Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: A History of Too Much

by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

Publication Date: April 2018.
Red Hen Press

Review by Ginny Short

Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s most recent work is a collection of poetry that draws the reader into a disquieting yet tender exploration of her adopted country and her father’s ancestry. She moved to Greece as a young scholar and has loved, lived and raised a daughter there. Becoming a part of this European world, but viewing it from afar as well, this curious and sometimes precarious relationship provides an unusual and intimate view into a country stricken by crippling hardship in the wake of the financial crisis of the 2000’s that left no one untouched.

The poems are startling and vivid, tender and brutal. The book is divided into three sections. Rather than section titles Kalfopoulou underscores the groupings with epigrams that foretell just how much of “too much” you will move through in that section.

Section One starts with a quote from Tomas Transtromer’s work, “Further In.” We are warned: you will come in further than what you would choose by design. In the opening poem Kalfopoulou says, “After so much grief, the darkness has seeped into our dreams.” Here she juxtaposes the beautiful with the baleful, the dream with the waking. “Carpets of lavender from the Easter Trees, Paskalies/and their aroma cover our broken pavements,/our streets where the homeless sleep.” What is real and what is dream? They overlap so seamlessly in this poem that, like the poet, you can’t help but wonder.

The poems in this section wander from the historical, to the present, mapping the ground of Greece’s past: its conquerors, its resistances, its pride. From the extravagance of a country groaning under the weight of its own richness (“There is too much here, the sapphire, the thistle/the oregano blooms in June”)  to the extravagance of its own passions (“Revolution is a sacred word/in Greece, it means there are always ways to resist”) to the rich color and feelings of its people (“She’s used to passionate disappointments,/too used to them to care if you’ll love her or forget her.”) You want to flee, but flee where?  Kalfopoulou asks. We find under her keen gaze that there is nowhere to flee.

The second section starts with Italo Calvino asking “But how can we hope to save ourselves in that which is most fragile?” Here we travel in to what is most brittle, starting with our own thin and delicate skin, she explores the depth and translucence of our most vulnerable selves.  “My father is almost tender as his skin turns the color of browned leaves” and “I would notice my skin – the spotted browns of crusting leaves that marked my flesh like his…” Kalfopoulou unapologetically displays her own vulnerability as she talks frankly about her own difficult relationships of opposition with her father, her friends, lovers and her country. And yet she also poises us at our most vulnerable moments, when children grow, when lovers die, when countries can’t escape the memories of things past. One of the most poignant poems in this section tells about a man who missed a flight and his bewilderment, his lostness “is a kind of premonition,” says Kalfopoulou. A sense of the loss of the things that help us, hold us up, keep us moving, pervades. “The wound is an eye,/also a mouth, always an opening.” Kalfopoulou says in the poem that ends this section. We are left with the sense of deep longing, and a realization that whether people open their purses or close their eyes, this generosity doesn’t ever really stop, but it doesn’t really heal the wounds, either.

The final section starts with a quote from Monica Sok’s “Nocturne:” World/throw it off then! Throw it!/It doesn’t matter what covers you when the sky sleeps./In the light you are a dangerous place.” The opening poems throws the doors wide to the tragedy unfolding with the refugees that have amassed on Greek shores. I know that Kalfopoulou has worked with these stricken groups to give succor to these human souls, and her heartbreak shines like moonlight in this poem: Dust, fairytale pollen, winds of the Sahara, dust coating the people like a weight, the “spring at the end of fairytales.” Her chilling reminder at the end that “we forget that Scheherazade began each Arabian Night to save her life.”

“Coming Down the Mountain Before Dark” reminds us that we can journey as fast as we want to get to where we think we are going, but “how unexpectedly all falls to dark” but despite the thrill, the adrenaline, “the threat, like sex/and felt a sudden thrill, remembered/a praying mantis, the bee it caught/inside a blossom’s heart – it ate with such intent,/consumed the body till there was nothing left:” a wise warning of our own complexities.

The penultimate poem is a series of micro-vignettes of a country in turmoil. Should you buy toilet paper or olives? The cicadas still sing, people still complain and life goes on. Woven in between the grocery store and the lines at the bank is a micro story of a girl writing a story of her mother’s rape and murder. You can’t help but wonder if maybe rape is something other than what it appears to be. “Grief,” Kalfopoulou says, “will keep you reaching back/for what is not there.”

This is a wonderful, luminous and hopeful book in spite of its theme of “too much”; it shows us we never have enough love, enough empathy. There is never too much of that.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Imagist Poem
William Pratt, ed.

Review by Ginny Short

The Imagist movement took place primarily in the years 1908-1917, a movement which William Pratt describes and explains in his thorough introductions.  His purpose in writing this book was to showcase this movement which gave birth to the modern poetry form we recognize today as “free verse.” His introduction(s) provides a thorough backdrop to understand and approach the revolutionary change that this movement brought to English verse. According to Pratt, no poet of the modern era is untouched by this movement, founded by Ezra Pound, H.D. Richard Aldington and F.S Flint with significant influence by an number of other poets.

The “rules” of the imagist form were simple, as dictated by one of the chief protagonists of the movement, Ezra Pound, and consisted of three main elements: 1) concrete words showing verbal images, 2) verbal economy and brevity, and 3) verbal rhythm through free verse.  Influenced by Greek and Japanese and French poetry, the Imagist movement changed the face of English verse.  This book brings together a critical overview of the fundamental principles of the form as well as a compilation of poems that illustrate the main principles of the genre.

This book acts, in a poetic sense, as a biography of an era, an era of change and violence, a world torn by the first world war, and an upheaval of poetry and art, and presents a simplified overview and sampling of some of the best of the movement that changed the world of poetics.  This is an anthology, so unlike a work that may have a single theme running through the poems, this does not, unless you count the fact that each of these represents a snapshot of an “image” as seen and described by its observer/poet.  Thus “imagism” is the theme that runs through, and the wide range of subjects and concentrations is delightful and stimulating.

Most of the poems are short – a hallmark of the Imagist form – but each one is a window into the mind of the poets that populate this volume.  Greek references and cadences flow through many of the poems (“Dorian Girl”, “Hermes of the Ways”, “Lesbia”, and “Venus Transiens”). Japanese influence is less obvious (though evident in Pound’s work), but its spare verse is apparent (“Ts’ai Chi’h”, “Curfew”, and “Autumn Rain”). There is very little simile employed in these works, but a great deal of metaphor, again a hallmark of the Imagistes.  Each poem pinpoints a single moment or image and describes that, concentrates on it, if you will.

Each of the poets is unique.  T.E. Hulme uses very simple language to describe his vision: of beauty, death, and lovely vignettes of nature.  His poem “The Poet” strikes me particularly.  Here he describes the artist both in nature and in mind, in imagination seeing the world around him, bringing them in to the “smooth table”, or clear, smooth mind and arranging, rearranging, dreaming them into a poem.

F.S. Flint, on the other hand, uses language that is more elevated, lofty and his poems are longer with a bit more pathos.  “The Beggar” shows a mean, degraded individual who creates beauty from his suffering: “wind from an empty belly/wrought magically/into the wind.”

The poetry of Ezra Pound shows a wider diversity than the others and is perhaps why he was considered the leader of this group.  Obvious Greek and Chinese/Japanese imagery and syntax abound in these works. “In a Station of the Metro” contains only two lines: these are succinct and direct and very Japanese, very Zen. One of my favorites is Gentildonna.  Gentildonna is an Italian word for gentlewoman. In this poem she “passed” which could mean she died or she passed by. Now those who walk in the world where she once walked and was not noticed, now these “endure” a gray world without sunlight.  It is a sad poem, but the images are graphic and gripping.  I am personally drawn to the Japanese influence more that the Greek or Italian.  It is obvious Pound studied Japanese or Chinese texts.  His “Fan-Piece” is clearly oriental in both its subject and its diction: clear, sparse, and delicate. In three lines one can see the lady set aside by the lord, the fan stands in as her surrogate.

I particularly liked Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.  This poem contained a series of vignettes in which blackbirds appeared.   It is striking how one thing can evoke so many different emotions and take so many different stances, and Steven’s classic piece does this masterfully, evoking thought and feeling. Reading e.e. cummings brings me to my original romance with poetry: it was he who first captured my poetic imagination.  The way he plays with form is fun and meaningful.  His 1(a simply shows a leaf falling, and ends with an archaic word “oneliness” which simply means the state of being one. e.e. cummings is known for his word play and word imagery.

Although the term “free verse” is used to describe the imagist ideal, it was interesting to note the wide variety of forms used by the artists.  Many were strictly free, but “forms” were used as well.  All of the examples of Adelaide Crapsey’s work was in the form known as cinquain, while 1(a by e.e. cummings was written in the style known as calligram, or “shaped” poem. Some poems exhibited rhyme, or were written as couplets.  This is an illustration of the further examination of the credo, which Pratt states as the “form should spring from the inner control of the impression or image” and is not simply without form.

One of the precepts of the imagists, according to Pratt, was that the symbolic meaning should be inherent in the image and not be forced onto it.  I believe these examples succeeded in showing that. This I believe is one of the precepts of Zen thought, and is part and parcel of every image herein.

Pratt states that the imagist concept was aimed at concentration on and illumination of an image, to use clear and precise language to do so without the use of rhetoric or sentimentality. Over all, the poetry here was startling in its imagery, and inspirational in its complexity and simultaneous simplicity…I was delighted to read these.  The wide range of focused images, from people to fish to lizards to landscapes shows an inspirational variety of effects and ways to use images. This will be a book I will return to again and again!