J.C. B Petropoulos reviews A Soul Inside Each Stone by John Tripoulas.
‘Each [poet is] possessed by his own peculiar god’ –Plato, Ion
Medical doctors are creatures of the exact sciences, relentlessly rational in their treatment of their patients. Imagine a less usual being, a physician steeped in literature and withal a practicing poet. (In the United States William Carlos Williams comes to mind.) Now add still more uncustomary details—the physician is the grandson of a physician-poet who won a bronze medal in the 1st modern Olympic Games at Athens in 1896. John Tripoulas, author of this, his first published collection, is a surgeon who for over 25 years has walked the wards of many hospitals in Greece, the US, the UK, and other countries; he studied English literature as an undergraduate in Oberlin College. His maternal grandfather, Demetrios Golemis, was an eye- surgeon who wrote sonorous lyric poetry typical of turn-of- the century Greece, and was an Olympic champion. Tripoulas himself is an athlete, and an expatriate of sorts— so long as you reckon Cleveland, Ohio as his native city and disregard his true country, the Greek haunts of some god of poetry.
Tripoulas is not lyrical in the everyday sense of over-the-top emotionalism; his poetry avoids cadenced declarations of joy or grief. Perhaps the best comparison is with certain types of ancient Greek funerary inscription (‘epitaphs’), understated, matter-of-fact, yet hugely affecting. His poetry courses ruminatingly across landscapes and seascapes— even cloudscapes—of Greece and her monuments and modern localities. ‘The Olive Press’, the second poem in the
collection, might as well be the programmatic poem of the collection. A derelict, decommissioned olive press in the outskirts of a mountain village in effect turns into a grave monument; the poem ends:
‘These are the ruins
of an age-old world,
shaded by a banner of Hades,
where scattered olives
culled under Athena’s aegis,
throughout time’s turning turned
their lustrous pouring
to an unction of daily life
for food, for light,
for hallowing the dead.
Wordlessly they say to me,
Trekker, pass by!’
‘Trekker, pass by’ fetches to mind the last verse of W.B. Yeat’s valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’, one of the Irish poet’s last poems:
‘No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!’
Coincidentally or by design Tripoulas’ final verse also evokes the heartbreaking, plangent appeal of the dead to passersby in ancient Greek grave inscriptions. Heard or rather overheard across the millennia, these conventional cries still startle the latter-day passerby who reads the inscriptions in a book or museum. The ancient appeals of the dead rise like disembodied voices out of the stones on which they are incised. Tripoulas’ voice, his distinct Greek and North
American sensibility rises in similar fashion out of his poems. Greece is full of stones and rubble, the débris and the kindling of memory and association. Each stone has a soul, or as the poet puts it, there is ‘a soul inside each stone’ (‘Stony Beach’). The stones cast by waves on beaches (again, ‘Stony Beach’), stolen from temples and assembled into battlements of medieval fortresses (‘Fort Larissa at Argos’), the stones tossed by Noah-like Deucalion to restore the human race from its cannibal, wolfish past (‘Werewolves of Arcadia’), the stone chapel on a mountainside (‘Echo and Drum’), the lapidary song of two Sirens on a stone grave stele (‘Two Siren Statues’)–these make up the strata of history and myth and mystery underpinning and quickening the notional and physical Hellenic world, John Tripoulas’ consuming subject. He is taken with Hellas in her manifold guises and phases. ‘Trekker, pass by, move on but first observe with me—let me share with you—the places and people I see’ is what Tripoulas seems to be uttering in disarmingly modest tones, in the discreet bedside intonation of a physician who is also possessed by a poet’s god.
This is very much a Greek world; some of the poems that are not ostensibly about Hellenic subjects are in effect Greek, for they either rely on allusion to Greek myth or are reflections on Tripoulas’ immediate family and forbears, not to mention the cosmopolitan crank Cavafy (‘The Poet’), whom his grandfather may well have met in Alexandria. The Cavafy poem brings out the theme of passion in a backhanded way, almost by corollary: ‘Ah, but if he [sc. Cavafy] liked you,/ invited you to his home/above the brothel/ (“One must pity the girls/ but they receive some angels”).’ Unlike the Alexandrian however Tripoulas does not sing about eros except incidentally. His poem ‘She Stopped at the Moon’ conjures a man grieving over the death of a beloved woman; an oblique dirge hushed by the sea. ‘The Last of Byron’ is about the iconic death of the ‘soldier poet’ in Messolonghi. One of the last of the great Romantic lovers, the lord dies,
‘like fallen Adonis…melding Apollo with Satyros Pan’. The poem ends on an erotic demi-quaver.
Tripoulas’ verses are for the most part short, ‘easy to take in by the mind’ (eusunopton), as Aristotle would say. A few ring prosaic but never hollow; these particular verses are never unconvincing, never fail to move the reader. In fact their seeming ordinariness redoubles their force. Each word in this fine collection is an enlivened stone, a flower, an echo of the poet’s lambent, largely Hellenic world.
J. C. B. Petropoulos
Center for Hellenic Studies-Greece