The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems
by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
edited by Karen Van Dyck
Graywolf Press, $15.00 (paper)
In “Penelope Says,” perhaps her best known poem, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke not only tells the famous story of exceptional patience from the woman’s point-of-view, but also makes Penelope a writer: “I wasn’t weaving, I wasn’t knitting / I was writing something / erasing and being erased / under the weight of the word.” Although the first gesture—a woman writer taking up the mantle of Greek history and literature from a new perspective—might be the easiest figure for understanding the half-century of work represented in this new collection, the second—the exploration and celebration of the physicality of language—is clearly the organizing principle of the book’s editor. It makes an appropriate and timely introduction to this remarkable poet, who turns 70 this year. Karen Van Dyck has chosen selections that cover the range of Anghelaki-Rooke’s writing life and represent the work of several different translators. Although to my ear Van Dyck’s own translations seem the best at both representing the original and rendering it in contemporary English, Anghelaki-Rooke’s complex vision of received history, gender, political engagement, and the weight of language rises clearly through the welter of different translators’ voices. The occasions for her poems seem inexhaustible. One prose poem in the voice of a cicada stands next to a different, decidedly serious poem: “My Plastic Thing,” about a dildo. “No knowledge. Only stupid power. And there I was, expecting knowledge!” There is a generous selection from a sequence written in reaction to the 1991 Gulf War, a devastating indictment of a military adventure we seem to remember only for its precision. But through all this imaginative wandering, Anghelaki-Rooke grounds her poems in the domestic details of her home on the island of Aegina. Thus Van Dyck concludes the book with a memorable recent poem, “Translating Life’s End into Love,” that recapitulates the now-aging author’s concern with the relation of language to the body: “Because I cannot touch you / with my tongue / I transliterate my passion. / Because I cannot take your communion / I transubstantiate you. / Because I cannot undress you / I imagine you in the clothes / of a foreign language.”