George Kalamaras, Kingdom Of Throat-Stuck Luck (Elixir Press, 2012)
There is a place near Manaus, Brazil, where the Rio Negro meets the waters of the Amazon and the two colors of the two rivers remain distinct as they run side by side without mixing. The water of the Rio Negro is dark, almost black, and that of the Amazon is a sandy-colored beige. The phenomenon is due to the differences in temperature, speed, and water density. The waters do eventually blend and become indistinguishable, but for the few miles that they remain distinctly separate, the river presents a sight of singular simultaneity. This striking image, especially from the air, provides a strong visual analogue for the confluence of poetic influence apparent in George Kalamaras’s poetry.
Kalamaras is a remarkably eclectic poet and there are far more than two influences on his work, but there are two whose sources are as unlikely as they are geographically and culturally distant. This would be surrealism and eastern religion and philosophy.
Kalamaras has written extensively of Japanese surrealism, the work of Takiguchi Shuzo in particular, and is a practitioner of yoga meditation, a discipline not ordinarily associated with surrealism. Where these rivers blend we find a fusion of impulse, a debouch of fluid agreements: articulations of elsewhere, alterity, divergence, variance and otherness that are often as brilliantly opaque as they are inscrutably lucid. There are elements of Zen apparent in Japanese surrealism which reverberate in Kalamaras’s poems, or sutras, as he likes to call them, paratactic constructions that emphasize the irrationality of existence, the kaleidoscopic montage that is the fluctuating play of disparate stimuli that constitute each moment. Contrariety, eccentricity and contradiction urge discovery of our inner auroras and the fierce authenticity of life experienced as a spark in a cosmic fire.
The work gathered in this recent collection have a pleasant uniformity that suggests a heated composition within a single time frame. Whether that might be the actual case, I don’t know, but together the pieces have the savor of a symphonic ensemble.
“Bone Sutra,” the first poem of this collection, revels in osteopathic insomnia. The opening line - “Now we take up the study of bones” - is an adaptation of Patanjali’s first Yoga Sutra, “Now we come to the study of yoga.” Here is the poem in its entirety:
Now we take up the study of bones.
The copper-colored queen: wind through the cedars.
Perhaps one night I can’t sleep.
Or, perhaps you are convinced of the ritual naming of a dark gem.
There is severe ice cracking below each of the floating ribs.
Yet, his maybe, his how-come and what-not.
We lived in insomniatic teacups.
We spent our loves loving a certain flea.
Some old man wears a gray left sock, seeks hints and cockroaches.
An altar of eels floats through each speck of dust.
Someone is drawing us drawing him or her with chalk.
The moment the milk arrives, all the children run, laughing.
Notable here is a keen structural character. Kalamaras favors couplets, which makes sense to me as an aesthetic choice as it is keenly suited to enhance the effects of paratactic collage. This is especially apparent in the fifth couplet, where we find mingled an old man and his sock, cockroaches, and an altar of eels floating through each speck of dust. Eel and dust are quintessentially opposed mediums - the wet and the dry, the slithery and the nebulous - but within the irrational milieu of the poem, seem strangely appropriate. They work in the same way that the adjective ‘insomniac’ enhances the image of the teacup.
Some of the pieces are quite macabre. In “The Beauty of Sadness,” Kalamaras presents a montage of iconography associated with the ominous and the dying. It is a blend of Thanatos and Eros, the erotic and reproductive with the ghostly and preternatural. It begins with a wonderfully striking image: “He entrusted the chemical dust of seahorses to the wound in his spine.” This transmits a sense of magic, of ritual healing that suits the tenor of the poem. “He displayed,” the poem continues,
. . . a complicated answer as if sharing mice bone with an owl.
The beauty of sadness is its celestial ascent.
We tremble with god envy yet insatiate our veins.
If a wing-flapping swan inhabited our sideboard, which of the dinner guests would weep?
How might I dance naked on the table without creating a scene, without sending my wife into protracted shame?
We arrive from the other world, expressing the unseen, yet lapsed with memory.
We torment our adults with knowing how to give, how to cry, how to ask for both eggs at once.
Why should we colonize the sea with male reproductive scope?
Shall we accept the groinal cricket, the seahorse as our method, and share the male egg with anyone who, when cut, will bleed?
Finally, the quiet of sincere inertia, of guests leaving early, one at a time, profusely praising the food.
After the spiritual coup, we weighed our body hair, we burned the epaulets, we asked the cadaver lamp to guide us home.
Notable is Kalamaras’s use of an adjective -- insatiate -- as a transitive verb. Why we envy the gods is implied, not stated, though it’s not hard to guess: power, freedom, omniscience, immortality. There are quite a few reasons to envy the gods. What prevents us is gluttony. Our inability to find satisfaction, fulfill our appetites. One associates ‘insatiate’ with grossness, obesity, substance abuse. The appearance of the swan in the next couplet suggests a more pre-Raphaelite setting, a bird emblematic of the sublime, of otherworldly grace and beauty. Which, in this instance, is intended for eating.
The line “We arrive from the other world, expressing the unseen, yet lapsed with memory,” is redolent with romantic and neo-Platonic associations. “We torment our adults” is an interesting phrase within this context. It implies that as we mature and adapt to the human condition we lose that vital understanding that was once cognate with our being.
The final couplet which culminates with the farewell of dinner guests ends with the remarkable image of the “cadaver lamp” to guide us home. Thanatos, the poet tell us, is the spirit which will guide us home. That other world from which we arrived.
Paradox is pivotal to the practice of both Zen and surrealism. Kalamaras blends these elements in much the same way as the Amazon blends its two major tributaries. But there is a third side to Kalamaras’s writing that I find interesting from the point of view of delirium. As phantasmagoric or strange as much of Kalamaras’s poetry tends to be, there is an accompanying feeling of equipoise. Of balance. This is apparent in his technique, his couplets and paratactic montage, but also in the general tone of his pieces. We are never quite sure who is talking, driving the narrative. The voice, or voices, have the appearance of disembodiment. Of being diffused through the words like wandering spirits. One feels systole and diastole, inhalation and exhalation, the quiet rhythms of the body.
I believe this has much to do with the reason he enjoys referring to his poems as sutras. Sutra, from the Sanskrit, literally means a thread or line that holds things together. The verbal root is ‘siv,’ meaning to sew. Here again, we find an image of balanced symmetry, a needle rising in and rising out as it embroiders or joins two pieces of fabric together.
Kalamaras’s images do not appear to arise from delirium, but from some other transcendent level of consciousness whose tendencies move toward calm rather than chaos. Wittgenstein comes to mind, since his philosophy of language as a body of signs with no logical connection to external reality, a notion drawn ultimately from Saussure, advances the notion of language as a chess game. Kalamaras likes switching parts of speech around like pieces on a chess board, as in the line “Might a commendable exchange parliament my hips?” This testifies less to a disordering of the senses than a deliberate philosophical application referencing Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language and reality. “Thought does not strike us as mysterious while we are thinking,” remarks Wittgenstein, “but only when we say, as it were retrospectively: ‘How was that possible?’ How was it possible for thought to deal with the very object itself? We feel as if by means of it we had caught reality in our net.”
Kingdom Of Throat-Stuck Luck is divided into five parts. The last section is titled “The Make Possible.” It seems that this is the intent of Kalamaras throughout his work. To make possible the buzz of the real in the indicative and subjunctive be.