In this age of increasing global social media craze, Eleni Sikelianos attests that she holds close to poetry as “a little spell to ward off the dark” of the ever encroaching corporate interference in, and observation over, our personal lives. If you have a smart phone you most likely never fully step out far from under the thumb of the Capitalist parent company who knows where you are where you are going where you have been and where you wish you were. In fact, they always want to be the one leading you to wherever you may next be headed. What I Knew doesn’t pretend to shake free of this fact but it does present poetry as an example of resistance. Encouraging avoidance of having what one’s seen and heard be easily ranked and filed away along with the millions of other countless data points in the hive of the vast consumer cloud.
Originally written in 2013, Sikelianos’ book-length poem logs the day-to-day ramblings of family life, recording her daughter’s developing fascinations “(Currently, all her stories begin in the 1970s and end with shit)” while weaving in memories of earlier travels, “and now I tell how on Aeroflot I saw the flight attendants with large hairs on their chins / who barked and served boiled Chernobyl meat and pressed Chernobyl cheese”. It is both a reflection of the historical period in which it was written “headlines are taken more or less verbatim from the New York Times” as well as—as she describes a book of poetry—an invitation to her own “poem-room for a private, intimate séance”.
Now I tell everything
I heard & knew
Stepping out beyond the private spaces of her own inner thoughts and reflections, along with the physical private spaces she shares with her family, the poem enacts itself in the outside realm as it engages with the wider world.
in public space I polish my words I publish them
in their cacophony, a movement
of speech from outside to in, inside to out
Hoping “for deepest encryption” embedding names of family members within the poem “as a gesture toward poetry-cryptography” Sikelianos risks hedging her personal privacy by having such obscured revelations buried within the poem’s folds. She doesn’t however forfeit anything, not quite anyway. Yet there’s an inescapable sense this work leaves her vulnerable. It’s understandable she is wary: “We must keep our minds, our imaginations, resilient, bouncy. Don’t let them sell us our private territories.” How much this is possible in these times is the undercurrent running throughout the book. Asking:
Will you let this Web know more about you
than you yourself know?
Unlike many previous projects by Sikelianos, there is no larger structure girding this work. With The California Poem the personal entered in in relation to the broader background focused upon a specific geographical place and accompanying histories. This served as a kind of automatic mechanism of distancing the poem from the poet. Her history was just another piece in the larger story told. Whereas What I Knew faces the literal facts of her personal affairs head on. There is no buffer. Instead these phenomena are deliberately encrypted into the fabric of the poem. This is not confessional or narrative, but rather a very fragmented journey of disjointed observational sequences.
In this house I write I hope all is well
at email’s end — Hope all is well
in the world
where this poem
in the tongue
that talks in the night
in the limits of knowledge
the knob of the palate
the palace of language where I walk clothed
palace of world, walk naked
to put the words together
“violet” “violent” “eye” “to try”
to come right
This is the opening to orders of poetry where the imagination is not bounded. While there is a gate and there is a code to open the gate, the secrets once in are freely shared. How we strive to be genuine in a world where duplicity is everywhere and manipulation is constant: a dilemma we all face. Writing poetry does not guarantee you’ll find a way around these issues but as Sikelianos demonstrates writing poetry is an avenue by which to attempt to circumvent at least some of the larger, noisier threats and hassles. If, that is, you deploy it as a strategy opposed to the hegemonies at work in and against our lives, reclaiming the ground of our inner worlds.