Roots and Ruins: On George Kalogeris’s Winthropos

by Dominick Knowles

In “Church Bells Will Signal,” the Greek poet and revolutionary Yiannis Ritsos mourns and celebrates the oppressed and martyred during the fight for a liberated Greece: “those ones are in irons, and those others are in the earth. // The earth is theirs and ours.” Although not a “political” poet in the conventional sense, Ritsos helped reclaim the totality of Greek history in service of social struggle, imbuing even his most innocuous lyrics with the specter of solidarity––a subversive practice that got his work banned several times by Greek authorities.

George Kalogeris is also not a “political” poet, but, like Ritsos, his attention to poetic speech emerges from a place of deep struggle and historical memory. His 2018 collection, Guide to Greece, borrows its title from the 2nd-century AD travelogue by Pausanias and charts the intersections of ancient and modern Greece. The decision to poeticize Greece, of course, has a long and uneven legacy in western thought. In the works of non-Greek writers like Michel Foucault, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Penn Warren, their investigations into the ancient world serve mostly to enrich or supplement their own philosophical-poetic development. For many of these writers, “Greece” loses all historical specificity, becoming a metonym for the “west” in its infancy. Greek myths, political forms, and cultural practices are instrumentalized indiscriminately; they gain meaning largely as the foundation of Euro-American culture. Reading, Foucault’s late engagements with ancient Greek poetry, one might not realize that Greece’s history continued past the fourth century B.C.

Water Tower, Winthrop, MA

Kalogeris, who writes from the Greek diaspora in New England, rejects this instrumental logic. Both Guide to Greece and his newest collection, Winthropos (discussed on Recall This Book 74), offer concrete images of Greek and Greek-American existence which dispense with the notion that Greece is merely an obscure prelude to the western world. Part of this, of course, has to do with the fact that he maintains strong ancestral ties to the country. As he puts it in Guide’s title poem, Kalogeris’s excursions into Greek history reveal

           Endless genealogies, as densely entangled
           As a grove of olive trees, his grasp of their roots

           Extending all the way back to Epaminondas,
           Who sprang from the earth of Thebes, before it was Thebes;

           Cities erected on sites of ruined cities,
           Their marble temples and strange foundation myths…

There is tension in these lines between the poet’s “grasp of [ancestral] roots / Extending” and the reality of “Cities erected on sites of ruined cities.” Rootedness and the inexorable movement of history seem incompatible, even mutually destructive. But this contradictory impulse is what gives Kalogeris’s poetry its force. For instance, in Winthropos’s “Lethe,” Kalogeris fuses the memory of his dying uncle Charlie to the underworld river of forgetfulness and oblivion. After his uncle, “the last of my father’s siblings / to leave their village,” kisses the speaker’s wrist, he sinks “headlong back to oblivion’s / Blankness…on pillows.” It is “A kiss so resigned,”

           So fervently parched, you’d think he met the Pope.
           Or was like old Priam beseeching the great Achilles.

           My uncle, although not yet one of Pluto’s shades––
           His lips are moving there, in the speechless dark.

Kalogeris makes this poem into a kind of lyric slipstream in which the ancient takes on an urgent contemporaneity and the present always gestures toward those “marble temples and strange foundation myths.” Uncle Charlie’s reluctance to leave his Greek village further enforces this displacement in spatial terms. Even the process of death, of becoming “one of Pluto’s shades” is transformed into a site of poetic production, of “lips…moving…in the speechless dark.”

It is difficult not to see Kalogeris’s dialectic of displacement and rootedness in terms of contemporary Greek politics, namely the 2010 debt crisis that upended the country, leading to widespread suffering and coerced migration. Greece’s recent history has centered around the struggle against the austerity regime imposed by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Although Winthropos contains no direct references to the debt crisis, poems like “Tantalus” analogize the difficulties of literary production to the physical symptoms of austerity: thirst, hunger, the “desire for bodies I can’t have,” a perpetually deferred satisfaction.

Neither is poetic language safe from this austere deferral. Words themselves break into their constituent parts, shattering on the hard surface of the page. This kind of linguistic dismantling occurs throughout Winthropos. In “Just My Imagination,” we see the machinery of speech atomized: “imagination,” for instance, becomes “imagin-a-shun,” the very condition of literature pried open to reveal exclusion and alienation. In “RCA Victor” these acts of pulling words apart occur in the explicitly political context of the Axis occupation of Greece. “Steeped in open vowels,” the poem revolves around the letter “O” in the word “gramophone” as well as the “brazen O of its horn,” to which the speaker’s “obdurate ghost” clings. In oscillating from Greek to English, Kalogeris evokes the musical interplay of languages alongside the trauma of Nazi encirclement. While the “Germans [are] burning the furniture,” the poem’s Os echo in mourning: “pólemos: my father’s / Brother’s word for war, whose O’s / Go back to Homer” become “the O in the middle of immolation–– / That smoldering unmollified O.” It is as if a single vowel, perfectly continuous but lacking a center, gives form to the crises of history and memory. 

Rootedness, displacement, and annihilation constitute Winthropos’s “aura,” a word Kalogeris deploys carefully in “Pepónia.” “Certain words,” he explains in the Recall This Book interview, “have a talismanic power.” Despite its investment in alienating speech from speaker, Winthropos maintains a faith in the power of poetic language, even when it cannot be spoken. In Yiannis Ritsos’s “Churchbells Will Signal,” the speaker urges Greek antifascist partisans to remain quiet––not to silence them, but because “any moment now the churchbells will signal” a resurrection, in which suffering will come to an end. Perhaps the quietest moments in Winthropos, when lips move in the speechless dark, augur a world without political and affective austerity. Indeed, Kalogeris concludes “First Steps,” one of the most moving pieces in the collection, with the confluence of silence and nourishment: After caring for his young brother as he walks for the first time, the speaker gazes into the vacuum of winter sky. Unlike the mournful O’s in “RCA Victor,” here the speaker’s “mouth is open” in quiet anticipation, and “the snowflakes are silent as they melt on my tongue.”

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