On Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism

Zach Savich

Edited and Translated by Karen Emmerich. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017. 133 pages. $18.00.

In reviewing a new translation of Greek poet Eleni Vakalo in 1973, Kimon Friar followed four paragraphs of rhapsodic praise and grand claims—he asserts, for instance, that “the creator must ruthlessly kill off his accumulated self and strip himself to essential bone”—with a quick dismissal of the volume under review. “Unfortunately,” Friar wrote, “Paul Merchant’s translation is not up to the high standard he set for himself.” Friar also translated Vakalo, so his respect for this “high standard” had a lot to do with his admiration for her “cauterizing imagination.” But his complaint, which distinguishes between Vakalo and Vakalo-via-Merchant, points to a broader problem in writing about translation: it can be hard to follow John Updike’s advice to “review the book, not the reputation,” because part of what gets translated, in translation, is a sense of, well, the “essential bone” of a writer’s importance, which a reader sees through the “accumulated self” that forms when languages meet.

Fortunately, Karen Emmerich’s new translation of Vakalo, Before Lyricism, which collects six linked sequences in a stylish edition, is not just up to the high standard of Emmerich’s past translations but to a standard for translation that would often be unrealistic: one doesn’t need to choose between reviewing the book or the reputation, because the poetry itself aptly and inspiringly conveys Vakalo’s significance. After reading it, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn, in Emmerich’s afterword, that Vakalo “intensifies the particular forms of grammatical ambiguity available in Greek by recasting its syntax in unexpected ways” or that the sequences in Before Lyricism, originally published between 1954 and 1966, which “display sprawling yet deliberate assortments of prose, free verse, and even rhymed and metered lines,” reflect Vakalo’s interest in postwar art and aesthetics.

Those dimensions—of linguistic innovation, of poetry informed by aesthetics and the postwar period, which now must include several wars—have been central to recent US poetry; readers who, in light of current politics and theory, are thinking about the relevance of idiosyncratic lyricism should welcome this edition. Vakalo’s devotion to “particular forms of grammatical ambiguity” shows up through her perceptive attention to paradox—or do I mean her paradoxical attention to perception?—particularly in passages that foreground the complexity of putting intricate visual experience into words. In Before Lyricism, appearance concerns both the manner in which something appears and what it resembles when it does, as when Vakalo states that “for an instant [ . . . ] birds would appear like a sunlit field.” The nuance of “would” acknowledges that sight happens complexly in time; the “instant” in which birds appear is instantly fleeting and fleet enough to appear in another instant. In other words, this is a poetry of intent description, which doesn’t separate the things it sees from the intensity of seeing—and counts the language of description among those things.

Vakalo’s gift for revealing layers in plain sight can recall the contemplative ekphrasis of poets such as Cole Swensen and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and it’s clear even in a seemingly simple word like “shape,” which appears throughout the collection, often in relation to its near-twin, “shade.” (Emmerich’s translation handles these terms deftly.) “The shape of the forest has / The shape of a jellyfish,” Vakalo writes in the book’s first lines. This elaboration resembles contradiction, and it suggests that shape is more than a fixed outline. The next lines confirm that the comparison is concerned with lively sight, not exact equivalence:

That you catch in your hands and it slips out
As a wave
Pushes it out
Perhaps this happens
It moves
Opening seashores
That are white

Passages like this welcome close reading—I could go on about the gorgeous veer of “Opening seashores,” how its luminous obscurity meets the specificity of “That are white,” like a precise scratch on a prism—but their effects are far from arcane. In part, this is because, as Friar noted, in Vakalo’s work “language, poetry itself, becomes a form of action.” Some phrases recall stage directions (“pause for deep breath”), and others offer performative meta-commentary (Vakalo wonders if a phrase “would perhaps be a more suitable title”), but even moments of supple ambiguity produce this “form of action.” In the passage above, one might initially read “As a wave” as identifying how a jellyfish moves, wavelike, not when. The latter interpretation is more grammatically direct, but it plunges you further from the forest. The swiftness of this plunge—the poem pushes you from its initial subject, while also pushing away the jellyfish by which it initially explained it—depends on the fluidity of “As a wave.” This specific experience of reading, which extends from a moment of uncertainty, recalls Vakalo’s reflection that “sometimes the poet cannot abstract shapes / From the crowd.” A specific representation of a crowd, like a specific experience of a poem, requires a precise act of abstraction, not the exactitude of telling details. Vakalo’s variety of imagism thus emphasizes the “instant of time” in which Ezra Pound says the “intellectual and emotional complex” of an image occurs; she doesn’t depict a fixed pose as much as the flight of sight.

In part, though, Before Lyricism feels thoroughly lithe, despite its intricacy, because it reads like a novel in which the characters include not only words like “shape” and “shade” but the sections themselves, which move among forest, shore, and the human body, inhabiting modes that, in exploring how crises of representation are also wider crises, recall dance scripts, eclogues, and spiritual memoir. In addition to the textures that play across the sections, there’s the play of genres within them. The second section, “Plant Upbringing,” recalls a field guide that at times sounds informative and naturalistic, as when Vakalo notes that for some trees the “bark smells if you scratch it / But not their leaves / Though if you crush them they do.” But even then, there’s a performative, ritualistic implication in the second line; picture the author scratching the leaves, smelling her hand, deciding to crush the leaves, smelling again. Other times, the voice is brassily daft, as though this field guide needs to specify the most basic distinctions, perhaps because the ambiguities that are subtle elsewhere, or larger catastrophes, have altered language. “Plants have a different upbringing from people,” she reports in one such moment. But rather than parodying a genre, “Plant Upbringing” cultivates an understory from which Vakalo’s singularly spiraling depictions emerge. This section of mesmerizing perspective is titled “The hour of the moon”:

The expanse
Of desert
Where grasses
Cropped at the edges
Seem to recede
Resembling boats
At the coast
The boats further down
Yet the shore appears
As if it
Not they
Were difficult to reach

You can trace the grammar of this passage—the focal boats, drawing away, seem easier to reach than the shore, perhaps because the shore, like a desert compared to a line of grasses, is less visually distinct—but a summary should include its dizzying, telescopic sensuality. In the final section, “Our Way of Being,” this telescopic quality becomes more precise and vast. That section’s ambiguities perhaps have less to do with uncertainties of perception (as in the ambiguity of “As a wave”) than with perceptions that remain uncertain, however clearly seen. In an earlier section, for example, Vakalo saw—and saw herself seeing—a figure “taking shape.” The figure came into being as it came into view, its particularity inseparable, as discussed above, from types of vagueness (as in the phrase “some new”):

The most lovely body taking shape in silence
I remember its limbs following one on the next
As if some new manner had caused it
To be born again

In the final section, “taking shape” is less ambiguous: “and their countenance looked evenly on such abundance, as if in the mystery taking shape the shore stretched on without end.” Here, “the mystery,” while more abstract than a “lovely body,” is continuous, distinct, unending—and independent of our vision, unlike the appearance of the figure, which depends on how it appears to the poet. “The mystery” is observed “evenly,” not through transfiguring flickers. It appears on a page titled “The miraculous catch,” which is radiantly sly—is the catch of the day a glimpse of the shore?—and suggests parable. The association suits the section, which, in its lyrical reckoning with spiritual extremity, can recall H.D. or Clarice Lispector. Its statements can be noticeably bold. In fact, the section begins with a thesis in boldface, elaborating the section’s title through unadorned statement, not by perceptual complication: “Our way of being in danger is our way as poets.” This direct proposition differs from cheekier moments of metacommentary, like when Vakalo presents poetry as a pretense: “If I pretended for so long to be writing poems, it was only so I could speak of the forest.” Throughout the section, statements are often proverbial in this way, though they typically include ravishing, occluding elements, like the word “obstructed” in “Obstructed water is better for the thirst of their sainted mouths.” Those knotty incursions into direct proposition might bring to mind the proverbs of Blake; they feel like they’re produced by “not a word but a sob.” Nevertheless, that sob can be quick with wonder (“At that hour it seemed as if everything on land were a flower”).

In considering this wonder explicitly, the final section both resolves and intensifies the book’s terms; readers interested in how book-length sequences can defer simple resolution, yet construct elaborate relationships, should read Before Lyricism immediately. The tone, in the end, can feel more plaintive, even elegiac: “Whatever happened was in the air / It touched me / Though for me perhaps an era had ended.” Vakalo suggests that this end might be followed by: “a return of the senses when the gift will be given / Where love will be greater / As when you surpass desire and each sensation in eros becomes its own exquisite thing.” This vision is hopeful, in its way, but hardly triumphal, unless it’s a triumph to make finer distinctions, like the one between “desire” and “eros,” and thus to see with more variegated lucidity. In moving beyond the diversions of desire, perhaps one might enter “the age of eros” and finally face “the first mystery,” which involves “celebrating the mystery of death / In a fragrant walk.” Before Lyricism is such a walk. Its celebration of mysteries should excite readers who know little of Vakalo’s reputation but who have a high standard for what poetry can do.

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