leaves’, or whether this was Emmerich’s doing. However, what Vakalo/Emmerich do here is work the sensuousness of the body into a kind of meaning of the body, and Vakalo/Emmerich’s achievement is create poetry in which language, meaning and form are at one and the same time wrested and skewed but also inevitable and right.

by Ian Pople

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