on Body Clock, poems by Eleni Sikelianos (Coffee House Press)

“For poets, the obliquity of a bewildered poetry is its own theme,” wrote Fanny Howe in her signature essay “Bewilderment.” Essential to the experiment, obliquity is nevertheless rarely the only or even the central theme of a poem. The truancy of language alone isn’t usually the main attraction for the poet who sets it loose. There is always a signal that a story is beginning, but, Howe continues, “a signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden. This contradiction can drive the ‘I’ in the lyrical poem into a series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative movements around courage, discipline, conquest, and time.” Eleni Sikelianos’ Body Clock is not only so driven, but her obliquity pursues her themes with a determination that suggests courage, discipline and much else. Furthermore, she injects new energy into that most traditional chore of the poet, the conquest of time. As Octavio Paz said, “Poetry is in love with the instant and seeks to relive it in the poem, thus separating it from sequential time and turning it into a fixed present.” One way of distinguishing poets from one another is by the means they use to wrestle time to the ground.

The proximate reason for speculating about time in Body Clock is the birth of a child. But Sikelianos’ work doesn’t encourage the reader to distill messages or sniff out prime movers. Here, every word is an outflinging, her most intuitive way of embracing a world in which everything happens at once. To begin, she invokes a numinous power (another traditional move for the poet) to help her speak:

Put on the garment of praise
Boy and Girl of praise Joy
Move god on the lips

Joy or luck fell into a swoon
a barrel of light
sweet crude

an agent having power
to reduce, destroy or consume

Oh here comes a doggess sciomancer divining love
and hate by means of shadows and clouds

a beautiful bitch communicating with
ghosts of the living and dead

Sunlight falls across the body
The house creaks, inspiration hits

What are we doing here? All
our movements and actions
are helping or hindering
the dead

eleni4.jpgSikelianos inherits Howe’s (and William Blake’s) sense that “every experience that is personal is simultaneously an experience that is supernatural.” So as she makes her way toward her core material – time, conception, imagination – she makes good on the overarching responsibility to address an entire world and its shadows. Once that large world is framed and the poem informs us about how it wants to be read, Howe’s “series of techniques that are the reverse of the usual narrative” become inevitable. This is what visionary poets do no matter if they’re practitioners of parataxis (like Sikelianos) or syntaxis or hybrids of both. They overreach, they invite failure. When the goal of the work is the unlikely grasp of the most transient elements and ideas, it’s ridiculous always to expect or demand the rule of clarity. Struck by the immensity of the task, “Now what can the mind do but / be carried along by it,” as Sikelianos writes in “The Sweet City.”

eleni3.jpgIn Body Clock dissimilar things are not only set side by side paratactically, but the key elements are conflated. Ovum, clockface, fetus-face, womb, house, city, time segment, timelessness. The mother’s body-as-clock begins to tap out the gestating seconds and minutes of the fetus’ development. In this way, time begins (when?) at some definite but imperceivable point: “the sensorium (Body Hotel) being the story of / how we fell from timelessness to time.” The “Joy” hanging there at the end of the first line of Body Clock is the gateway to the felicity one finds throughout the book: “Here we are wandering in the world of things // to find a happiness seed / unfolding in a corner / of the house // like a minute sloughing off / its seconds and parts.”

Just as the fetus thrives within confinement but is fated to burst out, the mother succeeds at nurturing growth within herself (for herself and baby) but her language is fated to expand beyond the conventional. The lines below from “Experiments with Minutes” exemplify the phrasing, leaping, hits and misses, sudden sharp imagery, lapse into sentiment, profundity and whimsy, fluency and struggle that mark Sikelianos’ work – and express the disturbances and penetrations of a new mother’s mind:

Earth shows us how
a minute is round, an hour is, a day

Because it is round we cannot help coming round
upon ourselves again

Leave room for hope on your list (Hotel Hope)

As she grows from me to her this
is a field of symmetry

a piece of radish spit into the sink with the toothpaste, its purple shred & white
flesh rattle around the mind, a bit of life

touching all the quantum fields you walked through to
greet me

Her face is covered with face

Now the day has a membrane around its slimy and womb-
like that closes at night with perforations, breathing
holes where the dream rises to the surface;
& opens again in the morning; to begin; to en-
compass all the things we do again & again feeding
changing clothing unclothing singing not
singing breathing

meaning has shifted like jumping color fields on a strip
of button candy when I say “baby,” “the baby,” in Colorado’s season
of 14 tones of peaches it means
something new

What is natural is startling: the mother’s body keeps changing (is achingly present) as if keeping time with the newborn. After the birth, the new and disruptive concepts of time continue. The mother is deprived of sleep. These lines are from “Sleepbook”:

Sleep tugged
at the body, too heavy, too spidery
& webbed, lugged it across the night like a tarantula Resplendent night responded:
to heavy, human! So heavy. And light.
The body was an eyelash skittering
across the hours, bumping over midnight
& sleep a grainy ghost,
a spirit that hovers close to the fogged mouth, the mist on a river, a mirror a baby
breathes out

eleni9.jpgSikelianos circles back to the larger world until, in “Week-in-Review,” I cannot see event but a white ghost glinting, rolling / over the horizon.” Body Clock begins to sound more and more like a grand creation story told by the sciomancing bitch-goddess with the capacity for love. “But mothering makes us ambidextrous,” and she is not only cleaning up the messes in her house but sorting out the messes in the world. “The will collects with the world. / Or / The will collects against it. / It collects with it as we grow / into or toward the world / & then it collects against it.” The embryo, fetus, newborn, infant seem always to be present, informing the layering of experience and the measurement of time.

Sikelianos’ experiments with time are child-like and childish, scientific and facetious, philosophical and fun. The coming of a child into the world of these poems triggers some severe evaluations. The phenomena of the city-state (“What is a ‘wave of violence’? / What is Delta Force? Who / blew up the bridge? Who jumped in the lake?”) create contingency not only about the present moment, but about time itself. Sikelianos dearly wants us to join her in attempting to hold on to our most elemental sense of time, of life. But it isn’t so easy to conceive (of ) all this joy and trouble, the human body and the shadow world. In a Q&A provided by Coffee House, Sikelianos says, “The suspension in time that occurs in the pregnant body is awesome … I don’t think I have ever been in such a state of anticipation and unknowing.” After the birth of daughter Eva, “I was suffocating within the closeness of minutes, and an hour was a precious eternity.” A master of the jubilantly strange and sudden glimpse, Sikelianos has miraculously managed to break loose from time -- while lavishing attention on it.

[Published October 2008, 150 pages, 17 b&w drawings by the author. $18.00 paperback]