R.G. Foster on
(Smokestack Books, 2014)
Plunging us into a bejewelled purgatory of language and imagery, Judith Kazantzis’ latest release strives towards reconciliations; using constantly re-imagined standpoints the poet attempts to marry the public to current events, current events to the poet, and the poet’s craft to her maddening, ghostlike emotion.
The opening poem, and title piece, starts the motor in a highly imagistic fashion:
The mountain has the skin of a snake,
blue and green and glowing,
The reader will be forgiven for believing we are heading into a ballad, but the narrator quickly derails our assumptions:
flowing downwards, grasping what
or who she’s caught in her breath
until she sheds and runs at the sea.
It runs away from us, much like those serpentine waters. We carry on through a phantasmagorical sequence involving tourmaline, a white horse, cowbells and whirlwinds until the 4th stanza:
How the lift goes up and down
touching between howling floors:
lingerie, double boilers, lad lit, chick lit
paradise flowers, cream curtains
madam inviting your little ringed fingers.
We seem to have reached an area of commerce; a department store, perhaps, or at least a supermarket, in which everything is available, with the exception of, presumably, whatever it is the narrator’s chasing.
After the promises that were all but granted by the this stanza, with the precise images depicting almost an inventory of solid items, and allowing us to build up a hope, an expectation, even, that after the hitherto frustrating hunt for apparitions we shall be rewarded, satiated, with a reasonable conclusion, the following lines may leave us feeling a tad impoverished;
Oh but the horse steps up the amber stair
for she is your sister
the horse of the see-through stairs
Elusiveness returns like a playful slap on the face, the narrator is toying with us, teasing us, and to what purpose?
the jingling bridle in the naked hand.
And you? Her constant sister of invention.
In a Bowie-esque turn of reasoning, the purpose appears to be, if not for the sake of invention itself, then for the sake of invention, or re-invention, as either a coping mechanism, or as a catalyst to some degree of self-understanding. One interesting motif recurrent throughout the poem is the image of limbs; ‘rings on your toes.....cold, cold fingers.....little ringed fingers.....naked hand” – our jointed protrusions, ‘feelers’ if you like, are our antennae and therefore constant, despite the turbulence of mind and environment.
The last line of the third stanza is, I think, particularly telling:
where whirlwinds keep the rattling gates.
The gates are rattling of their own accord, because they are gates; entrances and exits, on hinges. The whirlwind is present as a superficial measure – to provide the buckling mind with the semblance of logic. The kind of logic we crave from this poem, or any poem; denied, of course, by the mocking writer, to whom it has likewise been so torturously denied.
For most of the first part of the book (there are four parts), Kazantzis excavates various figures and images from history, using ‘the great halls of tapestry’ (‘In Rome’) as a backdrop for the battling anxieties that arise from being a poet and a woman. Indeed, ‘In Rome’ unfurls like an old embroidery, or perhaps a contemporary reworking of an old embroidery; a sharp modernist tenor is ever-present in the rhythmic development, an astute metre pushes us forward at a snappy tempo:
When you are well
the voluminous apricot folds
of the laundered skirts and the
crisp transparent fichu, the new turban
of the Sybil, or any woman you may like
better, sailing on the Sistine ceiling, conferring
as fresh as a practical woman,
We enjoy here a delicate weave of sound, and the narrator does intend for us to sail; the reader stands in as the masculine observer, taking easy pleasure in the apparent availability of ladies, ‘any woman you may like’ – music to our ears in more ways than one. This passage may act, somewhat, as a reprieve from the beginning of the poem:
When you are ill
the great halls of tapestry
remember themselves quickly as bland, expert
with the muscled bodies of that trance,
silent and sensuous, by torture
at the fingers of white-muscled executioners,
and they rifle the metal hall of night,
and they sight the slow golden morning.
This illness, more spiritual than pathological, has bred beauty and violence, the feminine and masculine, if we like; a cohabitation infinitely more interesting than any notion of historical setting. But we must not seek a party to blame in this particular affray; ‘the white-muscled executioners’ are as innocent as the ‘silent and sensuous’; this is the natural war. In this way, we conclude, it is in illness where we are closer to our nature, and most healthy, and it is in periods of peace, as we are ‘sailing on the Sistine ceiling’, where we enjoy what is merely a dissociation;
Autumn is here. Don’t the men sit still and write
of the plough and the earth,
of country women with the fruitful, high-held baskets?
Let us praise the poets and their conventions.
Upon encountering grandiose lines such as ‘and they sight the slow golden morning’, we may expect things to develop into a kind of call-to-arms; the heralding of a new age, the coming of Nietzsche’s ‘free spirits’, however, the poem ends with something more resembling a grateful compromise:
No gilded lily, but given over to your fate
comfortable, conscious of the sun
sufficient, gold for today.
Kazantzis’ work, while often refreshingly obscure, is at times frustratingly dense, as in ‘Dr Morreau’s Island, the credits’:
In age they retired
to the eye of the hurricane
climbing its thunderous wall
into the stunts’ burial chamber,
where the soul rows up
to a peep of the endless hurtling dance.
It is an abstractness perhaps required somewhat by the subject matter, and it’s likely that a familiarity with H.G. Wells’ novel would greatly bolster understanding, however the poem does seem ‘exclusive’; rewarding for those involved, sterile for those who aren’t:
After Morreau’s inept knife
the stunts, losing their wings
but gaining a syllable,
tried falteringly dropping
from cars in Bullitt chases,
diving off horses, pushing through
squares of singed bubblewrap
in designed towers
‘Mrs Midas’, on the other hand, does not have this issue.
You set it, I mean that ring
on my finger, and the gold raced in,
streaked in runners of sunlight,
dayglo, gold, up my finger,
The imagery is direct, allowing us to observe the alchemy without obstruction. And indeed we are observers to this poem; watching the Greek legend’s curse unfolding in this most intimate of settings. And by the end of the poem we may even feel a certain unease at the proximity granted us:
Now my yellow hand is
all yours to hold in bed,
the one that strokes you heavily
where you like it, so cold,
The final piece in Part One is a sweeping, tormented storyboard of a Christmastime car crash. ‘Ghosts’ begins portentously, and gradually ups the pace:
Helter of wind in skelter of rain,
the storm, the worst for years,
beating the tree at the top of the hill
into a whirlpool, in near dark.
My two arrived in an armoured vehicle
carrying a bushel of presents, a turkey, cheeses,
out of the length of the afternoon,
out of the twilight
where the sycamore whipped itself
into a circle of cracking twigs,
the brow of the wood a vicious circle
round and round the sunken pit
of the old disused farm pond
as if on its own farm generator,
With line beginnings such as ‘beating the tree –’, ‘out of the length –’ and ‘the brow of the wood –’ sounding almost like gear changes, the plot progresses through red dragons, Bodmin Moor, solemn encounters with Christian couples and Hollywoodesque slogans of regret (‘Call a Loved One Make Her Happy’), and with a central arboreal theme; the poet, incarnated or partially-incarnated as a tree, develops from a state of prideful unawareness, to horrified self-mutilation, and finally to self-blame:
and my two squealed up under the tree —
Where I bobbed out, flailing my arms
towards an embrace, two embraces,
held back in the teeth of the tree,
For all the intense emotions that are overtly weltering, we can’t help but sense that the narrator is holding back; clinging to vagueness where we crave elucidation, we feel perhaps the narrator, understandably, has not quite come to terms with the incident. The phrase used for the victims - ‘my two’ smacks of possessiveness, and we may feel emotionally excluded; here is a person trying to bear her soul, but hasn’t quite the heart to manage it:
but now, then, to bring my arms round each one,
each sidling, wet, black figure in the lane
to hug and to kiss, Happy Christmas.
The term ‘black figure’ throws up anonymous images – we cannot relate, and it is at this point perhaps the poet feels she cannot make herself clear, and thus does not even seek our sympathy. ‘My two arrived in an armoured vehicle’ – the poet seems to have crafted an armoured vehicle of her own.
Briskly switching the backdrop to current affairs, we find ourselves looking into Middle Eastern troubles, Western foreign policy and the like. It is not long before we notice a vague disquiet in ourselves, we are sifting through a chronicle of madness:
All the times the screaming head,
the bombed woman,
sees the planes about to
sees her town, her children, herself.
All those times
inside this skull
out through this mouth
sorrow’s grinding scream
protrudes its lava
of terror, knowledge.
This organ plays a march
unstopping, never composed.
The backing is gray flesh —
not wind, brass or string —
the discords silent.
(‘The Bombed Woman’)
The reader, identifying with the innocents, sets himself in an instable purgatory – between apparent lunacy reaching from the skies, raking its claws through the crust and into the bowels of the untapped earth. However, perhaps we are not quite as blameless as all that:
Cross customers are curses to slaughterers,
feeding their panic of being all alone,
fighting, fighting in the locked up deep
frozen chest of meat and not touching.
So they reach out with stubby thumbs,
turning the queue into statues where
we stand, smiling good thank you thank you
we’re better now oh we’re prime.
This poem, somewhat of a parable, seems to dare us to dismiss the thought that it is we Western citizens who are locked up in the ‘frozen chest of meat and not touching’. We, with the worn-down thumbs, rampantly communicating on the current state of affairs, and gladly satiated by either tabloid or ‘quality’ news, depending on our seasoning.
‘Rockets are the jokes of the weak’ offers, possibly in spite of itself, a touch of light (but not quite comic) relief from the murky goings-on:
Finally we couldn’t resist.
Unable to stifle our own
more democratic laughter,
and ever eager to impart our
more civilized sense of fun,
we ran a hilarious sitcom
over three weeks
for 1400 Gazans.
What a show!
They fell over laughing.
They crawled, howling. No surprise.
We have perfect timing, delivery,
state of the art material.
Throughout large parts of Part Two, Kazantzis plays with the idea that, despite our access to facts and information, and more or less unlimited opportunities for communication, we still are unable to grasp what is actually going on:
Today’s news is more of today,
more shells and more shivering screaming
and blood anywhere but this garden lawn,
‘securing the sector’ against ‘insurgents’.
Also my right to say, not in my name?
to say, what does it mean what does it mean
what does it mean what does it mean What
shall we make it mean?
(‘Dick Cheyney’s Garden)’
After some angst-ridden deliberation, we are left impotent in the face of reason, and all that’s left for us to do is induce our conscience into contenting itself with the instinctual conclusion, or subjective mock-reasoning.
‘Bin Laden in the Gulf of Iran’ is initially striking for its constricted layout, it has the appearance, even, of a newscaster:
By the time he reached the bottom
of the Gulf, by the time
on the way down, half a
mile you thought, two and a
half thousand feet, neither
of us could make out metres of
metres of metres, hours then,
even the humble seconds
that lowered the slightly
smiling lips, the bedraggled
infested prophet’s beard past
creatures zoologists can name,
not I, smaller and smaller
his own citizens, denizens,
Starting off at a slow tempo, resembling a body’s gradual drift to the ocean floor, the poem quickly grows into a well-governed rant barely containing its own anger:
erupting all along the passage down,
in, or out, moving from their
accustomed cells through or to
other cells, all intent on eating, him,
each other; propagating, changing,
swimming, dying in the depths they
did not anticipate, he after all a mere
land animal like the other animals
who shot him and tipped him
into the only element he could not
claim for his soul or his god.
It could be that Kazantzis intends this poem to be the public’s response to the news reports constantly streaming into our electronic devices. Kazantzis’ depiction of Bin Laden’s milieu is that of a melting pot; a commotion of beastly, half-dumb cannibalism, devoid of any nobility; we are reminded of the early days of Mesopotamia, in fact, of streets awash with death, disease and manic copulation. The situation we find here, however, is not destined to peak with the birth of any kind of new humanity;
Bits of him fly like rag flags
on battlements of coral —
in full fathom — what was it?
Failing metres, we didn’t know
that either. Wrong. Not the math,
but his (I grant you) efficient
unmartyrdom. Wrong: he
should have lived but in murder’s
lock; and his drowners,
so should they, for great murders
that came in revenge, and come
and come, and slaughter has two roads,
two songs sounding off,
and the saints go murdering on.
In this last passage we face the possibility that no form, not even poetic realism, can accommodate the horror (‘failing metres’) and the narrator is thus reduced to the didactic (the abrupt repetition of ‘Wrong’) – the promised land of the devout ends as a wasteland of gunshots and screaming, it cannot any longer be claimed even for a divinity (‘battlements of coral’), and it ends in a slightly ironic, quasi-adolescent last line, suggesting, perhaps, that, if indeed the narrator here represents the public, exposure to the Terror can’t help but turn us all into would-be poets.
We move on to ‘Easter Monday’, a soft-spoken lament for mankind’s incongruities that gingerly becomes a weary and unstated affirmation of life:
Above my favourite ever race-track
the clouds in their white silks
chase one another in the gallops of the blue sky:
quarter horses and riding ponies,
herding, pulling apart without a squeal,
circus ponies, shires, all classes of crest,
flank and hindquarter, nose to nose
nudging over the laps of the downs.
Envying the grace and ease with which the clouds above manoeuvre, the narrator scoffs at the sight of human diligence bent to the workings of chance:
But none of us care about the weather:
we work our eyes, brains, on the alluring odds
and at last on that single irreversible
all for all and glory of the pell-mell
But they soon come around, noting the ‘uncertain ramrod’ as the rightful symbol of a life well-lived; that despite our inability to know, and our ineffectiveness in negotiating the odds, we have acted with conviction, despite having none. And soon we begin to see the inherent sterility in the sky’s tranquillity:
Check halfway, confirm the coloured dots
strung flat out on the tilted plain,
Hardy Breeze, Northern Saddler, Nearly Gold,
and overhead, in their opposite career,
never jibbing but changing, the chances
even and even along the blue plain.
‘The well bespoke’ is a funny and clever take on Papal disparity. Prefaced with a quote, ‘intrinsically disordered’ (barely a quote at all, so short it throws up endless contexts) attributed to Pope Benedict XVI and his views on homosexuality, this persona piece smugly asks the reader’s forgiveness for some resoundingly un-masculine personal tastes. Because of its meagre length, I include the poem here in full:
Forgive a soft spot for such shoes
inside out of crimson silk,
a silk that Prada specified
of silkworms putti plump on virgin milk,
then dyed to match that matchless blood
whose wounded steps my little feet,
they do say elegantly formed,
thus imitate to trip downstairs and greet
the boring nuns and clever gentlemen
for whom I wave my little wave.
Blood-red beauty! These are the shoes
in which infallibly we trip to save.
Written in the conventional form of ABCB-rhyming quatrains, this poem utilizes razor-sharp humour to portray the pontiff as a figure so effeminate and dainty, he likely could not prosper in the exclusive red-blooded world he so unshakeably espouses. Kazantzis has some fun with the idea that the leader of the Catholic Church, for all his heterosexual bombast, finds himself in an acutely submissive position; a mannequin, draped in whatever garments his commercial affiliates or the ‘boring nuns and clever gentlemen’ wish for him to present to the world.
Some of Kazantzis’ finest rhythmic virtuosity can be found in the latter parts of the volume, with prominent examples being;
We walked on past flowers
too easy on the eye.
What had they sent me?
The shadow wreathed him
a hat, yes — I slowed a stride,
impatiently watched it place the vine
on his head, all three
of us moving, the scratch
of leaves, grapes soft and swollen,
I too breathed, heard no breath behind —
Happy am I, roared the lark’s song.
(‘What the head sings’)
What is daylight?
Shine on me
They say the day
is white, but you
are white —
and night is bluer,
and soft, Pasiphae,
two horned mother —
She must have lived because she’s dead.
Jam and butter and a pinch of bread.
Old salt scar on old white skin,
such bitterness will do you in.
A drip of milk ran down my chin,
I licked it up and tucked it in.
Kazantzis’ musicality reaches its peak at those times when her joy in observation is most palpable, for example, in ‘Song for Matala Bay’:
The hero on the bow-bellied mountain
stands; a ruff of whispery
red gold haute coiffure
adds breadth to a whiplash neck.
You were Heracles in the morning
shadows, the first to call
dawn to the slippery surf and to
the drought stiff grass,
where you moved like a coin chieftain
with few brains.
Now in his peignoir, stippled,
dappled, eyelids carved
like a monseigneur’s out of hot
geranium, his side-eye
turned in a disk, as he scratches by;
and flutters, like a fish its gills
showing its whites.
He moves quietly
adding his oodles
of the others, quiet sounds
appropriate to a day
under the bow-bellied hills.
In the lengthy banquet of language that is ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’:
Each bird bends
its beady eyes to love
comical love, that clown,
buffoon of buttocks and breasts
I gawp at your head
You squint through the hole
Delight is wholly a garden,
holy fruit, the holes in fruit,
ripe, rotting — ever the
fruit runs riot, and ripens —
Anyone can squirm through,
you, me and Sesame —
Open wide — what
word or womb or which wide?
A family joke,
a joke of leaves and birds
Faces of innocence
and alabaster arses
we’re all here
happy as blue jays
green as woodpeckers
Sharp as the point of flight
All is one is one and one is all
every mouth is wrong
and every mouth is right —
And in ‘Hopkins Skipkins’, also notable for its bold and refreshing use of archaisms:
O day deliveranos
He chews the pockets of his head
where memory bleeds from a sore gum
inflamed still by its baby teeth,
points which never smoothe.
From the craters of the night
O day deliver the lot of us,
the baby sewn into mud;
how grown souls spring up at night
and stamp around their ruins.
One poem that, for me, encapsulates the majority of the book’s themes to the most intense degree, is ‘Skylla’; a dark and fascinating descent into a particularly monstrous chapter of Greek myth.
Dog heads at the end of tentacles
waving like the tails of a pack of hounds.
Pups in the womb. Abandoned. Miscarriage
re-enacting each its death
slobbering down the side of the cliff
each time there’s a ship.
The echoes whimper back
what delicacy they’re snatching
up out of the spitting race,
retrieving for me. As in former times
the sacred hounds in glamorous woods
hunted with the Goddess? I wish.
First Homer finally Ovid.
Shipmasters drown the last yells.
(Mine too, a fainter cry.)
Divided, they say at port,
between two murderous women.
Skylla (or Scylla) was depicted in legend as a beastly sea goddess who lurked among the rocks on one side of the Strait of Messina (directly opposite on the other side resided the daemon goddess Charybdis). In this poem the narrator appears to re-imagine herself at one moment the poet, at another Skylla herself. We are struck a few lines into the poem when we realize that this will not simply be a recording, or even a reworking, of the actual tale, but rather an effort to question why and how the stories themselves have been chronicled. And what, if any, significance a modern revision may have.
Imagine a lost younger sister.
A bubble of laughter, (naiads?)
Elements of a spark, doused.
A splutter in the mind’s rock.
How was she? Beautiful? Gifted?
Did she laugh? Pleasant to know?
‘Imagine a lost young sister’ may seem to us in one way helpful, in another way a tad condescending (is that great, oft-quoted classical angst so far from our comprehension?!) but the next line ‘A bubble of laughter, (naiads?)’ dismisses the latter thought; the poet is having as much trouble as she thinks we are.
I, she, ache at waist level, hip level,
feed their canines, their baby claws.
I, they, are tearing who they live for,
all to bits, elegantly, year by year.
Seen through contemporary eyes, these lines could well reflect the worries of motherhood, and the horrific mixture of physical pain and spiritual joy, the ‘binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity’, to quote Sartre, that occurs during childbirth.
But under the waterfall
really — how might she be?
Was she a beauty? Witty, quick?
Postscript: the wickedest queen,
no god’s invention neater,
her crooked finger
to find the chink in little Skylla
— her job to needle —
find it open, bloody,
then stuff her back down herself
screaming, caught for good by
her first/last ocean of desire.
So that in the dark
behind the rock face
notorious to men and ships
the long hair of the waterfall
dries to snake and dog,
the zoo in the hill of the womb,
and as in all such strange cases
(O aborted women)
the misshapen begins to grow.
The insistent questioning is a thoroughly post-modern exercise, we feel the narrator is desperately trying to make sense of timeless predicaments; the atrophying of the soul, and the accuracy and relevance of literature.
In this poem we also find evidence of Kazantzis’ endeavours to reconcile; mother and child, youth and old age, the living poet and the dead poet, the primordial and the civilized.
This volume has captured the expansiveness of Kazantzis’ range and learning, and serves as a showcase for her love of words and delight in writing. She has set her various battles across a swathe of different ages and backdrops; endowing her concerns with a degree of timelessness. As her tools of combat she has employed the art of self invention and re-invention, displaying a zest for life, and for language, through which the fruit of her experience is yielded. And indeed – I can confidently say that Kazantzis’ concerns are the concerns of every woman.
R.G. Foster © 2014