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

(Talisman, Number 36/37 (Summer/Fall 2008): 172-175).)

Diaspora poetry is a rich but largely submerged tradition in modern verse. Its patron saint is Konstantine Kavafis (1863-1933), who lived in Egypt, wrote in Greek, and evoked the lost, cosmpolitan world of Hellenic culture. The special quality of Kavafis’ work was its nostalgic homelessness, the sense of the poet as situated in an imaginary country of time and space, and standing, as E. M. Forster so well observed of Kavafis himself, “at a slight angle to the universe.” Diaspora poets, then, live in an elsewhere, no matter where they happen to be physically situated. They adjust to a new place, accept its customs, and sometimes adopt its language. They’re both the here they’ve come to and the there they’ve come from, painfully present in both situations and painfully absent from them. They live in vacuo, a suspension both personal and literary. Their country of origin no longer recognizes them as a part of its literature; their country of adoption will accept them only insofar as they deny the truth of their condition. Some of them put on a protective coloration; some of them assimilate. The Diaspora poet, in short, must forget himself to be acknowledged by others. It isn’t usually a happy tradeoff.

Diaspora poets will sometimes congregate, but seldom wish to draw attention to themselves as a group and can hardly even conceive themselves as a tradition. It takes a determined imagination to see them as they dare not wish to be seen, to cull their riches and brave their contradictions. It takes an act of empathy and vision.

Dean Kostos, himself a poet of distinction, has performed such an act in Pomegranate Seeds, the first comprehensive anthology of Greek-American verse ever produced. Fittingly, it has been handsomely published by Dean Papademetriou’s Somerset Hall Press, which has dedicated itself to the promotion of Greek-American literature. Among its 49 poets are some who write in Greek and some who write in English. For some, the Greek heritage is immediate, intimate, and inescapable; for others, it is a thing that must be recovered by conscious effort. Some of the poems in this volume could have been written by no one but a Greek or someone clearly of Greek descent; others, it might seem, could have been written by any American poet. Taken in sum, however, they are a dialogue between that here and there that is the elsewhere of the Diaspora, the uniquely difficult ground that no one treads without effort and on which no one stands without uncertainty. Here, for example, is Yiorgos Chouliaras:

It is late now

and that may be why I can’t remember

narrow passages follow rectilinear

galleries and endless corridors

indelible turns

blinding alleys in the dark

This could be an anywhere of urban anomie, and so perhaps it is; but it is also, clearly, the Minotaur’s cave, and not merely because the title (“Theseus: Mythology of Consciousness”) prompts us, but because the poet finds that it is “late” and that he “can’t remember.” Something is still densely present (“a thick odor” accompanies him), and yet the place is abstracted, lost, a Cubist maze of angles, corners, and passages, bedazzling and obscuring at the same time (“blinding alleys in the dark”). A poet who wasn’t Greek, I’d stipulate, could not have written this; but neither could a poet who was merely Greek. This is the in-between voice of the Diaspora.

The urgency of travel, the inability to arrive: “I’ve always wanted to paint / the way the road eats up your life / the way you drive right into it,” writes Ioanna Carlsen; “Here’s the last stop / of a man who was buried / without shoes,” says Neil Carpathios. The trick of disappearance: John Bradley, rewriting the myth of Icarus, leaving us with a wry salutation at the end: “I tell you I didn’t die. / I just never bothered / to turn back.”

Theseus and Icarus: both wanderers, one in the earth, the other in air. Theseus must slay what he finds; Icarus must be slain by it, unless by a ruse he can cheat his destiny, as Bradley suggests. His Icarus does not arrive, but cannot go back. On the other hand, another poet obsessed by Icarus, Constantine Contogenis, traces his fall and finds in the bitter marriage of elements the final meaning of his tale:

Before he hit,

another breathing creature timed his leap

to kiss him hard, break his skin,

teeth, nose, but blasted its own breath

to his brain, waking a taste

of salt, a knowledge of

entering the sea as he did

and last thoughts of dolphin.

The dolphin, a creature allied by breath to earth, by act to air, by body to the sea, rises in its own aspiration to collide with the falling body of Icarus, and in the moment of disaster fuses man and beast--always a Greek dream--into a knowledge as instant as it is fatal. Here, too, is another way of construing the wanderer, as one for whom arrival and return are figured as the twin halves of an annihilating impossibility, and for whom only the road remains.

If myth, for the Diaspora mind, represents the shore of arrival, history is that of departure. This history is compressed, sometimes into a litany of dates: Nina Karacosta recalls the Smyrna catastrophe in a single broken phrase (“behind his face: 1922”); E. D. Karampetsos likewise evokes the regime of the colonels in a lapidary title, “Syntagma 1967.” These events, of course, precipitated exile, but for others history is the trauma of abiding memory: in Manya Coulentianos Bean, the boy whose arm is broken by a German soldier (“Monody”); in Eleni Fourtouni, twelve bodies flung into a ravine (“Killing Time”). History is that which has been severed, left behind; that which accompanies one only as a scar. In this sense it approaches the condition of myth, an unfinished tale, a fragment that rises unbidden in the mind.

But the Diaspora poet must look ahead as well as behind, to “the Lana-Turnered landscape / of America” (Penelope Karageorge, “Avenue ‘B’ Rembetiko”). In the new land, the poet must learn “to / widen his stride” (Aris Georgiadis, “Astoria: Sestina”), a “Newcomer at the Edge of an Imposing Winter” (Cleopatra Mathis, “Living Next Door to the Center for Cold Weather”). There’s always a citizen, too, to remind him than an unfamiliar surname is a badge of alienation even for one born in America, as in George Economou’s “An Evening in Kingfisher.” Conceiving the New World is a work in progress, like the poet’s identity itself. As Dean Kostos reminds us in his illuminating introduction, Persephone ate the pomegranate seed in Hades, the symbol of exile and rebirth. The Greek has been a wander for as long as we have traces of him, and America is only the latest version of the Golden Isles. It is the eternal Greek paradox that one can begin the work of homecoming only from the greatest distance. Lili Bita expresses this well in Kouros:

lovingly I sculpt

the perfect body

the massive stiff shoulders

the mound of the pectorals

the hard clump of sex

winnowing away the centuries

that separate us

pinching and caressing

sucking welts to the white surface

like buried fruit.

Here, then, in what Nicos Alexiou calls “the evening enigma of language,” is both the task and the triumph of Diaspora literature. It is one central to modernity itself. The Diaspora poet isn’t a special case; he is a paradigmatic one. It is such a poet who best understands, in Camus’ phrase, that exile and the kingdom are inseparable, and that neither can be had without the other.