Like Sylvia Plath, without the desperate self-centredness
by Jeffrey Carson
Adrianne Kalfopoulou’s second book of poems, “Passion Maps,” is an exciting development from her impressive first volume, “Wild Greens.” In between these came her prose sketches of life in Athens, “Broken Greek” (reviewed in Paros Life in December, 2007). She has extended her sway, sharpened her powers of observation and polished her technique, which she usually keeps invisible so as to let the images and emotions speak as clearly as possible.
Her style continues to be rapid, unrelenting and fretful. As in the earlier volume, she examines the experience of her immediate ancestors, her neighbours and herself. Consequently most of the poems are set in Greece, though she continues to sound like the American poet she is; other poems are set in Turkey, America and Vietnam, where she was born. She generally employs agitatedly enjambed free verse, but also sometimes uses shape and sound to bind her lines and to give the reader pleasure, as in “Setting Out,” “Mute As Lawns Nobody Dares Walk Across” and “The Street of the Aphrodite Hotel.”
Her influences are many; among them are William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath — though she lacks the first’s offhand equanimity, the second’s violent hauteur and the third’s desperate self-centredness. She is angry when there is something to be angry about, but still open to lyrical flow. Her dramatic sense keeps the rhythms active and the emotions reactive.
“Passion” has two primary meanings: suffering, especially of Jesus, and accounts of this; and intense emotion, whether of desire, rage or fervour. “Maps” is either a noun or a verb; the noun means a representation of the earth’s surfaces or something map-like; and the verb means to survey or explore. So her title is very rich: It could mean “suffering leads to exploration” or “delineations of strong feelings.” Adrianne, of course, in her modern periplous, means both these, and there is some gender anger and longing, too (“the man / I wish to hear from / is out of reach.”)
The book is divided into four sections: “Vital Cartography,” “Last Suppers,” “Stassi Ecclesia” and “Holy Agony.” In the first, the epigraph by Jeanette Winterson lets us know unequivocally that these map-making journeys are interior. The first three sections are very varied in subject and form, full of persons, histories and feelings. The final section voices the fears and worries of four immigrant Balkan woman, how difficult things are for them in Greece and also their hopes, which are realistic. Here, from section three, is her poem, “Ritual”:
I throw out useless potatoes, soggy
onions in thinned skins, like grief
smelling of rot. I think of my daughter
in the shower, friends caught in narrow lives
– nothing spectacular, the floorboard sounds,
my neighbor’s movements, men who’ve left scents
in my dreams, that one lost face, this
pavement in rain, nothing spectacular, this
dumping of the trash, its full thud, I do it
without much thought. Strange
how I see my daughter’s wet hair, her body,
a cleansed altar.
Debra Marquart, who gave a reading at the Aegean Center several years ago, writes in her blurb, “Driven by the force of sheer love, she navigates themes of exile, war, perpetual homesickness and the complex histories of family and country.”
These are poems of a woman with a past, upset by the confusions and injustices of modern life, longing for love and suspicious of it, and hoping for lyrical grace. These are poems about us.