Andy Jackson reviews The Blind Man With The Lamp by Tasos Leivaditis (trans NN Trakakis)
by Tasos Leivaditis (trans. N N Trakakis)
Reviewed by ANDY JACKSON
Ever since its emergence, the prose poem has been a uniquely potent embodiment of paradox. While a poem, arguably, could be defined as the literary form which declares itself to be “not prose”, a prose poem has it both ways. It moves with the energy of poetry, yet fills the page, withholding from the reader the relief of the line-break pause. No wonder spending any prolonged period of time within this space tends towards claustrophobia and anxiety. Poet Gretchen Henderson has written, “the prose poem, boxed as it is, for me seems to embody a want of movement – physical, aural or otherwise, made apparent by the limitations and liminality of its boxed-in body” (353).
In The Blind Man With The Lamp, Tasos Leivaditis takes up the haunting paradoxical temperament of the prose poem, and carries it into a register of existential fatigue and disquiet. The poems were originally published in 1983, when the poet was 61 years old and in declining health. Yet these precise and fluid translations from the Greek by N N Trakakis – the first English translation of a complete collection by Leivaditis – emphasise that while the biological kernel of these poems can hardly be denied, the book clearly emerges in the shadow of failed political visions. Behind it lies a questioning not only of political dogma but of humanity itself.
The Greece of Leivaditis’s childhood and adult life was dominated by war, economic depression, and ongoing internal conflict, the nation for many years subject to military dictatorship, ostensible democracy returning only in 1974. The Left which held Leivaditis’s sympathies was subject to ongoing and ruthless persecution. In 1948, the poet himself was arrested and imprisoned for three years. His poetry evolved from its modernist and surrealist beginnings, through overtly polemic political writing, to the poetry we find in The Blind Man With The Lamp – philosophical and religious in tone, yet wrenched with yearning and fatigue.
The poems inhabit a profound disillusionment, yet always leaning over the precipice rather than falling into it. The opening poem begins, “It was night and I had made the greatest decision of the century – I would save humanity – but how?”; then the titular blind man with the lamp appears. “’My dear brother’, I said to him, ‘God has sent you’, / and with zeal we both got down to work…”. The final poem of the book, “Lethal Game” has Leivaditis wake into a room “with the blinding light”, playing a seemingly endless game of cards, the stakes of which appear to be life itself. Suddenly he is alone in an abandoned and ruined city. “’Sweet mother of Christ’, I whispered, ‘at last all is finished. / Now I can start over again’.” At this point, we are back with the “blind man” – to my mind an unfortunate metaphorising of an embodied condition, yet emblematic of Leivaditis’s sense of loss and inevitability.
It comes as no surprise, then, to read in the excellent introduction by his translator Trakakis that in the middle of his career Leivaditis published a collection of “Kafkaesque” short stories. His poems invariably begin in the middle, with narrative momentum and a growing sense of confusion and dread, yet also with a kind of wonder. Perhaps analogous to the ghazal form, they are energised by an intense desire that can never be consummated, or rather they are fulfilled only in their own frustrated travel through the maze which has no exit.
While they are prose poems, the usual “box” shape of the form invariably breaks off, usually at the end, reminiscent of the form of a written letter. Some are truncated to the brevity of the aphorism – “I never would have imagined that so many days go to make up so short a life” (“The Deceptions of the Calendar”). Even the longer poems are shot through with long dashes, and drift off at the end with ellipses, either actual or implied. Leivaditis conjures the existential texture of moments of transition and frustration. Here is “Wayfarers” in its entirety –
We are those who have been on their way – we never had a place of our own – where are we going? where
are we coming from? On occasion we stay somewhere for a while, but
Fate quickly remembers us again and we leave.
And only on occasion, at the time when dusk falls and the few violets shudder amongst
the hedges, we are overwhelmed by a strange awe, a feeling as though we are returning to the
place from which we had been forever banished.
Or perhaps the twilight is our only homeland…
The liminal is a recurring trope of the book. Time and again, Leivaditis returns to images of dusk, night, outcasts, doors, dreams and silence. Though what is perhaps most striking about The Blind Man With The Lamp is how this sense of potential and inevitable night is combined with an acute theological yearning. Leivaditis seems to recognise that an entirely new world is not possible. His God seems to dwell, suspended, in absence.
I spent much of my teenage years and early adulthood in thrall to Christian evangelicalism, so I appreciate the existential and social engine behind the religious impulse. As time went on, though, the concepts and structures became transparent and suspect. I was left with only a kind of awe at the ineffability of life, and a sense of grief at injustice and suffering. This is the origin of Leivaditis’s poetry. Its paradox is that it sustains a deep piety hand in hand with its despair.
I should emphasise, though, that The Blind Man With The Lamp is no monochrome paean to resignation. These poems read as merciless confrontations with the real, but they are essentially elegies for existence. Leivaditis reminds me here of another master of the prose poem, Franz Wright – both exhibit a kind of cruel tenderness. In “The Birth”, Leivaditis enters the room of a crying man, who points out a crucifix on the wall. “’You see’, he said to me, ‘compassion is born’. I then bowed my head and I too cried, / for centuries and centuries would go by and we would not have anything more beautiful to say than that”.
In his short and potent book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Franco Berardi asserts
Only if we’re able to disentangle the future… from the traps of growth and investment, will we find an escape from the vicious subjugation of life, wealth, and pleasure to the financial abstraction of semio-capital. The key to this disentanglement may be found in a new form of wisdom which harmonizes with exhaustion. (80-1)
I wonder if perhaps we will only survive (and reclaim the pleasure that is possible) by listening to the body – our own, others’, and the body of the earth. These bodies are tired of the impossible unceasing growth that is demanded of them. Leivaditis’s poetry emerges out of this fatigue, this bodily disavowing of the current paradigm. It sees clearly the dilemma of the present era, yet it also sees the pitfalls of our innumerable attempts to resolve this dilemma. In “The City”, “the protest march had just finished and the police officers were erasing an entire revolution that was written on the walls…” For Leivaditis, poetry is a place where we may hear God “walking heavily inside my words, eager to surmount the limits of the world” (“Conversations”). But it is also “another form of dying” (“Unknown Debts”), a reconciliation with the irreconcilable.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles, CA : Semiotext(e), 2012.
Henderson, Gretchen. “Poetics / ‘Exhibits.’” Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. El Paso, TX : Cinco Puntos Press, 2011. 353–5. Print.
ANDY JACKSON’s poetry collection Among the Regulars was shortlisted for the 2011 Kenneth Slessor Prize. He won the 2013 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize with the thin bridge, and his latest collection is Immune Systems (poems and ghazals on India and medical tourism). Andy has performed at literary events and arts festivals in Australia, India, USA and Ireland. He writes about the poetry of bodily difference at amongtheregulars.wordpress.com