Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Occulus

by Stelios Mormoris
(Tupelo Press, 2022) 

Reviewed by Robert Dunsdon

Sometimes, more often when we are young, a revelation might be offered to us: a signifier of something other, if only we would use our eyes. Ignore it and nothing changes, acknowledge it for what it is and your outlook, indeed your very character, is transformed. A drift of nettles swinging rhythmically in the shadow of a low stone wall was enough for me; that, and the apparent sanctity of the light denied them. It taught me to look out and beyond, that a breath away from the limitations we impose on ourselves are the intricacies and subtleties of everyday life so often unnoticed in the contemporary fog of urgency. Whether the author intended the title of this fine collection to convey something of the above, I can’t say, but it seems that such a feeling hovers around these poems in the imagery and almost peripheral intimations employed. 
Stelios Mormoris holds dual Greek and US citizenship, but has spent much of his life in Paris, whose cultural heritage, you suspect, has played no small part in the development of his work. His is a delicate touch confidently applied, and his understanding of form and technique, allied to an appreciation of aesthetic values, lends his poetry an extra dimension; elevates it. Moments of enlightenment or recognition are enhanced by classical allusion, magnified in imagination, or detailed with a refreshing originality. His descriptive powers are considerable: throwaway lines, like his account of tourists “grazing on the excess grandeur of gargoyled boulevards” combine with the quietly moving, as when likening poinsettia leaves “fluttering in slips of breeze off Biscayne Bay” to the quivering of his mother’s lips on reading a devastating telegram.

The compensations and intrusions of memory feature strongly here, which is hardly surprising given the importance of a faculty which, as we get older, is our shadow and our guide. Among these, two poems in particular stand out, not only for their discretely emotional pull, but also in the structure of their telling. In one, Mormoris revisits a rented cabin in which his mother and four fatherless children once spent a hot, dry summer. The act of walking over the decayed and peeling linoleum feels indecent, “as if pressing the dead inside its board.” The other is a poem detailing a domestic scene which is brought wonderfully alive with old photographs, oregano and lavender, fresh mint on a wet green melon, and a blue porcelain bowl from which his mother lifts a spoonful of soup to:

a child’s lips and
she says agape mou
and her bracelet
is decidedly cold
and thrilling as
loneliness can be.

I’ve referred to the author’s understanding of the bits and pieces of his craft: the learned skills of syntax, pace, half-rhyme, assonance, and all the rest, without which a poem can become loose and woolly, or worse still, mere prose cut into sections. He knows that construction and content are, or rather should be, indivisible in the making of art. He also knows these devices should be applied sparingly and be barely discernible; a principle seen at its best in a charming piece about one of his dogs, Zeus. Comprising a string of twenty-three couplets, it’s a lovely depiction of a man and his dog growing old together, walking and playing. It’s a snapshot almost: a picture of companionship, love and momentary contentment produced with seemingly little effort, although the whole effect is only made possible by a disciplined sensibility.

That particular quality is used to good effect in a poem hinting at something you cannot immediately grasp, as a driver encounters fog and fears he is, or might become, lost. “You have passed this field / through pleats of time,” we are told, and the fog becomes a memory of fog. Nicely descriptive of the landscape, with spruce trees, “whose branches swung out / like the hems of ballerinas as they curtsied / in tension, quivering.” It’s an intriguing piece that probably needs, and certainly deserves, a second reading to fully appreciate its almost ethereal atmosphere.
There’s a mingling of sentiment, colorful experience, and acquired wisdom in this expansive collection, and leafing through it feels as if you are encroaching on a private odyssey. You might be blinking at a spirited sea or brushing up against bougainvillea; encountering disappointment and regret or picking up fragments of remembrance from the movement of air. You might savour: 

Tournedos of barley
    crammed into thick honey
laced with thyme, stubborn
in the roof of your mouth
    and how it grows on you,
after penitent flows of salad
      of cucumber and olive oil.

or feel:

the sea foam

like torn lingerie
wrapping your shins
as you wade towards the shore
to the intermittent clicks
of worry beads

and staccato cicadas.

These gently persuasive lines are just a taste of the poet’s expressive abilities; quite literally in the first example, when recalling a sermon for the dead where he cups the kernels of barley which had dropped to his plate “nimble as beads snapped from a necklace” and raises this “palmful of religion” to his mouth. “Kaiki Beach,” from which the breezy scene above is taken, begins “how necessary it is / to lose yourself  / in tangles” and recounts how a priest with a “pouring laugh” held court in a taverna, kissed a pregnant woman cradling her belly with one hand, and lifting a glass of sparkling quinine with the other, then cut into his filet of white fish “anointed with drops of lemon.” He is conveying in deceptively simple terms the feel of a moment whose impact will grow in later years, and doing so without fuss or exaggeration, with just the right word in just the right place. It’s an art not easily won.      

As I finished reading this first-rate collection, a poem by Louis MacNeice came to mind. He wrote of a baywindow “spawning snow and pink roses against it / Soundlessly collateral and incompatible” at which the room becomes suddenly rich. Something of that sense, of that impression of quiet illumination comes across in these poems which are beautifully composed and never less than thoroughly absorbing. 

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Purple Patch, Pennine Platform, The Blue Nib, Decanto, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Picaroon, Allegro, The Crank, and others. His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, and Poetry International Online.

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