What I Knew by Eleni Sikelianos (Nightboat Books, 2019)
But will tell of all I heard and saw when I was in
an ancient world, holding
tablets of red rock
up to the sea-cave roof to show
we’re ancient too, to fit time
back together as if
you could reconstruct a broken brain and face
a human world and race
an animal symmetry lounging into the future
Cataloging and sharing knowledge across time and space may seem a romantic ideal in an era of automata. Extensively, bending time and space to accommodate or accompany the lived experiences of humanity could be an entire framework to look through all the arts. In the world of literary landscapes and a weathering of language, these goals and these perspectives can be described by the tools that reinforce them. The image, for example, is an incessant tool allowing for and making easier this cascade of organized and propulsed learnings and revelation. On the nature of a set of eclectic and universal experiences, the presence of this tool, image, within the presence of the statement, grows into, collapses from the weight of, a collectivity of itself. Turn to poetry, then, to see where form and structure can resuscitate and prolong the array of image. Poetry can make that weight less unbearable, can make that collapse a flourish rather than an implosion. And too poetry sends image back to poet as channel, as wavelength, through which the sharing may be seen beyond time.
What I Knew by Eleni Sikelianos is a book of poetry aiming to bear and make bearable innumerable realities of a global sense of knowing. It is a book about technology versus humanity. It is an uproarious linking by word rather than code language places and peoples and cultures and love. It is an indefatigable sequence of lessons and time-escaped experiences, documented but anti-documented in the confines and constrictive pressures of this century. It is the interlocking medley born out of a saga that has as many beginnings as endings for the poet and the poet’s broad family of characters. What I Knew is a book (and book-length poem) capable of being as much about documentation as it is about a simpler, crisper, approach to the joy of a lived independence. It is also political and seeks to sink its teeth into the rapacious principles of the deadening tech empire’s falsehoods.
How best to represent an image of nothing in La Paz?
military action was suspended in Egypt
we demilitarized the verbs under oceans and overseas
the weight of information was too much in Oakland
Sikelianos writes, in the backmatter, “Someone has called the brain the last private territory, but we now know that’s a myth, too. Poetry may not be the total antidote, but it is a little spell to ward off the dark.” What does the poet mean by “dark” in this context? Stepping back to acknowledge again the book’s thematic responses to technology and, more specifically, the algorithm or search engine, dark becomes unknowable, overreliance, and the shallow homogeneity of the instantaneous presentation of meaning. Think searching for pictures on your favorite browser. The tags that leak reality like acidic blood from the social media platforms. Think soft engagement of contentment in a loud, damning, and inequitable world. The poet promotes the private, sacred act of writing poetry to counter the machines and their follies. The role of poetry is the role of privacy and it is an inspirational, uplifting role. The shrinking intonations of intimacy that result from our lack of private, independent corners of reality is that darkness, and it clouds, obfuscates, and converts to derangement. The poet is concerned in this book with many things, raw and openly internal things, rooted in, or seeded from the moments beyond the search, beyond the organization, beyond the dull flotsam and jetsam of our digital oceans.
Curiously the juxtaposition arising out of that beating, human heart of What I Knew is the balance between understanding a presence of the Internet and the algorithmic, pregenerative content that spews from within the Internet, and the recognition and authentication of that which can exist beyond the former. It is curious because the structure that houses the idea of the Internet feels remarkably familiar to the structure that houses the idea of the book. There are parallels. There is reception and receipt. There are feelings of autonomy and control that coincide with the art of the digital trance and the art of the poetic: hypnotism, psychedelia, and a dissociative act through participation tend to result from both for some audiences. For Sikelianos to provide the discourse that there is difference and there is an urgency to understand that difference may reflect how entrenched the content-consuming generations may be.
come to a town of roundabouts
by the sea
that allow a mind to spin in rounding arcs like a silver coin whirling on a light-filled table as the world’s ripples--
—human, animal, parsec, political, paramedicum--
—continue to ripple
Balanced between private and public in tone and these enduring, necessitated conversations on a collective, global reality, Sikelianos’s poem feels ancient and epic. It feels as an epic, with trails of story and layers of feeling, mystery, and a sense of the beyond that may or may not reveal itself over time. It is complete with extended metaphors and thorough subtexts. It is complex and challenging, and enjoyable and surging with beauty. What I Knew included a sense of voice calling from within an abstract space of quietude, memory, and the fortification of a present presence. I felt chills as I moved through the pages wondering if I was missing out, in my own life, on great answers to even greater questions. Was my mind, as one of many within the digital society, bound and occupied? Even with my own set of privileges of awareness and critical thinking, was there a line crossed and a colonization in action? These questions creeped along, creeping and creeping, merging with equivalent energies of ritual and sanctity through the poet’s poetry.
I read What I Knew in an entire sitting, and while doing so found myself remembering encounters with the writings of Lorine Niedecker, Philip Whalen, Robin Blaser, and Danielle Lafrance. These poets share a reverence for the episodic and those private instances of image that result in the epiphany of intimacy. They also share a purpose of elevation and respect for the act of writing as one that could be revolutionary and conducive to opposing hegemony’s hydraesque features. To retreat into the world of the lived experience, of our individual lived experience, and investigate it, serves and is a service. As a model, the image-filled poem can ignite and signal. It may be, before and/or now and/or later, a grace, a scaffolding, an otherwise absent structure of support. Which raises questions of timelessness. That bending backward and forward simultaneously.
in public space I polish my words I publish them
in their cacophony, a movement
of speech from outside to in, inside to out
Is this work then an extension of the fundamentals of Gertrude Stein and the modernists? Is the intertextual and multicultural efforts needed now more than ever? What of Duncan and Spicer and Olson, and the channeling of fractal-like histories? And what of revolution and war? Of the Futurists and the Dadaists? Is the algorithm the new machine that we may feel compelled to flee from, or to attack, or to meditate through? It may be that, like so many apocalyptic writers to have forayed before, Sikelianos is once again foraying into a space that is both frail and dismal, both dangerous and over. But there is more to the poetry than the warnings and responsibilities of response. There is life in it. A knowledge of life. And as with recent and also-timeless work by Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Tyehimba Jess, and so many others that flood my own private (and sacred) set of memories, this knowledge—as stories—might be enough beyond any call to action, any organization, and further dominance of system and technology.
All reviews by Greg Bem unless marked otherwise.
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