by Michael O'Sullivan
Dimitris Lyacos, Poena Damni, Z213: Exit, Trans. Shorsha Sullivan, Shoestring Press, 2010. 101 pgs.
Poena Damni, Z213: Exit is the third installment in Dimitris Lyacos's trilogy Poena Damni. Written over the course of seventeen years, in reverse order, the present publication sees the trilogy's completion. This reviewer has not read the other parts of the trilogy. The last episode The First Death (the first to appear in print) describes, as the blurb on Z213: Exit suggests, "the struggle of the mutilated hero on the island". The second episode Nyctivoe describes a "grotesque ritual of redemption." The redemption spoken of here in the second episode seems to be already underway at the end of Z213: Exit, which provides the introductory sequence to the trilogy. Z213: Exit ends with a description of a sacrifice where the protagonist and a "hungry band feasting" roast a lamb on a spit, cutting and skining its still bleating body and removing its entrails as if observing a sacred rite. The dense prose passage that describes the sacrifice then gives way to a final section that combines elements of the two writing styles that have been evident throughout this collection—a dense, foreboding style of prose printed in a plain bold font that is reminiscent of Beckettian narrative or monologue and a more free-form verse style that is a little like Zukofsky and that is printed on the page in a lighter and more airy font. These two styles, which create an at times unnerving tension between them throughout the work, merge in this final passage. The unnamed protagonist is here finally made to succumb to the "he"—the quasi-religious presence that occupies an important place for the multivoiced persona of the verse and prose passages—in a manner that makes the protagonist himself something of a sacrificial lamb for his own belated redemption.
The collection is dark in tone and it describes an at times Odyssean fleeing or exit from an external darkness but also, and perhaps more importantly, from an interior terror. The only literary character who appears in the collection is Ulysses and this is in the form of a rusting replica or statue. He appears in the guise of something equivalent to Shelley's Ozymandias: "half obliterated by rust, half sunken." The destitute landscapes, both emotional and physical, and the primeval states and rituals described for the protagonist—"Dark faces, voices fraying in bitter carnival, their heads, changing animal heads, the lamb's body ends in the head of a man with eyes shut"—coupled with the homage to a type of Odyssean quest makes the reader question whether the poet is attempting to recreate the physical and emotional landscapes of Ulysses himself.
Religious images and a biblical style of language are central to the work. Some passages of the sparse, biblical language of the prose sections are reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's later writing. The lighter, free-form verse sections that are usually assigned to a more upbeat, omniscient voice of the protagonist sometimes embody a God-like authority: "the ardour of the dwellers on earth behold I cast out/before your eyes" and elsewhere "I weave paths of perdition and the earth has swal/lowed them and they have sunk like lead in turbulent/water." And later when the protagonist is about to find a modicum of comfort, we have in verse and in bold font for a change: "Fall down and worship but think nothing./Fall on your knees and empty yourself./And wait just to hear." The emphasis on escape leads the reader to ask what the protagonist is fleeing from. At times the urgency to find an exit takes on the semblance of a paranoia that might put us in mind of the creature in Kafka's "The Burrow": "Ears straining to listen, nostrils over their prey. Always acted like that. Two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms legs. The symmetry of the machine that pursues you. A net that thinks decides and moves ahead." Sometimes this paranoid fear before an imagined assailant or pursuer is majestically transformed into a yearning for a kind of messianic coming: "Don't be afraid, because while you fear death they will rend your soul like demons. Only calm down and you will see the angels who are setting you free and then you will be free." This subtle shift in tone that gives us the different moods of the speaker in a location and condition that do not seem to alter dramatically in the work creates an air of ambiguity; it arises from the tension between the multiple voices at play. The inner demons the protagonist fights with are ultimately described in terms of the animal: "the animal scratches inside and wants to get out, you/want to get out, the animal thirsty pushes inside to exit your mind overflowing."
Overall, the collection leaves us with a wonderfully dark yet enticing description of what might be described as a philosophy of exits and entrances. The notion of the threshold is an age-old concern for writers that has assumed epic proportions in such works as Kafka's "Before the Law" and Beckett's short poem "My way is in the sand flowing." That Lyacos' description of the mystery that surrounds thresholds can sit comfortably beside these two works is surely a mark of its stature: "We shall not push it without retreating. It will coil and uncoil its edges before us. With this noise, the rhythm of the noise. It pulls you or pushes, you move stay there. And you don't think that anything else might exist, even if you go ahead you will not reach anything else, there is no outside, somewhere else, there is only the entrance, always you enter, but there is no coming out."