Poetry: DIS/ADVANTAGEDby Scott Hightower
(Red Hen Press, 2009)
Passion Maps is a generous new book of poems that charts ancient and complex subjects. Immigration is easily romanticized. If a successful move from desert to lush green pastures of a welcoming new host, the tale may head into the realm of fairy tale sublimity—a very 50s American picture of home-life.
On the other end of the spectrum, a move can evolve into a tale of un-preparedness and confusion; the stranger sliding into the chaos of demoralization, despair, collapse, and devastation. Brutality leading to destruction by the foreign is another ancient human trope; destroyed by a sense of a homecoming which never takes place.
Passion Maps explores the disorientation of a shift between cultures. North American culture is indirectly derived from Greek colonization. It, too, is individualistic, ceremonial, and entrepreneurial, but its bedrock is flinty and Puritanic. (Kalfopoulou references the American New England wild as Satan’s wilderness.) Kalfopoulou’s language is not particularly Blakian; but the arc of Innocence passing through Experience to arrive at some state of Organized Innocence is familiar.
“Passion Maps” is divided into four sections. In the first section, “Vital Cartography,” there are poems about innocence and confusion. Even the weather is disturbing:
I am cold.
I am wearing a Caldor-bought
at the dinner table.
I have never been in this country before.
America, Connecticut, freezing
in mid January.
A stoic war-hardened father leads the way. A compliant mother keeps her emotions in check and provides pomegranates. Somewhere in the story there is “bruised flesh,” feminine curves, and a mother tongue. Youthful feminine rage bubbles in the language of many of the poems. Many are, themselves, notes from a catalog of world disasters: Nazi occupied Greece; Yassir, where pastoral Greek villagers are sent on death marches, Margaret Fuller writes from Italy crumbling into war; Shamara Kande (when poets were convicted and some executed for reciting love poetry instead of verses from the Koran); native Amerinds (who “took freedom entirely / for granted”); the Atlantic crashing itself over the Jersey coast; China under American fast food corporate attack; vignettes of rampant consumerism in the United States. Fathers and mates do not soothe the disorientation. They feed it. Even poor Margaret Fuller sinks (along with her newborn son and her new Italian husband) moments before her homecoming voyage is completed:
...“You must know
we want to be there,” my father’s voice long-distance
from a cruise ship the afternoon his mother died in
an Athens hospital.
There was too much space to cross to be by her side.
I lay my cheek again her chilled skin . . . kept kissing her stiff hands
until the nurse told me they had to take her form away.
I cried as the darkening hours closed into space
without her. For months
space opened, formless, I faced it like an astronaut
whose tie to her ship snaps
(“The Uneasy Equation of Space and Form”)
“Last Suppers,” the second section of the book, balances appetite against greed, infantile anger against the solemn knowledge of justice, a fling against the slow simmer of a relationship with complexity. A mother learns about justification from her daughter’s emerging resilience. “The Body of This Car,” a really terrific poem in the section, is oddly about durability, improvisation, independence, dependency, and human display:
. . . none of it bothers me until I am explaining
to the mechanic who is eyeing the car like a
surgeon, that I need it
a little longer. He tells me the car’s silicone-
pumped tire will hold out,
but not for long, . . . . . I am suddenly self-
explaining how old the car is, how I’ve managed to
keep it going,
he is not saying much, concentrating, his grease-
stained hands busy.
(“The Body of This Car”)
“Stassi Ecclesia,” the third section, reaches out. Empathy starts and perhaps ends with empathy for one’s self.
‘I’m done’ he smiled,
about to retire at 61
readying to ease himself
into a slower pace.
‘For some reason’ he said,
‘I feel optimistic
about things.’ It was July,
we were having coffee
in the sun. In September
Paul was buried.
We scattered koliva
40 days after
his death, the barley
and wheat grains, raisins
and pomegranate seeds eaten
in his memory,
thrown to birds
In “Holy Agony,” the fourth section, “Balkan Voices,” one long poem incorporates the voices of displaced workers: Bulgarian, Albanian, and Russian women. They immigrated into Greece after the fall of the Eastern block. The medley of voices is modest and moving. Like Kalfopoulou, the voices are poetic: observant and passionate.