Dean Kostos, Editor – Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry. Reviewed by Dimitrios Kalantzis

(“Sitting on the Hyphen” in American Book Review, Volume 30, Number November/December 2008, Dimitrios Kalantzis was born and raised in Brooklyn in a predominately Italian neighborhood. He currently lives and works in Chicago.)

My earliest confrontation with being Greek-American occurred in the back seat of a taxi en route from Athens to Piraeus. My grandmother had met my siblings and me at the airport and was taking us to my father's childhood home in Aegina. In an attempt at small talk, the driver asked her if the children were "xena," a word that connotes both foreigners as well as strangers. In an apparent verbal faux pas, my grandmother replied. "No, they're ours." I'm not sure if my grandmother was being coy or not, but looking back, the experience appears emblematic of the identity issues one faces particularly as a first-born American. In America, I am the son of immigrants, not entirely American, and in Greece, I am a stranger.

In his introduction to an invaluable contribution to the ongoing history of the Greek-American experience, Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry, Dean Kostos describes his usage of the hyphen separating Greek and American: “Although it may no longer be fashionable to use it, I am interested in the hyphen that traditionally linked Greek and American because of its value as a metaphor—a little bridge between two worlds, two identities. Do we traverse this hyphen, leading us to divide our time, like Persephone, between two worlds? Are we Greek in America, and American in Greece?”

And in specifically discussing Greek-Americans, this tension of identity takes on increased complexity. The modern predecessors to the poets included here, themselves struggled with their identities, even as completely Greek natives. Nanos Valaoritis, co-editor of the seminal anthology, Modern Greek Poetry (2003), points to the struggles of early-twentieth-century Greek poets. These struggles included psychological, cultural, as well as artistic and stylistic, varieties. Valaoritis reminds us that "Modem Greek came into its own in the 1970s after a long struggle with the official bookish, 'pure' Greek, but most Greek literature had been written in the vernacular since the turn of the century." Aside from this question of language, modern Greek poets struggled with the heavy burden of their rich history, one it appeared to the rest of the world, the Greeks had squandered by the twentieth century. Where once the Greek civilization was the model and envy of all other cultures, it now struggled to maintain the very democracy it created.

And a quick glance through the poetry of Pomegranate Seeds will remind us that many Greek-American poets today undertake this burden along with newly acquired ones. In E. D. Karampetsos's poem, "At the Reichenberger Griechenbeisl" (Greeks' Inn), he writes of expatriate Greeks plotting the 1821 revolution that led to the establishment of the Modem Greek state: "who cares / the victory was theirs / where will we find ours." Many of the poets follow Karampetsos's lead and are fixated on the struggles and victories of the Greeks at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as well as the hands of their own brutal dictatorship in the sixties and seventies.

Add the mournful-like remembrance of the Ancients and the Greek Diaspora and you have a poetry that is rich in an "absent reality." If questions of identity begin in childhood, as the professor Spyros D. Orfanos, author of Reading Greek America (2002), points out, then poets in general (including these here) are perennial children. And they appear to be joining in a recently resurgent movement of Greek-Americans who are beginning to reclaim their heritage, as if in response to the long-standing American view of Greeks as simple diner owners or confusing mysteries not worth the trouble to understand (consider the phrase "It's all Greek to me").

No. The poets presented here, some established in the field and extensively published, others newcomers altogether, this anthology comprising their very first publication (Aris Georgiadis is a very pleasant surprise), are torch bearers who boldly and proudly undertake the weight of their people's histories as they struggle to understand how theirs fits into it. What does it mean after all to be a (Greek in America? Whether an immigrant or the child of immigrants, born first, or second, or third generationally in the States, what dynamics are at play when we look back at Greek history from within the borders of today's great civilization? I am terribly excited by the prospect of Plato's descendants riding el trains and shopping at Costco. What unique perspective do we bring?

This is the power of Pomegranate Seeds, what makes it required reading for us all, Greek or other. Allow me to introduce my own stereotypes of Greeks. We are a very cynical and pessimistic people. Remember how Zorba responds when asked if he was ever married? "Am I not a man," he says, "and is not a man stupid?" Yes, of course he'd married, had children, too—the whole "catastrophe." And aside from Barack Obama's refrain of Hope this election season, Americans (recently at least these past several decades) are pretty cynical too. How can we not be with destructive forces all around us accelerating at exponential speeds?

But Pomegranate Seeds is not a cynical collection, not alone, at least. It is equal parts hopeful as it is despairing. Let's go back to Kostos's invocation of Persephone: after all, she splits her time equally in Hades as on Earth. One of my favorite poems comes from Nicos Alexiou, a sociology teacher at CUNY, "The Survivor." It ends with a wry assurance: " — Have a little patience. / —You will die. / —You will die."

How dismal! But you can't expect saccharine love poems alone from a people that spent the twentieth century playing catch-up to the rest of modernizing Western Europe. And according to many of the strongest poems, much of our collective memory as Greeks involves the struggles of our fathers and grandfathers. Manya Coulentianos Bean, a Greek bom psychoanalyst in private practice living in New Jersey, remembers the hunger in Athens:

As an open German truck

loaded with bread

drove downtown in Athens ’42

a thin boy jumped in

kept throwing loaves

out to hungry people

like you might now throw gardenias

to good musicians

until the driver stopped the truck

and grabbing the boy's arm

with both hands

slammed across his knee —

broke it.

I admire the way in which this poem almost tricks you into that disturbing end. The fluid and melodic lines, the image of gardenias being wistfully tossed at musicians, makes the jarring reality of Nazi occupation precisely that. Yet aside from an attempt to make note of their parents' histories, many of the poets seem to be wrenching it from the hands of foreigners. One of the more acclaimed writers in this book, Constantine Contogenis, seems to do just this in his "There are No Ploughs on Ikaria" (not surprisingly, the myth of Icarus is very pervasive throughout the collection). In it, he debunks Pieter Brueghel's artistic rendering of farmlands on Ikaria, "he gets the island wrong: / a few quick generations // split up fields to fierce gardens." And later on mocks W.H. Auden, that he "vouches / for the painting," and he himself "gets it / wrong." Not all of the poems, of course, deal directly with their writers' "Greekness." Many of the personal poems are infused by salty Greek humor. Hilary Sideris certainly retains that humor. Of "Sex" she writes:

I like

mine from a can,

product of Greece.

Portugal, Spain,

odor & shimmer

when I lock my office,

pull the E-Z open

tab & spatter



I could go on and on pulling quotes from the book. But it's not practical, and it certainly isn't fair. There are many good poets and many good poems in Pomegranate Seeds. Many readers not familiar with Greek-American poets will still recognize certain names, like Eleni Sikelianos. And many other poets, less known, populate this anthology and do both themselves and each other great justice with strong and fiercely "new" poetry that is often and stunningly beautiful, funny, sad, hopeful. That is what's most remarkable about the book—its variety. If you don't take to one particular poet, turn the page; there are forty-eight more of them—each one balancing (in his or her own way) on the hyphen, as if it were less a bridge than a seesaw.

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