On THE FIRST DEATH Characteristics of Dimitris Lyacos's poetry

University of Venice

Published: Jan 2000
Location: Venice ITALY
Reviewed by: Bruno Rosada
Review of book: THE FIRST DEATH

Bruno Rosada, University of Venice

The First Death
Characteristics of Dimitris Lyacos' poetry

It is the poet's predilection for concrete nouns, terms referring to reality, that contributes above all to the reader's first impression. There is a great variety in the use of these, except in the case of a few key words which could well be considered along the lines of Mauron's obsessive metaphors, because structurally they exercise the same function. That is to say, they establish a network of images connected to one another in a number of ways. Yet these key words are neither metaphors nor are they obsessive, they do not refer to anything other and are instead strongly linked to their natural referents. At the same time, they cannot be considered obsessive, regardless of the frequency of some, because obsessiveness entails compulsion and therefore an unremitting repetition regardless of propriety. In Lyacos instead the key words are freely chosen to perform a precise function; not only are they well suited to the logical structure of the argumentation, but also to the descriptive diversity of each unfolding state of mind. The basis of such a diversity is the weightiness, albeit in their quality of referents, of the highly communicative key words.These can be resolved into certain categories of meaning; and it is this meaningfulness of the categories, not of the single key words which might be considered --this yes-- in some way metaphoric. As far as the interpretation is concerned, what counts more is the sphere of belonging of the term in and for itself. The main distinction here is between liquid and solid, which is to say also between spiritual and physical, dream and reality, between res cogitans and res extensa: the liquid which firstly comprises the sea, θαλασσα, πελαγοςbut also κυμα, the swell of the wave with the crafts that float upon it like fragments of being; the solid, chiefly the body, σωμα. The linksare determined by the joy of the sun, η χαρμη του ηλιου, that activates the pupil and permits the interplay of sight, which is eternal and inexhaustible and yet can fail and give a final flash, η τελευταια αναλαμπη. And the substratum is hollow, empty, itis underground passages, catacombs, crypts, images of a subconscious that cleaves to the body: chromosomes, genes, hormones.The pedal of this conceptual symphony is the temporality that nestles in the most significant images and acts as an antithetical premise to the Υπερβασις, Transcendence; temporality hides behind the veil of the evening , πεπλος εσπερινος. The night fishes in shivering torrents and supplies a transcendent glimpse of itself, which is for man a curse, while the state of flux is identifiable in the cycle of the seasons. In fact Lyacos' temporality is irreversible and constitutes according to Anaximander's ancient myth a sentence for man, an expiation of the crime of existence, whereas an elan vital is exalted in the cyclical nature of the flux. Aristotle explained that we are mortal because the temporality of existence is represented by a straight line: the existence of before and after, the sequential nature of this temporality, determines the cessation of this existence, while the cyclical nature is both symbol and substance of its endurance.The image of a broken vat brings to mind the mystery of the impossibility of knowledge; we will never know what it held (Kant's noumenon) because it is lost the moment it shatters. Lyacos' reflection is always a visual embodiment, which contradicts at least in part that unknowability. The concrete nature of his imagery identifies with the structure of platonic myth where the image is also crucial. One has the impression that history is frozen stuck before the precision of such imagery, and that all the poetry has whittled and honed itself down to find itself before Heracles' choice, between the path of form and that of meaning. At times the accepted norms of syntax give way before the communicative necessities with expressionistic violence, as in text number 6 where the sentence is left hanging because terms like αγνωριστος (unrecognisable) and σιωπηλος (reduced to silence) prepare the downfall of the παραφροσυνη, of irrationality, of madness which is not an individual malady but a condition of the cosmos, because all that we cannot understand, all that is αγνωριστο (unknowable) is for us senseless, unreasonable, mad, a punishment for man. In this case, therefore, the text has, in itself, asymbolic form.A more substantial challenge is that of determining a conceptual context in which to place these writings, and here it has to be said that we as Italians, because of the nature of our critical tradition, are somewhat ill- equipped to comprehend them. The concreteness of the nouns coincides with a connotative and at times emotive use of adjectives, giving an effect akin to that of defamiliarization. There is an entropy in the universe. The entities are haemorrhaging. And the entities are hostile realities τα αντικειμενα whose very existence is in conflict with that of others. History, as it is played out, is an eternal περιφορα, a vicious circle in the underground passageways of existence, history, as it is read, historiography, is the eternal memory of a disease that continually transmigrates. The overriding drama of existence is that of its lack of foundations. But this is also paradoxically a source of salvation, not in the world nor out of it. Dimitris Lyacos takes his place as the heir of a still unexplored Greekness. To a traditional and conventional notion of classicism we tend, on the whole, to juxtapose an often languid and dreamy romanticism, inescapably Petrarchesque, a kind of metahistorical rehash of the Nietschian antinomy of Apollonian and Dionysiac. But here we discover a Greekness it would be too simple to label Dionysiac. It's a well-honed Greekness, strong of a strength that is shocking. This is the second time that I use the term honed; I mean to say that this poetry is full, solid. And yet its lines are curved, curved because they do not allow themselves to be squared, slotted into another possible context, neither formal nor perhaps even conceptual, and also because they have an intrinsic elegance all of their own. There is a word in ancient Greek (I don't know if also in modern) that reproduces accurately this kind of effect, and that is δεινος, terrific, so able as to cause fear, which is captured quite well by our formidabile. I say quite well because although the etymological sense is well respected, formido in Latin meaning fear, our formidabile has lost the intrinsic reason for fear and is instead charged with enthusiasm, approval,almost an applause. Δεινος instead imparts subjection. And this poetry is δεινη. It is Minerva's shield, the Gorgon that turns to stone all that lies before it.Upon this all, the intelligence enquires: searching for approaches/ and testing traitor neurons/ grading thoughts repenting in an incomprehensible tongue/ and again attempting to show the splash-down of a world/ which moves up and down within the walls of experience. I cite these verses word for word from the translation because they constitute the most complete and explicit declaration of Lyacos' epistemology. But this is both the strength and the limit of reason which cannot comprehend but that which is still or has been by it stilled: and the things I remember/ are no longer unfolding and my memory holed and/ worn/ like a tramp's tarpaulin over my waning/ consciousness. Epistemology becomes ontology precisely when this point without substance where the world collides and takes off is revealed to be unfounded. Memory, in fact, has an important role to play in this examination of the ego, the structures of which reveal their fundamental incoherence as ακατασχετη αιμορραγια των αντικειμενων, the unstoppable haemorrhage of things, of all that is inasmuch as it is before us, we see it we touch it. Again epistemology becomes ontology, percipi est esse. Only in this way reality is no longer Montale's customary deceit, it is nature itself, perhaps unjust, perhaps even hostile but existent. We sense its weight, its span, we sense its physical and psychological weight. And memory is able to unify these perceptions into a reality in the very moment that it guarantees the structural unity of the ego within the person. Dimitris Lyacos draws upon contemporary thought for just such a vision and then develops it with profound emotional intensity: the novel aspect is the casting of emotion into an analytical structure and its reduction to a means of communication.(Translation: Gregory Solomon)

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