reviewed by Justin Goodman
“What does the future, that half of time, matter to the man who is infatuated with eternity?”
In France, in 1960, this question pressed itself upon the Romanian-born Emil Cioran. Histoire et Utopie was published, likely to the same acclaim (and rejection of acclaim) that marked all Cioran’s career after 1950. Six years later and southeasterly, Dimitris Lyacos would be born in Athens. Despite the distance, Lyacos’ recently translated Poena Damni trilogy revels inside Cioran’s head.
The composite units: Z213:EXIT, With the People From The Bridge, and The First Death, are ridden with the lack of euphony that belongs to the invisible canon of defeat to which Cioran belongs. Understanding is a place, for those of this school of thought, towards which knowledge only exacerbates the distance.
The translator of the triology, Shorsha Sullivan, who is also a Classics professor at Leeds College, distinguishes Lyacos from the Greek poets that “slide easily into the mainstream of European Modernism” and those localized poets whom “lose [their] savour in translation.” “Lyacos’ case differs,” Sullivan continues, because “he speaks to us as fellow human beings from an almost non-local viewpoint, using western tradition but not committing himself to any side.”
It does make one wonder what can be said of the Ancient Greek traditions Lyacos borrows heavily from: the Chorus in the trilogy’s second installment, With the People From the Bridge, comes to mind; the odyssey of Z213:EXIT; the brutal abstractions of Greek sculpture in The First Death; and how this contingency is taken into account when writing “a version that could possibly make sense in the context of our own tradition.” But Sullivan lets this doubt suffice as an answer: “Could this version have been produced originally in English?” Recognizing the fact fails to answer it, let alone, comfort us; only discomfort translates, bringing Poena Damni to a truly real fluid-filled birth.
This doubt doesn’t prevent Sullivan from providing clarity for the narratives themselves. The first of the series (but the last chronologically written), Z213:EXIT, “is the diary of a wanderer recording his solitary experiences in an effort to structure a world for himself.” For American readers, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road likely comes to mind, which isn’t far off, although Lyacos avoids McCarthy’s blunt bleariness, instead writing in bursts and canters of scrawl like the line-broken, “that world behind you will not emerge again / from the dark.” It’s a lyric image despite its simplicity.
Between the poems of Z213:EXIT there are “diary entries.” They are, themselves, fractured, occasionally foregoing punctuation and grammar nearer the book’s end: “.When I was, from childhood I remember it, one day when….” This building urgency in response to seeming nothingness, almost flees from destruction by its own circularity: “They gather together, a circle, the gallows, the tree,” reads like reminiscences of T.S Eliot’s opening to Four Quartets: “What might have been and what has been / point to one end, which is always present.”
It’s not just The Road or Four Quartets that come to mind. All three (including Lyacos’ trilogy) are frolicking in fields of Christian imagery and grandiosity. I recently read McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, which is a picture of disenchantment with its barren vastness and readerly solicitude in brute horror. After a moment, I re-read a little of Z213:EXIT; it begins, “for the lost, country and youth we lost. For the horses rolling in blood. And then their carcasses rest under olive trees….And they are all gone here are only the gods that take off their jackets and give us cover. Dead holding on to images scattered until they too fade away forever.” By contrast, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian states, “men of God and men of war have strange affinities.” How thin a shield the gods are for both authors. Maybe the only contiguous boundary between Lyacos and McCarthy is a sense of indefensible vanishing.
For contrast, consider Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro’s surreal poem Altazor. To use the shorthand of Bookslut, “Altazor, the Anti-Poet, echoes [Charles Lindbergh’s journey across the Atlantic], only he flies away from earth entirely.” As for Z213:EXIT’s protagonist, an unnamed and homeless Odysseus, lacks so much energy “you don’t want to stand up anymore.” Where Altazor is the pre-World War II revolutionary full of verve, idealism, and utopia, Z213:EXIT renounces any hope of change after when confronted by time’s weaving of “the web…the passages of the maze…again to the same point which does not exactly coincide with the exit.” The clarity of this ache comes across as practiced disenchantment, the definition of Post-Modernism; it is a book that staggers sixty pages into the valley of the shadow of death to ask, “where did I come from? My name? Where was I heading?”
In the Catholic Tradition, the trilogy’s title, Poena Damni, roughly translates to the pain of loss; New Advent has the satisfyingly morbid “the loss of the beatific vision and in so complete a separation of all the powers of the soul from God that it cannot find in Him even the least peace and rest.” Obviously fitting for the restlessness of the trilogy’s beginning, Z213: EXIT. While not yet over, this quest for God ostensibly begins to end in With the people from the bridge with the appearance of the “ghost of a woman, seem[ing] to be the catalyst for the ending of his unredeemed solitude.”
With the people from the bridge is a revival of gothic horror. Its narrator finds himself under a bridge with a strange cast of characters. Thankfully, the narrator is given a dramatis personae:
Four names on the handout they gave me: Narrator—the one holding the book. Like a Bible. Turns the cassette-player on and off. Hum. Goes and helps the women. More newspapers. Chorus—the women. LG—further back, he was hammering something again. NCTV—her in the car. LG, NCTV. These were the names. Title: NCTV. That is how I remember the name of the station, vaguely somehow. Nyctovo. No. Nyctivo. Nichtovo. No.
Whereas the first book had a hazy quality that made reading an inadequate word (it was, instead, an experience), With the people from the bridge is the liquefying of a gas. The story—inasmuch as it is one—is a reflection of the Z213: EXIT‘s, recounting the Christ-like LG’s suffering in the world, crawling into NCTV’s grave, and the latter’s resurrection. It’s a reversal of German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s claim that God is the externalization of Man; the individual is the distillation of something higher.
The above directions are like the previous book’s diary entries. Contextualized by the narrator’s receiving a playbill of sorts, what could have been O’Neil style nigh-narration is conflated with prose. Instead of “Narrator. Has gone to the car and is checking something on the cassette-player” being an abstracted assessment of events, it’s little different than a diary. Which explains some of the unconventional language like “it stunk” and “maybe even,” with first person passages like “what I managed somehow….”
But, in a gesture of doubt casting, on the last page of With the people from the bridge, in bold font, centered, is reportage: “The partially decomposed head of a woman, stolen from a crypt was found in the street next up to a man who was subsequently arrested, Los Angeles police said.” This is what With the people from the bridge builds up to which, although it’s not as snarky as the last line of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (“So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”), it does deserve a wry chuckle for its cleverness. What was deified is reified once again.
The first book to be written, but the last of the trilogy, is The First Death. As such, what had become a liquid finally solidifies. A reverse sublimation. Not just phase change sublimation, though, but a return to the psychological. The story can essentially be described as, “on a desert rock a cripple is slowly moving.” It sounds like the beginning of a joke akin to “a man walks into a bar,” yet, seriously, The First Death tries to bind the apocalypse and dystopia of the previous books into a coherent aesthetic, giving the appearance of a traditional chapbook. But, as Sullivan explains, “the book offers an account of his dissolution, with the added bitterness of memories, until a universal mechanism clicks into place and he is dispatched into the void.” Freud would be proud.
Lyacos writes one of the most memorable traditionally experimental poetry collections I’ve read. It avoids the visual wankery of bill bissett (L33T nephew of e.e. cummings), the gentle chopping of line typical in Jorie Graham, and the terse verse of Rae Armantrout, while retaining the weightiness of surreal abstraction that can be found in Judas-invoking phrases like “(and you ascend into the flowers / of the tree where you were hanged)” and description of birds as “eyes burnt out faceted vision / unscrewed breastbones screaming.” A guttural experience which is rarely experienced and which is what Poena Damni wants to be from the beginning.
“XIV,” the final poem of The First Death, focuses on the cripple’s “memory holed and / worn / like a tramps’ tarpaulin over my waning / consciousness.” A great distance from Z213: EXIT’s coddling of lacunae and hopefulness that, “If you weren’t able to see they would travel by what you would touch, contacts that would fall one after the other, in a sequence.” Sequencing, ordering passed time via lived memory, resolves into a less than spectacular salvation:
I am saved, not in the world
nor out of it, but at that point without substance
where the world collides and takes off there where is
conceived the cry
the crank communicates
and the wheels
the wheelchair into the infinite
Sullivan euphemistically describes this as being “dispatched into the void.” He dies. And this death is suggestively literal and not of his own machination. It’s a depressing interpretation of Catholic resurrection, one where the only way to be ‘uncrippled’ is to die.
It should be no surprise that this despairing corkscrew would find an echo in Emil Cioran: “When we discern the unreality of everything, we ourselves become unreal, we begin to survive ourselves, however powerful our vitality, however imperious our instincts. But they are no longer anything but false instincts, and false vitality.” Most would shake their heads, laughing at such cynicism, but Poena Damni is an exciting documentation of literary progression for this reason. Not the most readable, but no Avant-Garde literature is. Its beginning (as Lyacos wrote it first) is its end (as the end of the trilogy). It’s the pessimistic cluster headache of the priest in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, who proclaims, “In the small circle of pain within the skull / you shall tramp and trod one endless round / of thought, to justify your actions to yourselves,” without the resolved tension of Four Quartets, where, “we shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.” Instead, Lyacos’ hope uncoils into the last written book and the chronologically first, Z213:EXIT.
As for Shorsha Sullivan’s claim that Lyacos “speaks to us as fellow human beings from an almost non-local viewpoint, using western tradition but not committing himself to any side,” “almost non-local,” makes one wonder that if there was anything locally Greek about this text before translation it surely was lost in translation the way the aura of Greek drama and beauty vanish in Friedrich Unegg’s lumpy masks which divide the poems of The First Death. Perhaps, as those in this canon of defeat propose, understanding truly is entangled in “the passages of the maze, [which] all lead again to the same point which does not exactly coincide with the exit.”
A recent graduate from Purchase College, Justin Goodman is working to establish a career and develop knowledge of the literary scene. His writing has been published in Submissions Magazine and Italics Mine.