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.

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