Published by Wurm Press, September 2011
"My tongue is splintered into signs
half of me hardly knows."
—from 'Nicosia Journal'
A scrupulous and gifted writer, Christodoulos Makris is a poet of language over territory, a poet of semblance over culture.
I was knocked out by the skill of this writer
—Nuala Ní Chonchúir
Poems that reveal inner prepossessions and fiery confrontations to self, and country [...] charged with desire and a powerful will [...] an instinctive sense of brooding irony.
what they said about Spitting Out the Mother Tongue
Wurm's most recent publication is Spitting Out the Mother Tongue, by Christodoulos Makris, a fantastic book of poetry, with poems about Danielle Steel and Mötley Crüe, which can be purchased from the Wurm site (http://wurmimapfel.net/). Kit explains why she chose to accept the collection: "What I liked about it was his take on what might be seen as very conventional first-collection material, family, home, growing up: the intellectual and formal approach I think is different, sophisticated, urbane, as you might expect from the Greek-Cypriot experience of displacement."
London Student newspaper
IT MAY BE another generation before Irish poetry is transformed, as it is going to be, from the backward and inward-looking entity it presently is to something expressing the actuality of life as it is everywhere, while happening, merely, to emanate from Ireland. Cyprus, where Christodoulos Makris, now resident in Ireland, grew up, might seem too remote for analogy, but it is only too similar. An island, leaning backwards into its own Arcadianism, fissured by binary politics and history, Americanised and technologised, its people split between home and elsewhere.
Two branched out to Canada, two to America, two to the cloister.
Of the remaining three
Only the eldest stayed on course.
One by one they start to fall
In a silent pact to bury within the roots of the family tree
Whatever made them flee or not flee.
There is hardly an Irish family who would not identify with that. Which is precisely what makes this concentratedly intelligent set of poems, nominally Cypriot, so actually universal.
The world it inhabits has gone past the point of the national, and begun to relax into its own ubiquity as a fact of life, without the usual anguish of expatriation. The stance is more that of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Greek who changes cities”, maintaining his balance not by affiliation to this or that set of national pieties but by loving the world, as a physical essence, wherever he happens to be.
Halloumi is also made in the Lebanon and Romania
Other cheeses common in Cyprus
Are the Greek feta and kaskavali –
Related to the Bulgarian katchkawalj and the Italian caciocavallo
(The Cheeses of Cyprus)
The cheeses in that poem, as an understated intercultural metaphor, are so much more than cheeses, but they are also cheeses, real moments in a physically rich life that underwrites the flux of uprooting and different countries on every other page. We are never not at home, whatever contemporary nervosities may be in the air, as long as life – the life of eating, drinking, sex, palaver, dancing, the spicy smell of the streets – is being lived, as it is here, in the body.
So you thought that Yianna, Maria and Aliki
Would stay at home
Waiting, until ‘you and the boys’
Finish your jamming session
And return in the morning to enter them?
Fool, they’re all round my place
Drinking raki, dancing to beats from the Bosporus,
Smoking joints, rolling down their stockings . . .
For all its apparent spontaneity, though, this is a carefully plotted sequence, extending through childhood and adolescence into what I take to be fatherhood and the starting of a new cycle. A novel of sorts, with the epiphanies, the pure moments, lifted clear and held to the light of a cool intelligence, analysed. For the life of the mind is everywhere present here too, the issue of word and thing when English is a kind of translation from an unspoken mother tongue with its own base, and strange displacements happen
The sea carries intimations of home – Eoria –
Where we are least uncomfortable in our skins,
Or breathe with most ease. It’s a solution
We either enter or exit to. Here we say go out
To sea – venture somewhere foreign. There we go
In to it, as if returning to some primeval hearth.
Intelligence, the defence mechanism of the Wandering Jew, is so often also the sister of neurosis. Not so here. I do not know what brought Makris to these shores, or whether he will go on living here, but he and his poems, so universally at home in themselves, are a straw in the wind, a forerunner, in Irish poetry and Irish poetry publishing, of what has already happened in Britain with Grace Nichols, Benjamin Zephaniah, Jackie Kay. Strange as it may seem, the greenest shoots are sometimes foreign.
"Spitting Out The Mother Tongue" is better organised. As the title suggests, it revolves around the experience of a Cypriot immigrant in Western Europe. It is much harder to pick out particular poems in this volume because the poems support each other like paragraphs in a novel. Makris' language is almost unpoetic. There is no attempt at music here and rhythm, while present, does not immediately soothe the ear. The wording is plain and simple, as if the reader was listening to some average Joe on the street describing his surroundings. Sometimes it is that very quality which makes it powerful. Many of the poems focus on adolescence and young adulthood. There are moments when the reader gets the feeling that it's all been said before. But then a phrase or image will smack the reader back into poetic reverie. The best poems in "Spitting Out The Mother Tongue" are "Muses Walk" and "Nicosia Journal".
Sabne Raznik, from 'The Work of Christodoulos Makris'
As the title Spitting out the Mother Tongue suggests, Makris’s latest volume of poetry revolves around the perennial question of Cypriot identity as further complicated by life abroad; in the case of Makris, in England and currently Ireland. These exilic locations are glimpsed on occasion, but the focus of the poems is firmly on a Cyprus of the past tinged with nostalgia and loss, and on a present Cyprus scarred by crass consumerism, “a cog in Europe, remote and keen and savvy with technology”. This latter Cyprus – in which “You import swarthy help and order it around / while you sit back ‘like ağas’” – is fiercely satirised and acts as a welcome corrective to those themes of Cypriot identity that have become all too commonplace.
The thematic coherence of the volume is offset by the formal variations it contains, from almost lyric short poems, through graphically dislocated works, on to prose poems. This restlessness occasionally hits upon a happy formal and thematic congruence, as in “West Germany 1974” from “Masculine Biography Vol. 1”:
Where was mother?
By summer’s end
They were displaced
They took to the fields.
Displacing one’s lines to reflect the displacement of the refugee experience is a neat, if not particularly surprising, poetic technique that leads one to confront the real issue concerning this volume, which is not how it deals with the Cypriot exilic, dislocated experience, but how it deals with the business of poetry. Makris writes in “Translations”:
Art is craft, experience, professional
Competence. Cunning. An artist is a master.
When one encounters such lines in a volume of poetry, one has to admire a certain bravery. We are encouraged to pay attention to the craft of these poems, ascertain their competence and judge the relative mastery of the artist. As a yardstick for judging poetry it is refreshing to see that “experience” has its place but happily one that is far from being dominant, yet it is also a dangerous gambit if the reader finds the craft lacking or the competence questionable. The poem “Lingua Franca” offers something of test case in this regard. It opens
When they dig to determine my
constitution I never know what terms
they’ll hit: where I come from or
the place I grew up in? Family
or origins? We or they? Invasion,
war or intervention?
Leaving aside the thematic content which is familiar to contemporary Cypriot poetry, the question of craft is in the balance. By craft, one might mean making the most of one’s materials, words. Certainly here “constitution” is doing an admirable amount of work. The word plays nicely across it various apposite meanings, from the health and composition of one’s body through to the political sense of a set of fundamental principles governing a state, and this is reinforced by the legalistic “terms” and the more general content of the poem. Such careful use of words may constitute the very craft of art. As the rhetorical questions pile up in the following lines, however, such a sense of artful rigour dissipates. The pressing concern of the poem – “Do I belong everywhere / or anywhere?” – ultimately overwhelms the manner of its expression.
As the volume erects its own critical framework in such a way it would be dishonest not to judge it on these terms. The question of a poet’s craft should always be of importance, but it is especially so here as the issue is explicitly and implicitly raised. So, for example, in “Muses Walk”, amidst flashes of Old Town Nicosia, the poem suggests that “At the watchmaker’s – a place of craftsmanship, dexterity, precision – you can get your rhythms fixed.” One assumes that the poem believes its own rhythms do not need fixing. But one also wonders about the punctuation of the title. As the poem is ostensibly a tour around the town by the persona of the poet, is the title then knowingly Joycean or just unthinking?
On the subject of Joyce, the lines from “Translation” quoted above not only act as a statement of intent, but also as a statement of the company the poems hope to keep. It seems to allude subtly to Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with his plans to use “silence, exile and cunning” in his bid for artistic mastery. Similarly, by opening Masculine Biography Vol. 1 with a quote from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J, Alfred Prufrock”, Makris encourages the reader to consider whether a life measured out in football world cups is akin to Prufrock’s coffee spoons. Whether that kinship is ironic is not clear, not least because Eliot has already inculcated an ironic distance from Prufrock, just as Joyce had done to Stephen in his more portentous pronouncements. Is Makris adding irony to irony?
Occasionally a line strikes the eye and ear, or an image proves arresting. So, a “muezzin’s call spikes the air” in “Muses Walk” with its suggestion of minarets has a concrete specificity that is appealing, as does the description of a mother “lying on the mattress / like ploughed earth / under the sunshine and moisture of March” from “Fertility Dance”, which also has the nice ambiguity of whether it is the mother or the mattress that has been ploughed. Such moments offer the reader a glimpse of the craft upon which Makris has placed such store.
Paul Stewart, Cadences Vol 9