Review/essay by Toti O’Brien
Poena Damni (2018)
(Translated by Shorsha Sullivan)
(3 book box set, $19.95)
Who is the man in Z213?
The book starts with names.
“these names and that’s how they found me”1
Names are crucial because here’s what happens:
“each day a man from personnel would come with a list and stand in the doorway […] shouting to them to come out and they would call them then take them from there […] to a special place […]”2
We guess where the man is. He has a sound reason, no doubt, for obliterating, omitting, forgetting, erasing his name.
Book one of Dimitris Lyacos’ trilogy Poena Damni begins with a man fleeing a camp where people are kept by the thousand and killed by the thousand. They are murdered in horrible ways—perhaps they are drowned, perhaps they are buried alive. The man knows that his turn will come, but someone suggests a way out—a possible exit.
He escapes through a tunnel dug into the hillside—both a realistic device (how many were carved during wars, in Europe, all over) and a symbol. For birth and for death.
The man makes it to the train station where he finds a soldier, asleep, carrying extra clothes in his backpack. Quickly, he swaps his rags with a uniform. Inside the army jacket he finds a small bible. Some diary notes are jotted through the pages. He will read them, later, then add his own. From now on the stories of these two (the soldier’s, the escapee’s) are melted, unless they already were.
Among many places the man might have fled, I can’t avoid picturing Babi Yar. My involuntary association is triggered by visual echoes (ravine, digging, water, rocks, mountains), and by a formal reason. I have read an edition of Kuznetsov’s book3 printed in three fonts—one for the text allowed by the Soviet regime; one for the re-inserted censored parts; one more for the author’s new additions. The book, then, was braided, three-stranded.
And so is Lyacos’ text—entwined with the quasi-unreadable lines of a washed-out bible, a soldier’s sparse lines, an unnamed man’s annotations.
He hops on a train that leaves at 21:13. It isn’t eight yet. He locks the compartment door and he waits—his journey has started. What follows occurs in the train. A fine place. Anonymous. Sheltering. Allowing room for rest, peace, tranquility, but also the occasional balm of traveling mates willing to share food, wine, tears, laughter.
Temporary abode, and perpetual—as long as the man stays aboard, the train is eternity.
Outside, the landscape unfurls like a ribbon. A movie—it’s reality filtered. Outside is a liberty that can’t be too brutally afforded. The train is the ideal medium for cautious re-acquaintance with the outside world, the world of survival.
Perhaps he alights here and there, then resumes the road. Towns? Hamlets? Churches? Houses? Perhaps he never leaves the train, as the braided text blurs the narrative and we aren’t sure (he isn’t either) of what is recalled and by whom, what presently occurs and to whom.
In the past, the present—in wake and in dreams—in the notes the soldier has left and in those that the man is adding, there’s a sensing/suffering subject. There are agents causing the suffering, pursuing, persecuting. There are victims, witnesses, co-sufferers. Distinctions are futile, then—the contents to be worked out coincide.
In fact, it’s the suffering that becomes protagonist and tells itself, seamlessly swinging between points of view.
What suffering is this? The worst.
The heart-wrenching labor endured by the man, in turns summoning memories and trying to delete them, delineates the path that we embark upon after major traumas—pointedly, after the trauma of survival. It is not everyone’s affair, yet humanity in its whole knows such pain quite well.
Memories are to be both elicited and suppressed in order to gather a shred of identity—even just an entity of sorts, able to perform the functions pertaining to a still-living organism. Eat, drink, sleep. Feel warm. Listen to music. Desire another body. Make love. Memories are needed to reactivate basic mechanisms that trauma has shut off.
“And when you can no longer remember, just meaningless things here and there […] try even then” 4
Other memories, though, make repair impossible.
Disentangling such chaos is like cleaning an immense open wound.
Mortal fear, hardships borne by body and mind, long endured cruelty. Helpless witnessing of the suffering of others. Even more, more than all, intimacy with death at close range—unwanted intercourse with the death of others, constant nearness of corpses—topped by the paradox of one’s unjustified rescue—this residue, this incongruous persistence—undermines the structure of the self in often un-healable ways.
All the literature of the Shoah, gradually unburied, proves it (by fragmented syntax, for instance, constant shift of POV, rare and inconsistent use of the first person, fracture between narrating and narrated I) 5.
Listen to the runaway. To the soldier.
“surely, they were taking them so as not to kill them in front of us. Bringing, taking. Then my own turn. […] Panic. I was sleeping deeply and when I was up I could not understand again where I was, I was crawling further away and looking about, I was waking from one place to the other, I was waking, was waking, was waking, I couldn’t remember, I could, later as if nothing had happened, but like a lie slowly fading and coming again. Exhaustion” 6
“the story shatters within you, pieces, fading away”; “you are one recollection, a broken box emptying” 7; “one by one all those fled all those you left, pieces, pieces like ice breaking and falling” 8; “as I keep writing I go into it again. Afterwards it is as if it were not I” 9
Book one of Poena Damni doubtlessly resonates with the literature of the Shoah in form and in contents—down to the ending pages, which seem to contain a negative prognosis. Not only because the journey doesn’t contemplate a point of arrival (there’s nowhere to go, no way for the traveler to disembark). Also because the theme of the scapegoat—already hinted at—comes back and concludes the narrative. Earlier on, in the train, the man has shared with fellow travelers a meal involving the ritual killing of a lamb. Now we hear from the scapegoat itself, as it surrenders to the knife—eager to end its torment. It is tired of running away, running in circles.
“you don’t want to go any further, you shall sink to your knees […] you are feeling the blow, you open your mouth, you look at his mouth, you don’t want to stand up any more.” 10
Yet this ending is denied, at least temporarily, by the existence of a second book to the trilogy.
In With The People From The Bridge the unnamed protagonist of Z213 leaves the train, leaves the station, reaches a bridge in front of which a theatrical performance is about to begin. Therefore he becomes a spectator, as if needing a rest from the harsh labor of consciousness that he has just endured.
If the trilogy, though, is an inseparable medley rather than a sequence, I believe the male character of book two is one—the same that we have met before. Perhaps slightly fractured by a few shifting viewpoints—actor, narrator, spectator.
The female protagonist is called NCTV, and about this cluster of letters the text gives us clues. The man-spectator associates them to the station where he has finally landed. Thanks to the woman’s name, he recalls that it was named Nichtivo, Nichtovo… something that to an English reader suggests night. Or nightmare.
For the letters LG we have no hint, besides what the ‘unclean spirit’ says to the exorcist at the very start of the play. He avows, “My name is legion”— and we know it is the devil—“for we are many”11
We are many. The dead, the living, the sufferers.
With The People From The Bridge is allegedly inspired by a fait-divers noted on the last page of the volume. “The partially decomposed head of a woman, stolen from a crypt at Hollywood memorial Park Cemetery early Sunday, was found in the street next up to a man who was subsequently arrested, Los Angeles police said.” 12
How does such an idiosyncratic episode, certainly a fact of mental illness, so uncomfortable to cause an urge of containment, reclusion, exclusion (shouldn’t this man be immediately removed? please)
“If they find me they will catch me and won’t let me go. They will take me away to lock me up.” 13
How is this story linked with wide themes such as post-traumatic disorder and survival guilt, which affect relatively large strata of humanity (all those who have endured wars, persecutions, holocausts, genocides, massacres… and they truly are legion)?
Obviously, the grave-digging spur is not treated here as an aberration, but as a phase of the mind’s struggle to solve a conundrum, to assimilate a paradox such as the body’s death. Nothing could be less intuitive, less acceptable.
If it takes an uncanny period of time for an individual just to admit the concept, for the human community at large it took longer. It implied trial and error, it implied experiments to ultimately come up with a shared belief about a) the instantaneousness of death and b) its irreversibility.
Shared, somehow. Arbitrary perhaps.
Stories such as Proserpina’s or Orpheus and Eurydice’s—even more, the expansive lore regarding vampires14—are narrative veils spread over concrete questions and concerns. It is hard to understand what happens to the body when it becomes a corpse, and how long the transition lasts. Transformations occur that have the very shape of life processes. Does the corpse somehow feel them? Does it suffer them? Is a corpse ‘alive’ when it undergoes those phenomena? Even partially… Even intermittently…
Myths of the vampire are based upon the slow and stupefied discovery—on behalf of the survivors, the living—of what happens to the body after it ceases breathing, as it transits through a liminal phase indeed loaded with ‘vitality’ if devoid of consciousness. Maybe endowed with an undecipherable—hence frightening—form of consciousness.
Of this limbo (this bridge?), this grey area (this shadow?) wedged between daylight and oblivion, we are as scared as we are attracted to it.
There’s a ‘natural’ progression leading from the train to the bridge… the train being a kind of dressing-room where the escaped-from-death tries to disentangle his still-living limbs from those that have been destroyed by contagion, by contact. And he can’t. He has been excessively mortified.
With the people, within the bridge—though the action also happens in front of it, in and out of a broken car…
In and out of the bridge—perhaps built with the bodies of the dead itself… “one on top of the other, they are the bridge”15—the escapee takes a further step, back, or else down, delving deeper, seeing if the return of the passed might be still an option. Perhaps a solution.
After all, it has been done—Christ did it to Lazarus, someone (Magdalena?) to Christ. After all, is the urge of questioning death-as-an-absolute unthinkable? Of course not, especially since death is unthinkable for the human brain.
So is survival. Both states can be experienced uniquely by, from the body—no matter what it takes.
If Z213 is inhabited by the agony of starving for—simultaneously needing to indelibly erase—memory, With The People From The Bridge seems to voice an equally crucial ambivalence between longing for the dead to return and being terrified by the hypothesis. Scriptural words of resurrection intertwine with narratives of ritual exorcism against vampires.
“and he said unto me, behold,
I will open your graves
and cause you to come up out of your graves […]
and will cover you with skin
and put breath in you
and ye shall live” 16
“Hammer, stake on the chest […] Now they are leaving and tomorrow will come again to check is she has tried to get up […] They will wait […] In case she appears some place, her, somebody else […]”17
The only way to tame this irreducible tension might be compromise—establish partial and controlled visitations, limited forms of communion mediated through re-presentation, within the sacred of theater, lulled by the chorus’ litany, filtered by a television screen, smoothed by the magic of ritual nourishment such as corn, wine, immolated lamb.
Clotted blood of pomegranate—the fruit sacred to Persephone.
When I read the first poem of The First Death…
Isn’t it strange, this idea of commencement linked to the very concept of end?
“Sea of iron. Moon silent as pain in the depth of the mind. A
body swept here and there on the rock like seaweed or a
lifeless tentacle, fruit of a womb ship-wrecked by the winds,
ensaguined and flesh-filled mire.” 18
When I read the third book of Poena Damni I can’t help picturing a scene I have never seen. I have heard it described by the one doctor of the Lampedusa island in the documentary Fire at Sea.19 He is in charge of ‘receiving’ the migrants who arrive by boat to this most Southern harbor. He must take care of the sick (the quasi totality) and the dead (the remaining quota).
In the movie, he speaks of the pregnant women who complete their Odyssey (started somewhere on the Northern African coast) on the verge of delivery. He describes the joy that he feels when he is able to help them give birth. He also speaks of the horror of gathering from the sea not only dead babies, but those still attached to the mothers by their umbilical cord—in the many cases when birth and death have colluded. When death, maybe, came first.
The image of a umbilical cord is actually in one of the fourteen poems comprising book three. Its polarity oscillates with the image of the rope used to hang one’s self or others. Birth and death—first and last—are playing sea-saw here, more than once.
The third book of the trilogy doesn’t openly segue from the previous ones, and the language (which shifts between first and second, yet somehow contiguously) has a totally different texture. It’s way more luxuriant, if the adjective can be applied to a macabre context. Densely sensual, it evokes what could be defined as proliferous decay—as images of spoiled, rotten, maimed nature, artifacts, architecture and especially bodies are described in such rich detail they take on an eerie, atrocious, paradoxical glory.
Together, the fourteen poems of book three paint a mobile, composite, multifaceted landscape of death-at-sea-but-not-only—of drowned bodies that aren’t necessarily those of sailors or fishermen. Though they are human bodies and unmistakably so, they melt into a tapestry of catastrophe that is also animal, vegetal, mineral, planetary.
Body and landscape incessantly interfere with each other. They switch places with an effect of both dissolution and osmosis.
Body becomes landscape
“casting anchors in our innards” 20;
“and a mind a map dipped in wine” 21
Nature becomes body
“and once more you crawl and
scramble on the earth’s wounds” 22
As if (though it isn’t said anywhere) all the memories among which a lurching I has vainly tried to put order, fishing out a painful few but carefully cauterizing the unbearable lot, had now broken the dams and knew no borders. They invade the scene, enthroning themselves as absolute masters, hiding nothing, sparing no one.
Almost painlessly, though, because the frail identity coping with them is nowhere in sight— neither the train escapee, nor the grave-violator. Maybe the recalling I has dissolved, maybe it hasn’t formed yet. Not sure. Both hypotheses are valid, as what happens in the trilogy is cyclical and reversible.
Yet in absence of a struggling suffering self, debate between memory and denial seems to have ceased. Death is left to its own consciousness here, unlashed, unlimited, and it speaks with a voice that is loud and vibrant—a cacophony of cells free to de-compose, de-ambulate and de-form themselves, a Babel soaked in blood.
Borders between forms of creation are thin and porous at this stage, we have said. Human are also seaweed, and fish.
The sea filled with blood—scarlet, crimson—is also the sea of the mattanza, the mass-killing of tuna fish. Definitely, I can’t help situating these poems in Sicilian waters—where such practice occurs.
In the very last poem it comes back—the remembering I—alone on a/the bridge that has reappeared.
I return/s, alone, on the bridge which doubles as a spacecraft about to take off, for a journey perhaps more successful than the one he has embarked upon in book one. Alone, and still struggling with a pain as bad as the pain he has tried taming before. But I seem/s somehow stronger, more collected and compact as if, death’s deluge having finally relieved itself, I had found not an exit, not a haven or heaven, not a point of arrival—but another beginning, another departure.
As I read The First Death, I imagine the carpet of corpses lining the Mediterranean. Strata and strata of limbs—now bones—piled up during recent decades, all belonging to shiploads of migrants seeking escape through Europe. I can’t help connecting the poetry under my eyes with this precise scenery. The most powerful, the most disturbing imagery Lyacos paints makes sense in this context where it naturally embeds itself.
And the seagulls. Gulls all over. Birds of prey? Sure. Witnesses as well.
Note: Poena Damni by Dimitris Lyacos, translated by Shorsha Sullivan, was published by Shoestring Press in October 2018.
Lyacos’ trilogy is a complex and labyrinthine creation spread over more than two decades. Its three volumes have appeared out of order. Translations, made while the original was in progress, have somehow influenced the evolution of the text. The profusion of musical, theatrical and visual work inspired by the books has also provided a rich creative feedback.
A reading by Dimitris Lyacos is scheduled at Beyond Baroque, in Venice, Los Angeles, on May 30 2019, at 8pm.
1 Lyacos, Dimitris. Poena Damni. Z213: EXIT. Shoestring Press. 2018. 11
2 Z213: EXIT. 11
3 Kuznetsov, Anatoly. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. Farrar. 1970
4 Z213: EXIT. 93
5 See, for instance, Sanfilippo, Marina. “Liana Millu e Charlotte Delbo: scrivere e riscrivere la memoria”. Quaderns de Filologia: Estudis Literaris XXI. 2016. 173-189
6 Z213: EXIT. 137
7 Z213: EXIT. 33
8 Z213: EXIT. 59
9 Z213: EXIT. 61
10 Z213: EXIT. 147
11 Lyacos, Dimitris. Poena Damni. With The People From The Bridge. Shoestring Press. 2018. 13
12 With The People From The Bridge. 93
13 With The People From The Bridge. 33
14 See Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. Yale. 1988
15 With The People From The Bridge. 85
16 With The People From The Bridge. 91
17 With The People From The Bridge. 87
18 Lyacos, Dimitris. Poena Damni. The First Death. Shoestring Press. 2018. 13
19 Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea). Dir. Gianfranco Rosi. 2016
20 The First Death. 27
21 The First Death. 33
22 The First Death. 33
About the reviewer/essayist:
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Gyroscope, Pebble Poetry, Independent Noise, Lotus-eaters.