Review of Century Dead Center, poems, prose, paintings by George Economou, Left Hand Books, 1998, $15.00, ISBN: 1-880516-23-3
My title is from the first poem in a section of this collection by George Economou called “Voluntaries.” It opens with these lines: “Voluntar-/ily I’ll submit/ to the receptions/ of the moment.” When paired with Century Dead Center, his title for the poetry, prose, and paintings that makes up the collection, then a new sign seems to emerge, one that announces this book as not only a personal collection but a public document of post-WWII, Second Half of the Century, Pre-Millennium, Post-post Modern poetry(ies).
Economou was of an impressionable age, ten years old, when Truman ordered the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it is, then, understandable, and quite fitting that the book begins with two WWII poems, one about the Holocaust, the other the nuclear war virus that made paranoids of his generation. The first poem, “May 7, 1995” (the war always contemporary), begins with a question leading directly to two key events of his time: then, the Bomb (and the birth of television) and now, the bomb (as televised), the death of innocents and innocence:
Is it a half century
already since it opened
the black hole at its center?
Televised now round the world
it still holds our worst surprise
(a click away, rescue dogs
work the vertical wound in
downtown Oklahoma City).
Given that this poem about a victim (Hans Rudelsheim, “a skilled tailor and accomplished pianist”) of Nazi attempts to annihilate a whole people is taken from Card no. 1234 of the Holocaust Museum, and given that the next, “(not with sunsray),” ends with “our charred meditation,” we are also given a key of sorts that unlocks the complexity that underlies the simply stated poetry that makes up much of this collection. This opening poem mirrors (a distorted mirror, a glass darkly at the dead center), the long Bukowski imitation poem that gives real closure, that unifies the collection, “An Evening in Kingfisher.” If we see the last poems, “Bell-Haiku,”as a sort of coda, we end up with is a book rather than a sampler.
One of the most likeable aspects of his poetry is that Economou is the perfect academic poet: the words are not a slur. He is not an academic following prey (pray?) to the literalism that infects the academic witness poem (she suffers therefore she is a writer) or bad faith that clings to the academic working class poem (you must love me since my father worked in the mill) or the textual sophism of the academic existentialist poem (I write therefore I am a sufferer). Economou, perhaps because of his also being a translator, loves language and is a master of nuance. And his poetry comes directly out of his situation as a teacher, a cultured, knowledgeable academic.
In “An Evening in Kingfisher” he describes an encounter at the Elks club with a OU football fan, a Sooner booster, Economou joining “three hundred men / with big buckles on their belts / ... eating “fries” / also known as prairie or mountain oysters / scooped up barehanded....” Feasting on sheep and turkey testicles, celebrating the tough coach, the tough coach communicating in the most simplistic language, male bonding is reduced to its elemental core: ritualistic violence, Robert Bly’s Iron John on steroids. The university is celebrated for its formalized brutality rather than its essential place in cultural continuity. Football fascists are elevated to the hero status. The professor isn’t even the sidekick, nor water boy. He’s an alien on the field.
Given this, it’s easy to see the kindly commandante in the former football player, Huck Rice, who approaches the professor and questions how he can be American with such a name as Economou:
and I am almost out into the night air
when the sixty-six year old guard pulls
out of the line at the bar & squints
at my crimson-bordered OU name tag
and asks me where I’m from.
-- “The university.”
-- “Well, I kin see that. I mean with a name
like that where are yuh from?”
The man cannot quite understand that a real American can have a Greek name. He asks, “Well, George, how d’yuh like workin’
here among all these Americans?”
The professor exits the hall:
Leaving Kingfisher, I try not to hear
the obvious literary echoes
and focus rather on the odd sincerity
of my dialogue with Huck,
and definitely name him
to my first team offensive line.
Dismissing but alluding to the reference to Charles Olson’s most important single poem is just one of the mental rhythms the poem displays as it also highlights a straight forward dichotomy: the hick with the egg head, no-neck with the pencil-neck, the no-nothing with the esthete, Bubba with the professor, the limited language of violence with the unlimited language of poetry, the literal with the figurative. And in language, the professor must always win. But then there is that opening poem about Hans Rudelsheim. And while in life violence will win over kindness and culture, here the offensive line, the only one in this whole collection, puts the rube in his place, placed in this book, forever. And such placement, naming names, making immortal the immorality of such a mundane meeting, is an affirmation of the language of poetry.
Economou is undoubtedly skilled, proficient, a language perfectionist, but what do we make of a poet who has no identifiable voice? There are in this collection the Bukowski imitations, both “An Evening in Kingfisher” and the sixth poem in “Voluntaries which opens with “Wanting to write a poem for Charles Bukowski,” formal experiments such as the “Nashvillanelle,” the translations from The Greek Anthology, Cavafy, Seferis, Haiku, and a poem made from a “List of Titles...”. There are a poetic prose account of his father, prose poems, descriptions of paintings, reproductions of his own paintings, fables, and little songs / sonnets. There is a clue of sorts in this, the opening stanza of “Lament of the Mafioso Maker”: I who wrote whole from urban hate, / Abjuring Nature in ev’ry state, / Now commit all to parody... All that’s written’s grist for my mill,....” Economou’s is not one single voice, but many, and any if he chooses to be a voluntary. And in this Economou is contemporary.
If there is such a thing as an Economou poem, it might be the 30 eight line prose poems that the collection is titled from: Century Dead Center. If we take as key the back cover suggestion (written by Economou?) that “The title piece drives home Walter Benjamin’s claim ... that ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ ” then the last line of #11 makes perfect sense: “Just now she assures a woman greater miscarriage may lie in full term allowed.” But just as Benjamin could not consider his own documents as Janus-faced, nor should we look at Economou’s work this way: the act of writing is his affirmation out of the historical double-bind. Victims are not made whole again (an impossibility), but they are rescued as only a writer can rescue, through the power and precision of language. In the title poem we get this affirmation of poetry in the face of this century of unrelenting horror: “The unspeakable. May be screamed. Sung into remembrance.... Put it this way. What good is all the evil we’ve done if we do not speak of it? The unspeakable May be screamed. Worn like a badge. tattooed number. A poem.”
Voluntary submission. “I’ll submit/ to the receptions/ of the moment.” De-centered poet, no one voice, no “Economou” poem, as there are Bukowski poems, or William Carlos Williams poems or Charles Olson poems or Paul Blackburn poems. Is this a liability? Doesn’t this mean he is not to be imitated? And while his work signals a dead center, it also announces an alive circumference. Look to Pascal, the Lord’s faithful gambler: “God is a [frightful] sphere whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere.” The poems, prose, and painting are Economou’s circumference; they make up his world, a world of culture, making it our world, creating a dialogue amongst equals, establishing the value of many stories instead of re-enforcing the dominant one. Reading Century Dead Center reminds me of a statement by Jack Clarke in his From Feathers to Iron: “Yes, but the problem with story, as I see it, is that the mind literalizes it too quickly.” Economou is an anit-literalist with a lived sense that the historical is always contemporary.
And this is such a rare thing these days when language is under continual attack from fundamentalists who insist upon their literalism and that other stripe of fundamentalist who insists that there is nothing outside of language, that language is the only reality. Economou’s translations alone establish him as an important literary presence. As long as there are such poets, the rule of the Sooner football fanatics is kept at bay. Bubba is always on the attack. And Bubba rules when the English speaking dollar is the universal currency, which makes the contemporary idiom, as Economou establishes it through translation, so important. Bubba rules when poets sell out their L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E to make television commercials for the Yellow Pages, advertising for the advertisers, making the subtleties and many layered language of Economou’s poetry even more necessary. Bubba rules when the personality kills the poem, making Century Dead Center a necessary constant reminder of the power of substance over fashion.
From his translation of José Pascual Buxó’s “Etruscan Museum”, #3: “There were voices here, / the tumult / of a strange energy; / there were words here / in the incendiary air / and they were heeded.” Reading George Economou’s Century Dead Center, it gives me hope that his will be.