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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Mark Neely reviews

Earliest Worlds by Eleni Sikelianos

Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2001. 219pp.
USD$14.95  ISBN I-56689-114-9

This piece is 1 600 words or about four printed pages long

WORDSWORTH walked through his poems. In Earliest Worlds, New York poet Eleni Sikelianos opts for another form of transportation. “Riding my bike through the blackbirds at dusk, it descended on me,” she writes of the doom her speaker feels at nightfall, robber of sight. The bike ride is appropriate to this poet’s way of seeing: slow enough for careful inspection, fast enough for some objects to blur into strange conglomerates.
    Earliest Worlds contains not one, but two ambitious volumes of poems: Blue Guide, and Of Sun, Of History, Of Seeing. Although the books share the balance of concentration and abandon necessary for their slightly increased speed of travel, the boundary between them is clearly defined, and either can be appreciated on its own. Together, they cover more ground than some careers.
    The first of the two collections, Blue Guide, is an impossible travel book, exploring the equally complex geographies of the physical universe and the creative mind. It begins with Sikelianos’s own version of the cruelest month:

It is not enough that the buds have come out. It is not enough that it goes a few degrees warmer in the world. The waiter in the park is trying to read my mind. Or is it the garden, is it the water or is it, is it. The little steps through the gravel. Then it is spring, and the tourists have begun to fill up the city like a box of arms and legs.

This first poem, one of the untitled prose pieces that appear throughout the book, hints at what is to come. For Sikelianos, every discovery leads to a new mystery. It isn’t enough to note the rising mercury and budding plants. They are only a place to begin poetic inquiry, an invitation to study the sun, the quality of light, and the science with which we grope toward our minimal understanding of the world.
    Sikelianos seems to have real respect for physicists and other explorers of the universe (one of the only cited quotations in the book is from Steven Hawking), but she also recognizes that discovery steals from our imagination even as it adds to our knowledge. Here is a bit of “Chapters: of I Define the Darkness Correct”:

It was just before Easter

when they took ether from us
they took ether from us
because they discovered light

was both particle and wave, fructi-
fying itself, traveling
solo, & today in the metro was the thumbprint of a shadow just above

or just below the clavicle
of a woman

traveling there.

The sentences in Blue Guide move gracefully from light to shadow, from thought to image, from the ethereal to the metro. Striking imagery and word choice are only part of what makes Sikelianos one of the most surprising poets around. Her line breaks are uniquely hers, beautifully jolting without any winking self-congratulation. Punctuation is as important as anything in this poet’s work, especially her distinctive placement of parentheses. The sheer variety of uses these normally shy marks are put to is something to see.
    Sikelianos’s poetry culls its language from many sources. The discourses of physics, biology, anthropology and medicine are wrestled into lyric in “Of the True Human Fold,” where the exotic language of the body is rooted to the page by a spine of ampersands:

& I am of the skull & corpus vertebrata hiding inside
the microscopic structure of a bone

& my osteoclasts will tear it down & my osteoblasts will build it back

& I am of chordata & endoskeleton hiding inside
a star the buildings of dust that stuff

& I am of hominidae & anthropoidea Look my 2000 cc brain capacity

& this is my heart’s atrium & the a. of my tympanic cavity
& here is my hepatic vein
& here my oral hood
my vestibular canal    organ of Corti
my homo sapiens’ larynx    mons pubis
& here, my axillae armpits milk-lines along each side & I am hiding between
the dawn ape & nuclear fission

If you can’t find me at the Lake of Aegyptopithecus
Look for my at the Child of the Hook, my black-bone burning

my blank

One of the real pleasures of Blue Guide is the cacophony created by the blend of various types of diction. The strange beauty of the poem above is only reinforced by other parts of the book, where monosyllables rule and the closest comparison is to nursery rhyme. Some of the more intriguing moments draw their power from the stark language of childhood, like this stanza from the aforementioned “Chapters...”:

Backyard bard, teens
slamming into fences, girls
with holes in their
stockings, fat
ankles, say
uncle (not me) a girl’s a
hole we all know that

The “open eye” of childhood is used to startling effect in Blue Guide, working to balance the scientific with the imaginative. This language ensures that the poems are grounded and human at their core; it keeps them headed for what is, perhaps, the poet’s final goal: to make her “animal tears into something you can recognize.”
    The second book is speedier, more unwound. After the graceful movements of Blue Guide, the more disjointed and aggressive poems in Of Sun, Of History, Of Seeing are initially daunting. But they prove to have their own rewards. The poem titles include headings such as “Essay,” “Histories,” “Artifact,” “My Love,” or “Cities,” allowing the poet to play with the boundaries between various modes of discourse. Having “Essay: Ode” appear at the top of the page invites us to consider whether every poem is, in fact, an essay, every essay a poem. It exposes our unachievable desire to place things between rigid borders.
    Like no others, the poems in this book fiercely resist interpretation, but they also seduce us with their wild thoughtfulness, their unique grammar, their intense music. Listening to  these voices rattling in one’s head is a serious pleasure. Sikelianos crafts lines that prevent the usual collision of words, and often the words become their own subjects. “Essay: For Anyone Who’s Ever Sped Apart” exposes the impossibility of metaphor:

What symmetry can there be
between a nation & a dog? dusk
& a candle? a corolla & this road?

It then goes on to loosely equate the bond between tenor and vehicle to that between the lover and the loved:

Among these,
I remember I loved you
as if you were dead, arm torn
from armament, headless

from head; so fit my hands
in pairs, leg with legs, hands
with birds manifest and the melody
of them...

Of Sun, Of History, Of Seeing is full of such parallels. Especially intriguing is the comparison of history to the mind. Sikelianos refuses to simplify either, allowing for the slipperiness of both subjects. She tells a story of “our reckless lineage,” where Herakles, Nero (who “also wanted to redesign the heart / of the hydrogen / bomb”), and chemistry teachers in the South Bronx all exist at once. The history poems tackle a major difficulty of writing about the past. In the time it takes to write (or even read) a poem, our history has grown a little larger, changing the lens with which we view past events.
    Similarly, the mind is constantly altering with the passage of time. The creative mind is an especially interesting case. The act of writing creates an artifact, thus altering the world and its history, but the artifact also changes the mind with which it was made. “Dear Head,” Sikelianos writes in a particularly revealing moment, “I know you are no longer yourself // I am not writing to who you are now, but to who you will be / when you are no longer yourself again...”  
    A less overt, but no less interesting issue in Of Sun, Of History, Of Seeing is the question of poetic responsibility. Poets often find themselves divided between poles: traditional and innovative, political and personal, narrative and lyric, printed and spoken. Sikelianos begins “Epistle: Dear Maximus, Dear Reformer” with a question:


Do I really have to become familiar with the ways race
and class inform cinematic representations of relations
between the sexes?  I am looking at a man
on the train at dawn...

This might be less amusing if it weren’t apparent that the poet has considered this question, or ones like it, during the composition of her poems. Sikelianos attempts to untangle some complex knots in this book, and it is a testament to her writerly scope that she succeeds in doing so with wit and humor.  
    When Sikelianos  takes on sex and love, the results are particularly funny. It is not often that one finds such serious considerations of history, the mind, the universe and a brief treatise on butt cracks (like the one that ends “Dear Maximus...”) in the same mind, let alone the same volume. In “Essay: When I Think of Sex, a Moist Frog,” as in many of the poems, the blend of humor and profundity is just right. The poem moves easily from its intriguing title to its wonderfully deadpan last lines: “...I think I do not / want to have sex with a dead / person until I am dead.”  
    The nearly one hundred poems included in Earliest Worlds form a picture of a mind simultaneously at work and at play. They send us floating up toward the fire of stars, then grab us by the ankles, back to Brooklyn, back to Kansas. The best ones drop us down the page. Sometimes the last line breaks our fall, other times it just lets us go.

Mark Neely is an MFA student at the University of Alabama.
His poems have appeared in Rhino, The Alembic, The Lullwater Review, and other journals.

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