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

(“Greek American Poetic Currents: Traversing the Paths of Time and Space” in The National Herald Book Review, August 1, 2009. Anastasia Stefanidou has taught American literature and multicultural poetry at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.)

The very first anthology of Greek American poetry, Pomegranate Seeds is a definite landmark in the history of Greek American literature. With obvious dedication and critical ingenuity, Dean Kostos offers a book that has long been missing, especially when considering the century-old presence of this poetry in the United States. An author of three poetry books (“Last Supper of the Senses,” “The Sentence That Ends with a Comma” and “Celestial Rust”), as well as a translator, reviewer and teacher of poetry, Kostos edited a volume which privileges the versatility of American poetry. At a time when there is a proliferation of multicultural and ethnically-oriented poetry collections and anthologies in the United States, Pomegranate Seeds fulfills a fundamental need in Greek American literature. Additionally, it demonstrates the diverse artistic power and boundless vision of 49 contemporary authors, most of whom were born in the United States, while a few in Greece or Cyprus. Almost all of them have received poetry awards and been published by American presses.

When Kostos mentioned his project to friends, he repeatedly received the same reply: “Are there that many Greek-American poets?” a question similar to what I was accustomed to hearing when I began my doctoral work on Greek American poetry more than ten years ago. “Is there Greek American poetry?” was almost always followed by “What is Greek American poetry?” The anthology not only answers those questions in the most gratifying way but also sets an unequivocal standard for more works of equal range and depth. Pomegranate Seeds, of course, builds on a vigorous tradition starting from the first known poetry collection “Tragoudia tis Xenitias” (“Songs of a Foreign Land”), which was published in 1912 by Demetrios Valakos, to the most recent prize-winning “An Almost Pure Empty Walking” by Tryfon Tolides. Greek American poetry has been unfolding and affirming the complexities of ethnic and diasporic identity in America, while, at the same time, it is a participant in the ongoing dialogues and developments within American literature.

The creation of Pomegranate Seeds is rooted in the enthusiastic reception of the reading series at Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, which Kostos has been organizing for the last 18 years. For Kostos, a major set of criteria for the anthology has been “a strong voice, powerful writing and rigorous craft” (personal communication). Aware of, yet not intimidated by, the obvious marginalization of Greek American poetry and “saddened by the fact that no such anthology existed to represent the Greek American experience,” Kostos carefully selected poems of varied thematic scope and aesthetic sensibility. The alphabetical arrangement of the poets provides readers with the liberty to enjoy their literary journey without any pre-established selection principles or theoretical agenda. Moreover, the biographical notes are not merely informative but

often give us glimpses into the poets’ spiritual worlds, particularly in relation to their own perception of Greekness.

Many of the poems evoke, memorialize or blend figures, images and emotions related to Greek family, tradition, myth or landscape. These are usually explored in stimulating and innovative ways, especially when compared to the more lyrical, symbolic and nostalgic Greek American poetry written before and around the middle of the 20th century by such poets as Aristides Phoutrides and George Koutoumanos. Moreover, a prevalent theme in Greek American writing, just as in the writing by and about the Other America, has always been immigration and diasporic existence. These are now not necessarily associated with feelings of permanent loss, anxiety of displacement or fear within an intimidating new world. Quite the contrary, emotional and geographical distance from one’s roots can make it possible for the anthologized poets to engage in inspirational cultural flows between the different locations and imagined spaces they inhabit, whether they are first, second or third generation Greek Americans. Recovering the original meaning of diaspora as an opportunity for adventurous wanderings and crosscultural discoveries, Stathis Gourgouris in “Poseidonians (Fin de Siecle)” focuses on the Greeks’ essential need to travel:

As Greeks, we left behind

lonely and homeless columns

turning to face the sea

like still-voiced women.

To strangers we showed

what psyche means, what is infinity.

Without a compass, without


(foreign inventions)

we took to the dark seas

out of sheer fondness

for studying stars. (141)

Gourgouris seems to imply that despite the obvious role of history and tradition in shaping the course of our lives, we should feel free to go beyond them in order to explore the mysterious and the unknown. In this way we can reconsider and revise our sense of self and our position within our social and historical worlds. The endless potential of diaspora for artistic gain and cosmopolitan insight are also suggested, this time in surreal colors. In “The Poet of the Diaspora” by Nicos Alexiou, “A man is counting sky-blue boats / in his blind palms / they tear open his hands / he travels on red seas” (26). The inevitable feelings of sadness and separation in diaspora can also lead towards more creative routes and greater self-awareness. This is especially true when identity is viewed as borderless and nationless. An example of this sentiment is found in Nicholas Samaras’ poetry. In “Studio Apartment,” Samaras writes about the transcendence of the physical dimensions of exile and its transformation into ecumenical citizenship:

. . . In every country,

every village and city, then, what did

we ever find

but the patchwork of ourselves?

It was all good Daniel.

If we were no country, we could be

every country.

Displaced by the world’s history, we

inhabited the world.

And you can only find the world

through exile. (260)

Immigration, however, is also a highly painful condition of lost safety and abandoned dreams of genealogical continuity. This reality is very evident in the early immigrants of the first half of the 20th century, who were usually driven away from their homelands for economic and political reasons. They have not always adapted comfortably to life in America. In “Greek Widows of America,” Dan Georgakas adds a rarely discussed dimension to this experience by shedding light on the women immigrants who were commonly brought to America as brides for the chiefly bachelor Greek communities:

Consider these Greek widows of


completing blackclad lives

in the rented rooms of the old


or dreaming alone in their aging


now that children sleep in the


so eagerly sought for them. (116)

For the second and third generation Greek Americans, adaptation to America has not always been a smooth or consistent process either. Indeed, the Americans born to Greek parents have often felt uncertain and confused not only regarding the more obvious issues of language and religion, but also those of deeper moral values and cultural identity. Their unique standing as carriers of a fabled cultural legacy at times gives them pride and reassurance and other times reasons to feel alienated or ashamed. In “Mavraki,” Stephanos Papadopoulos traces the steps of an elderly man dragging himself around old Athens where tourists “. . . have made the ocean crossing to come to this: / a street of jewelry shops and plaster, / authentic Greeks in authentic shops. / This city is like a shirt worn inside out” (246). The obvious irony undermines any sort of unquestionable identification and emotional connection with one’s home culture. Nevertheless, some poets regard this ambiguous and mediating position with a sense of humor, usually with ironic overtones, as does George Economou in the poem “An Evening in Kingfisher.” An elderly American guard is confused by a Greek American professor’s perfect English, especially after finding out about the professor’s foreign name and origins:

- “Well, George, how d’yuh like


here among all these Americans?”

- “I told you, Huck, I was born here.”

- “I like yuh, George, I’d like to talk

to yuh ’bout your beliefs.” (101)

Memory, whether arising directly from personal experiences or being passed on as part of a family’s oral history or a nation’s past, is always compelling and illuminating. It simultaneously expands and unfolds the intersecting layers of Greek American identity. Even when supplemented with invented stories and impressions, recollection resists imposed silences and carries meaningful practices and traditions, which may be subsequently revised to fit into an American present. In Cleopatra Mathis’ poem, “Cleopatra Theodos,” grandmother and granddaughter overcome a significant language barrier through non-verbal communication. Their bonding becomes a visceral witness of the Greek genocide in Asia Minor, for which the Greek woman imagines taking revenge through the ritual of warding off the evil eye that has afflicted the American girl:

Five brothers in a nation of murdered


came back and spoke, safe for once

in the sanctuary of her face. Held

there in Ayvali,

stone’s throw from the ancient cities

of grief,

the devil met his history. His gift for


could not stand up to the power of

her losses. (223)

In “Litany of Tears” by Sofia Kontogeorge Kostos, the Christian extermination by the Turks (1894-1922) is recalled in a determined, realistic and forceful tone which aims at restoring important historical omissions: “Those who did not freeze, were raped / Those who were raped, went mad / Men, women, children—all (186). Other poets such as Eleni Fourtouni and Manya Coulentianos Bean bring back the Greek national past with striking images of the women of Souli dancing towards their death and of hungerstruck children during the Nazi occupation of Greece. E.D. Karampetsos attacks the junta for casting darkness over the Greek spirit and killing Diogenes who “isn’t coming / it’s possible someone . . . else will bring the light” (176). Another prominent cultural source on which Greek American poets draw extensively is ancient Greek history and mythology. These are not revived only for the sake of guarding their timeless value and symbolic nuances. Through the dynamic viewpoint of their binational Greekness (the term coined by historian Dan Georgakas), Greek American poets defy worn-out assumptions, rewrite highly idealized moments of the past and transfer them creatively into the present. At the same time, they allow mythical and legendary figures to emerge in contemporary settings and to speak in unfamiliar, bolder or subtler, voices.

In John Bradley’s “Song of Icarus,” the playful tone of Icarus accentuates the generational gap between son and father, disputes notions of traditional authority and questions the attainability of eternal truths. With the firm statement that he lives “in the absence / of rules” flying far beyond “the old man and his old man fears,” Icarus fabricates all over again his supposedly fatal experiment by claiming: “I tell you I didn’t die. / I just never bothered / to turn back” (59). In the poem “Theseus: Mythology of Consciousness” by Yiorgos Chouliaras, a selfdoubting and unheroic Theseus is wandering around the labyrinth “endlessly unraveling” the thread in his hands which is not capable of “. . . guiding me / without showing me / what I’m doing here / and where I may find myself at the end.” (77)

Alexander the Great acquires human weaknesses in Neil Carpathios’ poem “For the Vessel within the Vessel.” In a series of speculations on the reasons why Alexander wept on his deathbed, Carpathios captures the entire kaleidoscope of life’s essences enclosed within instances of natural beauty, sensual pleasure and spiritual freedom. His poem reminds us that these traits may ironically remain unnoticed during our lifetime. Alexander did not cry because he would never “taste another succulent / pear” nor “feel the sudden gush of blood on his hands.” He realized, too late, the inevitable transience of happiness and fulfilling truth, while resigning to the knowledge granted by the finality of death:

He wept, they say, for the soundless


of the body, where spirits of those


we’ re most alive dance. Where what


by not lasting expands what we are,

cracking us. For what, they say, held

it all,

he wept. And for what he could now

hold. (75)

Embedded in realism, fantasy, myth, magic realism and other aesthetic underpinnings, Greek American poetry creates a new mythology of the self and continually affirms and re-imagines Greekness in the United States. It broadens and crosses over the borders of language, history, tradition and culture. Bringing together the poets’ separate artistic trajectories, the anthology effectively reflects a new phase in Greek American literature. Pomegranate Seeds is thus more than the first of its kind. It reinforces the nature of Greek American contribution to American literature as a collective force of distinct yet interconnected voices. Nor is it simply a must reading for literary scholars. Pomegranate Seeds invites Greek and non-Greek readers to join Greek American poets in a marvelous array of passions, fears, mysteries, dreams and hopes.

Anastasia Stefanidou, Ph.D., has taught American literature and multicultural poetry at Aristotle University, Greece. Her scholarly work on Greek American literature has appeared in the “Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora,” “The Charioteer,” the “Journal of Modern Hellenism” and “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature.”