V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Adrianne Kalfopoulou's First Book




At the center of almost every poem is grief over the past's passing, 
the ache of trying to hold on to values and moments that give life 
its meaning, and the persistent but battered hope that things might, 
somewhere and somehow, be better. 

The primary impulses behind the poems in this first collection are as historical witness of the recent past (through depictions of the lives of the poet's Greek grandparents and their generation), and as witness to the troubles and blessings of living within a modern Greek world whose patriarchy is as ingrained into the culture as acid rain is into the edifaces of Athens.
     A distinguishing aspect of this book is that it is not dominated by poems updating or revising ancient myths. One poem is called "To Penelope," but the rest of the social poems deal with the everyday lives of people living in a land that has seen too much war, too many brutal occupations, and stifling religious repression.  Adrianne Kalfopoulou finds more to celebrate in the ordinary than in the mythic, and the poems are propelled by details that resonate under the pressure of understatement and domestic tensions.  Even "To Penelope" is focused on managing dailiness — cooking, dressing, serving wine, deciding what to do with stale bread, goats in the garden, and yearnings barely under control.  At the center of almost every poem is grief over the past's passing, the ache of trying to hold on to values and moments that give life its meaning, and the persistent but battered hope that things might, somewhere and somehow, be better.  Frost once remarked that some of Yeats's poems made "beauty ache," and the best of Kalfopoulou's poems do just that.

     The poems in the book's first section, about her grandparents, describe the lives of the generation who suffered the effects of the Smyrnian tragedy, the Nazi and Italian occupations during WWII, the Greek Civil War, and Junta rule.  This section chronicles the survival of people who lost nearly everything and attempts to read the silences of that loss, to commend the human spirit that goes on giving when there is little left to give.  Kalfopoulou presents striking images of survival that rarely make the history books: "they cooked cats for hospital patients," "years before we put a potato to our mouths," "the wait beneath German offices to catch apple cores," "blood left on kitchen walls," "the gilded frame with the bullet hole."
     The book's third poem, "Chrisavgi," is the name of a ninety-nine year old great aunt.  It presents a sequence of images about how this aunt went about her daily life despite the memories of genocide, starvation, and loss of family. A poignant image near the end of the poem is of her giving a young Nazi "who came to the door" one of the three eggs she had found. After she is dead, her brother asks: "Do you imagine that? / Three years without a taste of bread? / And she gave an egg away." Kalfopoulou reads this image through a different lens:

          I see the light
          still ochre on the tiles
          remember Chrisavgi ate raisins
          one by one,
          as if in shame.

The poem ends with a description of Chrisavgi's empty room after she has died; the last image is of her "brown-blue" calico dress which "is white around the waist, / some flour flakes still cling." In a life spent serving others, Chrisavgi has had few moments of personal pleasure, but unlike her brother who "roams all night" Chrisavgi can sleep and takes joy in watering an almond tree as she relishes time alone at night.  In the end those last flour flakes cling to the image of her as much as the images of these poems cling to us.
     One gets the sense that the legacy of these admirable but self-denying women of her grandparent's generation has been a resolve to break the cycle of servitude and silence, to seek a fuller more rewarding personal life.  Yet the journey is harder than the resolve seems to promise: "the game / gets serious, the stakes higher, as we dare to live / as we gather our living."  The result of  "daring to live" —  surviving divorce, raising a child alone, living the demands of work and various lovers and the grief of losses — is underneath the skin of these poems in this book. The struggle is carried on against a new kind of silence: the child who "measures my presence" but "has no idea of the distance I have come"; the lovers who have "no idea of love's dice / though gambled, for real"; the "terror in the love / that does not stop with the blood"; the daughter whose eyes "like Asian candy" "ask for the world whole." These are poems in search of balance, a satisfaction that will sustain. 
     The methods and modes of discourse in this book are confessional.  Kalfopoulou writes straight-forwardly and frankly about her personal life, and the poems owe much to the work of Sharon Olds.  Olds can be daring and aggressive about her father's abuses, her mother's passivity, her sexuality, but the irony is that the parameters of her "daring" are often defined in aggressive male terms: she can be sexually predatory, violent or self-dramatizing in her anger toward the miscreants who have differing views.  While we witness Kalfopoulou's search for an identity outside the models given by the generations of women before her, it doesn't seem as deliberately poetic as Olds' search.  Perhaps one reason is the difference in cultures.  Olds has been given permission to speak by Millay, Plath, Sexton, and Rich, but does take risks of her own in tone and graphic visuals.  However, a cultural paradigm shift has sanctified this tone and celebration of female "self" above other obligations.  Kalfopoulou lives in a culture whose values and realities are so thoroughly patriarchal that gender repression is a social and religious birthright, so much so that one often feels the visceral tension in many of the poems as they try to transcend circumstance: "the priest" might be "missing" and "the murmur is a silence / only the initiated understand."  Kalfopoulou's struggle is not abstract and literary; every day is a negotiation between identity and cultural demands. 
     Another reason is Kalfopoulou's relationship with poetry and language.  She is not so much trying to create a self as she is trying to understand the one she has, to see its blessings and blunders, to calibrate its range of emotions, to test the solidity of her ideas and feelings.  The most poetically self-conscious poem in the book is called "Growing," where she discusses the distance between domestic duty — the time she spends helping her daughter with homework, bathing, braiding her hair — and the image of herself as a poet: "I am really in a poem, I say, cutting / lines together, this poem / I am always aiming at."  "Growing" examines the tension between the two lives: the dynamic flux of domestic reality and the life pinned or "cut" into a poem and understood.  The daughter accuses the mother of rejecting the father — "you threw him out didn't you" — and after the explanation "weighs" "fragments" "that may never get written."  The ends of  writing and dialogue are the same: "it's what you learn, what you can take with you."  What the poem gives her, what she is always "aiming at," is understanding.  At the center of this poem is the notion that writing is essentially about what you learn and take with you rather than what you "create."  We never get the sense that Olds views life or language this way. 
     Perhaps the poem that most clearly illustrates her fairness and the search  for emotional balance evident in many of the poems is "Coming Apart."  The poem presents a touching scene where the husband is gathering his clothes and the last of his belongings before leaving.  This situation could have presented a ripe opportunity for literary revenge or demonization, but what remains at the center of the poem is a mutual loss of innocence.

          He is entirely given to the packing
          and I am entirely absorbed in not looking
          till I notice the small frying pan,
          his favorite, and a large framed picture
          of another period where he is lazily relaxed,
          his hand calmly over my knee,
          his eyes optimistic.  I am childlike in my smile.
          Neither of us know. It is a fine image,
          my girlishness, his ease, the image
          I least recognize in the words he leaves me—
          "I wish I could give you some word of luck.
          But I don't have the courage."  I turn back
          to the kitchen where he has chosen not
          to take the pan, the picture, some white cups
          I return to the shelf.

That "Neither of us know" and the "fine image" of the picture suggest there is no blame here, that times and people change almost without our noticing.  They are equally dignified in their vulnerability.  The poem captures the fragile composure of the original moment, the deliberate courage required to complete the break.
     The strength of Kalfopoulou's most successful poems is in their embrace of life's complexity; the title poem suggests that such complexity is in fact nurturing: 

          my body a field too, untended, then found
          in season. We didn't stop the gathering—
          dandelion, chamomile, bramble,
          we didn't leave out the mud or blood or ground parts.
          Despite the mess, we were in season and 
          found it all edible.

     Wild Greens is a particularly appropriate title for this collection. Together, the poems make a circular journey: they begin with the broader historical climate of Greece, move into the lives of the poet's grandparents, stake out personal boundaries and claims, and end with the section called "Harvest" that resolves some of the more difficult conflicts in the previous sections.  The book's concluding poem "Corinna's Bones" — another great aunt after whom the poet's daughter is named (we presume) — suggests the past has been brought up to the present, and one of the images that binds them, that makes the connection possible, is "wild greens."  For the old women the greens are a source of survival gathered "from between railroad tracks" as they "stood in line for the rationed peas"; for the poet the greens have come to represent the survival of memory and an acceptance of the "bramble" and "mud" and "blood" of the life that has been given her: a synthesis of the wild and domestic, the old and new, the brutal and compassionate.
     Wild Greens is a remarkable debut and sends a message from Greece we have not heard so dramatically or passionately expressed.

Kalfopoulou, Adrianne.  Wild Greens.  Los Angeles, California: Red Hen Press, 2002.  ISBN: 1-888996-58-7 $13.00

© by Joseph Powell


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