Poetry is a multi-headed god, and right now, neither face is looking at the other. What I mean to say is that contemporary poetry, or at least the independent poetry that I care about, is in a state of tug-of-war between reactionary bards looking to the past and post-post-modernists obsessed with the present. These divisions include further separation: one group focuses on form and function, whilst the other is so often wrapped up in self. One can be called jaded and purposely obtuse; the other overblown and pompous. Of course there are those stuck in the in-between space, but the Janus head of self-made and often self-published poetry remains.
Greco-Australian poet Konstantin Kanelleas seems to fit best with those poets trying to revolt against the modern world. His first book of verse, Hyponeirisms, feels like something that could have been written anytime between 1890 and 1930. It is classical in its elegance, plus timeless in its interest in subject matter outside of the id and ego. Take for instance the first poem, "Anthropogenesis." "To have been born is to have been initiated into the mysteries," it begins. What are these mysteries? They are the "liturgy of absent clergy," the "painted saints of asleep iconodules," and "The silent procession of one's awe." Life, in sum, is a darkened and silent cathedral or basilica full of inchoate things.
To have been born is to have been handed tabula incisa. / It is to everlastingly carry these etchings / From the warmth of ancestral fireplaces to the cemeteries / Of summits crowned with newfallen relic snow.
Similar themes run throughout Hyponeirisms. In "Elephant Graveyard Nocturnes," a pianist plays with air and makes impressions "rise like prayer." In "Banal Miraculosity," nature engages in wild eccentricity ("Horseshoe crabs tapdance on whale spines," and "Trodden olives anoint themselves") while, in conclusion, Abraxas is choked by Job.
Kanelleas's best poems combine the two core components of his ancestral homeland: Orthodox Christianity and the pagan pastorals from the days of the Greek city-states. Hyponeirisms gets more noticeably Greek as it nears its end. "Byzantium's Windmills Come to Halts" remembers what was lost when Constantine's city fell to the Turks, while "Elegy for a Namesake" reflects on icons, burial, and death in a manner most profoundly Greek.
Of all the poems, the ones that I liked the best are "Hellenostos (What Athens Has to Do with Jerusalem)" and "Absolute Monolith." The former is a mere six lines long, and yet it describes the entirety of existence.
Transcendent concrete solidifies / Itself from avalanching slush. / Experience filters Truth to shadow, / True shadows filter experience crushed. / Three screeching furies shatter glass, / The temple veil is torn in two
There is a temple. This much is true. Life has a natural religion, and this religion is ever-present. However, shadow play, caterwauling noise, and the cataclysms of truth and experience often keep the temple (i.e., natural religion) veiled from us. It is sad, but as "Absolute Monolith" shows, it sometimes takes an apocalypse in our lives to see past the veil at all.
In "Hellenostos," Mr. Kanelleas muses on the most ancient of problems: Western culture. It has long been assumed that Western culture is the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem. And yet, as the poem asks, what do these two civilizations have in common? Athens bequeathed to the world great works of philosophy, demokratia, and incredible works of art and architecture. Athens has also long been a byword for the pinnacle of Western civilization -- the ultimate apex when a European people were free from the supposed tyranny of kings. However, this was almost certainly not the case. Democratic Athens did not last long in the grand scheme of things, and even the city's own intellectuals despised the politics of self-rule as tyranny of the mob. And what about Jerusalem? The holy city gave us Christ's eternal victory and the seed from which Christianity would come and conquer most of the Hellenic world. This last part provides the key conflict in "Hellenostos," i.e., the Greek world and the early Christian world were not destined to miscegenate and indeed fought frequently between each other. Achilles and Hector were but daemonic myths to Saint Paul, and yet, over time, Hellenic civilization became Christian, and the ideas of Plato and Aristotle found a comfortable seat at the table next to the Gospels. "Hellenostos" takes this history and personalizes it within the soul of a single Greek man.
Hyponeirisms is better, more polished, and far more timeless than the vast majority of poetry composed in this day and age. This is a book that should and will be read years from now. There is no navel-gazing, although one could argue that it is poetry written for other poets. It is complex and intellectual. This is not a work suited for casual readers, although casual readers of poetry are as hard to find as a clean Waffle House bathroom. Mr. Kanelleas's book of poetry is meant to stir the soul, but also hurt the head. It is meant to be read and re-read. It is exceptional, and frankly, it is a blackmark on the entire cultural apparatus that Hyponeirisms is a self-published work rather than something from a prestigious publication.
Cheers, and here's to many more from Konstantin Kanelleas.