The Punishment of Loss

Considerations on the First Death by the book's translator

Published: Feb 2004
Reviewed by: Shorsha Sullivan
Review of book: THE FIRST DEATH

Shorsha Sullivan

The Punishment of Loss
A Note on Dimitris Lyacos\' The First Death

Awareness of irreparable loss is traditionally the nemesis that overtakes that part of human consciousness which continues, we may suppose, after the dissolution of the body. Yet, with respect to that surviving entity, once a person, such an awareness can still be expressed by using, perhaps as a sort of metaphor, the structure and systems of the body now decayed. The idea of placing a being possibly in this state as the protagonist of a literary work, helps of course to solve one of the simple and basic problems of the writer: who or what shall I write about? “I want a hero” are the opening words of Byron\'s most famous poem, and that preliminary choice goes a long way to determining the scope and shape of the completed work. Here a hero in a limbo between life and extinction can stand in for everyman, suffering and enduring, without the irrelevant distractions of idiosyncrasies of character, or consideration of what he had for breakfast.  The First Death opens with a sea-scape of iron-grey waters broken by a reef of rocks on which a body already partially dismembered is swept to and fro – a real body, or a site of consciousness for a ghost\'s imaginings? The vagueness of this central entity is increased by the possibility that it may represent a re-appearance of Legion, the male character in the second part of the Poena Damni trilogy, Nyctivoe. The corpse disintegrates and the limbs lose their articulation, even the ability to walk:

"now you can walk no longer –
you crawl, there where the darkness is deeper
more tender, carcass of a disembowelled beast
you embrace a handful of bed-ridden bones
and drift into sleep."

Painfully and with hesitation his memory constructs a temporal web reaching back into the corporeal life of the sea-wracked remains. The "pulley-wheel of memory" creaks and brings up faces of friends, of crew-mates, of "panting as once upon the whores". A normal body suffering such severe trauma would mercifully pass into oblivion, but this body remains capable of feeling every gross insult inflicted on it, and through the agony of nerve systems which continue relaying pain in spite of being severed:

"…surfeited with pain
brings to the light an unearthly scream
of madness."

Eventually even memory fails, and, cut off from this connection with the human world, the body blasts off to – where? Parmenides is quoted at the start of the volume, relating how the daughters of the Sun led him on the path of the god (the word can also mean demon). The path leads him across the sky down into the west and the land of the dead, i.e. from the darkness of ignorance through the light of knowledge and then beyond, perhaps to some spiritual state of perfect truth. The other Greek quotation is from the Odyssey: Odysseus has returned to his own house as a stranger and is given hospitality; after this it is polite for the lady of the house (his wife, although she does not know it) to enquire about who he is and where he comes from. He gains time by saying how difficult it is for him to speak of so many sorrows, and then plunges confidently into the creative and colourful lies for which he is famous.

Could we take these two quotations together and use them as an opening into a poetic credo? Lyacos is anxious to present us with a vision of human existence so austere that it runs the risk of alienating us with its repellent bleakness, but by the very act of representation he clothes it in fascinating aesthetic colours. And a final note on translation: readers who can compare the original text will understand how many connotations are lost in the transition. Often a vividly concrete word has to be rendered by a clumsy phrase that loses the bright penumbra of meaning\s that a native speaker feels automatically. For example, "skulls lying on their sides", a single Greek word joined to ‘skulls\' gives a splendid image of fishing boats canted over on their bilges on a sunny beach, and also, of course, makes us think anew of what a skull looks like. There is another aspect of translation which is often overlooked: what is the effect on the host language? Alvarez pointed out a long time ago that the most insidious enemies of English poetry are charm and gentility. In its bleakness of vision, in its precisely crafted language, what Bruno Rosada calls “ a well-honed Greekness, possessed of a strength that is shocking”, perhaps this work will serve to counter those enemies.

PreviousActivating THE FIRST DEATH
NextWorking through the trilogy