The Compass Syndrome

Foreign Territory: Poems and Prose, by Dino Siotis
Philos Press, 69 pages

By Robert Herschbach

Dino Siotis
In much of Foreign Territory, the new book of poetry by Dino Siotis, the speaker is a kind of information-age nomad, a inhabitant of the transnational void, afflicted by an elegiac ache for a place where "time was slow and endless and everything had a sweet taste." The nomad, as we know from the Odyssey, always risks becoming a No-Man; and while Homer's resourceful traveller made it back to Ithaca, Siotis fears his return will be blocked, in part by his own knowledge, experience and desires. Having already tasted the "New World Order" with its boundary erasures and juxtapositions ("mixed Asian 'killer' salad with conflict Macadamia nuts"), the poet naturally wonders if he is condemned to go on living in multiple languages and homelands, afflicted with permanent dual citizenship. He can't even take solace in an unadulterated nostalgia; when he's not longing for Tinos, he's dreaming of California.

Siotis pays homage to the allure of America's open roads and democratic vistas, while also registering disappointment with the country "which years ago charmed me/but today tells me nada." In "What Happens After: Or The Immigrant's Dream," Siotis speaks as a member of the diaspora, for whom the products of culture ("feta, olives/pastry for spinach pies, videos, music/even the odd newspaper...") fall short of replicating Greece. Though the recurring emotion is melancholy, it's a melancholy tempered with gentleness and wry humor. Siotis' penchant for the unexpected image, the startling, non-logical leap, allows him to write in a style which is contemporary, yet also -- dare we say it? -- universal. Like the great French surrealist Apollinaire, Siotis finds the crucial point between the obvious and the cryptic -- the point where the connections are oblique enough to surprise, but not so hermetic that communication is lost altogether. Here is an example of Siotis' postmodern lyricism at its most seductive:

Space For Poets

The reward for peace
is having a life free of evil eyes

The reward for life free of evil eyes
is having angels who clean our living room

We don't expect that sponges will erase
our passionate tempers from the blackboard

But we do reserve space for poets from the suburbs
who come like birds hovering over shining fields

Time is buried in the horizon
and our hearts beat like a tin hanging from a fig tree

This is clearly a poet who has not given up on transcendence, and in his use of the first person plural -- the collective "we" -- he echoes the Seferis of Mythistorema, though the tribe Siotis addresses is no longer a nation or a people but rather the "global village" of atomized identities. At the same time, the impulse to speak publicly and globally is balanced, and at times undercut, by an avant-garde sensibility -- colloquial, subversive, suspicious of grandiloquence and pretension. Siotis' rebellious instincts are let loose in the second section of the book, a series of prose pieces that invoke everything from Theseus and the Minotaur to Madonna (in both her religious and pop culture incarnations) and basketb
all's Final Four. Siotis simply calls his texts "prose," rather than "prose poems," but many readers will locate them in the context of what has become a fertile exploration, among contemporary Greek writers, of this inherently ambiguous poetic genre.1 Whereas the avant-garde of the 1970s directed its anarchic energy against the likes of Colonel Papadopoulos, the demons in Foreign Territory are the globalization-era ones of environmental degradation and unfettered corporate power. In his prose, Siotis appears to be pushing the very limits of referential oversaturation and linguistic promiscuity, stopping just short of a total breakdown. Sometimes the speaker begins in the middle of a conversation we didn't know we were having. At other times he addresses himself to "Your Excellency," or "Your Highness," thus triggering readerly double-takes: are you talking to me? Statements which we usually take as figurative are taken literally ("I have a writer's block. I talk dirty to it and I keep it on a memory shelf filled with side effects"), while concrete situations morph into dreams. There's often the suggestion of a private logic at work, one which is only partly divulged. Juxtaposing the profound and the banal, the timeless and the ephemeral, Siotis' prose poems take aim at cultural and political clichés -- as well as at the institutions and mechanisms of power that are behind the clichés.

Given the formidable problems of translating Greek poetry into English (the default American mode favors the "plainly represented, ungarnished literal object," 2 while Greek poets are often more comfortable with abstraction) we are especially lucky to have poets such as Siotis -- and his contemporary Nanos Valaoritis -- who can negotiate the difficult passage between idioms. English-speaking readers who would like get a "feel" for contemporary poetry in Greece will find many of its recurring themes articulated here. At the same time, readers familiar with experimental poetry in the United States will take pleasure in the "American" Siotis, one with an affinity to writers such as Ferlinghetti and O'Hara.


1. See Dimitris Tzovias, ed., Greek Modernism and Beyond, Rowman and Littlefield (1997); and also Karen Van Dyck, Kassandra and The Censors: Greek Poetry Since 1967, Cornell (1998)

2. Heather McHugh, from her introduction to Because the Sea Is Black, Poems of Blaga Dimitrova, selected and translated by Niko Boris and Heather McHugh, Wesleyan (1989)

(Posting date January 2003)

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