The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead
by Eleni Sikelianos
Coffee House Press, $15.95 (paper)
In Eleni Sikelianos’s eighth book—not counting chapbooks and collaborations—the poems seem as permeable as cell walls, inclusive in their diction, reference, and perspective. Their subjects range from elegy to descriptions of her daughter, from dissections of war and human destructiveness to the creation of a distinctive mystic alter ego, Charlene. With linguistically charged acuity, her supple technique incorporates collage poetics, scientific idiom, and exploration of the poem as essay. To paraphrase “Charlene binds a Leopard & leads a Mule (sayings & deeds),” Sikelianos’s poems collect the world and then disassemble it. They prove her to be one of our most freethinking and innovative poets, whose evolving work continually challenges the boundaries of her art while retaining an essential lyricism. Sikelianos’s sensibility is at once compassionate, visionary, and deeply grounded in her early studies in cell biology, zoology, and marine biology. She thinks of herself as “an animist at heart” who sees “commonality and exchange between species and beyond.” Words and the physical world haunt each other throughout—“the landscape had a landscape / of words”—becoming doubles akin to body and shadow, body and soul, and, perhaps most movingly, the living and the dead. In Sikelianos’s work, these relationships are not dichotomous but osmotic. “Make a poem that aerates the situation / that situates the self / let a body lost in consciousness / keep finding itself there,” Sikelianos commands in “Instructions,” and time and again, to our benefit, she does.