Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Epistolary Review: The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, Eleni Sikelianos (Coffee House Press 2013)

Dear R., 

Maybe you remember those "find the hidden objects" pictures they used to pass out in elementary school to fill up any ort of time that might blossom unexpectedly in the regimented day: line drawings, simple but dense (a forest, a playground, a circus tent) that contained any number of unlikely images. There would be the outline of a sandwich tucked away among a number of square-ish roof tiles, a fish camouflaged against the trunk of a tree, a flower billowing out of a smokestack. At the bottom of the picture, the master list of objects would be written out so you could check them off as you found them. There was usually a prize for the first to finish.

I was never the first to finish--partly because of my undiscerning eye, partly, I think, because I could not get past the lost objects themselves. Who had lost them & why? What tragedy of carelessness had stranded that cuckoo in the coarse coral? My seeking required a narrative & this slowed my progress considerably. There was also, in all this, my sense that I was, in many ways, more likely to be a sort of lost item than a detective effective, pursuing my directive. I was always (one art) getting lost or losing things. I still am.

Your parakeet arrived by the promised courier. Thank you so much for it. I will keep it in plain sight so as to keep it from the tally of the missing.

I've got quite a few things to say about two recent collections from Coffee House Press but I think, in the interest of time, I've really got to restrict myself to one. Hélas for Juliana Leslie, whose Green is for World has become, since its release in late 2012, one of my favorite new collections. I hope I'll get around to writing about it one day soon--for it really does merit the attention--but pride of place here will go to The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead by Eleni Sikelianos as that one is freshest in my mind.

Come, let us speak of shadows. The Loving Detail is full of them: 
The future seen 
in the deer trimming the grass then wearing their shadows down to nubs (35)

These are things that detain the soul in the mind:
Shadows, flames, trees, columns, dolls, pools, children, Polaroids, carbon, waste (37)

What Sikelianos means by "soul," here, is more a question mark than a fixed concept. Several poems play with the complex structure of the subject as outlined by ancient Egyptian texts: the ib (heart), the ren (name), the ba (soul), the ka (spirit), & especially the sheut or swt (shadow). For Sikelianos, the swt is (after the Manuel de Codage transliteration of a hieroglyphic word) "the pitch-black shadow of the soul, which can move independently of its body" (100). & indeed, much of The Loving Detail is about observing the things that shadows get up to when they take it in mind to walk abroad in the ordinary evenings: "we arrive & there's a corpse of an hour, what happened/here?" (2). 

What if all you could know of the world were the dreams that you & everyone who preceded you had projected onto it? What if you could recognize the presence of the dreams of others' but their content remained shut to you so that the pulsing detachable shadow-stuff of experience seemed to you conscious, independent but swift-moving, barely palpable--a universe of dark matter? What if it was given to you to know the conditions of your knowing & to labor on in the full knowledge of them? Who & what would you be &--terrible thought--who & what would you not be?

These are old questions & have been walking by themselves a long time now. Sikelianos tracks their footsteps in poems like "Her Yardtalk," in which a child (it's tempting to associate her with Sikelianos's young daughter Eva) asks "Mamma, how many days do we have/left before we die?" (56). Or else consider these lines from "Essay: the Living Leave the Dead": Replacing the family organs that sleep in the body like loving, licking/ghosts, a new ghost organ comes to live in my body" (49). In the hierophantic world of The Loving Detail, an encounter with the shadow tends to mean the flowering of a sense of mortality. This is almost too easy a metaphor. Except when it isn't. Shadows are earnest. Shadows are erudite. Their ubiquity is no one's fault, maybe not even their own. Sometimes commonality is vulgar & sometimes it is merely--our common. Whose shadow are you seeking, anyway?

Whose shadow are you seeking anyway? 

One way of reading The Loving Detail is as a detective story. You might start, for instance, with the shadow called "Charlene," possibly a poetic "alter/ego" (69) after the fashion, say, of Berryman's Henry (these are dream songs of a sort). Charlene, who drifts in and out of a great many of these poems is a presence cryptic, sardonic, & prophetic:

your hair was 
a tall girl, big girl      blonde as cigarette smoke
You had a boat by the river, little boat tied to the banks
a wooden ship of luxury because freedom 
is    You could float away, come home
                        float away, come

                                                    home (5)

Charlene is the psychopomp, ferrying the souls of the dead hither & yon. She is "a goddess./She's a living woman./She's mon semblable" (23). She cries like a baby deer (45). She

makes a little hole in the dirt
with her finger     soul's dirt    lets water
pour in     that's how the body gets
so fucking muddy! (69)

Attend to the clues judiciously dispensed at intervals by your guide, who is also, obscurely, dear gumshoe, the object of your search. It sounds tautological because it is tautological. But that doesn't mean it's wrong. How much of what we do, sometimes, owes itself to this particular tautology: the attempt to find, define, commune with the dream-self, the shadow-self, the weird animal that natters away where "[t]he mind caresses the body" (48)? That phrase reeks of Cartesian dualism in a way I find a bit troubling, though I acknowledge how that dualism can structure experience. Maybe there are times--in the approach to a death--for example, when it's helpful to think of the mind as the lover of the body, the body as that which inevitably falls out of love with heedless, ardent consciousness. 

One thinks of Swann & Odette & the little phrase by Vinteuil, which is only right, since Sikelianos quotes Man Ray's deathbed photograph of Marcel Proust in "His Dead Eyebrow":

I'm making all this sound morbid, which it isn't, quite. Morbidity has nothing in it of play & Sikelianos does play, after a fashion: "I'm a girl whose name is boy, that's trouble that's a/pleasure" (78). Maybe there's a word for that tonal combination after all, like the faintly noxious scent that clings to all these beautiful saucer magnolia trees: gallows humor? Charlene would know, if you could only find her to ask her.

Your little bird-&-meat subject,