Just this past fall, George Kalogeris earned himself the Five Points James Dickey Prize in Poetry for “Hades” and “Grackle,” contemplative poems that resurrect the voices of his immigrant Greek parents. With his latest collection Guide to Greece, Kalogeris continues to draw from the ample wellsprings of his childhood memory and cultural heritage.
The title of the collection, Guide to Greece, alludes to Pausanias, a Greek writer who lived during the second century AD. Pausanias wrote a fascinating travelogue relating the history, myth, and architectural remnants of mainland Greece for Roman citizens. The resulting book, known today in English as Guide to Greece or Description of Greece, speaks to Kalogeris across the centuries in profound ways. Like Pausanias, Kalogeris is deeply committed to preserving connections to his ancestral homeland.
Unearthing significant links between the sites Pausanias visited and the history of his own family, Kalogeris threads the needle—site by site, line by line—restoring connections between himself and his father, himself and Pausanias, himself and the ancient world. Rich legacies entwine throughout this collection, as in the following lines from the opening titular poem:
Endless genealogies, as densely entangled
As a grove of olive trees, his grasp of their roots
Extending all the way back to Epaminondas,
Who sprang from the earth of Thebes, before it was Thebes;
Cities erected on sites of ruined cities,
Their marble temples and strange foundation myths;
Here, Kalogeris commits his pentameter rhythm and rich interlinear sound repetitions to the task of expressing for the reader his astonishment of “densely entangled” genealogies tracing back to a common source for Kalogeris and Pausanias. Through wedding the “genealogies” of the first line and the “grove of olive trees” of the second in sound and stress, Kalogeris interweaves the natural features of the ancient Greek sites Pausanias visited with Kalogeris’s own cultural lineage. A lyrical double-helix is created—parallel lines that revolve around a common axis and take root together.
Through this poetic entanglement across centuries of Greek history, Kalogeris makes sense of his own family’s journey to America. A contemporary Greek-American poet, Kalogeris’s parents immigrated to Boston in response to the economic hardships that sprung up after the war for Greek independence and the displacement of Greeks from their homeland. Kalogeris takes on the immense task of drawing fresh poetic connections between the ancient Greek diaspora and the diaspora that led his own parents to re-settle just outside of Boston in the seaside town of Winthrop.
In the same poem, Kalogeris addresses Pausanias through intimate apostrophe, locating what is deeply personal for the poet in the distant life of ancient Greece:
And if this means, Pausanias, that no one
Knows better than you that everything that’s happened
Has already happened before, and also because
Both Sparta and Arcadia are places
You call Archaia Ellada, and that’s a term
I heard my parents use to tell us where
They came from when they meant to say Old Greece,
I keep on reading down all the lists of names,
Pausanias, keep paging through each region
And wondering if perhaps you might have seen them,
My elderly parents, somewhere in your travels.
Elsewhere in Guide to Greece, Kalogeris finds uncanny ways to view the hardships and joys of the present and recent past through the lens of Greek myth. In “The Deaf-Blind Girl,” Kalogeris reflects on his experience at a private school for deaf-blind children in Brookline, where he worked
Part time, with a little girl in constant agony,
Profoundly autistic, the one we called Antigone.
She always wore a helmet, even while sleeping,
Because, as an infant, she’d blinded herself with her fists.
An orange, perforated, styrofoam helmet
To ward off the sleepless demons in her head.
This girl is mythologized by Kalogeris, simultaneously becoming both Antigone and Oedipus for readers, her hands suddenly able to speak more than her own voice, “…as if anorexic / Language could only express the naked hunger / It cannot feed, as it screamed through the tongues in her hands / For Eat and Drink and More.” Despite the intensity of her frantic trauma and lack of language, Kalogeris is able to grant her, and readers, peace:
That spellbound little girl, at home in the school
For the deaf and blind, just standing there by a pair
Of gleaming knobs and the fluent, effusive water—
And looking as if she’d solved the Sphinx’s riddle.
Bereft of speech, the stream of sink water flowing over her silent hands, she is able to enter into conversation with something primal extending far beyond, and far before, the advent of language. Through these new poems, Kalogeris prompts readers to question distinctions between abled and disabled, between rooted and uprooted—to jettison assumptions and enter into a “densely entangled” literature of past and present, reality and myth.
Paul Rowe teaches English Literature, composition, and professional writing at Endicott College and Merrimack College. He has published literary criticism on topics ranging from Romanticism to the indigenous literatures of New England. He holds degrees from the University of New Hampshire and Suffolk University and is a contributing editor at Pen & Anvil Press in Boston. His words appear in Literary Imagination, Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Moonchild Magazine, The New England Review of Books, and FIVE:2:ONE. His feature articles on music and film appear in PopMatters and The Boston Hassle.