Green Hills Literary Lantern




Gaining From Loss


Intaglio by Ariana-Sophia M. Kartsonis (Winner of the 2005 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize). The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio. 96pp. ISBN 0-87338-891-7

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "intaglio" as a "figure or design incised beneath the surface of hard metal or stone."  This word serves as title for Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis' debut collection of poetry, and is also the title of one of the poems.  A key line of that poem, and, perhaps not surprisingly, of the collection itself is: "you are what you are not/ an image in relief        composite of/ loss."   In the title poem and in all the poems she writes, Kartsonis reveals herself as not only an exceptionally skilled artist, but one who is intent on discovering the art below the surface of suffering, the very suffering and loss she reveals as essential components of anything we can ever gain.

     Since the art of intaglio is based on gaining one thing by excising another, it is consistent that one of Kartsonis' favorite verbal gambits is the pun.  A play on words does risk a trivialization of primary meaning for the sake of the pun.  Still, Kartsonis seems happy to take this risk to avoid an insistence on fixed, often dour meanings, through a willingness to recognize the power of words themselves to transform or elect multiple possibilities as types of synonyms for both whimsy and hope.

     The poems that feature puns are of course too numerous to list, but Kartsonis' overall method with the madness of punning can be looked at in a few poems that are perhaps representative.  The collection's first poem, "Caravansary," is as fun and poignantly fearless as many of the other poems to come, as the speaker, provocatively parodying Donne, tells love to: "batter my heart you three-faced dog./ Batter my heart, deep-fry it/ serve it to the fire-eating lizard girl./ Tell your circusy self a word in the hand/ is worth two if by the see-if-I-care."  The word batter is violent as a verb but as a noun it's just the starter for a funnel cake; if you have a word, rather than a bird in the hand, it's still worth more and truer than the denial explicit in a "see-if-I-care."  Love in its scope has to imply pain, rejection, loss, betrayal, but that is only to say it's the basis of life itself.  One might as well have an appetite for what is inevitably the food of life, and a sense of humor and of the redeeming power of words themselves.   

     In "Cisterna," the poem starts by insisting we notice the pun value between cistern and sister, then goes on with a kind of tour de force with puns that make a well water source a kind of oasis for all kinds of "well-wishers," "well being" and leaving "well enough alone," to name just a few of the word plays.  The sister, the woman, is, like water, a necessary of life, an essential that all nature recognizes.  The poet reminds us that the human body is "mostly water," and she concludes that the flower, the reproductive organ that is most often linked, in poetry, to women, is "a given./  The water is a given.  We are given.  We are given over." 

    But it isn't only via the pun that Kartsonis makes her points. In one of the longest poems in the collection, "A Hummingbird Feeder Shaped Like A Strawberry," a kind of protracted elegy for the poet's Yiayia (Greek for grandmother), who spent a lifetime unhappy in an arranged marriage, Kartsonis spends a lot of time talking about her own love life, yet readily makes the connection between love poetry and elegies: "For all the love you couldn't have, I've held one/ extravagant as a murder, heiress to that sadness/ that leaves me so grateful to be/ at such a loss that still every elegy turns/ to a love poem."  She goes on to say, "I wish you that suffering- not griefless/ ness but a grief so rich it nearly crushes you."  In Kartisonis' estimation, in this poet's rendering of life, what her grandmother missed most from a marriage she didn't choose was not the obvious joys of compatible companionship but the pain and suffering that makes poetry possible.  Hers is a more sensual turn on Thoreau's bittersweet insight: "The poet cherishes his chagrin/ and sets his sighs to music."

     There are several poems about Kartsonis' mother in her collection, and they at first reflect a similar destiny as that suffered by her Yiayia.  In "Sharing the Spoon" we discover that the mother was abused both physically and sexually as a child and in "1963 Photograph of My Mother, Ekaterena, At Nineteen, A Bride," we discover that she was also the victim of many of the superstitions and double standards of her native Greece, including belief in the evil eye and an arranged marriage. The mother never got to be with a man she preferred, Raphael: "And anyway there is no man named Raphael/ coming to save my mother from quiet love."  Instead, she ends up with the poet's father, George, who will turn out to be a "cook turned ordinary prince/ of her story."  In the wedding photo, though, Ekaterena has no way of knowing that; sometimes, though, love doesn't need to be what you expected at all. 

     "Caddis Flies in Two Lessons" is an often funny poem that laments being left behind "while someone flits through Spain."  One of its most telling lines for the collection is a purported quotation from a postcard sent to the poet from Barcelona: "If ever a city was your city... color upon color."  Not only is color frequently employed in the collection, there are no fewer than four poems that are mostly centered around a single color: "When Playing By The Blues," "Blues Turned To Bruise," "Making Red," and "Romance in Celadon."  While the blue poem seems to be as much about the musical "blues" as anything else, Kartsonis' actual feel for connecting the color viscerally to that music is clear from her very next poem's title, since "Blues Turned To Bruise," is about the color purple, and how it takes the sexy sadness of the blues to another level by introducing violence into the mix.  She concludes the former poem with the line, "the blues are meant for the broken," just another way the poet suggests that art, this time music, feeds off of suffering and loss, something beautiful arising from a necessary pain.  Purple takes that pain up a notch, in lines like these: "Purple yours is a complicated song/ and I hear through your lavenders/ and lilacs, violet to violate,/ the way certain European men smoke/ lips curled, a near disdain, cigarette flicked/ in a motion swift and disregarding,/ a little mean, lovely."  This edgy poem is more than leaning to the idea that we are attracted to pain itself, since it is what will deliver an eventual beauty, even if only through the counterpoise of ache or regret.

     "Romance in Celadon" has a counterpoise of its own, vying with purple for a pale green preference, beginning with these striking opening lines: "How I want you, Green,"/ in the misty silver/ of an olive grove."  And it is the pale, yellow-green the poet prefers somehow to "emerald or peridot," the scary green of the sky preluding a tornado: "Hang with me in a dangerous sky/ weave through trellis with me."  This is the voice of green itself, trying to seduce the poet away from her preferred purple, perhaps trying to take her from violence to Nature, though this preferred shading, that of a storm, of "sage in a leaf-thin dress," is at once too scary and sensual to seem that different from how she feels and makes us feel about purple.

     In a debut book of poems so intent on showing how much beauty can be found in what some unpoetical types might consider the least likely of places, one of the only lyrics that for me falls a bit short is the elegy, "The Dead Magician's Things," a poem written for one of Kartsonis' students, "Nicholas, 1982-2001."  This is one place where puns feel a little out of place to me, but the poet doesn't share the sentiment: "You were not Jane thrown/ from a horse, but your death threw/ me through a Monday and back out into all of this/ too much to bear,"  The allusion to the well known Roethke poem about his dead student Jane also feels misplaced to me, as if Kartsonis is asking us to compare what she has accomplished to what Roethke said so well. Or is it perhaps that she assumes no one can think of a dead student without thinking of the Roethke poem?  My thought is that no matter how good a poem either work is, both are maybe a little too "poetic," in the sense of showy rather than truth saying, to really connect with the grief in Nicholas's family's loss.

     In spite of that quibble, my overall sense of Intaglio is not unlike what Emerson wrote to Whitman after the first edition of Leaves of Grass- something about the beginning of a great career, as I recall.  Kartsonis is a skilled, intelligent, playful and serious lyric poet, but I admire her work even more because she gets to the reader by insisting on how important poetry must be to our getting through the pain of life.  She sums that feeling up better than I can at the end of her poem, "Ordinary Heartbreak":

           Who cares about the ruined city, poems about air

           and heroes, the lilac mists of empty gardens?

           Who cares whether we wrote it down

           or knew those dark ashes by heart?

           Someone should.

Joe Benevento serves as poetry editor for GHLL.  His latest book of poems, My Puerto Rican Past, is out with Ginninderra Press.  His novel, The Odd Squad, (Behler Publications, 2005) was recently named a finalist for the John Gardner Award,  presented by Binghamton University.