Two Book Reviews

Z213: Exit (Poena Damni) by Dimitris  Lyacos (trans. by Shorsha Sullivan), Shoestring Press, (Nottingham, England), 2010. (Available on Amazon.)

Reviewed by Manos Georginis

According to Raman Selden we can no longer talk about the meaning of a text without considering the reader’s contribution to it. This is certainly true about Dimitris Lyacos’s poetry. Through its labyrinthine narratives and elliptical monologues the reader is invited to discover the meaning and the plan behind what, at first sight, may seem a meandering text. But the poet is reader-friendly enough to leave precious sign-posts so that we lose neither our way, nor our prerogative to impose a meaning upon the broad vista of this spectacular feat in existential poetry. POENA DAMNI (Pain of Loss) is a trilogy which traces, in a series of episodes of various poetic styles, the pain that the damned souls suffer in Hell when experiencing the loss of the vision of God. The three books that make up the trilogy, Z213:Exit (2010), Nyctivoe (2001), and The First Death (2000), published by Shoestring Press, were written in reverse order, as the publication dates of the English translations of the original Greek texts indicate.

Z213: Exit,the first installment and the latest to appear in print, recounts, in what reads like a personal journal in verse form or poetic prose, the wanderings of a man who escapes from a guarded building (prison or concentration camp) in a nightmarish, post-modernist version of a Dali-like landscape. We never learn the identity of the fugitive or that of his pursuers, nor the reasons why he was incarcerated in the first place, but the environment is reminiscent of a fascist state of both the black and the red variety. It is not delineated in realistic terms, but expressionistically, creating in the reader’s heart the necessary emotional angst, which permeates the whole trilogy. This is enhanced by the overriding waste-land setting, which could be (we are never told) the result of a war that has left the landscape in ruins. The general feeling is that we are going through an eschatological experience. Horror is created by the scantiest vocabulary craftily combined to form a broken, unstructured syntax, seemingly tight, but leaving enough loopholes through which the reader’s subconscious fears can pop in and out. This is language fluid enough to allow the reader to form his own interpretation:

      And the others over the ruin expect
                                    from you

                                    of the freedom which will be a burden to you, you
                                    would roam alone here and there with no one to
                                    nobody will come and seek
                                    the price                                                        of your
                                    wasted life

The protagonist could be the medieval Everyman seeking God or salvation, or his modern version, the haunting and hunted, Kafka’s ‘K’. The first page, which normally gives the reader interpretative keys, describes a grim setting with prisoners round a central fire waiting for a guard with a list of names of the proscribed prisoners, who are taken out and thrown into deep pits. The protagonist, who, like Everyman is proscribed by Death, is tipped off by an unnamed second character and escapes through a skylight (from darkness into light):

And I as he had told me wore the cross and passed
  by the side of the tower and came out on the road for
   the station. From there you could leave. If I could take
           a train from there. But I sat down then to recover for I
           was in pain.

That same Christ-like figure re-appears in the course of the protagonist’s wanderings, as a voice:

And I heard the groan and someone that, that told
me: walk. Walk in the midst of the sea, and I shall
save you and do not stop until you reach the other

This is not religious poetry, but like all great poetry, it shares with Theology and Philosophy the same grand themes. Although evidently post-modernist, Lyacos’s poetry does not undermine or shrink the traditional Grand Narrative themes; on the contrary, it thrives on them.

Generically, Z213: Exit can be defined as a pastiche, but not in the post-modernist sense of Imitation, a tongue-in-cheek parody of the imitated texts. Instead, the poem enters into a fruitful dialogue with such seminal texts as The Bible, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Piers Plowman, The Waste Land, Kafka’s works, the list is inexhaustible. To borrow a musical term, this poetry is best described as contrapuntal, polyphonic music with very active and strongly differentiated parts.

The poem closes as open-endedly as it starts. The protagonist on the run, trying to escape

From an animal, armed, that is being followed,that is
 seeking you out, get away by day, by night you sleep,
less, get away, get away, do not stop when you know
  he is approaching, stand for a while, get away still until
you are tired, and once more, again, get away always,
         but feel he is coming….

This is a hide-and-seek game with Death or even God, as it is not very clear whether the protagonist wants to be caught or to escape. The near-impasse had been hinted on in a passage that sits at the heart of the trilogy to mark the cyclical nature of the human predicament in which one’s end is also one’s beginning:

See the web, see how the passages of the maze,
   all lead again to the same point which does not
                        exactly coincide with the exit.

Dimitris Lyacos may employ all the paraphernalia of post-modernist poetry: elliptical sentences, fragmented texts, incomplete words and a stream-of-consciousness narrative, but he always works to a plan, and it is up to the reader to discover it and enjoy what is definitely one of the most exciting post-modernist works.

One last word on the English text, which I have read alongside the original Greek work. Shorsha Sullivan must be congratulated on his exemplary translation, a firm, taut, accurate rendering, which does justice to this amazing work.

Manos Georginis is Associate Professor (English Language & Literature) at the Hellenic & Military University (Evelpidon School) in Athens,Greece. His English translations of Greek poetry have appeared in various literary journals. He is also the author of a fully annotated translation of the long poem Lambros (1828) by Greece’s national poet, Dionysios Solomos. His latest book, Writers at the Front Line: The Writings of the 1914-1918 War Poets, was published by the Hellenic Military& University in May 2011.