Poetry Porch: Poetics


Introduction to a Poetry Reading by Richard Fein and George Kalogeris
at the Cambridge Public Library, 27 April 2015
by Teresa Iverson

We are fortunate to have these two very fine poets reading for us tonight.

Both Richard Fein and George Kalogeris are also translators of poetry  —  Fein from the Yiddish of numerous poets we find interspersed throughout his own poetic works, as well as in his book devoted entirely to translations, With Everything We’ve Got; Kalogeris from numerous languages, as evidenced by his second book, Dialogos, but primarily from Greek, his second “mother tongue.” They are learnèd poets, each of them having been professors of literature and creative writing for many years —  Fein in New York, at SUNY, New Paltz; Kalogeris here at Suffolk University and Boston University.

I could speak at length about their wide-ranging knowledge of and familiarity with cosmopolitan cultures, their masterful use of English, the poetic line.

But by way of introduction, I want to say something about a few similarities, and differences, I find in them and their writing, as these relate for both to the inheritance of an immigrant experience. Both of these poets are deeply rooted  —  not just grounded —  in their native English language and in American culture, but also in a second language and culture by which they were surrounded, and held, when they were children. All Americans are hybrids, but Fein and Kalogeris were brought up among fairly recent transplants to this country; and initially, their responses to this aspect of inheritance differed.

Richard Fein’s earlier reaction was more of rejection, even aversion, to much that he felt as foreign in the immediate family and community of his childhood, primarily of Eastern European Jews in Brooklyn. He identified more with the new country and what it offered. Later in life, Fein came to embrace the immigrant experience of his early years. He does this predominantly through his powerful turn toward Yiddish —  the language he had once been immersed in —  especially as he embodied this physically, and manifested through bodily memory. (Touch, for example, has strong resonance in Fein’s work, as in his most recent book —  My Hands Remember.) He comes to realize that, to speak literally and metaphorically, his two languages —  Yiddish no less than English —  are intertwined inextricably in the helix of his DNA.

Like Fein, Kalogeris grew up immersed in the sounds of a second tongue, unfamiliar to the young child —  Demotic Greek. This leads to a strong commonality I find in them: an unusually heightened visual sense. What I would call a passionate, and absorbing, gaze that characteristically reveals itself throughout their work was already being honed and developed in childhood. Perhaps this common aspect of their development was fostered in part by lacunae in meaning —  conscious understanding —  of the languages by which they were enveloped but comprehended primarily by instinct, and intuition.

Fein put this latter perception to me succinctly in conversation, I quote: “Objects are transmogrified (magic is done to them) when they are described or named to a child in a language that surrounds him, but he does not know.” For the adult poet, such objects then become, as Fein says elsewhere, “not the devices of sentimentality but instigators of memory.”

Fein came to an awareness of what Yiddish could mean to him, and to his poetry, at the time it was fast disappearing as a vibrant, living language. World War II was the greatest catalyst of this loss. Fein calls himself, somewhat tongue in cheek, the “last Yiddish poet, though writing in English.”

This is not to disregard his kindred spirits among the English, Irish, and American poets —  Yeats, Robert Lowell, and above all, fellow Brooklynite Walt Whitman, to name only a few. It was Whitman, in fact —  through his all-encompassing embrace of peoples and cultures —  that helped guide Fein back to Yiddish and his early community of its speakers. But by then the world of pushcarts and tenements on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had already largely disappeared. And Fein came to regret in particular not ever having met the master-poets of Yiddish, some of whom had immigrated to New York and were living there during his youth.

Kalogeris had a different challenge in his immigrant inheritance. While the second language of his childhood had its share of alterations, brought about to a great extent by the woundings of history, Greek has survived from ancient times into its current spoken form. Rather than the loss of language and culture, Kalogeris has had to grapple with how to integrate the many forms these have taken, both in its native land and as a touchstone for centuries of Western civilization. He has been fortunate in having such teachers and guides in this task as the preeminent poets Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and David Ferry, as well as the prominent scholar and critic of Greek Classics in translation, Donald Carne-Ross. Kalogeris’ translations of work by the 20th century poets George Seferis and Constantine Cavafy have provided a foundation no less crucial to his efforts.

Throughout his poetic career, Kalogeris has found ways to unite his own personal experience, and the memories of his Greek family members and community in the States, with all they have created here  —  everyday lives in which his father’s grocery store and the rituals of Greek orthodoxy can meld with the larger history of the culture, and further back, to its rich mythical pre-history.

In his latest collection, Guide to Greece, he finds parallels in the writings of Pausanias, travel writer and geographer during the Roman period of Hadrian (2nd century CE), who chronicled his visits to ruins of Greek Classical antiquities —  sacred temples and other buildings reduced to rubble by natural disasters, earthquakes, and human intervention over the course of several hundred years —  with accounts of more modern devastations in the homeland that Kalogeris grew up hearing recited.

Whitman’s Civil War writings, for example, find echoes today in the Greek community of Astoria, no less than in the Civil War that broke out in Greece in the aftermath of World War II. The wild keenings of Ancient Greek Tragedy can suddenly erupt in the ololugdon of a mother grieving the burial of her son, dead too soon, in a 21st century cemetery in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

The Past is not Past for these poets. It is made new, uniting —  sometimes improbably, but seamlessly  —  with the Present in their work and embodied lives.

Please join me in welcoming Richard Fein and George Kalogeris.

Copyright © 2015 by Teresa Iverson.