Mark Neely reviews
Earliest Worlds by Eleni Sikelianos
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2001. 219pp.
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.
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.
It was just before Easter
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.
& I am of the skull & corpus vertebrata hiding inside
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
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.”
What symmetry can there be
It then goes on to loosely equate the bond between tenor and vehicle to that between the lover and the loved:
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.
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.
Mark Neely is an MFA student at the University of Alabama.
Jacket 15 — December 2001 Contents page
This material is copyright © Mark Neely and Jacket magazine 2001