With the People from the Bridge by Dimitris Lyacos. Shoestring Press, 2010.
Review by Judy Swann
With the People from the Bridge constitutes part two of the Poena Damni series by Greek poet Dimitris Lyacos. In part one, the world has undergone the apocalypse, or at least the beginnings of one.
Part two begins with quite a bit of stage direction, in prose:
Three around a cut-down oil drum, another one fetching newspapers. They tore some up and threw them inside. Fire. It went out. Again.
A scar like a word on his chest, from his neck downwards. Sits down, takes two piece of wood, hammers, he made a cross. Sticks it in the mud. To the side a glass and a bottle.
Then it breaks into poetry:
And always, night
And day in the tombs
And in the mountains he was crying
And cutting himself with stones.
Maybe it rhymes in the original Greek, but we doubt it. No, this is a bleak world. Instead of the real, the surreal; for metaphor, Sisyphus; for emotion, the cold:
A dream that
Won’t let you sleep long
Then it started to hurt me.
There are other metaphors of course — in fact the entire piece is a Christian metaphor. Deprived of the beatific vision, this is what you get: life on the bridge. Implicit in this equation is a totalitarian mindset little valorized by modern sensibilities. Whereas William Carlos Williams or Walt Whitman are poets of a secular Word Incarnate, Lyacos is the poet of the secular Word Impersonal. He appreciates, though, the symmetry of declension and conjugation:
Listen. He is coming up the stairs.
Don’t stand up. He is coming.
He came up. He has come.
They have come together.
But instead of the face of the beloved, something we long for in poetry — and that we especially long for here where we have been denied beauty on page after page — we find the beloved face down in a crypt:
They put her inside, face down. Inside there was someone else too. They dropped her on top of him. They put the lid back, forced it to close.
Maybe the predicament of the people on the bridge is the result of their clinging to a trinity that does not concern itself with love or beauty, a trinity made up of the Narrator, LG, and NCTV. Like the Christian deity, these three ghostly persons are not sharply distinguishable, being a single entity. Maybe the people on the bridge are in some kind of war — a war they are losing, Maybe they represent the transition from an abyss to….we aren’t told.
When the Narrator writes, “I couldn’t understand / Then one by one. I still couldn’t understand,” we know he is confessing the unconfessable. Someone has to understand. He should understand.
In a gruesome scene right before the last canticle, the women in the coffin is dug up:
One went in with a bucket and bailed out the water from the pit. Then back inside, and they fastened her with nails on it. They lowered her with a strap and a white cable. On the way down it was still dripping and perhaps it was not just from the rain …
The Narrator is able to segue from the rain, the blood, and the nailed corpse to an appeal to the “Lord God” who asserts that he will breathe life into the “son of man.” As readers, we have trouble making this segue. After 59 pages of nothingness and worse than nothingness…hope? Is that some kind of joke? And as it turns out, we were wise to have withheld belief, because the last thing in the book is this excerpt from an actual Los Angeles newspaper:
The partially decomposed head of a woman, stolen from a crypt at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery early Sunday, was found in the street next up to a man who was subsequently arrested, Los Angeles police said.
Shorsha Sullivan has done yeoman’s work translating this weighty and saturnine piece, keeping the anxiety high throughout. We would love to see him handle something less relentlessly grim.
Judy Swann is a poet, essayist, editor, translator, analyst, blogger, and bicycle commuter, whose work has been published in many venues both in print and online. Her book, We Are All Well: The Letters of Nora Hall, appeared in 2014.