One of the most original and significant texts to have come out of Europe in the past generation is Dimitris Lyacos' poetic trilogy, Poena Damni. I call it "poetic" because there is no word that quite describes a work that moves alternately between poetry, prose, and drama, and that turns each like a prism in a quest for meaning that yields no final stability but only a "further horizon of pain" (The First Death, Section X).
As the above suggests, the text offers us a shifting series of scenes and perspectives, somewhere between a journey and a travail. There is an implicit narrative voice, but no narrative, that shifts abruptly from first to third person, a thread of consciousness that weaves in and out of dream and waking, fantasy and vision, confronting us at every turn with that which both forces and repels our sight. You know there is a narrative, because something in the voice compels you to continue; you simply do not know what is being told. You are simply within the framework of a temporality in its most radical sense.
Dimitris Lyacos was born in Athens in 1966, and studied law and philosophy. The trilogy was conceived back to front, with its "last" part, The First Death, written and published first, and the other segments proceeding backwards toward an origin that instates the original wound of the poem's birth. Lyacos has revised it extensively over the course of some thirty years, retracting an earlier version of what is now With the People From the Bridge that was originally published as Nyctivoe and heavily revising the text called Z213: EXIT. The suggestion, I think, is clear: the poem remains open, a circularity that deflects all progression, an ourobouros that never meets its own tail.
How to begin, then, with a text of this nature? Perhaps we might start with the act of writing itself. Nearly midway through the revised text of the middle volume of the poem, Z213: EXIT, a prose section begins thusly:
Make a point of remembering to write as much as I can. As much as I remember. In order for me to remember. As I keep writing I go into it again. Afterwards it is as if it were not I. How do I know that I have written this. Faded, someone else's words. My own handwriting though. From a void I wake up within, time after time. . . . (Z213: EXIT, p. 61)
The voice of this section has no identity, most of all for itself. It begins in the fashion of a diary injunction to get something important down, indeed something crucially vital. No subject is specified, however, other than the act of remembering itself, of remembering in order to have memory. The writing must not stop, has no point at which it can safely stop, and yet its continuity as an act does not guarantee the writing subject. Repetition ("I go into it again") is no foothold either, for as soon as there is a halt or a pause, everything is lost: "Afterwards it is as if it were not I." The effacing hand is temporality itself, for no sooner does the pause introduce it then everything instantly 'fades,' and the words, even if still physically present, belong to someone else, an identity not one's own. The speaker may even recognize his own handwriting, but only as a piece of external evidence suppositionally linked to but already alienated from himself. The attempt to create memory by marking time collapses upon itself, and, returned to a pre-maternal void in which the speaker wakes without birth to find himself in a "within," he can only labor without issue, "time after time."
The reader will recognize in this passage an echo of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, with its futile attempt to create a past by moving forward ("I can't go on. I'll go on"), and the temporal abrogation of Pozzo's climactic speech in Waiting for Godot: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." We might not need to hear this again, especially expressed as inimitably as it was the first time; but Lyacos' perspective is quite different. The real precursor of his poem is the Odyssey, by way of the New and Hebrew Testaments and such modern texts as George Seferis' "The Argonauts." Superficial resemblance notwithstanding, it is not as in much of Beckett a journey to the interior of the self, with or without a mirroring companion, but outwards toward a community of others.
We must, therefore, correct ourselves at the outset: if the problem of the self is identified with memory in the passage we have cited, Lyacos lays claim to the collective temporal dimension we inhabit as well, that of history. To put it in terms of the texts he appropriates for his vision, if the Odyssey is a circular journey that returns to its point of origin - the arc never quite completed in his own poem - the Bible, taken in both its books, is a long passage toward a transcendence that, always immanent, remains frustratingly out of reach. The condition this presents for the modern subject, with the burden of a situation that portends the end of the human story not as transcendence but annihilation, is the presiding subject of Poena Damni.
We might, then, seek another point of entry into the text (and many might be chosen, given its aspect of circularity). The first of the fourteen sections that comprise The First Death is a prose passage that describes a broken piece of human flotsam in a condition of ultimate extremity:
Sea of iron. Moon silent as pain in the depth of the mind. A body swept here and there on the rocks like seaweed or a lifeless tentacle, fruit of a womb ship-wrecked by the winds, ensanguined and flesh-filled mire. The left arm cut short, the right to the end of the forearm, a rotted stick raving amid the water's lungs. Of the ravaged mouth there remained only a wound which closed slowly. From the eyes a blurred light. The eyes without lids. The legs down to the ankles - no feet. Spasms.
(The First Death, p. 9)
The Odyssey is invoked here, the peril known to every sailor. It is not clear whether the broken body is alive or dead, or perhaps better said capable of death. It is moved as if "lifeless," but also "raving," shaken by spasms, and with a wound still 'closing.' Seemingly rejected by a "Sea of iron," it also appears to drown in a watery lung under a moon whose silence suggests a pain too deeply embedded for expression. If in our first-quoted passage a balked narrator seeks an identity that continually eludes his grasp, in this one, it is a core of suffering that cannot relinquish itself.
This scene would seem to be the reductio ad nihilo of the human predicament, a thrashing agony indifferently trundled among shape-shifting elements. Nonetheless, a consciousness slowly emerges in subsequent sections of the poem, prodded by an authorial persona that suggests both the possibility of will ("Keep moving") and the intuition of a shared destiny ("aware that all men have drowned within you," 15). These are not merely the companions of the subject's own suppositional journey-the shipwreck of a particular Ithaca-but of all deaths in all places: "regiments of the dead whispering unceasingly / in a limitless graveyard" (13). This suggests in turn the mythic sacrifice of a Year God, "the return / of a dismembered body in the spring" (12), and the terrain of a more familiar religious imagery, "the heavenly hand which now / draws you with all its might" (15). But salvation - if that is what is on offer - is not so easily obtained from a source that is itself perhaps not so easily what it seems:
Consequence of a face without mouth. Thirst for resurrection. I am baptized in the trenches of mourning; dry kisses, bitter sponge, the rotted leaf returning to the ground. Turn back inside. I swell with lust, unhallowed I writhe, in the recesses of your body I spill my blood. (16)
This complex and twisting passage returns us to the beginning of The First Death, with its image of a mouth that is simply a wound closing on its own silence. The mouth, and the broken body to which it is attached, "thirsts" for something that is for the first time identified as "resurrection." Has the body died, or is it simply wandering among the "regiments of the dead" in the state that lies between death and extinction, and in which it conceives the desire - or premonition - of resurrection? The passage shifts from third to first person, with a subject introduced in mid-sentence. The voice we hear declares itself to be "baptized," thus completing the conventional circuit of Christian imagery, but it is so only among the dead or at least those in uncertain transit, receiving the ministrations of dry kisses and a bitter sponge on a body itself defined as in an irreversible process of decay. The "life" this brings it to is similarly grotesque; it swells with lust as though merely proceeding to a further state of corruption, and it 'writhes' with this in a motion indistinguishable from pain. It is, in a word, "unhallowed"; that is, uninhabited by a truly animating spirit, and perhaps being taken only to a further level of darkness in which (as Lyacos sets the scene), there is only 'scourging,' 'slaughter,' and the image of a now-screaming moon.
At this moment, the speaking subject again changes register and identity: "in the recesses of your body I spill my blood." This seems, unmistakably, the voice or at least the gesture of a savior-figure, sacrificing its own blood for the tortured body. The result, however, is only further degradation that, in the poem's next section, "surfeited with pain / . . . / will overflow / and spit all out / and drink it all, once more // to reach / the dregs of scream" (17). This passage, too, plays on contradiction, for what seems an ultimate cry of agony from the furthest recesses of pain, is nonetheless an affirmation that suggests, again, the "heavenly hand" of Section IV that "draws . . . with all its might."
The reigning image here seems to be that of Christ's own sojourn in hell, which is both a "harrowing" of wickedness and a voluntary immersion in it. Incorruptible, Christ cannot experience hell as the damned do; he is sovereign over it. At the same time, however, he has taken upon himself all sin and punishment as the Man of Sorrows, and so the sojourn in hell is a completion of the arc of salvation, an extension of it to the land of the dead. In Christ, this arc is perfect and foretold; nothing further remains to be accomplished by divinity alone. But it is only here that the human story properly begins.