Kathimerini English Edition, 4 May 2000
Lyacos: A "feast of all fruits"
Dimitris Lyacos' 'The First Death' is a meditation on mortality, disintegration and decay.
Praised by the Italian critic Bruno Rosada for "the casting of emotion into an analytical structure and its distillation into a means of communication," young Athens-born poet Dimitris Lyacos's work has already made a significant impact across Europe, where it has been performed in a number of major cities.In a conversation with Kathimerini English Edition prior to the launch of "The First Death" in English, Lyacos confessed to loving the German poets - above all Rilke, Holderlin and the Austrian Georg Trakl - whom he says he is more and more able to read in the original. The enthusiastic reception of his work abroad, particularly in England and Italy, has resulted in many invitations to lecture and appear at poetry festivals. Commenting on his experiences as a teacher of creative writing and recalling workshops he has given, Lyacos said he finds "how to" books on this subject "very bland, very flat," and doesn't think this is the right approach. He is also somewhat dubious about the method adopted by many writers on the workshop circuit, who arrive with preformatted materials for workshops, and deliver the same package in different venues. "As in a mental illness, you have to approach it individually. Not that I want to say that poets are mentally ill...""The First Death," the third book in a narrative trilogy, has just been published in English translation by Shoestring Press, and was launched last month in Athens by Shoestring's publisher, Professor John Lucas, along with two other new collections of Greek poetry in translation. The Greek edition of "The First Death" was published by Odos Panos in 1996. In his foreword to the English text, Shorsha Sullivan, Lyacos's translator, provides the following background to the trilogy, which has the overall title, "Poena Damni." "The first volume, 'Atropos i Deleastiki,' deals with the themes of escape and exile. It is the diary of a wanderer recording his solitary experiences in an effort to structure a world for himself through the course of a voyage, to enter upon a quest for communication and find a metaphysical foundation within a shifting universe. Yet this rather incoherent diary with its peculiar insights depicts more a gradual and painful process of breakdown and isolation."At the beginning of the second book, 'Nyctivoe,' the man is settling down in the presence of a Chorus, as if taking his place in a ritual prepared for him. He recounts his tormented voyage, his piecemeal world that now is shown to be falling apart, in a series of delirious monologues that slide past a Chorus concerned but unable to act. Their world does not intersect with his. But the apparition of Nyctivoe, a ghost of a woman, seems to be the catalyst for the ending of his unredeemed solitude. Approaching her distant world the man goes to his death."Yet the same persona seems to reappear in the third book. In the opening part of 'The First Death,' on a desert rock a cripple is slowly moving. The book offers an account of his dissolution, with the added bitterness of memories, until a universal mechanism clicks into place and he is dispatched to the void."An apocalyptic vision"The First Death" consists of 14 sections, which evoke an impression of surrealistic meditations on mortality and physical and mental disintegration and decay. The imagery is dense and nightmarish, replete with sensations of hallucination, delirium, synesthesia and putrefaction. Insomnia and insanity stalk the mental landscapes of this poem."...and the dredger pain
the bloodied rigging of the brain"(VII)The pervasive vision is apocalyptic, with whispers of Homer's "Odyssey,"of Eliot's "Wasteland," and of Georg Trakl, the Austrian poet killed in action during World War I. Embedded in the text are oblique classical references: the presence of Orpheus, suggested by images of dismemberment, and echoes of Dionysos:"... unmixed visions of heroes leaning
into the drunken veins of the light
the tempest that winters on the marshes-
shedding its leaves the return
of a dismembered body in the spring."(II)Mythopoeic resonances, metaphors of crisis, disease, despair, alienation and damnation enrich the complex texture of the poem."And the moist stings of the scorpion
show the way
and the mind a map dipped in wine
and the soul within its muzzle
the further horizon of pain."(X)The photographs of Friedrich Unegg's masks which accompany the text complement this mood.While "The First Death" is dominated by imagery of the infernal, it is (in its way) as skillfully articulated a vision of its theme as was Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" in another time and in different terms. Balancing Lyacos's labyrinth of shocking imagery there is the counterweight of intellectual stringency and spiritual austerity, so that the reader is invited to contemplate what is in effect an abstraction of horror, Lyacos's disturbing "feast of all fruits."