Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Greek, by Theo Dorgan

Fresh ink, fresh paper, the world
quietly opening to the south

(from ‘Begin, Begin Again

On receiving my copy of Theo Dorgan’s poetry collection Greek (Dedalus Press, 2010) my initial suspicion was that the weight of place might overwhelm the poetry. The book design, a glance at the contents page and a quick dip into random poems all seemed to corroborate this impression. Several poems are named after Greek place names (‘Kato Zakros’, ‘Return to Hania’, ‘Nisos Ikaria’), clichés attached to Greek island life (‘Taverna on the Beach’, ‘Morning in the Cafeneion’, ‘Honey Yoghurt’, ‘Bread Dipped in Olive Oil and Salt’) or fragments from the history and mythology of classical Greek civilisation (‘Plato’s Myth’, ‘Nike’, ‘Over Delphi’). And I noticed the repeated occurrence of words such as “salt”, “rock”, “light”, “sea”, “boat”, “heat”, “olives” etc.

The first poem, ‘Begin, Begin Again’, aims to introduce us to a new location by making parallels to the one left behind, and allows us a glimpse into a process of renewal: “The ships at twilight in the roads at Pireaus / are ships that sat heavy with night on Penrose Quay…” Here, Munster blends into Attica , and vice versa. This, we are led to understand, will be a book about the sea, travel, change.

And love. The book’s first section (‘Undying’) is a meditation on the process of seeing again and seeing anew, often facilitated through love – with the beloved re-opening the poet’s eyes by example:

You have the hunter’s steady lope, ready to go

anywhere, risk anything on instinct,

and I need water, I need courage, I need rest.

(from ‘Kato Zakros’

laughter a remedy for the deep fault

under the streets, the reek of ancient stone.

(from ‘Taverna on the Beach’

In section two (‘ Islands ’) the lyric line or phrase takes over. The poems here operate like postcard-poems in the sense that words aiming to recreate landscapes or moments at specific and remote places are written for the benefit of absent eyes. One could wonder whether what is being described is a romanticisation of Greek island life that is projected to and visible only by the outsider, or the display of actual pockets of resistance against westernisation. A traveller or newcomer to a group is in possession of a detachment that the permanent dweller has no access to, and this puts them in the arguably privileged position of observer. It is also a limited position, but a valid one nonetheless, which can offer insights unavailable to the member of the settled group. Do we get such insights? The poems are well-crafted, with an attractive surface, and are often punctuated by wit and the appearance of ghosts from Modern Greek history or classical mythology. Our attention becomes dominated by a handful of sharp images:

A boy comes backlit through the entrance arch,
a carefree, sunny child, all smiles and puppy fat.

(from ‘Alexandros’

… a loud
and beautiful shambolic drunk, heart full of joy.

(from ‘Morning in the Cafeneion’

… comedy ripped down the crooked
street like a string of firecrackers…

(from ‘Cross-Country Bus’

Mortality and ageing lurk unmistakeably behind the lines here, as in much of the book: an abrupt understanding of the impermanence of things. ‘Return to Hania’ (from section one) is a clear exponent of this: it is an especially Cavafyesque poem in which – at first – the aged poet looks back over life, remarking “it has not been what we expected”. The concluding stanza, however, begins “It beggars breath to speak of it; …” and ends with a sense of affirmation that the here and now is what matters, and it ought to be made the most of:

I thought my life a catalogue of loss–
now, without meaning to, I see it all as gain;

I am dizzy with hope, stunned – so much laughter

and love, such joy come round again!

(from ‘Return to Hania

Section three (‘Sappho’s Daughter’) comprises a long narrative poem replete with themes of travel, mythology and the sea, and where the poet equates falling in love to being seduced by a siren’s song (Odysseus is never far in this collection). The narrator tells of being used so that the woman may bear a daughter, a sequence of events which he ultimately does not regret because of the experience of pleasure it has left him: “I can see now I was had. / … / if I had known then what I knew after / I’d still have stepped over that threshold …”

Specific place, then, carries less weight than is at first apparent: openness to the accumulation of experience seems to me the message in this collection. What Dorgan is (didactically?) hinting at throughout is that we ought to be prepared to confront our fate while staying ready to use what we have learned to recognise events and voices directing us to it. It is surely no coincidence that he ends the book repeating a line whispered previously:

Nobody knows what may happen in this life
(from ‘Sappho’s Daughter’)

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