Like many people, I enjoy poetry but often find myself unsettled with my inability to describe what I have read. My first inclination is, as Billy Collins writes, to "tie the poem to a chair with a rope/ and torture a confession out of it" (83). It is only when I tell myself to let the poem be, and to experience the poem, that I feel a closer relationship to the overall meaning.
This less rigid approach is required when reading Dimitris Lyacos' With the people from the bridge (WTPFTB), the second book in his trilogy Poena Damni that includes Z213:EXIT and The first death. Part poem, part novella, and yet neither really, this text reminded me of reading James Joyce's Ulysses and Carol Maso's Ava, which were similarly frustrating in their resistance to clear meaning yet elegiac in their mastery of language. Lyacos writes, for instance,
Much of this text is conveyed in this hurried language with few adjectives or punctuation, and readers are nearly forced into the stream of consciousness that is troubling in message and lack of clarity but deeply echoes the dreamscape many of us have entered time and again. The collective unconscious of the narrator is on full display and, despite readers not knowing why, Biblical, vampiric, and dystopian images flash by like ads along an expressway. They ultimately work in tandem, creating a sense of foreboding, entrapment, and Gothic psychological horror.
While Maso's AVA is certainly not as avant-garde (if a scale such as this exists) as WTPFTB, there is the same sense of poetry working toward a powerful narrative arc that is accomplished via sensual language and evocative imagery rather than via explicit analysis or traditional techniques. (The text certainly invites analysis amongst graduate students and others who mull over modern literature long after the initial experience has come and gone, however.) Moreover, AVA and WTPFTB rely on repetition to enlarge a point, and both have a weight that seemingly resonates in a reader's subconscious rather than in conscious thought. Finally, both AVA and WTPFTB demand to be read in one sitting, despite a reader feeling out of her depth at times. (There may be the odd soul out there who has read Ulysses in one sitting, but that seems akin to Odysseus's epic journey in and of itself.) Mostly, however, I group these texts together because each carries readers to a preverbal place of sound and rhythm that conveys as much, if not more, meaning than the text does via straightforward storytelling. Despite these similarities, AVA feels quite feminine with its themes of illness, domesticity, and motherhood as well as its use of a melodious rhythm, whereas WTPFTB feels significantly more masculine with its interest in the macabre, the public self, and the protagonist’s struggle between internal and external constraints as well as harsher, more physical-inspired word choice.
While my visceral reaction to this text is clearly only my own, my impression of WTPFTB could certainly be challenged at even its most basic claims regarding plot. At times I thought the narrator might be in an internment camp, be a second (or the first) Christ during the suffering that preceded his execution, or, perhaps due to my connections to AVA, a man on his deathbed. Others have made the convincing claim that this is a love story circling a protagonist’s grief (see: Max Goodwin Brown's review). This aspect of the plot is relatively irrelevant. The setting, NCTV, likely references Nyctivoe with "nycto" being a Greek term meaning night and, not surprisingly, darkness, both literal and figurative/existential. The examination of darkness and the movement into, within, and potentially out of darkness remain the critical themes that WTPFTB addresses regardless of the specific root cause.
Similarly, the male protagonist in this piece is far from reliable. Among other factors, he shifts from "I" to "we" without indicating that a second person is in his midst and the final page of the text references an arrest by the Los Angeles police in which a "partially decomposed head of a woman [...] was found in the street next up to a man," suggesting that this may be the basis of the text (61). Unlike some novels, readers are not expected to dwell on his mental acuity, which are largely uninteresting in comparison to the greater existential struggles at hand. Indeed, sanity would likely be unexpected considering the milieu in which the protagonist wanders. The text invites readers to question the protagonist’s sanity while placing him as the wise fool who may have clearer insight than those with a firmer grasp of reality. Also featured are a group of people who are in possession of a peculiar collection of technology; a controlling narrator, who repeatedly silences those who try to speak by playing music or nonverbally enforcing the speaker's submission; and, as in Greek drama, a chorus. Readers gaze upon this scene from a close distance, not so much as a member of the motley crew but a curious observer that is not employed to offer aid despite the protagonist's obvious physical and emotional discomfort. It is only the physical body for which he seeks comfort, however, and it is these pleas stand out in the text for their visceral clarity. They pull readers into his discomfort with their echoing of a child’s minor but repetitive requests and our own niggling awareness of our bodies’ needs when we are incapable of appeasing the acknowledged yearnings. With references to being in pain, thirsty, cold, drowsy, and more, the protagonist appeals to our charity even as redemption seems impossible.
Lyacos' text is one that seems written to simultaneously challenge literary critics, be within reach of most readers, and tell a story that comes across as vital to the author personally -- both intellectually and spiritually. What piqued my interest in this text, besides the tugs to a primordial part of my psyche and the quest to find or make meaning, was that the symbols and allusions Lyacos relies upon to build meaning are often stock: night, a bridge, fire, and so on. To his credit, there is a sense that these motifs are held terrifically taut, pushing our collective unconscious into a modernist realm of humanistic questioning and incertitude while we rely on the subliminal understanding that dwells deep within us. For readers, this creates tension in the sense that the opaqueness of the plot keeps them at a distance while the emotional weight requires full engagement.
Overall, WTPFTB is unsettling, memorable, and elusive. I do not believe that I will necessarily have clearer insight after reading the two companion texts by Lyacos, at least not insight that is easily conveyed, but that is not where this author wants to place his readers. Instead, it is enough to play in the murky pond set before us and consider the broader issues at hand. Lyacos achieves this goal with the help of confident translating by Shorsha Sullivan.
Katie Bodendorfer Garner, Packingtown Review's Editor-at-Large, holds doctorate in English with a concentration in Gender Studies from the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her research carries forward her deep commitment to gender equality, motherhood studies, and prosocial fiction. Dr. Garner teaches at UIC and North Central College.