Earliest Worlds

Oct 17, 2001 at 12:00 am

In her latest major collection of poems, hefty and impressive, Eleni Sikelianos proves once and for all, if anyone is still wondering, that poetry is a shortcut to knowing the world. Like a solitary and exalted paleontologist, Sikelianos sings the faint traceries of matter, tunnels through earth’s chemical envelope, an ear to the vast rumblings of underground rivers, an eye on the trembling light above us: “The atmosphere is quarreling again.”

Something crystalline, something about the enigma of human beginnings, some inexplicable pull toward the elemental phosphor, quark and carbons has her soaring, “piping out songs” about the chemistry of color, the turbulent existence of currents and the gift of seeing how it all fits together under her greedy gaze.

“I am hiding between the dawn ape & nuclear fission,” a speaker says in “Blue Guide,” the first of the two texts in Earliest Worlds. It is this very attention to scale, say from “the continental granite” to “seeing the girl with blonde hair on the stair,” which I find irresistible. Buttressing the quasi-scientific bend of this volume is a whimsical freedom of expression, a fearlessness of language that lands the reader “tottering in new air.” On the prowl through Place St. Sulpice in Paris or St. Mark’s in the Bowery, our guide might resemble someone from The Dream Life of Angels or Run Lola Run, invincible in her will to know and stunning as she surveys the city from her “pleasure porch.”

With titles such as “Essay,” “Chapters,” “Histories,” “Study,” “Epistle” and “Film,” Earliest Worlds signals poetry’s adventurous slide into genres usually left to their proper (read academic) spheres. Sikelianos’ practice of mixing discourse and lyric blows up the disciplinary borders as effortlessly as reading a menu of options. There, she did it. A novel in six chapters, all in verse, on the subject of “I Define the Darkness Correct.” It’s more like bundling an autobiography into certain years, keeping only the fever or else the happy childhood years “& sugar cubes under our pillows in case/we got hungry at night.” Each genre that the poet borrows unfolds a new method, a mystery of forms, a delicate weave of thought which becomes the present norm: “I only employed urban terms for the sea & for the city maritime verbs for the sea.” Language, reworked and stretched, grows eyes, skin, a tongue jubilant at what it can do.

This handsomely designed collection will enchant because behind its self-professed “gluttony for words,” Earliest Worlds flaunts a sexy insouciance and an uproarious inventiveness underscoring the whole textual fabric as if shot through with brilliant threads of daring and mischief.

New York poet Eleni Sikelianos reads with novelist Laird Hunt and Detroit experimental writer Carla Harryman at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 24, at the Scarab Club (corner of John R and Farnsworth, behind the DIA). Free. Call 313-831-1250.

E-mail Chris Tysh at [email protected].