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

(Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Volume 35.1, 2009).

A defining element of the literature of contemporary American ethnicity is evidence of a re-envisioning of the writer’s ethnic past within its newly acquired American context. As such Dean Kostos’ anthology of 164 Greek-American poems Pomegranate Seeds, An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry is a rich addition to the voices of hybrid and hyphenated American identity. In his preface Kostos makes the point that he has “assiduously avoided embracing any style over another” but finds “surreality” to be a recurring quality in the poems, and suggests an explanation in the possible role mythology might play in the collective imaginary of a Greek American psyche; on an “unconscious level myth’s metaphorical archetypes and dark, irrational focus still inform our writing” (21). Indeed myth and its many-peopled presences surface and resurface in this collection, from John Bradley’s modern-voiced Icarus “always warning me/about something or other” and Yiorgos Chouliaras’ “Theseus’ Mythology of Consciousness” to Lili Bita’s “Iphigenia,” Ioanna Carlsen’s “When Hermes Whispers” or Emily Fragos’ arresting “Spindlers” to name some of the poems and poets); the variety of ways mythology and history are used to locate the speakers in their relation to pasts reinvented in modern idioms is striking, and indicative of the resilience of these ancient tropes in their new world settings. Chouliaras’ Theseus notes:

And somewhere in its cold shiver

Anxiety’s small caterpillar is stirring

Able at any moment to change itself

Into the huge dark butterfly

Overshadowing with its wings

The childhood hiding place of my life

It is impossible for me to remember

How this ball of yarn found itself in my hands

Endlessly unraveling.

Veronica Golos’ twinned poems “Persephone of Demeter” and “Demeter to Persephone” likewise expand on the ancient archetypes in describing alternating views of Demeter’s grief and Persephone’s openness to leaving behind the grief-stricken mother whose “words were nothing but salt./” for “the dream/ of this desert place.”

Another recurring trope in the poems collected here is the yearning for something or someone associated with the poet’s ancestral land; nostos, in Greek a yearning after homeland, defines much of the Greek poetry of the Diaspora, which here takes on the added characteristic of weaving in received narratives of war, migration, and experiences of acculturation by previous generations. Poems like Neil Carpathios’ “Coins,” a homage to his grandfather “who arrived in America/ with twenty bucks/ and a battered valise;” or Constantine Contogenis’ “Those Moments” that describes the experiences that made his father’s new world life possible as he remembers his telling” “those drachmas you stole from the bowl of running apricots to buy ice cream for friends, were dollars your father had sent./ Blood money, your mother said, right”/ This is your father’s blood.” There is Stephanos Papadopoulos’ “An Inherited Memory of War” and Cleopatra Mathis’ “Cleopatra Theodos” or Eleni Fourtouni’s “Killing Time” and Thea Halo’s “Night,” all of which speak to the significance of lineage, of passing on history, and the various ways it is lost.

If one could attempt to identify what constitutes a Greek-American inheritance? What kinds of images, themes, repeat themselves, if there is any particular Greek-American context? One might begin with what the Greek-American text shares with other American immigrant ethnicities, the renewed immediacy the past takes on in becoming “American,” or in this case “Greek American,” the unique, often uncanny ways it becomes significant and feeds into the poet’s ongoing definitions of self. While there are several poems in the anthology that explore juxtapositions and conflicts of old world traditions or assumptions in new world settings like Dan Georgakas’ “Greek Widows of America” and Nicholas Johnson’s “Point of Honor,” I would like to focus on two poems that specifically make connections between language and identity, George Economou’s “An Evening in Kingfisher” and George Kalamaras’ “Looking for My Grandfather with Odysseas Elytis.”

Economou’s “An Evening with Kingfisher” dramatizes the consequence of a name, how lineage is self-consciously presenced when encountered as other, in this case by a man from the Elks Club in Kingfisher, Oklahoma whom the speaker-poet is in conversation with. When Huck Rice asks the speaker where he’s from and he answers “the university” Huck says: “Well, I kin see that. I mean with a name/ like that where yuh from?” pointing out that the name on his tag is “not an American name.” The speaker’s answer is telling when he says, “Sure it is, from Greece.” This dialogue continues, foregrounding the shifting terms of identity, but particularly the assumptions of what constitutes “Americanness”:

When did your people come here from Germany, Huck?”

Easing up on the squeeze,

-“Oh hell we bin here forever.”

-“You mean you’re Native American?”

-“No, no Indian. What d’yuh do at OU?”

-“I teach English.”

-“With a name like that, yuh teach English?”

“I run the whole show in English, Huck.

I’m chairman of the department, brought in from New York.”

Despite the speaker’s insistence on his being American, Huck cannot get beyond the foreign-sounding name” “Well, George, how d’yuh like workin/ here among all these Americans?” he continues, when George answers “I told you Huck, I was born here./” The wry humor in this exchange that goes on for another 23 lines has the poet-speaker giving Huck a short history lesson of origins that includes Greeks going “right back to the/language of the New Testament” though Huck continues to be interested in how a Greek can teach English. The many ironies in the poems regarding identity and language, who in fact has an accent, and who is most able to privilege knowledge highlights a larger insight into how ancestry and narratives of origins are used to express the complexities of multiple belongings.

George Kalamaras’ “Looking for My Grandfather with Odysseas Elytis” is another example of this, adding a dream dimension to how lineage and language coincide in surreal ways and inform each other in the speaker’s first discovery of the Greek Nobel laureate, Odysseas Elytis’ poetry; the speaker imagines himself walking through the streets of Athens with Elytis whose arm is looped through his, and who is helping him look for his grandfather George Avgerinos “though he has been dead twenty-six years.” They then find themselves on the island of Zakynthos, “the island of my grandfather’s birth” as Elytis keeps repeating “Not here, not here,” while the speaker relives memories, real or invented, of the taste of lamb’s tongue, “the retsina scent of a tavern” all to lead to the poem’s central memory of the speaker’s discovery of Elytis “That solstice night in Colorado nineteen years ago when I kissed the back cover photo of Elytis from Maria Nephele before writing poetry, before logging the first vowel… Drops of light, drops of light, I had silently chanted, echoing Elytis’s core…” the experience engenders the speaker’s poetic voice as Elytis joins with him in chanting “Drops of light, Giorgos. Vowel without end, Giorgos. Tongue in the chest.” The search for the grandfather the speaker is named after becomes a search for the speaker’s identity as a poet, and the expression of that self in the English language after having been initiated into it by a Greek poet’s work.

Examples of such marriages of old world narratives and experiences, either passed down or experiences first-hand, with new world contexts are intriguing and speak for the fascinating ways one of the world’s oldest literary inheritances has found its way into new world voices. Pomegranate Seeds is a wonderfully inclusive collection that attests to the geographic, linguistic and cultural landscapes the Greek American poet has traveled to voice the challenges and rewards of so many legacies. Or in the words of Nicholas Samaras: “Displaced by the world’s history, we inhabited the world.”