Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Prisoner of My Father’s Name: Alexis Lykiard’s Skeleton Keys

Is there such a thing as an act of vicarious expiation? Apparently, yes, according to Alexis Lykiard in his unsettling suite of poems, Skeleton Keys, and you can be pretty sure that this unburdening of his verses will join other Oedipal confessional texts that Freudians are eager to pin down on the couch. (I’m thinking here of literary analysands such as Ackerley and his My Father and Myself, Gosse and his Father and Son, not forgetting – in terms also of divided familial loyalties – Svetlana Stalin, who in her memoirs laments her fate as a ‘prisoner of my father’s name.’)

Do my initial remarks appear irresponsibly flippant? Not so! Like Athens-born Alexis, I can freely take such an informed line because I, too, throughout my life, have suffered the emotional fallout from the chain reaction that follows when one’s national identity is compromised by ideological guilt, in my case a German-born father who chose British naturalization before the outbreak of WW2, a decision that was to condemn him to isolation from his own family in Vienna for the remainder of his life. A decision, too, that was to condemn me to a future of denied roots.

See my recent post: 

The Acropolis, 1941.

So the problem of the ‘deracinated writer’ can be seen to be a leitmotif that’s all too recognisable; what’s more, it induces a disturbing mood that cannot fail to colour one’s writings with morbid darker shades.

And the darker shades of moral ambivalence (or certain amoral half-shadows in WW2 Occupied Greece that recall Genet’s Funeral Rites in Occupied Paris) are surely to be found in such characteristic lines of verse as these, which indict Alexis’s ‘sullenly mendacious’ fascist father, a ‘wartime collaborator’ or, more pragmatically, a ‘survivalist, dealer, smalltime crook’ (who, worse, surely, chatted up and ogled the poet’s girlfriend before she’d been properly introduced!):

Were you whatever you claimed, Daddy, / Resistance hero or unwilling baddy?

The German soldier by my cot, / officers billeted in our house, / weren’t they a strangely friendly lot? . . .
A wireless lay hidden under me – / unlikely story, one more I was told – / so you could tune in to the BBC.
Held by the Gestapo and then released? / I discount these fairy tales I was fed . . .
Each morning trucks collected up the dead. / Dad, I don’t believe a word you said.

For certain things that slippery conman did . . . he tried to make me and my mother pay. 

I grew up unaware my father lied / or that [Mother had] twice been bride* and dupe of such a man.

Despite ample evidence here to tempt the reader to regard the poet, when a child, as standing in a classic Oedipal attitude to his mother and father, Alexis (perhaps unsurprisingly, given his birthplace) calls on another Sophoclean protagonist, Theseus, founder-king of Athens, to guide him as a surrogate father ‘through the labyrinth . . . slowly finding a way out of the darkness. And onward – past the elusive dreams and false memories, all those tortuous politics and outworn myths – until the confrontation with what, in the end, was always instinctively guessed from the beginning.’ A knowledge that ‘these reassessments of family ties serve to underline how truth and lies are relative at last . . .’ (My italics. A consolatory well-meaning resolution that echoes Paul’s counsel to the devout Greeks of Corinth, that though now they may only ‘know in part’ they shall know at the last Reckoning even as also they are known.) 

However, for Alexis, this magnanimity of the Ego is rather sabotaged in the Reckoning by the assertion of the Id in the very last lines of Skeleton Keys, page 52: If it were proved a god existed I might pray / that there should be a showdown and a way / of telling some home truths on Judgement Day.

Notwithstanding my rather glib attempt at a Freudian interpretation (irresistible, in the context of Attic archetypes), readers should not assume they will encounter poems arranged on the page as psychotherapeutic agony columns or, indeed, configured as versified columnar agonies. No. For readers familiar with Alexis’s fluent pen, be assured the characteristic wit and brio and aphoristic squibs are ever present here . . . in superior vintage quantities.

Related themes, therefore, of dispossession, diaspora, disinheritance and grief abound in this collection, for as a teenager Alexis could never ‘guess that legacies might move from bad to worse . . .  Nothing was left me, other than / a clutch of adult toys gone rotten . . .’  and no honour paid his ‘long-lost mother . . .

Thieves may believe that money talks and sanctifies all power,
but I rate disinheritance as much my finest hour.

Alexis’s epigraph for At Chora Sphakion makes clear the weight of yearnings for lost kin, for as Conrad writes, ‘One’s literary life must turn frequently for sustenance to memories and seek discourse with the shades . . .

The Bruise of Memory.

Yet in his Thesean labyrinthine search, in the harsh Greek sunlight so many of these poems inhabit, a hard-etched meaningfulness is often mercifully bleached from the poet’s impressions (in neurological psychology, this ‘threshold reverie’ is defined as a ‘liminal state’, a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective conscious state of existing between two different existential planes). As Alexis writes: ‘Partially blinded by . . . light / that catches a knife and traps a tarnished spoon, / . . . Motes, quotes, fragments, / swirl toward meaning and fade all too soon. / Our histories are also drowned in shadow.’

Alexis’s valediction to a venerated Greek poet-academic (Academic Questions) seems to me (in quoting a Hellenophile admirer of the departed) to be describing his own formula for writing in a second language: ‘A foreign poet / writing in English may gain / by handling the language with an old- / fashioned simple correctness and purity.’ 

True. As Alexis writes of a second language, so he writes of an exiled life: ‘If some truths get exiled, or lost, others are left still to pursue . . .’

There can be no doubt that these poems are an expression of the profoundest agonies of personal loss, evidenced by how, as a toddler caught up in a street battle of 1944, he receives ‘the first jolt, the bruise of memory.’  The poet is saved by his mother who flings him to the ground and covers his body with hers.

She’d kept her head, saved us both. So much I saw,
mourning with age, as though I’d never wept before.

Stepping into the dark, Alexis is an intrepid Thesean warrior to the end. He writes:  ‘. . . If you lose one fight / there’s always next time: you might win the war. / Whatever’s stolen from you you must not regret – / each true guerrilla travels swift and light before / the burdened tyrant meets that last sunset.**

Although, I dare to say, I have interpreted many of these verses with reference to classic Oedipal complexities, you will be encouraged by an interesting solacing conclusion that arises from these ruminations in that, in a certain sense, one kills one’s tyrannical father when one outshines him; ask Mozart Snr, a composer whose own music died when his young son’s musical talents became evident.

So let there be no doubt. Alexis Lykiard’s superb musicality as a poet is unmistakeably evident here.

It follows, then, that I propose we describe a new thing: a poem as a substitutionary votive offering to provide atonement for familial guilt. And, as it turns out, both writer and reader are beneficiaries of this obligatory ritual of sacrifice, which has no rules of conduct other than conformity to poetic best practice and an atavistic memory of a primal crime. I see no contradictions in this thought, for – lest we forget – before Original Sin, in the beginning, there was the Word.

*To the many approaches to reading Alexis’s own personal Greek mythos we might add the example of the Telemachy of Homer’s Odyssey, since Telemachus in his journeyings in search of his father, Odysseus, can be seen to resemble all conflicted writers (Ackerley, Gosse, et al.) who attempt to both mythologize and demystify their elusive fathers in quests that must navigate the pitfalls of false memory and the lures of hagiography. More than this, mention of Alexis’s mother who had twice been bride (to the same man) recalls the rewooing of Penelope by her disguised husband on his return to Ithica from his epic voyages. On reflection, then, despite the temptation to pursue recognizable psychoanalytic symbolization, I believe the rites of passage undergone by Telemachus, as filial protector of his mother in the absence of a legendary father, more closely mirror the restlessly questing mood of Skeleton Keys than any Freudian interpretation dependent on classical archetypes. 

**Only lately have I learned that, beyond the Thesean thread leading us into Alexis's labyrinth, there is an Oedipal thread that is not fully unravelled for the questing reader. I refer to ‘that last sunset’, which as the poet makes clear, in a personal note to me, refers to ‘the 1961 Robert Aldrich film The Last Sunset, a very odd indeed Oedipal western!’ An Oedipal western? Correct. The screenplay is by the celebrated Dalton Trumbo, and the movie stars Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson and Carol Lynley. And, yes, this Freudian drama, like Alexis’s own family history, is as convoluted as any Greek tragedy.

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