dimitris lyacos, greek poetry, poena damni, poetry in translations, shoestring press, shorsh sullivan, translated poetry
Translated by Shorsha Sullivan
Both postmodern and high modernist poetry have a context of traumatized grand narratives, reflections of human consciousness (both writer and reader) damaged by and aware of their own damages, whatever the source. In the highest sense, both approaches to writing use language to pull everyone involved up short to a face-to-face blinking contest with reality. For the real owns rider and horse, and language obscures this fact by its severing nature—and this explains why postmodern literature is such a difficult medium in most hands. Only a writer who has studied and read the deepest narratives will succeed, reaching for and pulling up out of the muck brief remnants that add much-needed weight to the radical fragmentation that is contemporary life’s relationship to personal and cultural histories, not to mention death and reality. This is the gift of high modern and postmodern art. In his trilogy Poena Damni Dimitris Lyacos proves it’s a gift we’re still (for now) willing to accept:
As long as a match stays alight. As much as you have time
to see in the room that flares and fizzles out. The images holding, briefly, then
fall. Some lines you manage, they are
gone, another match, again. Pieces missing, empty pages, match, again. Comes
across an unknown work and sticks
in your mind. And where are the dwelling places of
the wicked. Ask those who pass beside you. Match, some smudges parts again
like those of the Testament,
then some of his pieces, then mine. The light so brief
that you don’t have time to write, in the dark you can’t
see if the page is blank. You write, a match, words fall-
ing on top of each other, another page, write, again a
Delicious, isn’t it?
Lyacos’ Poena Damni is powerful because the work is stitched in all its seams with a very deeply grounded lyrical and inward-looking precision. Most attempts at post (and post-post) modernism end up weak, scattered and afraid of scaffolding for fear of ridicule. In other words, something you only want to read once, with, at the end, a sense of relief that you are still someone special. Relief is overrated.
Begin getting to know Poena Damni as you read by searching references and collective human history and memory. You’ll get triggered for touchstones and allusions and be on your way to complete presence with the text. Soon, instead of knowing until you’re nauseous exactly where you stand (and do not stand) in today’s global economy, for example, you’re good and lost (in the best literary way) on the confusing road to a questionable salvation with each refugee, seeker and lost soul among the torturers, prisoners, survivors, lovers, friends and worshipers who haunt the trains, bridges, villages and churches that inhabit Lyacos’ (and our) world. It’s a real masterwork in that it accomplishes the avant-garde task of throwing the reader in all directions simultaneously. It’s a hearty meal, a marvelous, lively response to madness, to death and to reality, all of which we contain and run from constantly. In a sense, that would be the trilogy in a nutshell if the nut itself were not so remarkably complex.
With the people from the bridge is the second book in the Poena Damni trilogy, and in many ways the most initially difficult of the three books. It’s staged as a drama. NCTV is play’s title. There are four characters: the Narrator (who turns a cassette-player on and off and holds a Bible); a Chorus of women; LG, a man, and a woman named NCTV, presumably the subject of the drama’s title, who sits in the burnt-out shell of a car and also appears on television. The stage is set under the arch of a bridge. The floor is dirt, there are people and dogs sitting around, and the lighting consists of five or six lights, white, blue and green. There’s a fire in an oil drum. One of the men, half-naked to the waist, makes a cross out of two pieces of wood and sticks it into the mud. Thus, Lyacos builds a makeshift setting of a church for the reader.
The Narrator begins the scene by tearing out pages from the Bible and papering a nearby wall. Then he begins reading from Mark 5 (New International Version), a passage of the Bible in which Jesus restores a demon-possessed man. The man, too strong to be kept in chains, is free, possessed and wildly alone:
And always, night
and day in the tombs
and in the mountains he was crying
and cutting himself with stones.
But when he saw Jesus afar
off he ran
and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said ”what have I to do with you, Jesus,
son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God,
that thou torment me not.
For he said unto him; come out thou
unclean spirit from the
man, and he asked him;
what is thy name? and he answered
saying; my name is legion
for we are many.
And so Lyacos begins the dramatic monologue of LG, a man possessed by demons, and not yet healed, waiting. And what does he hear? Her. And as the books nears its conclusion and LG draws near to being healed:
Narrator with the Bible.
for he saith; in a time accepted
I have heard thee and in the day
of salvation have I succored thee;
behold now is the accepted time
behold now is the day of salvation
Chorus. Burning newspapers. Narrator goes and turns on
The TV. And NCTV is on the TV. It’s devastating, really, how accurately Lyacos explains our self-distances. And how beautifully, when it happens, we might be healed:
They were not to be found
because God had translated them
Has anyone else written a long dramatic poem about what goes on between the time a man and his insane legion encounter Jesus and the time they reach Him? Here we appreciate Lyacos’ gifted imagination.
Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni (the loss of the damned) is perplexing, confusing, disturbing and gorgeous. It’s timeless work. There isn’t a screwdriver or latte or economic travesty in sight. It’s so refreshing to read work that dives down into the deep inner life of human consciousness, and at the same time in allegorical slant, maps the outward, subjective mess of ordinary life.
As for the last sentence in With the people from the bridge, we are brought into our current condition in which a man, for reasons we can only guess at, has tried his best to become a God. Which of course, makes him possessed by a demon. ~
Dimitris Lyacos | Translated by Shorsha Sullivan | Available from Shoestring Press
Reviewed by Elizabeth Myhr