A Radical Reimagining

Phoebe Giannisi, trans. Brian Sneeden, Homerica

World Poetry Books, 150pp, $16.00, ISBN 9780999261309

reviewed by Max Sydney Smith

Phoebe Giannisi is one of Greece's foremost contemporary poets and Homerica – originally published in 2009 – is her fifth collection. But it is her first to be translated out of her native Greek, initially into German and now into English in this artful edition from World Poetry Books which places the original Greek side by side with Brian Sneeden's English translation.

It is easy to see why Homerica has gathered international momentum. The book is a breathless, obsessive attempt to grapple with the pain of loss. There is heavy grief in these poems, either deliberately pushed out of mind or wilfully forgotten.

for a long time now I’ve noticed the weight
how to lighten it I don’t know
by now the heart is so heavy it has sunk down into the abdomen
so the head is empty

(from 'Nostos II')

The personal narrative arc running through Homerica is about the end of a relationship but Giannisi peppers this with familiar mythical images, characters and vignettes from Homer's Odyssey.

This might sound a little staid – the godfather of Greek poetry, Constantine Cavafy, was doing this with Ithaca in 1911 – but it is not. Giannisi slips restlessly from one voice to another, always making new. The temptation of the sirens is reimagined as the thrill of a romantic fling in a new car. Circe is the poet's philandering partner's new lover, to whom he returns 'again and again / ungluing your gaze from her scent'. The poems call and answer each other. One moment the poet is the goddess Thetis, gripped by the mortal Peleus who 'devoured her in love', the next it is the poet's restless and promiscuous lover who is a god desiring a mortal:

he chased her he caught her
he fucked her got her knocked up
then when she fell in love with him
he forgot her

(from 'Aphrodite')

It is not all drama and sex. Giannisi is strong too on love's gradual decay:

I hear you leaving becoming a stranger
a dream I had in front of the TV
your language does not belong to me
telling the story opening your mouth

(from 'Ithaka I')

Odysseus is the most intriguing character, popping up under different guises and in changing relations to the poet. But his most surprising appearance is in 'Achilles', in which the poet observes a man mending nets on the quayside:

your hands are frozen solid
from the cold of this northern-to-you country of mine
fishing our waters
mending patiently each year
awaiting the hour
of return to Africa

This is a radical reimagining. The itinerant Odysseus is not a Greek leaving from and returning to Greece, but an Egyptian migrating to Greece for seasonal work. For the first part of the 20th century Greece thought of itself as a source of migration, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it became a destination. It is a clever way to place the present political situation in its mythical context.

The poems in Homerica are told in a breathless, unpunctuated voice. The poet misremembers, corrects herself and remembers again. Giannisi said: 'When I wrote Homerica I wanted to write poems that could be heard, even when they were just read.' She achieves this and more, because there is something grippingly obsessive about the way the poem reworks images and refrains. In this sense Giannisi sits beside the German poet Barbara Kohler, whose work Giannisi has translated. Both are European inheritors of Gertrude Stein and their writing worries at variations in language. Karen Van Dyck, who translated one of Giannisi's poems for the collection Austerity Measures, made an effort to place Giannisi in the poetic tradition of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. She reformatted the poem 'Thetis' as a prose poem in order that the text might take the shape of a swimming pool.

This is worth mentioning because 'Thetis' also appears in Homerica and Van Dyck's comments shine a light on Brian Sneeden's translation. He does not try to reinvent or reposition Giannisi's poetry. His translation is faithful, with an emphasis on maintaining the original's internal rhyme, alliteration and metrical variation. For the most part these priorities serve the poems well. But sometimes his exactitude undermines the flow of meaning. In 'Thetis' he translates 'ο συντονισμός χεριών ποδιών' (o syntonismós cherión podión) as 'synchrocity of the hands and legs', maintaining the word order and preserving the matching -ion endings as -s endings. But we stumble on 'synchrocity' and perhaps Van Dyck's looser interpretation flows better: 'the hands and feet synchronized'.

Despite the sharpness of the images throughout Homerica, there are inevitably a few dulled moments. 'Penelope IV' strives for metaphysical profundity but descends into a hotchpotch of abstraction:

times change
the loss of union was there from the start
in union itself
loss of the other in coexistence
no one’s the same before and now

The poet is stating directly that a relationship is ending but the poem is devoid of images and the reader cannot see the event, so feels nothing. Elsewhere the same numbness results from an overflow of pastoral images. Some readers might find the cicada, gulls and boats rocking on the waves as evocative as Giannisi's metropolitan imagery. But in Greek poetry it has been done to death and can start to read like the romantic patriotic poems of cultural relics like Odysseus Elytis.

Mostly, however, Giannisi refreshes Greek literature's pastoral clichés by puncturing them with the deliberately unromantic or idiosyncratic – a metro station, a limping seagull, a woman's purse washed up by the waves. Equally, 'Penelope IV' comes suddenly into focus, in these clipped, understated and bleak final lines:

then you
desired me
and I you
for epilogue a plate of food wine and silence

Giannisi's work glitters with such fragments: minimal, direct and dense with loss. She arranges and balances them with the masterful craftsmanship you would expect from one of Greece's most prolific poets. Homerica is one of the first releases from the new independent publisher World Poetry Books and it has made me keen to see what they do next.