Reading Mystic Passage
Readers of Hellenic poetry will be taken to new unfamiliar groves of painful delight, new meadows of ecstatic liminality by the intense, at times unbridled lyricism of Maria Lampadaridou-Pothou’s poetry. The title of the present collection, Mystic Passage, may, to some people at least, conjure up images of the contemplative, the serenely transcendent. This poetess, however, is made of unremitting action. Even when she weeps, she must dance, and dance her way to God.
Winter will find me naked
In a dilapidated room
With time welling up through the holes of the floors
Winter will find me stirring the ashes from my poetry
Who is speaking? Is it the poet meditating on death? Is the voice that of a pagan, an Old Testament prophet, a Christian, a woman of our time?
All of these, it seems, all of these in one. This quality of oneness is pervasive, not only because all things are connected, but also because they are there for all. I, poetry, and the self are all one. Thus even when the self appears it is almost without failure in a communal, sacrificial context:
I raise my poetry before
“Garment stained with blood”
I burn it to warm myself
Maria Lampadaridou-Pothou’s world is not one of the spirit, not in the English sense of the word. For her it is her soul that struggles to “loose the bonds”, a soul that is always rooted in the earth, even after it goes beyond the “mystic passage.” This is a soul that smells and seeks freedom from a body that carries with it the “odor of birth-blood.”
The boundless void, the sky, the frigid stars, the night that “riddles” the soul and even Chaos all share an odor that is in no way immaterial or metaphysical. The passage to the other time is to take place in the presence of the firmament and begins with the descent to the depths where the shades of the dead dwell. The cosmic reality of our poetess is full of abysses, fissures, cracks. The passage to it is paved with the ubiquitous drops of blood, the vengeful hyacinths, the many moist flames. It is as though through the fire of passion a woman is reborn through her own womb. All of her is reborn when she gives birth, and this wondrous event is a veritable blueprint of the rebirth of her soul:
I bend over and look at myself
A flower of the abysmal night
To pass my body through to the other time
The pervasive sensuality of the poems of the Mystic Passage is distinctly feminine. The flame that appears in so many of her verses is now that of love, but now again that of the Resurrection of the candlelit services of the Church, the Orthodox Church in whose mysticism and liturgical practices the poetess is steeped. To say that she is religious is to suggest that there is some objectivity to her poetry, that she and her sacred reality are connected by habit or convention.
I am the mother of the Crucifixion, I
And my eyes, full of blood
Seek the light
Icons, candles, incense, visions from Revelation, crosses, angels, saints are not comforting accessories but part of the very essence of life. Yet, this does not prevent her from hearing the footsteps of Homer, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras. Ancient and modem, pagan and Christian blend creatively to produce the ontological spasm that precedes the leap into the mystic passage. The odor of all things great and small, their sweaty and tearful existence, gives Maria Lampadaridou Pothou no sleep. Thus, in “Eighth Passage” the odor of memory turns her lyrical strains into an epic lament over the loss of lonia, her father’s and hence her own true fatherland. Yet, in her poetry, all grief must flower into joy, ecstatic joy. The same theme, now in the “Eleventh Passage,” has a grandly epinician tone, becomes an irrepressible affirmation:
From the Propontis my days have traveled
Full of princely islands and the gold of tombs
From there I come like a white wave
Upright on the winds
With a breath of the deep and silent time
There is a space within this poetess that is as large as the space without. Homer’s lyre, Sappho’s deathless words, the terse and cryptic utterances of the great pre-Socratic philosophers, the hum of vesperal devotions, and the bells of Hagia Sophia are all deep within her. So then hers is a polyphonic tribute to a tradition that, being neither archival nor academic, is life itself pulsating through her veins, blood of birth, odor of memory.
Maria Lampadaridou Pothou is a prolific writer of plays, novels, and essays. Two of her ambitious critical essays, one on Odysseas Elytis and the other one on Samuel Becket have received wide acclaim in Greece. She knew both Nobel Prize laureates, especially Becket, and was greatly influenced by their work. Her poetry spills abundantly into her prose work. Poetry is the force that moves and nurtures her at all times. Lernnos, the beautiful island where she was born and grew up, has stamped her life, filled it with creative tension. “This place where I came to know suffering is in everything I do. The moment I feel its absence I seek it as one seeks his soul” she told me when I met her in September 1996. She was finishing her monumental historical novel on the fall of Constantinople. I later found out that the Greek title of the novel would be They City has been taken, has been taken.!
knew then I was in the presence of a great Greek woman, a woman of Greek letters, one whose memory bums love and death to rise from the ashes like the Phoenix bird of myth immemorial.
This review has been published in the New York academic magazine THE CHARIOTEER, An Annual Review of Moderm Greek Culture, in 2000 – 2002, volume 39/40
Apostolos Athanasakis is a proffessor of classics in the University of Santa Barbara