June 2014

Patrick James Dunagan


You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) by Eleni Sikelianos

Eleni Sikelianos's You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) is the latest addition to her ongoing interrogation via research-engaged poetics merging literary, personal, and historical lines of inquiry. She describes it as "part of a longer family history" of which she's apparently only midway through. The overall project has so far proven to be a substantial autobiographical meta-voyage of poetic investigation into her family history spanning several volumes of work.

A few years ago, I took notice right away when initial beginnings of the project first appeared "The Lefevre-Sikelianos-Waldman Tree and the Imaginative Utopian Attempt" in Jacket magazine and in Sikelianos's 2004 The Book of Jon. The first is a tracing of her familial ties to poet Anne Waldman. Waldman's mother's first marriage prior to marrying Waldman's father was to Sikelianos's own grandfather. The second is a poetic investigative memoir of Sikelianos's father, often absent throughout her life, now deceased, who abused drugs and alcohol.

Already familiar with Sikelianos's prior work, I was immediately drawn to both these texts. Waldman has fascinated me for a long while, with her deep ties, both on and off the page, to poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, and Bernadette Mayer (ties Sikelianos's own work shares). The Book of Jon enthralled me from the start. 

With You Animal Machine, Sikelianos tackles the dauntingly illusive yet nonetheless dominating figure of her maternal grandmother, a free-spirited gypsy cat-woman who enjoyed a period of minor stardom crisscrossing the Midwestern burlesque circuit. Early on in the book, under a listing of "Names and Aliases" we read that not only is Sikelianos named after The Golden Greek ("Eleni (her father called her)") but that the Greek's given name on her birth certificate was Helene Pappamarkou, her mother called her Elaine or Elayne, and that among her many stage names were Marco the Cat Girl, Melena the Leopard Girl, and Melanie the Snake Dancer. She was also known as "Elaine Marko, sultry exotic," The Feral Child (the alias which comes to best represents her in Sikelianos's memory in the work at hand), and had unstated secret names.

As similarly holds true for the writing in Book of Jon, Sikelianos must contend with her own mistaken or incomplete remembrances, as well as those of others. In addition, there are numerous gaps and more rumor than reliable accounting to be found in what few records exist concerning The Golden Greek. Yet working as a poet, she revels in exploiting the opportunity these deficiencies allow for improvising the instatement of her own mythic tale to overlay upon any historical fact.

Amongst the many newspaper clippings for performances, photographs, and assorted ephemera gathered from out her grandmother's private papers, Sikelianos offers her own anecdotal rework of a typical biographical accounting. Weaving back and forth between poems, fragments, interviews, imagined dialogue, historical reverie, and more, Sikelianos tells her version of The Golden Greek's life. This encompasses her stage career, five marriages (in no particular order: a dwarf, a gangster, a drunk, an abuser; "It just didn't work out for her"), the daughters she gave away and then recovered again, her peripatetic wandering, and a final stint taking over a roadside mineral and gem store ("rock shop") in the dusty California desert of Inyo County.

At this stage in Sikelianos's poetic output, it is not too surprising or an unwelcomed development that her publications have begun bleed together. The reoccurring presence of California throughout You Animal Machine, as home and hearth, where she was raised and knew her grandmother, brings to mind The California Poem, her book-length poem concerning her home state, which mixes history with geology, serving as a broad background for her subsequent work.

The California Poem, published in 2004, represents her first deep dive ("saturation job" poet Charles Olson called it) into a research-oriented poetic project and naturally serves to round out the larger trajectory of her interests. In this regard and when combined with her poetic filling in of gaps in the scant information available regarding her subject, You Animal Machine possesses the feeling of never being quite finished. It retains all the rough edges of a project mid-evolving into final form that hasn't stalled yet remains nonetheless left in medias res.

However, there's nothing detrimental about the at times unfinished and raw appearance of this work. Indeed, the lasting effect is to only positively make the work all the more engaging. Having, as it were, the seams on display only enhances the visibility of how deeply Sikelianos is immersed in the material. This book is a part of her identity, of her own sense of being. She gives testament not only to her grandmother's life, but also to her mother's and her own life, as well as her daughter's future.

In her searching for answers that will not yield, and her courage of locating her own responses -- creating her own story to fill in for the material she lacks -- Sikelianos delivers more than a traditional narrative ever would. Her embrace of the messiness of a life she seeks to better understand opens opportunity for discovery of fresh possibilities to come from poets working with personally relevant historical narrative material. Readers are granted entrance into an unconventional method of storytelling Sikelianos has made all her own.

You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek) by Eleni Sikelianos
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566893602
126 pages