Review of The Islands by John Sakkis
(Nightboat Books, 2015 • $15.95)
In Mani: Travels in the Southern Peleponnese, prose stylist and explorer Patrick Leigh Fermor discusses the persistence of archaic, pagan practices in the Greek countryside—even into the twentieth century:
Some of the great gods […] were compromised and frogmarched into collaboration. Others escaped and, quite literally, took to the hills. There, like divine maquisards, they have led a spiritual underground or close on two thousand years. […] The brushwood ancien régime, unencumbered with giveaway temples of paraphernalia, travelled light. There was nothing, on examination, but murmurs, hearsay, candlelight and shadows and the bare limestone hillside… . The overt ceremonies (which still exist) had adopted enough religious camouflage to confuse all but the most penetrating. And a few have survived quite undisguised.
That Leigh Fermor was able to appreciate this improbable but deeply human layering of cultures and times was facilitated not by his being Greek (although he was esteemed as that country’s second most famous non-native war hero after the poet Byron and also lived there for many years), nor simply from his intellectual curiosity (which was always formidable) but by his simply being there. By treading the same ground irradiated with classical antiquity he was able to appreciate where and how its treasures were still buried.
In The Islands, the poet John Sakkis takes a different tack. Unlike Leigh Fermor, he sets for himself the complex challenge of viewing and understanding a sense of Greekness—and it is made all the more complicated by the fact that he is writing during the first third of the twenty-first century, after the invention of the Internet, and both oceans and continents away in California. His is a Greekness that must be felt, in the blood, albeit at first indistinctly: “a diffusion that soaks up detail.” It is a sense of being Greek that serves as a catalyst for creation, that as “shadows collected in grammar / exuberantly articulate and wet in the mouth, forming portraits of strangers” embodies and enlivens, makes known at one remove.
Sakkis’ visceral and experiential sense of Greece is embedded in reactions to what ultimately could be the landscape of any country. It offers the natural and inanimate/constructed world as subject and singer of traditional modes, as when (in “The Cousins Sang an Insect Pastoral”),
“we collected snails / in the orchard eating, marble /in the summer as slick as snow melting.”
In The Islands in general, reveries are like this: called from the elements shared by the classical past and the present day, given voice by feeling, connotation and heritage perhaps not even overtly known. The title of the book’s first section, “A Large Population of Antiques,” with its brief evocation of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” offers a sense of bodies, and peoples, almost witlessly preprogrammed to atavism—automata that “for centuries […] slam around,” linked as if by tesseract in “the horse-saddle shaped universe,” living encounters that one moment become as lost as Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” and at another moment problematically exploded to life, for example when a boy’s playfully discovered spider
“wasn’t a spider at all but a tick foraged from the ground that / soon would be swallowing our cousin who slapped it off an arm only after / tearing up the courtyard tearing out his liver.”
As with similarly executed Prometheus, the upshot to this strong tie “to the cradle of civilization,” is continued existence—with a reliable risk for agonies.
Not that this memory linkage is totally innate. The book’s most successful demonstration of its sources—part familial, part archival, increasingly resampled and increasingly electronic—takes place in part II, “Leon Sakkis,” in which an ancient (and pretty clever) military stratagem ricochets forward thousands of years into the future to the very doorway (∏ORTE∑) to the poet’s past. The prospect of a military victory without close combat, too distant to have saved the section’s eponymous hero in 1944, is triumphantly revived almost thirty years later by an engineer bearing nearly the poet’s own name: Ioannis. This origami-sharp folding of time and myth to heal the lapses in both comes to a delirious apex in a short poem, “Asclepius”—full of scents, sensation, and salt—with its wild splintering of parallel worlds.
It is fitting that all these fragments and dreams, isolated yet ever-associated islands, cohere as they do in California as well. There the submerged infrastructure for public transit, for instance, allows a conflation, hieratic, of “a Roman Catholic / offering of bulls,” through which “abyss is abbey” (or becomes it). Yet, in the end, The Islands offers not so much a paean to underground ways and mystical darkness as the golden sunlight and blue water also evoked by its cover art by Pablo Guardiola, a picture of unstoppably reproducing beach resorts in some not-too-distant decade fittingly titled (in part) “I wish to communicate with you.” This is a joyful book by a poet of deft exuberance, collecting both the profound and the banal in one wide embrace, leading us to discover “between living / art and nightlife”—between “trash art” and photographs, cenotaphs and graffiti—“something you never knew you needed.” Here, even in a world “subjugated to ‘Byron is dead’ ‘so we’ll go no more a-roving’ immense and lasting,” “a rotating stable // of landscapes we enter / define our / erotic needs.”
M. L. Harrison is a sometime editor, recovering medievalist, and relapsed poet. He tweets here and blogs here.