George Kalogeris’ collection Guide to Greece is a marvelous collection of poems that reads like a novel—which is to say that it coheres, the poems not just speaking to one another, but together yielding something larger and complete as a whole. That is because, with only a few exceptions, each of the poems feels like a center to all of the rest; that is the hallmark of a unified design: any detail feels like a starting point and key for understanding all of the others and the whole; all of the noise is signal. For a novelist like Henry James, it is a virtue of artistic form. It’s especially rare in a collection of poetry, many of which feel like scatterings of thought; it speaks I think to the intent attentiveness and absorption of the author in a single puzzle or dilemma.
That puzzle, in the case of Kalogeris’ collection, is Hellas, that which is and is not Greece (the final line of the collection speaks to the perplexity, both liberating and constricting); that is a rich legacy for any reader of literature, anyone living in our world because, without going so far as to say that we live in a civilization or culture that is essentially Classical, among the Antiquities from which our culture draws life, that of Ancient Greece remains central. (Though “civilization” is often a foolishly politicized term, one way of thinking about it, in a pluralist, cosmopolitan modernity, would be as a way of life that views itself in relation to an antique or classical past—that does not preclude there being many antiquities, many classical pasts, around the world, all of which may bear on modern life..
The title of the collection alludes to Pausanias, a second-century Greek traveler whose first-person travelogue, Description of Greece or Guide to Greece, is an Imperial Roman Greek’s attempt at understanding and recovering the world of Classical Greece; it remains a valued, if uneven, source for historians, and also a baffling figure for modern writers. For Kalogeris, Pausanias is a heroic inquirer-gatherer, admittedly fallible, but also zealous in his reach, inspiration and mystery alike (for a very different Pausanias, see Guy Davenport’s story, “The Antiquities of Elis”). He is among the first who, though writing in Greek, felt sufficiently distant and belated to a lost idea of Greece, to write travelogue aimed at the rediscovery and cataloguing of that already (by the first century AD) lost world.
With only a few exceptions, those living nowadays who would set their own lives against a long-vanished Classical past, who would seek continuity with that past or else work out their identity by fathoming the differences from it, live far afield from its sacred places and landscapes. Even if they could be returned to, others live there now, who might or might not share a sense of connection to what happened thousands or hundreds of years prior. This is the diasporic condition (“Nation as peregrination” is a phrase from the final poem in the collection) and it is the true subject of Kalogeris’ collection, in which each poem can feel like a center because each poem is preoccupied with the scattering of Greek inheritance (by way of the Hellenistic world, Rome, and modern occupations and displacement in the Mediterranean basin), Greek people (Kalogeris grew up, and lives in, Winthrop, in a family of immigrants from Greece), Ancient Greek myths (to which poets and thinkers have frequently appealed to order the world), and the Greek language itself (not least in the word “Diaspora”).
By chance, before settling into Kalogeris’ poetry, I had taken up the painter R.B. Kitaj’s First Diasporist Manifesto: “Diasporism, as I wish to write about it, is as old as the hills (or caves) but new enough to react to today’s newspaper or last week’s aesthetic musing or next week’s terror.” But dispersed as the phenomenon is, all diaspora, as Kitaj knows, are not alike; each is subject to its own “peculiar historical and personal freedoms, stresses, dislocataion, rupture and momentum.” Kitaj places himself among the Jewish Diaspora. Kitaj’s point is to recognize differences while nonetheless delineating what common experience of Diasporas moves much art, if we have the eyes to see. Kalogeris does.
His Greek diaspora is not a modern scattering displaced from a lost homeland; instead, his poetry asks us to see how, even when most itself, Hellas was always itself (or in parts of itself) scattered from its own ideal unity, a common language with dialects; a common geography with disputed borders; a people unified in opposition to others, but opposed often to its own unity. Without being a people in exile, even in antiquity the Greeks—geographically, politically, culturally—were often decentered from themselves. Athens alone, in its Imperial ambitions, and in the popular historical imagination, has succeeded in claiming itself as a center, enacting the ideological substitution of part for whole. But in much of the Classical Athenian heritage—the plays of Aristophanes, the history of Thucydides, the philosophy of Plato—that presumption is criticized; Athens’s claim to stand-in for all of Ancient Greece not only never entirely effaced the reality that other centers held their ground, but in fact serves as the greatest reminder of other centers, before and after (Alexandria, home to Cavafy, one of the inspirations behind and within Kalogeris’ collection).
Among my favorite poems is one about a place that has been nearly erased from the outside memory, not owing to Athens, but in a history that cannot do without Athens.
The gods, they claim, gave them the identical choice.
But unlike Athens, the people of Thelpousa
Preferred the sea-god’s steeds to Athena’s gift.
The pent-up Thelpousans chose the glossy stallions
Champing at wild Poseidon’s foaming bit
Instead of elies: those olive eyes that gleam
From the dry (but salubrious) leaves of Wisdom’s tree.
Look! they said. It’s the blood of the god with his lapis
Lazuli mane that surges up from the rocks—
Though I saw only a leaping, ebullient fountain.
Landlocked impulsive Thelpousa picked unbridled
Poseidon instead of Athena. Hence, no Socrates,
Plato, Thucydides, Solon, Hippocrates, Euclid…
No Parthenon friezes of flowing stately procession,
Just tiny bent figures trudging along the ridge.
No Gettysburg, no oratory. And nothing
To glass in the Blue Guide to Pericles’ Greece. But plenty
Of slate-gray hillocks to serve as unmarked landmarks.
No oedipal introspection. Just unchecked, nascent,
Indelible waves of dysfunction, vaguely diffused.
Incandescent Electra, raging offstage.
No lucrative gloom of the silver mines, up north,
With slaves under twelve to fit the twelve-inch shafts
From which they emerge, as black as chimney sweeps.
Instead of the rooted olive, unruly waves.
Instead of the flaring nostrils of F-16s,
Or the polypragmatic wink on the painted prows
Of imperial triremes, Polish cavalry charges.
The people of Thelpousa. We used to call them
Company, when they came to visit on Sunday.
Their voices still boisterous, late, in the living room.
Now here they are in an ancient homemade movie
From the sixties, back in their backwater, mountain-peak town.
They’re sitting around a table that’s set for a feast,
Conversing intently about something that makes them grimace,
Then flail away with gestures. O shuddering reel
Of laughing shades, you with your heads thrown back
And your mouths still chewing, holding up half-empty glasses
To the camera panning your hapless, ingenuous faces:
As vivid as life itself, without any sound.
Poems about places can mistake being in a place for placing themselves there; the former is a statement of geography, time, and recollection, and the latter is an apprehension of oneself in relation to a culture, a history, and a life. It’s one of the greatest strengths of Kalogeris’ poetry that he does not make this mistake. Poems about a scattered existence, they are rooted in memory; the historical is gathered up by the personal, without being reduced to it, just as the personal is experienced within the horizons of the historical without being elevated to it. Among the most impressive of the poems that achieves equipollence of the historical and personal, memory and myth, is “Agganis”—but its internal patterning and development of motifs and metaphors is so much a part of its success that to quote from cannot illustrate the point.
The pressure of dispersal and rupture that is recounted and contemplated in many of the poems is braced by a formal continuity that steadies and binds the materials it collects: the verse is rooted in the cadences of the iambic meter, sometimes rhyming or near-rhyming, and sometimes blank, that is itself an affirmation of belonging to the main current of English poetry; the poems affirm that this remains a natural dwelling place for our language, capable of sustaining flights (in “Thelpousa,” “Oh shuddering reel…”) and of complementing the quotidian (“the voices still boisterous, late, in the living room”). None of this is to suggest that the formal properties of the poems are unresponsive to the subject matter; instead, they make a claim for continuity of identity despite interruption and change, and for centeredness despite dispersion.
The unity of the collection as a whole is quite simply the unity of a world; it is this that endows it with the momentum and heft of a novel, full of places and people and memories and voices as it is, and this that is perhaps where it takes Pausanias as an inspiration: it is among the greatest virtues of the collection, and the poet Kalogeris, that he has something to show us about an entire reality that we would not have seen without him, at the same time as showing us what it is for these things he shows to have lived significance in his own life. It’s a basic and neglected function of literature to attempt to educate us, not only in how to feel and think, but in what there is feel and think about; these poems show erudition can be generous and welcoming, can disclose its own dwelling places, in a history and within a life. There is knowledge of life to be had from these poems, knowledge not otherwise communicated or retained—even as there is knowledge of poetry that can only be had from the other parts of life that are not poetry. Kalogeris’ poems lose sight of neither:
Titivizei. Those twittering cries the blackbird
Makes when it descends to drink from a pure
Mountain spring in late Seferis, a word
That seemed to draw on demotic roots so obscure
I couldn’t find it in any of my dictionaries—
Nothing from Oxford’s Modern and Byzantine Greek,
Or Liddell and Scott. Then I looked it up in your eyes,
Incredulous as you turned from the kitchen sink
To enlighten my ignorance with a terse couplet
Fresh from your girlhood, a song about what the crickets
Sing at the height of summer. The dripping faucet
Gleams, like a source that goes back to those early poets
Who loved to sing so much they forgot to eat,
So the gods turned the poets into creatures so tiny
That now they feed on the dew. Titivizei.