A Word Slips Like a Drowning Hand: On the Poetry of N.C. Germanacos
A review of N.C. Germanacos, Ora et Labora. The Paideia Institute: New York, 2019.
by C. Hiatt O’Connor
Ora et Labora, published by The Paideia Institute, will serve for most readers as an introduction to the life and work of N.C. Germanacos. In this rich and often elegiac collection, Germanacos grapples with the staggering cumulation of his cultural and historical inheritances, which are not just the root of his being, but the source of much longing, too. The book is largely retrospective; we read the poet looking back at a lifetime (rather, many lifetimes) in a protracted attempt to answer the architectonic question presented in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Milosz: “When will that shore appear from/ Which at last we see/ How all this came to pass and/ For what reason.”
Germanacos’ verse memoir is of a uniquely diasporic Greek texture. Born in Cyprus in 1940, he notes that the work is “situated in five places: the Island of Cyprus in the 1940s and ‘50s...; Wales in the 1940s and ‘50s; the Island of Kalymnos in the south-eastern Aegean… in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s; the Island of Crete from the 1990s till today; and San Francisco, California.” Thus, while the poems brim with Greek locations and cultural allusions, all come through the pen of a Greek who was educated in Great Britain, and who recently gained American citizenship. Thus, in his poems we encounter such non-Greeks as the Welsh undertaker Dafydd Llewellyn Evans, and a homeless San Franciscan with a dufflebag of autumn leaves, while we also scuff shoulders with the likes of Daedalus and Icarus; Polyphemus; medieval crusaders; Alexander the Great; shepherds; Kostas the Tall (a man both Lear and Fool); and the poet Seferis. Certain figures recur: most frequently (and importantly) Charon, but also a character named The Captain, a Kalymnian mariner and sponge diver, and mouthpiece of a more contemporary island mythology. But Greece is as much remembered as it is present, and many of these poems are colored by a clinging desperation, since their speaker cannot manage to still himself within that liminal space. Always on the verge of departure, he confesses that he has endured “A lifetime of leaving/ and starting afresh,/ or returning to finish/ the unfinished something or other,/ of idling verbs, coming and going/ nowhere.”
Germanacos admits in “Props” to the theatricality of his own work, to the drama involved in building poems out of fragments and artifacts both personal and cultural:
are props, to be sure.
I sift through them, shuffle them about,
throw them on the page.
Despite abounding allusion and allegory (and often deeply personal subjects), there remains an openness in the work which allows us to sit with him, and try for ourselves to untangle the knots of his reel.
The book is divided into seven sections, one for each day of the week (Monday through Sunday). While this structure might suggest a clear forward progression, the book is not strictly linear. One of Germanacos’ shining talents is his ability to draw up past lives (be they his own, or of others) from many generational fathoms. This is no easy task. As he says in “Departures”: “I look back…” and am “humbled by such unhealthy habits.” This strain on the neck is further complicated when considering not only when the poet writes from, but where. Germanacos casts his lines into the depths of different decades and millennia, over islands and continents, through myth and history and lived experience—often simultaneously. As a reader, keeping these thin and slick lines in hand takes noticeable effort. This is not to fault the poet. Anyone who tries to cast the hook of memory so far knows that the line often knots on the spool. The distance (or closeness) of the past for Germanacos—and the crowded territory he must parse—are framed as part of diasporic Greek experience. Strong borders between myth, history, and lived experience start to slip away; the lines marble together. As the epigraph to the section “Thursday” reads (quoting Faulkner): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This brings us to perhaps the most prominent theme of the book: uprootedness. Germanacos suffers from many wounds, but the one that never heals is umbilical. Such is the reason for the poet’s grasping, for the extremity of his frustrations and joys and despairs: he is a motherless child. He asks us to: “imagine temples, sheepfolds,/ graves now ploughed over,/ a motherland lost yesterday/ or centuries ago.” Germanacos’ biographical past is marked by the violence of the 20th century, beginning with World War II, even if he would have been too young to actually remember it. But his own mythos and his own Greek Cypriot imagination are deeply marked nevertheless. In “Lethe,” he writes “The Germans bombed us once or twice—/ or did they? One bomb fell behind our house—/ or did it?” He continues: “I’ll never know the truth/ about the bomb behind the house./ All the witnesses are dead.” These erasures continue even after the war, when his family relocates to Wales and he realizes that “no one/ can pronounce our name.”
The confusion of migration is worsened by the fact that Germanacos was just a toddler. Hence the question about his late father, himself a psychological victim of the war and a veteran of the Battle of Crete: “what world/ did he inhabit?// What world do we?” The overwhelming presence of grief can fold in on itself from its own weight, as in “Snapshots”:
Snaps trace loss–ours, theirs–
salvage bits of what we imagine was,
feed our fantasy of how things
could have been–the randomness
of vanity, the love invested lost.
And it can fester into a perverted guilt:
Snaps, too, accuse–omit
our own complicity in a disaster,
how we failed to plan
for the reversal and the fall, failed
to record their life and works,
mesh ours with theirs–
failed even… to duplicate their snaps.
But what could a child have done to plan for the fall? The expectations that Germanacos holds for himself (throughout the book) are unachievable. As a child and as a man, his locus of control is slim. For Germanacos to see the misfortunes that befell him—including those that fell right behind his house—as his own fault seems symptomatic of a guilt that is misplaced, but clung to nonetheless. Just the same, it’s this loss that drives Germanacos to write. In “The Ledger,” he asks how many generations back must we go “to track/ the fault that started it./ How many forward to defray it.” An impossible task, since, as Yeats put it: “Things fall apart.” Entropy is fundamental, and in Germanacos’ case it was accelerated by his early uprooting and by subsequent migrations.
Despite this bombed chasm between present and past, “Somehow/ the love lives on in us.” Love of country, of family, and even love of self must be replanted if the poet is to begin the process of restoration. Take this excerpt from “Roots II”:
Time after time uprooted, ruined,
exiled, we wandered wide, returned,
rebuilt our houses stone by stone,
restored the earth, field by field…
and bore the children, who could fill
the sky once more with laughter.
A recurrent trope in Ora et Labora is nostos, that Odyssean predicament with which Germanacos defines the pattern of his own life. Another is his attempt to regain an umbilical connection to the motherland. Take “Parsley,” a poem centered on his effort to till “a modest plot, but rich in nutrients,” next to which the children can “step into a dithyramb to celebrate.” The “ample satisfaction” of his labors—the cultivation of a small, green τόπος of his own—and the rekindled fecundity there, might even spark metamorphosis:
a sly transfiguration, or,
at the very least, a recognition
of [his] usefulness.
Not that such labor is certain to succeed. In “The Acorn,” Germanacos speaks to the difficulty of the transplantation he desires:
I gathered acorns (wonders of design),
planted them in foreign soil,
a foreign clime. All died but one.
The luck and nutrients needed to take root again can be fatally rare—and the labor just as straining. But, if fortune lets those roots take hold, then
Our children’s children will see
a black oak…
a good man’s unintended gift–
a temple of a tree,
transplant in a foreign land,
out of place, out of clime–
a clear mistake, a miracle.
This might represent a hopeful beginning, even if it comes late in the poet’s life. But Germanacos knows the fates see all things as straw dogs. And whether facing fate itself, or just a high Aegean tide, seeds are often washed from their furrows. With change as the only constant, what can we do to keep our head above the water?
The Captain, a prominent figure in the mid-section of the book, speaks to these efforts in “The Abecedary”:
I read the abecedary of stars, and parse
the syntax of the waves. I am literate
or else I die.
and the poem’s speaker responds,
so, then, I, too,
must learn my ABC:
start with a dawn, the house,
and grains of sea-salt on the panes
after the gale.
The Captain’s literacy, like the poet’s, is not merely skill. In fact, Germanacos asserts that “His name is carved on stone/ but also writ in water.” The Captain was the Keats of the sea. This is no small statement, but it makes sense when considering how Germanacos transcribes the Captain’s efforts to his own work. The wake of trauma from the poet’s early life are cause for his strong identification with The Captain. In “Moray Eel” too, we see the sea, like the motherland itself, as a source of life and death:
she nourishes, but is capricious,
and we are flawed and make mistakes.
His love for her is fathomless,
and if she were to kill him, he’d
say she’d be within her rights.
The sea, the land, and the mute Shades come together to form “the marvelous mesh of roots/ that gave us flesh and blood, and grasp of things that are,/ and grace to love.”
All things are not without their opposites, though. While the motherland is a source of reverence and joyful fecundity, it is also a wellspring of bitterness, despair, and elegy. As he says in “Across the Straits”:
Dawn reminds us (the forever refugees)
that there is always something left to lose:
the ground on which we stand today
is hallowed now and gone tomorrow.
Germanacos’ love often morphs into reverence, hence the vehemence of his frustration when the land and its people don’t live up to ancestral promise, as with Mount Pentelicus, “our Marble Mountain,/ barely visible through smog./ …we quarried it/ to carve out gods … we’ve gutted it.” He goes on, “we may conceal the mountain’s wounds,/ but never heal them,” concluding “we have replaced/ the marble… with baser matter.” What is this baser matter? We find the answer in “Peaks,” centered on Mount Ida—birthplace of Zeus—lately “slated to become a ski resort.” In that poem a pilgrim, who asserts that the world has gone “from reverence to insouciance,” asks a Bishop:
So where do we build our temples now?
… Who is left
to hear our prayer? And where?
There is a similarly implacable sense of loss in “Tsambouna,” where Germanacos laments a shepherd whose music sounded as if it “came from the lungs of Pan.” What became of the Shepherd?
He died… years ago.
The pipes died with him, the Island’s last.
His sons sold flock, house, fold–
a hotel stands there today.
Time and Charon inevitably come for the Captain, too. His wife remarks after his death, “the sea’s a playground now; we have no place in her.” In other words: once these revered figures become shades, the motherland they were rooted to becomes a shade just the same. This idea is reconfigured in “The Owl,” where we see Athena “[shrug] herself awake,/ [adjust] her hearing-aid and wig,/ and [shuffle] down the trail/ for refuge in the rubble of her shrine,/ tripping on her tattered tunic/ as she goes.”
If we remember the opening epigraph from Milosz, the cause of the poet’s prayer and labor, amidst so much upheaval and decay, is to “see/ How all this came to pass and/ For what reason.” For Germanacos, solving this riddle would be to finally reap the fruit of the garden we saw in "Parsley"— a metamorphosis of mere fragment and shadow into something recomposed and breathing. In his essay on poet George Economou, Vassilis Lambropoulos uses the term transcomposition to describe what occurs in diasporic art when the artist “traverses places, periods, languages, techniques, [and] roles,” and composes an identity that has borrowed “from everywhere and everything to create something unique.” As such, “the poet is not to reconstruct a fixed Greekness but to assemble a viable, generative one.”
With the motherland irrevocably changed—mountains emptied of herds, the sea empty of mariners—the restoration of an umbilical connection is impossible. Nevertheless, Germanacos uses poetry to compose something new and fertile out of his kaleidoscopic past. There is another kind of self-cultivation, too, defined by Germanacos with the Rule of St. Benedict: ora et labora, “work [on the land] is prayer” (brackets his). As in the textual spaces of “Parsley” and “The Acorn,” where the sense of uprootedness is transmuted, converted into ars poetica, the poet again commands himself in “Obduracy”:
Go, plant a tree.
It cannot be prescribed or edited,
but grows to fullness on its own.
The tree, much like the poet, is obdurate. Despite all unnatural expectations and demands for what it ought to be, it keeps growing. Whether or not Germanacos is able to produce art that reflects this new sense of expectation and identity only matters so much. After all,
feed it to your kids,
shelter the poor with it,
succor the sick–
you cannot topple tyrants…
So why does it defy all odds?
Why does it refuse to die?
That line—you cannot topple tyrants—gestures the movement of the book toward an image which eclipses its final pages. As we turn to look, we see that Germanacos, having taken stock of his own history, feels compelled to turn outward, toward history itself, and what drowns in the wake of political disaster. Take “Alexander the Great Lives,” where he scowls “We marvel at the pertinacity/ of these majestic thugs,/ [and] wonder at their dreadful grace…” acknowledging that myriad innocents “died/ to bloat the bubble of their fame,/ [and] left no name for a memorial.” In “Your Triumph” the nameless dead are spoken for by a slave, who whispers to his Emperor “Memento homo... Respice… Respice…” or, “Remember man… look… look….” Look at what?
Germanacos provides that image, and he implores us to bear witness to the most recent migrant crisis in the Aegean without averting our gaze. The final poems in his book are written in homage to the victims of that crisis, and especially to the Syrian toddler Alyán Kudi, whose drowned body appeared in widely published photographs. All the momentum of the collection halts at that horror, first in the book’s commanding penultimate poem, “Forget-Me-Not I”:
a bloom washed up by last night’s gale–
a tiny corpse,
among the beach-beds and umbrellas–
a child matted in shirt and shorts…
the dead boy’s name has slipped your grasp–
Just as the slave in “Alexander the Great Lives” implored his Emperor, Germanacos implores both himself and the reader to look, and remember
The name, his name–
the toddler’s on our beach…
a bloom–a boy–
But the poet and his words cannot comprehend the catastrophe of this child’s drowning, as he says to himself:
Bit by bit you lose your grasp
on things that count…
A word slips down like a drowning hand–
once sunk you cannot retrieve it.
The failure goes beyond that, for nothing can make more of the boy’s body than what it already is:
There is no trope for this obscenity.
that’s not a nimbus round the corpse’s head-
those are flies feasting on his eyes.
Stunned mute and unable to remember the boy’s name, Germanacos imagines one: Peccavimus, an exclamation of guilt or of a profound mistake. Here, he includes himself and the reader as both victim and agent in the boy’s drowning; in the continued cycle of violent uprooting and the debts incurred there, we are both Alexander and Slave. Germanacos has lived at the whim of that fate and survived. Yet his poetry—indeed, his life’s work—cannot topple tyrants. The final thrust of the collection does not aim to cement Germanacos’ name or labors, nor answer any lasting questions about art. It is simply to demand recognition of the drowned boy, who rests as a synecdoche for all those who have been killed or exiled in “the cold futility of war.” The book's last stanzas exclaim this timeless, endless, and specific human tragedy. Germanacos leaves us with a plea to look, and to act:
The murder of Aylán
The murder of Aylán
Let’s now restore
what we forgot–
the flower on our shore
the tiny tot
For - get - me - not.
C. Hiatt O’Connor is a recent graduate of the University of Lynchburg, the former Co-Head Editor in Chief of The PRISM, and has received multiple honors for his work, including the Miriam T. & Jude M. Pfister Student Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. His work is published or forthcoming by the Academy of American Poets, GRIFFEL, High Shelf Press, deLuge Literary and Arts Journal, Lucky Jefferson, and more. He lives and works in Maryland.