Polytropos by John Tripoulas


Polytropos, the title of this collection, is an archaic Greek word that occurs in the first line of Homer’s Odyssey, referring to the epic’s hero, Odysseus. Among the many attempts to translate the word, Robert Fagles calls Odysseus a man of “twists and turns,” and in Emily Wilson’s version he is “complicated.” It’s an apt description of this volume of poems, which has many “twists and turns”– autobiographical, philosophical, medical, and archaeological. Poet and critic George Franklin has said of the book, “Tripoulas seems to live simultaneously in Athens, Byzantium, Alexandria, and in Ikaria, where Icarus ended his flight and where the poet’s family has lived for generations. Ohio-born Tripoulas, a doctor as well as a poet, has made Greece his much-loved home throughout his adult life, and his poems occupy an intersection of time and place to embrace the disparate facts of our reality.”


  • Kind: Perfectbound
  • Pages: 138
  • Language: English
  • Date Published: April 2024 
  • ISBN 978-1-962847-05-6


I marvel at how, in these beautiful poems, two cultures are organically blended together-Greek and American, yes, but also mythological and earthly, a thousand years past and today, so they happen simultaneously, as in the poem “Working Out”: “Herakles held up the heavens / for a while. . . I tighten my weight-lifting belt.” Indeed! —Ilya Kaminsky

The poems of Polytropos spring from an imagination that is both Greek and American, so they are bound to make their many turns, moving from Ikaria to the Cleveland Zoo, transported by ancient chariots and Midwestern railroads. Whether on the page, or in the surgical theater, each act is an opportunity for translation, which offers its own regenerative power. Singing through his own past, while attending to present suffering, Tripoulas “shines the light/searching the visceral world.” —Christopher Bakken

If I had to choose one poem to represent the whole of this remarkable book, it would be the one in which kids bounce soccer balls off ancient artifacts stacked against an outer wall of the Athens Archeological Museum, encountering their history while they’re simply having fun. Polytropos means “many turns” and is an adjective applied by Homer to Odysseus, the secret hero of this collection, and by John Tripoulas to history itself, that wily ghost that haunts everything we do: a trip to a venue as mundane as a gym or zoo or as lofty as Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Like writers as different as Proust and Faulkner, Tripoulas knows that the past is not only always with us but that it also makes the present so much richer. —David Kirby

Poets make connections that no one else could make, but once made, become part of our cultural memory.  John Tripoulas is a great poet, and Polytropos is a book that will be remembered.  In few other poets is the past so alive, so much the context of the present.  Tripoulas seems to live simultaneously in Athens, Byzantium, Alexandria, and in Ikaria, where Icarus ended his flight and where the poet’s family has lived for generations.  Ohio-born Tripoulas, a doctor as well as poet, has made Greece his much-loved home throughout his adult life, and his poems occupy an intersection of time and place to embrace the disparate facts of our reality: an octopus escapes down the drain of an aquarium like wily Odysseus, an out-of-control circus elephant named Pinky is halted like Atalanta by well-aimed apples, and the terminal patient “On the Balcony of Metaxa Cancer Hospital” echoes Antony in Cavafy’s classic poem. I am not sure it is fair to have favorites in such a perfect collection; nonetheless, mine is “The Chemotherapy Ladies Ride the 909 Bus.”  The ladies in this lapidary poem occupy a place and time that is all their own, and the poet is aware that the rest of us on the bus can only be left in silence. —George Franklin

Tripoulas is deft and authoritative in his blending of myth, history and legend with clear-eyed observation of the world he and we must live in, day by day. He moves between deep time and the present moment with considerable assurance, a reliable witness — I will not forget those cancer women, that child washed ashore, and that elephant!
These poems are humane, precise and reflective, as befits a surgeon-poet, and they reach for the thoughtful heart with the deep compassion, insight and empathy of a poet-surgeon. —theo dorgan

John Tripoulas is a poet of the Greek diaspora, born and raised in the powerhouse that is the American poetry tradition. His Hellenic-American imagination is nourished by his beloved master poets in his ancestral tongue from Homer to Cavafy — his poems span vast vistas of space and time and they integrate ancient material with the uncertainties of contemporary life to powerful effect.  His gaze is always compassionate and the witness trustworthy and sincere, as befits a surgeon who writes from both the small island clinic of Ikaria and from the large public hospitals of Athens. His elegy for a refugee child drowned in the Aegean and cast on the rocky shore will stay with me for the rest of my life. —Paula Meehan

Attractively modest, plain-spoken, clear, and amiable, like a friend who can be trusted to tell the truth, these poems seem made to refute T. S. Eliot’s claim that modern poetry “must be difficult.” But don’t be fooled. The verbal art of polytropos John Tripoulas is crafty and crafted. Full of twists and turns, braiding ancient and contemporary Greece, Middle America and Proust, realism and fable, this humane surgeon-poet will make you think. —Langdon Hammer

The original Polytropos was Homer’s Odysseus of Ithaca, the man of many turns or many wiles. I can think of few contemporary poets with whose enchanting ancient-modern verses I’d be more prepared to spend a good while than Icarian-American doctor John Tripoulas. ‘Speeding Past the Thermopylae Exit After a Bad Day’ gets it all in one: the journey, the interweaving of past and present, and the unmistakably personal melding of travel with travail. —Paul Cartledge

Polytropos, John Tripoulas’ new collection of poems, takes its title from the word that Homer uses to describe Odysseus, and though it’s been translated to mean thousands of different things over the centuries, the “well-traveled” definition is most relevant to this collection, and perhaps in general because the Odyssey is distinguished by being a journey outward.  The speaker of these poems is someone of many turns, it’s true, and his narrative tendencies are finely balanced by a careful devotion to the free verse lyric that over-all is a love poem to Greece and to Greek culture brought alive in these poems by the poet’s uncanny focus on rich details that are always evocative of moments heavy with the weight of history and at the same time shimmering with relevance for our own times.  I admire most the rigor of these poems, the care I understand it must have taken to write them. —Bruce Weigl


Working Out

Heracles held up the heavens
for a while so Atlas could fetch
the golden apples of the Hesperides.
It was his eleventh labor; his ninth
was to steal Hippolyta’s golden girdle.
I tighten my weightlifting belt
so that its double prongs sink in
the punched holes like the fangs
of ourobouros devouring its tail;
I grasp the dark iron dumbbells
and raise them toward heaven.


John TripoulasJohn Tripoulas was born and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and as a teenager attended high school in Athens, Greece. He graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in English, and spent a year with the Ringling Brothers Circus as an elephant driver. Eventually he returned to Greece, where he earned an M.D. from the University of Athens Medical School. From 2009 to 2016 he served as general surgeon on the Greek island of Ikaria, where his father and paternal grandparents were born. He has also worked as an attending surgeon in hospitals in Athens, Piraeus, and Nafplion, Greece. In 2011 he published in a bilingual edition his translation of a volume of poems by his maternal grandfather, the Greek poet and Olympic medalist Demetrios Golemis: Demolished Souls (Cosmos Publishing Company). The first collection of his own poems, A Soul Inside Each Stone, was published by the Dos Madres Press in 2016, and in a Greek bilingual edition, with translation by Socrates Kabouropoulas (Rodakio Press,  2018).

Additional information

Weight 9.2 oz
Dimensions 9 × 6 × .5 in