A Little Apotropaic Dose of the Bear
When my daughter was little, I’d ask her each morning, “What did you dream about?” Each morning she would reply, somewhat embarrassedly (a word in which there is a bear), “Bears.” I once told Pauline Oliveros’s magical partner Ione about my daughter’s dreams, and she said, simply, “Oh. She has bear medicine.”
Last fall, I rode past the ancient site of Eleusis in a cab. Eleusis, you probably know, was the site of cryptic mysteries associated with Persephone and Demeter. A classic mother-daughter tale, and yet, like so many old stories, still relevant. Persephone is out painting all the flowers of the world, when she is abducted by the Man from Hell. It’s up to her mother to find her. As the daughter of a mother (who was the daughter of a mother), and as the mother of an adolescent daughter, I have found this tale still fits: how do we find each other again and how do we bring each other back from dark or faraway journeys? Demeter (whose root “meter” connects to both “mother” and “the law”) goes on a huge, raging road trip, way pre-Kerouac, and hauls her daughter back up to the light of day for a good portion of each year, enough to witness “an ear of corn reaped in silence.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s one of the secrets initiates participated in, and sounds like something I too would like to do.
To witness an ear of corn reaped in silence.
It’s a silence with movement: a woman’s hands expertly performing a necessary task. It’s a silence with color: the pale yellow of the corn, the washed, dry green of the husk, the watery blue of the autumn sky. And it’s a silence in which you can still hear. The arid sound of a ripping husk, the still space after trauma.
A poem takes us from here to there. From raging noise to rich silence. From despair to hope (and sometimes back again). From Circe’s bewitchment to home. From bewilderment to bewilderment. The journey poem is as old as the hills—think Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the Aeneid and Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (as Cid Corman has the title). In more recent times, take Lorine Niedecker’s deep travels through place and time in her poem “Lake Superior.”
In every part of every living thingis stuff that once was rock
In blood the mineralsof the rock
she begins, moving us across geological ages and vast territories right into our own veins in seventeen words. The repetition of “rock” as resting point in each of those opening couplets brings the truth of our shared history with “every living thing,” and even stones, indisputably down with a soft yet sure weight. Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette is another, a poem in which the heroine goes on a trip like Odysseus’s, Virgil’s, and Dante’s, down to the depths of a Reagan-era-inflected mythic New York City subway, in a katabasis that still feels more real to me than nearly anything else from the 80s.
Each autumn, members of the cult of Demeter walked the sacred route from the cemetery in Athens to Eleusis to mark the loss, the search, the finding, and the trip back up from hell. It’s about 15 miles from one point to the other. My great-grandfather, Angelos Sikelianos, once walked that route, and wrote a poem about it, which begins,
I felt the setting sun flood my heartwith a force like that of water when it poursthrough a hole in a sinking ship.Because again,like one long sick, when he first ventures forthto milk life from the outside world, I walkedalone at dusk along the road that startsat Athens
(Translated by Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard)
People there were shadowlike, he says. Of course they were: it’s a road from a cemetery to the underworld. Then three thick shadows cut across the path. Two bears and their gypsy. I’m guessing this would have been about 1935.
My great-grandfather was light-shadowed—someone whose shadow didn’t fall heavy on the ground, one who “sees.” But three shadows cut across his shadow where he felt a hole in his heart. A mother bear and a cub with rings and chains through their noses, made to dance by a yank of the chain. The hole in his heart got bigger. The cub’s nose was bloody as the mother bear rose up on her hind legs. Darkness poured through. My great-grandfather was a slave to this world, like all of us, and he dropped a coin into the bear keeper’s tambourine. The bear gypsies, or Ursarii, are Romanii rather than Roma, but now bear-dancing has been banned. In the poem, the mother bear becomes a kind of Demeter, a Big Mamma protecting her child.
My father, grandson of the poet, loved bears. He was very good friends with at least one at the New Hampshire zoo where he worked, a Russian bear whom he called Boufa. He would drive around with Boufa in the zoo cart on his zoo rounds.
Whether my daughter does or not have bear medicine, I would like her to have a little dose of the ursine, a gift from her grandfather and her great-great-grandfather to get her through this weird world, growling and prowling when needed. The hole in my heart that water pours through has this week to do with guns and adolescents. Bears, too, can obviously be killed by guns, but, like adolescents, they are powerful and stealthy and comically charming from a safe distance. We tend to see a lot of bear scat on the trails here in Colorado in the fall, full of serviceberry or chokecherry pits, as they fatten up for the long sleep, but we rarely see the bears themselves. They reap in silence. One of my great pleasures of the past few years was hearing a recording of a hibernating black bear snoring (in its human-made hibernaculum, to throw a little vocabulary around). Biologists call black bears a metabolic wonder. Among other crazy regulating capacities, they can slow their heart rates down from 55 beats a minute to 14 without getting congestive heart failure. There’s this suspenseful hiatus after the snore in which it sounds like the bear will never breathe again, the period down in the depths of sleep; and then she’s back up at the top again, inhaling.
The drive from Athens to Eleusis is a very different kind of descent these days. Perhaps the old story was pointing to the future, when hell would push through the surface of the earth and trade places with the flowers. Eleusis (called Elefsina in Modern Greek) is now a petrochemical city, surely run by a different kind of Man from Hell. From the cab, I tried to capture the oil derricks out in the bay with my cellphone. To note down the way my eyes burned. The Elefsina refinery website says:
[T]he refinery has a hydrodesulphurisation unit with a capacity of 800,000t of diesel. The refinery also includes storage areas for 3.35t of crude oil and products, a private port with a capacity to berth 15 ships for loading and unloading petroleum products; and a modern station with 18 berths for loading of [oil] tankers.
There are hydrocrackers and flexicoker units in the bay. I’ve often thought about trying to make the same walk my great-grandfather did over eighty years ago, writing a very different kind of poem along the way. Baraka: “Because this is Hell/ Haven’t you guessed?” (from his poem “Revelations” on Harry’s House CD, volume III).
You probably know that Greece is in crisis. It can be felt in Athens in all kinds of ways. A country with historically strong family and social networks (think philoxenia), in which homelessness was nearly unheard of a decade ago, Greece now has one of the highest rates of people living on the streets in the E.U. Public drug use seems to be on the rise (there’s a pretty intense and very visible needlepark just below a posh neighborhood). At the central flea market, you’ll find all kinds of family goods once passed down from generation to generation: antique rugs, beautiful dishes, silver—families can’t afford the taxes on the houses these things furnished. A report in 2015 estimated that 20 percent of Greeks didn’t have enough money to cover daily food expenses. Compounding the situation, there are an estimated 60,000 refugees stuck in the country in mostly deplorable conditions, with closed borders to the north. They have grim stories to tell of their voyages, fleeing persecution and war. What you may not know, though, is that there’s also been a vibrant explosion of interesting poets and artists in Greece lately. See Karen Van Dyck’s anthology Austerity Measures to tune in. To take one peripatetic example: the poet Theodoros Chiotis traveled through Athens for 25 hours a few autumns ago, and wrote a fabulous chapbook, Day X, from it. He says, in an email,
Myself and the photographer, Nikolas Ventourakis [whose photographs were also published in the chapbook], bought a 24-hour ticket and we basically used that ticket to travel through Athens randomly. The day started at 7am at Syntagma underground station where we bought our ticket; we arranged it so that we would meet every 8 hours at designated spots in the city. So, we met at 3pm in Voula, 11pm in Omonoia and at 7am again in Syntagma. During daytime, I used buses, trams and the underground to explore the city completely randomly. I would pick buses to ride because I simply liked the bus number or because I had not been to its final destination for years. I did this until 3pm; after that, I had decided that I would expand my itinerary to cover as much of the seaside front of Athens. After 11pm, I had drafted maps to explore the city based on things like Seferis’ “Six Nights at the Acropolis” or I used maps of other places superimposed on the map of Athens to map my route during my nightitime travel through the city. I wanted the last bit of the journey to be as aleatory and unfamiliar as possible.
Just after I turned 20, I left this country for the first time with a high school friend, and hitchhiked around England, Greece, and Turkey for the summer. By winter, I found myself alone on a boat to Haifa, and then on a bus from Tel Aviv (where another friend met me) to Cairo, and soon we were on trains or hitchhiking down the Nile, through Sudan, into what was then Zaire, onto Burundi, Rwanda (before the genocide, but as it was brewing), Uganda, and Kenya. I turned 21 in Tanzania, having spent most of the year sleeping in the open air or in a tent. And then we made our way back, on an Aeroflot flight from Nairobi to Athens the weekend after the No. 4 light water graphite reactor at Chernobyl blew, 1986. After one night in a Moscow hotel for those unable to obtain a visa (and which was guarded at gunpoint), we hitchhiked from Athens to Paris, where, with about $30 left in my pocket, I got a job as an au pair and learned French. Why did I do that? What was I looking for? I haven’t yet discovered a useful way to write or even think about that journey, and I couldn’t say “I found this” on my travels. What happened remains one of the cryptic mysteries. But I can with conviction say that I came back to this country, nearly three years later, changed.
I’ve said somewhere that for me poetry isn’t only about naming and unnaming, but about movement—the leap in the gap from word to word, or line to line—what animates (to get back to my animals) the breach. I think it’s fair to say that what the lyric is is movement. That its sounding is about body and affect and mind moving in sometimes undisclosed spatial dimensions. That it can be, even has been, rescued from self-involvement.
I’m also going to say that the lyric is therefore about change. About trying to change things as they are in some way, even if only in the transfer (travel) from world to poem. “What does not change / is the will to change,” Charles Olson begins his enigmatic poem “The Kingfishers.” If my great-grandfather was anything, he was a lyric poet. He and my great-grandmother, the lesbian theater director Eva Palmer Sikelianos, had a plan to bring about world peace through poetry and theater. It seems laughable from where we are now, but if we don’t dream big—world peace big—how do we keep dreaming about bears?
Yet there are also poems that seem to be about never getting anywhere. As poets have long known, and as Cavafy pointed out, it’s not really about getting to Ithaka. Some poets are able to achieve a kind of confounding and transformational traveling stasis in the poem. There’s an amazing moment in César Vallejo’s Trilce where he watches himself walk through a sliver of mirror, and then can see his own ass, another way of bringing the circular journey down to the local:
…one tomorrow without tomorrow,between the rings of which we become widowers,a margin of mirror there will bewhere I run through my own frontuntil the echo is lostand I’m left with my front toward my back.
(Trilce VII, translated by Clayton Eshleman)
One of the revelations this winter was Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo (1921-2001), given to me by the world-brightening Mónica de la Torre. These poems are awkward and don’t draw me in in the way poems usually do (say, Vallejo’s swift and alarming registers of movement), but they pool in my mind in a disturbing and magnetizing vortex. “Sometimes the poet cannot abstract shapes/ From the crowd,” begins one poem, and continues:
Whatever survives thereWhich afterward the poemsConstantly approachingLike shadesLike thickenings of windLike rags of shades they pineLamenting on the ground round a pitThey leaveThen come againDigging with their nailsFor whatever might offerA sign of help from the crowd.
Here, she inscribes the poem as a kind of centrifugal search that needs the world to find itself.
What does Vakalo mean by “before” lyricism? It seems to me a place that is perhaps not necessarily pre-movement, pre-action, but a space of silence nearby to movement: there is that woman’s hands expertly performing a necessary task, but also a quiet witness to the movement of her hands. Vakalo’s translator, Karen Emmerich wrote me in an email:
[It’s] as if she wants to linger, often, on the moment right before an event, an episode, an action—and yet there's also a fascination with the aftereffect, the remains, the bones that melt on your tongue or melt in the soil over centuries. And the before lyricism becomes a kind of against lyricism, too…
If we’re able to take the lyric as a musically embodied witness to movement of all kinds—of the minerals of the rock, say, eroded by rivers and migrating to blood streams, rather than as a centering of the world’s movements on a self—we find a homeopathic dose to the world’s catastrophic human-induced movements, a little apotropaic dose of the bear. The word-gap, the line-break: like that moment between the bear’s exhale and inhale or Demeter’s untold time down in the dark. In that moment, as in any, change occurs. As I’m sure W.E.B. Du Bois knew when he founded a magazine by that name, “crisis” has its roots in “to decide.” Art is that voyage, the movement of change between “crisis” and “decision.” It is, as far as we have the power, taking life into our own hands.
Eleni Sikelianos was born and raised in California and earned her MFA from the Naropa Institute. She is the great-granddaughter of Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and the niece of Anne Waldman. She is the author of eight poetry collections, including Make Yourself Happy (2017), The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (2013), Body Clock (2008),...