The time-presence prescience of Eleni Sikelianos's Pindar

'Palmier glorieux,' painting by Isabelle Pelissier.

An eloquent and intricate mythmaking propels the fame-seeking in the oh-so-precious collection from the classical world, full and rich in four books, of Victory Odes (sometimes known from the Greek as Epinikia) assigned to the Greek poet Pindar. Coming down to us from the fifth century BCE, this trove of wildly appealing poetry is self-celebrated in Pindar’s own person and, whether or not on cue, has been preserved for the modern reader more substantially than some other exemplars of pre-Hellenistic lyric.

From our world of today, we have an outstanding example of mythopoetics in Eleni Sikelianos’s The California Poem. What is carried down to us in Sikelianos’s book-length poem, moreover, represents a still greater span of time if considered, as the self-named and equally self-realizing poet does, in terms of geologic time (e.g., “Scattered across Precambrian rock …”).[1] Yet this stretching out into the natural world does not prevent her from continuing “Eleni” in her forward self-directing: “Listen: who’s creating the world / here, Eleni or opossums?” (58).

What Eleni Sikelianos lets into her polytropical, megaprotological study of California is both revealing and poetic. Time extended informs the reach of this poem more than as simple horizon and differently from a frame set in place to indicate parameters. Instead, Eleni’s expansions — and confessions and compressions and Cartesian dips — of thoughts of time, history, home, natural history, and landscape combine into an instituting principle to which the poet securely and boldly holds. The quality of her aim lies, in other words, in her very setting forth. And the setting forth itself, even before the many iterations to come, is of great importance. As Eleni begins — transparently having a problem doing so — it is a dream time, the special time of creation myths cornered in illo tempore by specialists in myth,[2] that radiates first place and first form:

I want to tell you about the dream. The California is a paradise lake with colorful animals dream.
The when I go back to my homeland California is a paradise I am happy for you dream

We were going ever so through the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus & shadow road in the
“opposite of blindness” & “relinquished speech” (12)

Greek scholars are foremost in recognizing creation and recreation, initiating and reinitiating, as the proper subjects of mythical transformations.[3] This poet and California her subject undergo a similar retracing. Yet their dream will prove not to pleasure the paradisal state (rarely enjoyed by Greek heroes themselves, it would seem). For Eleni, the mythic invention of all renewing and all healing will not be adequate to a different force she recognizes, an origin if she wants it to be, namely the “hedon eden” that she confers “with my eyes closed” on those heady glories that rush into her spectacular terrain (16). Or will it, this creation-myth status, prove good as gold?

In one of the Sicilian odes Pindar has a golden lyre to go along with his lordly lyre in the important lines quoted below from another Sicilian ode. Maybe Eleni harbors similar prognostications. In any event, she hits the surf enthusiastically and with great blush and foam and fervor in her scurrying, smoothly and not smoothly, while the initial self-renewing vision pre-times many initiations to come. Every feeling of the singing of her California is already guarded, every projection already foreshadowing the squandered and diminishing, the searched and remembered, institutions of light and declamations of light that will reflect and illumine in a historicizing wave-trend showing itself, despite the flux and despite the glamour, to be compromised diversely within the new and the near of her turning and returning.

Eleni’s poem is, to be precise about it, diminished at the outset. By comparison to “Αριστον μεν υδωρ,”[4] “water is best,” so famously revered as the magno-quirky introductory assertion of Pindar and of the Victory Odes, and so full of promise of fecundity and healing, much of California enjoys, among many things good and bad, water in its scarcity. Hence the burden of “the dusty eucalyptus the dusty eucalyptus,” not to mention Death and heaps of sand and sand dollars and all manner of “sandbox” uncoverings (“[a]ll that happened in the history books … a little sandbox with a bone-tool …” [42]) and the “world mathematically” understood as “curl of thirstling sound” (100).

But it is not from these aspects alone that Eleni’s means of retrospection outscore and outpartch those origins Pindaric and beyond, however brilliantly they may beam. It is not only the urge and the hope, though they too connect wildly, extensively. It is the state of California seeming to be in a ton of trouble like no other, in a pinch unparalleled in its being hard to grip or even track; for California permits a lengthy attention to history, has come into its being through a far-flung and scattered evolution that, though truly meriting its mythopoetic allure, hotly complicates the poet’s range of choices. California, her the poet’s California — what subject, what panorama, what sensation — effectuates a lengthy inundation of past forwarded to present whose conditions unsettle and then challenge the possibilities for a personal approach to writing.

Writing California is, in short, writing large in a hazardous and disparately bordered field. By contrast, the variations of Pindar are performed from time to time as a kind of service to city-states finding themselves at various stages of still-emerging and still-threatened wealth and grandeur. Professional poet and victory-party impresario are one important side to Pindar’s own mythic dimensions and pretensions. Large but not so overwhelming, in the same breath they surprise and startle in word and metaphor and presence; at the same time they are billed wisely and choreographed not only viscerally but rigorously too.

With some differences, then, but similarly poised atop deep cultural foundations, the poems of Pindar and The California Poem devote their shining projections to the spirit of public poetry. The respective charges of The California Poem ignite a winning and, for a time, easy pursuit of its expansive goals, naming its prizes in vaster and yet ever more precise measure. Of generous length but of a length suited to public occasions, Pindar’s poems do not serve as all-encompassing models for Sikelianos’s project. Pindar frames his historiographies, his typologies, in song and dance and display: all-out revelry, in short, or “κωμος” (Olympian 4, Olympian 6, and Olympian 8). The purpose of the odes thus sets a limiting condition (for us), framing them to be highly enjoyable but marking a jumping off point to something bigger from Sikelianos’s poem while she conceives her own welcoming delights. This much is true, that a festive spirit is not missing from either poet’s stating of their states. By the same token, moreover, a pointed reference to Pindar (“angel but Love but when I laugh the brontosaurus / laughs with me // And just as internal summer shall heal or hinder Pindar” [32]), and repeated turns on the famous opening to the second Victory Ode from the collection (Olympian 2), key an invitation — by door, by window, by sacred portal — to crucial elements of the historical unfolding that we find so splendidly aspiring to the finish and scope of the poem known as, as it becomes, and finds its tonalities in, “California.” To inquire into Sikelianos’s conception of the famous Pindar is to understand more fully the poet’s own flair for inquiry. And it may illumine even more, this train of expressions from that Greek-speaking, that myth-inducing world.

Where shall we begin? Indeed that is what Pindar himself asks:

Αναξιφορμιγγες υμνοι,
τινα θεον, τιν’ ηρωα, τινα δ’ ανδρα κελαδησομεν;
(Olympian 2, ll. 1–2)[5]

The Victory Odes of Pindar confer the values of victory on athlete, crew, and benefactor. They are, above all, instituting forms of happiness. They create the myths, and they create the greatness, both of which they receive gratefully and are proud. Take it as mythico-monumental. They endorse in the very same instituting action the patterns that more than anything else confer these values. The “what … what … what” pattern of the second line blazes chiefly, and most famously, among these poetic discoveries of Pindar’s; and it is this phrasing, of course using the English “what” where Pindar repeats the word “τινα” (in the accusative case), that provides the repeated refrain that ties Eleni’s poem in with the ancient model.

Before showing the pattern in my English version, it should prove helpful to note how Pindar’s meter is widely variable. The poet achieves his aura of splendor and intricate charm through what might be dubbed the “poikilos” effect. One of the words Pindar uses to reflect upon his activities and their extension, ποικιλος means “many-colored” as an effect of embroidery. The partial synonym δαιδαλος is based on knowing and can mean “curiously wrought” and also “dazzling,” to my liking for the Pindaric context. The two occur together in Olympian 1 in association with μυθοι or “tales” or “speeches,” the Greek word that fills in obviously as the basis for the concept of “myth,” although here the entire phrase is pejorative. Thus, as the poet uses the terms, “poikilos” and “daidalos” (the latter used twice in verb forms in Olympian 1 and once in Olympian 2 and connected for us obviously with the well-known Daedalus) may allude to the astonishing flexibility of choice wherein Pindar’s poetics benefit (in part) from the complex system of “choral” meters that is the pride and joy of ancient Greek poetry. By “choral” we mean a general kind of meter or rhythm and in turn think of the dance practice that contributes, with its breathtaking combinations, to what is decidedly thrilling about Pindar’s poetry.[6] Accordingly, my version of these lines to which Sikelianos alludes again and again aims at this rhythmic exuberance. Double choriambs, the “choriamb” being the basic and standard step in Greek “choral” lyric, are hinted at (“[what strutting he]ro” and “[hero what mere] mortal”; brackets inserted to indicate the choriambic echoes), and the stresses and pauses of the second half of the line match the swift lilt of the finishing cretics in the Greek:

Songs of praise and devotion of the championing lyre,
what god what strutting hero what mere mortal shall we celebrate?

Pindar’s second line (see above) is parsed by the editor Alexander Turyn as a dochmiac followed by three cretics. In other words, it exemplifies, as does this particular ode (Olympian 2) generally, a metrical system of individual units being patched together to form medium-length and hypermetrical lines of distinct rhythmic freedom. It is exciting, and the dochmiac is the most werewolfianly wild and the most irregular unit in Greek meter, on top of which the parsing required in this instance sports an option to start either with a short syllable followed by a long syllable (Greek meter being based on a notion of syllable length) or by resolving the long into two shorts and thereby creating a run of three short syllables right at the beginning. Moreover, whereas the next two units are the simple cretic having the form long-short-long (Creeley’s “gotta go” in stress accents), once again the second long is resolved into two shorts as more of these triple-short-syllable actions become part of the scansion, in fact two more instances of this running — all making for wonderful speed and thrill, and even enhancing the majesty of the hypermetrical line.

Among the modern languages, English is well suited to metrical displays of the kind found in Pindar’s Victory Odes. In English, an extensive vocabulary, every different kind of word formation, every different kind of word accent, and the grammar of non-inflected word-end formations together realize an astonishing verbal versatility, along with every possible openness to rhythmic specialty. There are extra wrinkles in ancient Greek metrics, but contemporary Americans can surely do the sparkling ancient formations justice when they feel them and swing to them and syncopate with them.

Blessed, then, with proliferating options, Sikelianos accommodates Pindar’s opulent metrics by treating of an edge, a literary sweep and soar, a flamboyant (even) manner and personality that The California Poem discovers. As noted, the dream begins as a rush to spectacular vision. It would indeed seem that the outpouring is spectacular. Yet the images are thick and glommable and polluted — one way of putting it. It nevertheless is spectacular, if for no other reason than by virtue of these energetic metrics recalling, by feel and to some degree systematically, the style of Pindar, now imposed as a rhythm that could aptly be named earth-shaking. Style and rhythm enable the poet, by design, to involve the mythmaking that is Pindar’s.

Thus in effect, and by its action and movement, the writing reassembles what institutes all the feeling of Sikelianos’s effort to model and refashion a new poem, a really creative poem. Strutting her own brand of confidence, she appeals in her rhythms to that ancient world where shimmering confidence naturally harmonizes and brashly composes the melody of its myths for the celebratory occasion. Here is how Eleni celebrates, and truthfully what sort of world it is to be celebrating:

The dental imprint of California
is gravelly, epileptic, spasm
of a sea-borne bungled broken Coastal Range of ridges & spurs with localized names

parking lots littered of glittering dead dented cadillacs

scum-fringed greenfingered gully muck silent in its ditch by
oak of tentacular brow & birds
shoot up quilling like grapeshot

my trailer park’s in the shady ambrosial arroyo of nothing native
stands of embryonic eucaplyptic bluegums frilling on the ridge &
tractor dust like a dress for us
Everybody’s halfcracked with halfteeth missing and ideas of almost-functioning

shipping & receiving depts. near the train tracks collide, hillsides
scrubbed in wild brighting mustard

unknown modes of road wind back the black hot gila monster tarmac beading up
          into ripped hills

pinioned slats & sacks stacked up against
mudslides, the night-

boxed lemons loaded into truck-backs in the dark by brown bodiless hands (18)

This is the rush where the personal feelings, whose importance must not be overlooked, reside and where hope somewhat against hope stands to be clarified. The movement forward is reflected in the sense of sweep that characterizes certain early sections of the poem especially, and that here futures forward for another five pages to the bottom of page 23.

The patterns in Pindar’s odes are similar and different, perhaps like jazz-informed swirls of similarity and difference. Thus they also unfold in sweeping fashion, but in formalizing bridges over bridges of strophe, antistrophe, and epode one after another in strict metrical succession, although often with metrical variation, and in any event with so much line-to-line variety that the formalism seems hardly to bear the term. The first strophe of Olympian 1 looks a lot on the page like the passage quoted above (with, on the page printed in landscape, “unknown modes … ripped hills” appearing as one very long line). The resemblance between sections of Sikelianos’s poem and Pindar, it would clearly appear, is not at all insignificant. The line-shaping of this strophe, with editor Alexander Turyn’s wide-angled lens, is relevant and instructive:

Αριστον μεν υδωρ, ο δε χρυσος αιθομενον πυρ
ατε διαπρεπει νυκτι μεγανορος εξοχα πλουτου· [7]
ει δ’ αεθλα γαρυειν
ελδεαι, φιλον ητορ,
μηκεθ’ αλιου σκοπει
αλλο θαλπνοτερον εν αμεραι φαεννον αστρον ερημας δι’ αιθερος,
μηδ’ Ολυμπιας αγωνα φερτερον αυδασομεν·
οθεν ο πολυφατος υμνος αμφιβαλλεται
σοφων μητιεσσι, κελαδειν
Κρονου παιδ’ ες αφνεαν ικομενους
μακαιραν Ιερωνος εστιαν,

Remember that Greek meter is based on syllable length. Shown here is the scheme for this first strophe (actually for each of the strophes and antistrophes in Olympian 1). Short syllables get a curved bowl, long syllables a bar, and, where there is an option of one or the other or of a resolution of one long into two shorts, the one indicator is placed on top of the other:

The first line, in which water stands forth and so does gold as a gleaming blaze, linked in the next line with “leading men of great wealth” (as translated a bit adventurously), signals the choral scheme because of the presence of the “choriamb.” Four syllables are arranged chiastically as two shorts skipping in between the accompanying two longs. With the “iamb,” by contrast, the basic unit for dialogue in ancient Greek drama, you get alternating shorts and longs, also in a four-syllable group, though also with certain permitted variations and with the first syllable in fact being either short or long.

To return to the magnificence of this first strophe, the first line unfolds as a choriambic grouping identified as “glyconic” followed by a choriambic grouping identified as “pherecratean,” and the two make up the wonderful rolling length of what is called, with appropriate excitement, a “priapean.” Meanwhile, the magnificence, along with dazzling rhythms, along with “poikilos” arrangements, develops as a theme. First of all, understand wealth and success as enjoying honor in the poet’s moral universe where they come with “areta.” This accompanying “virtue” takes manifold forms. It is presupposed that the triumphant subject of the Victory Ode bring into the picture not only skill in the contest, but skill in warfare and outstanding exhibition of generosity, particularly with respect to civic life (where it is the tyrannos, or properly βασιλευς, a sort of king who is being celebrated: βασιλευς twice in Olympian 1, and elsewhere; “tyrannos” with general reference in Pythian 3), including the provision of material abundance, crops and sheep and so forth, in addition to an honest and just mode of conduct generally. By nature meant to love and admire (maybe by duty), the poet-singer either praises these traits or in more than one instance encourages the leader to act in his best interests. Often piquant mythical examples, more often persuasive gnomic utterances, push these reminders.

The rest of the strophe plays indirectly to advice of this kind by posing the prominence of the sun, surprisingly conspicuous day-star in pale, empty sky-stream, in relation to the son of Kronos and all-administrating god-procurer of extensive holdings. Zeus holds and holds dear his Olympia and also his Syrakusa, Sicilian seat of his divinity and the prosperous seat (ες αφνεαν ... εστιαν) of his favorite the tyrannos (βασιλευς) Hieron. By adding praise and blame to the process, the poet and entertainer includes himself in that devotion of good and bright and strong properties and qualities, and with his plenteous and tricky skills does what is themis, just as in the next verses, marking the first antistrophe in the ode’s scheme of things and illuminations, Hieron could and does attend to this just and right scepter (θεμιστειον ος αμφεπει σκαπτον). In this splendid manner Hieron both bestows benefits on his community and lives up to his individual calling and renewed fame. They are his and the poet’s glory and audience both.

It is easy to miss the penetrating nature of the correspondences among divine plotholder, tyrannos (or βασιλευς) new on the western scene establishing his emerging city-state, and Pindar the poet, though from elsewhere, being part of it all. It is not just that the different actors in excellence (whether identified as “areta” or, as is the case here, by a descriptive phrase, “gold above the wealth that comes with a great man” [χρυσος … μεγανορος εξοχα πλουτου], which could imply for the leader a shiny wealth greater than wealth itself) are depicted in combined and parallel performances. It is not that mutatis mutandis we are in the same boat, even though coming over to Sicily in a boat had a lot to do with it. God, hero, and human do not simply inhabit corresponding spheres. It is, better, what Mary Lefkowitz describes in stirring detail as an overlapping of roles coming out of Pindar’s “remarkable ability to express more contemporary concerns by restructuring traditional myth and language.”[8] The coordinated relations establish a pulse of back and forth and give and take. This kind of interaction will inform our observations, but not of what it is, not fully appreciated it would seem, if not concomitantly felt in the special and variable rhythms that Pindar discovers.

Remember, therefore, that it is the poet who makes this happen while he creates it, creates, for example, a performance suitable to the occasion. Pindar creates an order of lineation and syntactical groups prescribing involved connections in varied and complicated metrical designs, in layers of form that though touching base in pregnant contrasts ineluctably repeat throughout a particular ode, such being their importance for the most part. Quick interchanges are possible, always and in addition, and are key. Complex and often visually striking, the forms realize the very same rhythm of back and forth and give and take. Indeed, they donate that rhythm. The hypermetrical lines are of this sort; and the medium-length structures are of that sort; even a shorter and yet entreating type will be thrown in now and then. All of the differences of line length, all of the patterning decked out in various ways while consistently forwardly surging, reflect and have a large role in displaying the mutually dependent relations and their happy and, if for monitory purposes, persuasive connections.

Two lines not from Olympian 1 but from the first antistrophe of Olympian 2 illustrate simply the principle:

οφθαλμος, αιων δ’ εφεπε μορσιμος, πλουτον τε και χαριν αγων
γνησιαις επ’ αρεταις.

In the context of acknowledging Theron’s success (with the help of his family before him) in settling and enriching the city of Akragas, the modern Agrigento, in Sicily, the poet salutes good fortune, wealth, and favor coming upon recognized acts of areta or recognized qualities of areta. Thus the long line contains the idea of wealth, to which the idea of areta pays back a short line, a contrasting or, better, “bouncing-back” short line.

Meanwhile, the connections the poet of Olympian 1 makes are something of the myth the poet makes, in reviving myths known and found of course, but in instituting those corresponding origins, where the son of Kronos and the gleaming sky are evoked, and in reinstituting them as if creating a reality both from those origins and also for all the players (including especially the poet himself), he does so as if for the first time.

All this and repeated references to shining (cf., for the moment, the Californian’s “having no tan to work on I was / working on my self, shiny shiny [22]), to appearances, and to Zeus’s place in the order, all with allusions not just to heroics but to cosmogonic and theogonic myths, as well as the evocative origins of a single place, the place to be demonstrated, to be lived in (and as, so to speak), even for the professional poet, and to be celebrated. So it goes in California, the reader can sense, if inclined to seek the poem’s order, that of the poem that becomes and is California, a sort of access enjoyed today but not quite similarly by Pindar.

Eleni’s line arrangements and order of purpose seek the finding of lived origins. They sense, they tactilely sense, the finding of the place California and of her place in it, and achieve much the same rhythmic and musical effects, although, at least in the long line from the passage quoted above, they will do so in and for a disturbed, messy, mucky, and earthily sensed and intuited landscape. California brings some aspects of myth, of feeling and of displacing in a world that, if great, is nevertheless compromised in its rapid descent to gunk and decay, when you look at it honestly: “scum-fringed greenfingered gully muck silent in its ditch by” (18; from the passage quoted above). The bright cosmogony that Pindar takes from myth by recreating the birth of Zeus and associated plots and theogonies linked thereto, e.g., Κρονου παιδ’ from the tenth line of the strophe quoted above, here devolves into a geography that is on the one hand more richly descriptive than anything in Greek poetry (due to the sheer accumulation of junk should you not accept the other reasons), and yet on the other hand is debased, and ripe for repair: “I made // birthmarks at the napes of the necks” (129, from an important stretch of writing continuing through 131). Both features, the power of the description and the difficult appeal of what is to be described and named, are the result of an immense amount of time. Both appear in the poem as a result of the poet’s late and supremely advanced historicity. Yet, above it all or through it all, the stirring of rhythmic patterns, the whole dance, the very shaping itself, come in clearly from Pindar, and you can see evidence of the effects due to different line lengths here just as in Pindar.

What is more, the special hypermetrical line just quoted features a pronounced choriambic moment (in my brackets), “[greenfingered gul]ly,” which is itself part of the glyconic that is the standard line-type of Greek choral lyric. These features are followed in the second half of the line by a rhythm similar to what was noted in the master allusion to Pindar, from Olympian 2, and which my version imitates. Pindar’s line and Sikelianos’s line both veer swiftly toward a conclusion (albeit with a strong enjambment in Sikelianos’s line), the acceleration in both helped by a striking syntactical group containing a string of three short syllables: “silent in its ditch by.” Little syllables in a row are not supposed, by habit and by some good insight, to belong to the poetic line in English, but the case is different here for what Eleni Sikelianos is attempting, substantially by design. Conveniently apt for comparison, her line has the further merit of expressing syllable length in addition to stress accent to complete the metrical form.

In general (it would seem), Eleni’s use of ancient Greek forms is by design and reflects a good deal of exquisite attention, but not that of a direct passage from a poem of the 2000s CE to a poem from the 470s BCE. Her use of Pindar serves not as strict formal device but as a guide for what, in practical terms, is the construction of a beautiful statement from many possible sources. Pindar’s Victory Odes are first or nearly first in our long and lengthening (we hope) literary past just waiting to leap into California’s arms. One fortunate exemplar, and she will pan for others almost without telling herself to, is James Joyce’s strict application of Homer’s dactylic hexameter. So in Ulysses the repeated phrase “cracked lookingglass of a servant” (cf. Eleni’s “halfcracked” [18]) stands out. As an epic formula attending exquisitely to the second half or homeward turn of Homer’s line, Joyce’s image could fill the last three-and-a-half dactylic feet out of six, and since there are only a few choices in this regular meter, the rhythm resonates brilliantly and unmistakably. Meanwhile, the phrase stings with irony; so too Eleni’s phrase, which likens to Joyce’s major idiom, particularly the word “greenfingered,” and which can be either taken as communicating the choriambic unit or as encompassing the complete line unit known as the glyconic, elevates its form in the service of a dissipated and thusly revealing image.

All of this is rich, and has to be. Poetry as verbal plasticity and metrical bedazzlement, and of penetrating multiplicity and complication, is very, very rich, and the metrical scheme tabulating the numbers of the verbal reach in Pindar’s Olympian 1, as shown above, or something very like it, could serve very well for this page (18). In all its brilliance and invigoration it is one of the most stellar passages, however earthy it may be, in Sikelianos’s long and industrious poem.

As mythopoetics, to return to the shine of a major discourse, Eleni’s poetry-making in The California Poem illustrates, and in so doing enacts, her initiation into the sacredness of her world. Hers the big and glowing other, her world entertains the idea of California and then becomes California, as it only can be, as when her writing repeats the changes that are the creation of the world California. Indeed, the poem’s “Prologue” speaks to an absorbing newness, in images that will be probed and polluted (as noted), and has the flavor of the opening chapters of Genesis (“After the last light on clouds, darkness came laying over the known world” [7]) while calling, in restricted lines centered on the page almost vertically and closing the prologue, for regenerative tones:

Now: to let go what we knew
to not be tight, but
toney; to find a world, a word
we didn’t know (9)

A project of poignant emotional quickness, the poem of California is the poetry of Eleni is the phenomenological, because it “shines,” recreation and sanctification-cum-stratification of the world, in time. Sassy-driving, and sad, not Sadducee but a saddened she coming down from mountain mists (16), Eleni duly tells her California anew. She saves it when she creates it. She breaks it forth to her heart’s content and rue; and it is on this effort that the melancholy of historicity, i.e., hers, that of her being in time, that of her California in full and infinity-hailing extension, shines. Not a rolling up of the past, but a presence in meant time, her California can now be nothing other than a starting over, if only for starters.

Historicity, oddly over and over again, is Eleni’s personalized stamp of writing, is writing “her story,” or better “(t)history.” The historicity of California is where the place — her place — renews and relives origins, and so not expressly but only impliedly is devoted to the supplementarity that defines all writing. How the poem reaches to mythopoetics is not easy to determine. It is perhaps because it seems so unusual in its sacralizing commitment, showing the attempt, provided the reader may really look through it, of herself creating the world by this very extended poem, that it acquires this commitment to explanatory depth as well. By piercing through but paradoxically encompassing all forms of the poetry and the world, Eleni writes herself and writes California, as instance and initiation, without which nothing else can be, and almost surreptitiously with which, no pressure from angling aside, the story, what she calls again and again her “dream” (even when it seems no longer to be that vision’s aspect), can be sold, in other words, can be enriched and magnified, told, retold, firstly told, to the end, obvious but not so easy of refined expression as with which she, Eleni, may still glow, of realizing it, but by all means, if possible, of fully realizing it, fully standing in the chances before it dissolves.

Yet you will see that Eleni, not only lifted but in beauty tumbling, has other birds to fly. History being an inquiry, it aims for its own method in its being in time. The surpassing of all curiosity thought visibly possible, Eleni’s poem aims for a kind of Dasein whereby it defines place and existence in conspicuous measure of all-out risk-taking. As a consequence, it is not at all surprising that Eleni’s place and her and California’s origins are altogether much about geometry, hers being the measure of earth, metrics in earth wisdom, the earth standing and the earth as yet another adventure, in shapes too primal and too rich for numbers were it not for their rhythm. A moving forward in waves of splendid writing entails impression of land, and so ocean is a watery land, even dust and light gloriously afloat from geometry (130). Such rhythms may signal the geodic aspect, the earth-song geometry that Eleni affirms, e.g., to cordon off a later section with

Bright spores of daylight,
Belle de Nature, come see

4 x 4 destruction:
me (119)

or not so evidently imbued with sorrow (and not so much later but in a transitional forward-gesturing section), the phrase “a cool geometry” closing an inner segment and putting the observer in time-space with eyes heading left-right (82) that graces a one-page section propped in turn on two pages of elaborate “Timetable.” In this section’s close, the “phenomenological” theme of creative appearing sheds a tentative hopefulness: “(An earthly beauty shines / through the broken lights)” (82). The references to “earth” in such enclosings, such delineations, do not prove but rather contribute to the “geodic,” earth-singing character of The California Poem. So in the section-ending affirmation of “horology” as opposed to “geology,” thinking of pattern and shape supports the feeling: “In this horology, ‘twist the tide pool and the stars into the pattern of paleontology and time’” (174), where the all-important bordering — and oozing and murky and soft — seashore participates in poetic form, and not only this once. Or in a landscape, as in “country measured out” (139), this geometry is defined, with more of that measuring, and with a scientifically secure instrumentation in numbers, where Eleni images and imagines for herself (it will also be her shelf):

now empty California
of its patterns
of maximum

in my little 2 ft. x 2 ft. plot
of thought (106)

The interest in myth as California seems to point to the Chumash, the people and language of the place (52; 80–81), as well as to flora and fauna regarded in their special illuminations, how they occasion eloquence in discursive maneuvers among life-science questions. More intuitively, the myth and origins of California take expressive form as this “cool geometry,” this taking a stand by means of taking measure of very Earth, of precious and beloved Earth. This from Edmund Husserl’s essay, famous among his shorter compositions, titled “The Origin of Geometry,” bears on the metaphorical position toward which Sikelianos grounds her own assertions. Uncertainty, in support of confidence and feeling, remains alive and well with Sikelianos, whereas uncertainty and a concern with grounds and horizons trouble the philosopher no end:

All questioning and demonstrating which is in the usual sense historical presupposes history [Geschichte] as the universal horizon of questioning, not explicitly, but still as a horizon of implicit certainty, which, in spite of all vague background-indeterminacy, is the presupposition of all determinability, or of all intention to seek and to establish determined facts.[9]

Husserl aims at the ideal structure of the foundation of geometrical science. Revealing the structural principles of this origin, which reserves for itself its occurrence, and as origin its status of having necessarily taken place and being determinate and knowable with apodictic certainty, would apply an equivalent status to the origins of the other sciences and of all knowledge in general. To sustain, or imagine, the origin of geometry, Husserl relies on historicism as speaking directly to a historical a priori which, importantly, establishes and pays homage to horizons for its historical meaning-content. A crucial undertaking grabs hold, necessary to save philosophy and to save western culture in their time of need; it relates to a concept of horizons insofar as they provide a basis for constructing the ideal (and true) knowledge of not only geometrical science but indeed all of the cultural constructs that are in this crisis.

What Husserl means by the concept of horizons, however, is something like a vast extending out in all directions. To be sure, it would have to be from a certain perspective that this extending outward is understood. Indeed, in his short essay “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” Husserl considers all the angles, or mentions them. The historicity of a subject finding a home in the world, the kind there is for humans and shouting of horizons, would offer accounts for many relations and many perspectives on spatiality. Yet the levels of experience thus examined devolve to the observation that people, however individually constituted, “all exist for one another in open, undetermined horizons of earth-space” (228). Openness and indeterminacy of horizons thus phrased do not produce a clear picture. By contrast, “The Origin of Geometry” offers in addition a negative focus, having that much as analytical advantage, where Husserl links “horizon” with a “surrounding,” a present surrounded by history, and furthermore “surrounded by an openly endless horizon of unknown actualities” (266). Appearances of existence to Husserl thus signal the importance of existence in its own right, but in an overly stretched frame. Nevertheless, seeing phenomenologically looks forward to sensibilities about life, and specifically about horizons, and thus occasions much further tightened and expanded inquiry.

So for The California Poem, to the extent this picture arrives true to form, all the blows and blossomings of a poetry on full alert, motivated and energized in a historicity of, in a sense, knowing the not-there (e.g., but only in one sense, “my ideal dream of a landscape dream in which / I am not” [131]); in a self-consuming and self-conscious attitude towards drawing the California that is one’s subject in the form of eloquent actualities; and in all manner of thrilling and deeply sobering facts and situations, determined anthropologically, personally, through documentation, in the study of natural history, in any number of ways made available and all of them richly poetical, all these determined as the actualities of beautiful expressive formations, are or could be thought of as conditioned by the horizon of the unknown. Husserl identifies the situation in time and space that gives rise to the science of geometry as the factual and ideal fiction of what is a priori self-evident and apodictically certain. He gives it to us as a fiction, upon which, granted, epistemological inquiry may build. But what he gives is conceived out of an “openly endless horizon.” Including everything and therefore nothing merely frames the experience without elucidating or, say, realizing it while having the merit of affording for the tester of realities a two-fold insight into Dasein as at once In-the-World and Not-in-the-World. Although it is possible to be struck by the endlessness of horizons, the task becomes one of enjoying the concept of horizon as pertaining already, as Husserl himself might notice, to the “cool geometry” of this heady rush and glory of the writing of a place in the world, in California, its, Sikelianos’s, and ours. Known or unknown, we may grasp these horizons such as they are. We may approach, even as a starting out and repeating initiation, the horizons of our In-the-World experience for what they truthfully are.

What, then, is the character, what is the Gestalt, what are the revealingly and shiningly configured horizons that we may seek to celebrate California? By the way, it could be an actual horizon in a geographically defined space, such as the special horizon of sea and earth, and specifically the California coastline that so fascinates the poet and institutes some of her best writing in the sand.

Eleni’s poem is historical in the form in which she as subject relates to the land as subject. The presentation of her own character, along with the state of California as character, defines this history, this (t)history, in certain relations to a span of time reaching to its greatest extent and considered from a number of different perspectives, and as the coordination of them. As temporality this writing, so too as spatiality or as the geography that is naturally one of its aspects, relates to its subject in terms of a formation or perhaps Gestalt for which the concept of geometry, when she names it, serves as a clear, distinct, and appropriate metaphor. Her writing succeeds most importantly as a mapping of horizons, a precise drawing of the “curve of horizon.” The spatiality and temporality connect in the form that constitutes the historicity of her undertaking. The historicity of Eleni’s writing is worthy of Dasein in the sense that her existence is a defining and constitution of her place in California, her geometrical, one could say, and brilliant appearance in the vastness of time and space of California; not, however, as precisely this extension but rather as the horizons that are so beautifully rendered in the poem, that emerge front and center in and through the writing’s sweep and panache, and assume this particular constitutive form that can only be understood as the writing develops, as it shines and appears, to stay with the phenomenological theme in which the mythmaking may be pursued.

On the one hand, the myth is this shining, and so is recreative. On the other hand, the very layout of text, image, and signs expresses this covalent geometry. The poet may illustrate the nature of her existence in history with a geometrical situating. Further to those moments of emblematic elegance, she unfurls her eloquent writing in section after section, as this geographical and geological outpouring of crucial fact and fictions, all playing into a context, the context of her poem and her California, where the writing positions itself geometrically. This geometry, this discovered and creative form of her measuring her Earth and her place in it, is borne out, one may feel. The poem really draws its measures and its horizons out and really configures them, as opposed to a type of metaphorical prospect not aptly describing the approach here taken, that of inviting the reader merely to interpret the poem in such terms.

Horizons take their meaning, and a kind of place, though many places at once, from an openness to something. It is not an indiscriminate openness to a totality sensed. Totality can never be achieved, but it can be sensed, and its being there perforce reconnoiters as a willy-nilly openness; but it is not that kind of openness for which a poem may become a myth of creation. Horizons for Sikelianos have a connection to which her historical belonging opens itself as a meant and constituted openness, Martin Heidegger’s strictly constituted character of openness as “Erschlossenheit,” the character and means of Dasein being a part of being In-the-World and, still the world, one’s self-existence therein, or in California if you will. The leap into dance-rhythm and bedazzlement finds its potential, by act and by pure confidence, in being there where a really sensed sense — a personal and also geological historicity — mounts.

That way you can look to other horizons, the only way of finding California. Choice is quiet; Dasein is quiet; it has within it the wherewithal to go somewhere else, it has that as its constitutional invite, to find what it has to say, an agenbite of inwit bedeviled in the squelching, squiggly tallow-mulch of sea and sand.

The trick of a poem of this kind may be not to make the writing of the writing unravel in a series, not to take experience in as flowing, even of the exposition of writing as if one is merely to follow and follow some more. This writing of the writing of California compounds its back and forth, therefore, its give and take, in the coordinated backtracking, looking-through-to and anticipating, if we are lucky. Conceiving the poem of California ushers in its temporality, or Zeitlichkeit, what living and writing and writing California is and has and can become.

The California Poem is big, spanning the scores of feelings, of heartbreaks, the makings of hundreds of pages, hundreds of years, hundreds of lifetimes. It is magical from personal weight. The historicity that is its targeted subject comes from this weight and this involving emphasis, articulated in so many different ways, in so many forms of attention to the beauty of it. The beauty of it, who knew? And here attending could assume the face of caring:

Earlier, I had my elbow in the yellowest California, we talked

about the coin-shaped trapdoors on gastropods, as the possible versions

of a virgin California slipped away from me

into the geranium, scraggly

nasturtiums on the fire escape. Here in this living-

room there is no sea. Who

cares about the sea?

I do

because the sea

makes us land-like but think

sea-like                  because I can only ever think

about things swimming there; Delphinidae, which herald love, diligence

and swiftness

(and the constellation delphinus in the sky)

Issuing from the mouth of this animal is a flower: jessant, of a

jerkwater town at the back

of a branch-line train

where runny stars rain by

like eggs, golden

& locked, a hometown is a waiting place, a waiting place is

static inside the heel

I therefore developed longer toes for walking on floating vegetation (jacanidae)

the ancient celadon-and-shining agave lining the path all the way down to the sea (56)


Another passage apt for comparison, this page of writing points to the elemental themes, including fire dear to Heraclitus, that are the familiar architecture of Pindar’s Olympian 1. There is a big difference, however. Sea is her target, savior and hero of sorts, a certain gray and as we know “brackish” type of water, useful and generative but not by itself appropriate to what is connoted in Pindar’s “best water.” Thus water’s wonder introduces gorgeous writing in a section dedicated to flora and fauna issues and bearing the title “Biotic Community: Freshwater Marsh.” Water is an idea, true, but more plangently a swell of fascination for replete description:

Wherever shallow, standing water remains; along the coast in brackish loops, around

 springs, ponds, lakes, and sluggish streams.

 Common Tule, Bulrush, Cattails, sedge and spike rush, pondweed

 Predaceous diving beetle, Giant Water Bug, toadbug

 Gallinule, Coot, Marsh Wren, Redwinged Blackbird, Yellowthroat

 Pond turtles, Treefrogs, Garter snakes (104) 

A simple list is presented, and a charming place-form appears. Lines of exuberant rhythm, though not Pindaric, initiate hope in a world of exuberance by simply naming the names of life, the poet’s life. A section a few pages further on (110–11) will feature rhythms resembling Pindar’s choral variety and offer their own kind of difficult, scratched-out hope (What / is appearing [i.e., not disappearing]? This remains to be / named and seen.”; phrase in brackets mine, but supplied from passage’s context). Here on page 104 water, as it continues down the page as a theme, along with the everpresent “Gold Ruin,” governs as concept for a Dasein expressing itself in relations that, implying a history of essential import, are no different from other sets of relations constituted in history.

Whereas Sikelianos, poet, relates to sea, surge, and source in biodiverse and biometric life determinately known as topic of revered, sacred talk and form of scientific knowledge and naming, Pindar, poet, relates water to high flash and vector of Zeus and human scepter-bearing and heights-endowing brightness, both for renewal and recreation in πολυμαλωι Σικελιαι, “Sicily rich in apple-fruits or rousing of sheep-flocking,” the Sicily here named sounding like and being Sikelianos’s family’s namesake. Elementals and fertility and origins constitutively abide, with a difference in form of language and a boost in fact in discursive intricacy, wholly different as a yellowest form by contrast to bright goldenest gleaming, where the brightness beckons there and water supports, and like it or not in Pindar a different Dasein and different historicity, but Pindar’s not merely past and present and future in that order either, not by a long shot for Eleni Sikelianos in her hosting paradigms and processes that count vitally. So we find The California Poem stylized in anticipation of the ancient counterpart Sikelianos prompts, if she does not quite plot it, as well as flourishing out to a more fully informed history and a more fully directed historicity in its brave encounter with terrible time, but also and sweetly resonating Pindar, healing, even if just barely doing so, or just barely getting to the settling down to what has been done, what to do, what sing. Remarkably, Sikelianos’s poem aspires awash in a courageous uncertainty over the whole questioning brightness of it, the whole, to use the word from Pindar’s Greek and bannering the California mystique, “biotos.”

The California Poem is a poem of facts. It is a poem of science. It is a poem of the life sciences. It is a poem of βιοτος thus extended as potentiality for, perhaps, creation anew in Sikelianos’s “biotic communities” reenlivened in patches of anticipatory and impassioned writing. The poem is, at times, a poem of the geometry of the world in the formations that take place in tandem with the poet finding her lived, remembered, and felt place in the world, in her particular world (even when that also includes “purr Eddie” who “lies [lost] in the land of covalent ditches” [53]; bracketed insertion is mine). Strangely, a poem that means to assume great importance in the world of poetry today is a poem that does, or must, once the poet gets that feeling, which is a feeling despite the strangeness of it, include science as a major developmental theme. Historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) and temporality (Zeitlichkeit) come together in a brilliant succession of forms. Attending to the forms in a certain way, the Gestalt the writing shows itself to observe will open itself to possibilities and choice. Openness of horizons to writing of advanced historicity means that the choice comes and is taken. Historicity means overwhelming love for the task of California, whether or not there is another subject like it in fullness and sadness, and for terrain and sealand the brows thickening in loss.

Thus a geological-geodesical and geopolitical-anthropological timetable, celebrating as an all-encompassing and truthful history, leaves no sphere or region out, beginning with 12,500 years ago, when “[t]he Channel Islands are settled, ‘fire-reddened earth’; ‘glaciers tie up earth’s water’ (thus the islands were closer to shore)” (80). Thus having the form and appearance of leaving nothing out, the timetable goes simply, completely to “CURRENTLY” with plans at the Vandenberg Air Force Base and a connection thereto, not for the first time in the poem, from the aboriginal Chumash language, thus a truly native origin as historically posited in form and appearance. Thusly incorporating the discourse of science for its form and appearance splendored in aesthetic beauty, in appearance and form as the all-encompassing, really felt history of major moments of “Timetable,” the poem leaves no doubt as to the phenomenological, twice-truthful character of what it means by history, by California hers and ours. Science will loom large, burden especially of life science, saddened in its mythmaking preoccupation because of life’s diminishing; but note that in illuminating and enacting these colorful grounds the poem has blended into its sources, either gloaming or positively unglooming, this unexpected, this inescapably necessary, this indescribably celebratory charm.

Regardless of these and other great spans of time, the strength of The California Poem lies in its intimacy, insofar as the personality of the poet writing with her precise accents of advanced historicity develops by the guidance of poignant moments. How this exacting personal tone, both studious, to be very sure, and a flavor or affair of fun, of teenage and young-adult fun with many qualifications, can rate so highly with the aggressive paleontology of California writ immense is the question. Its (t)history provides the sure answer, where it is “horizon” in a meant sense that adds the real and the persuasive time to the poem and makes it great. It alone does that.

Poetry appears in grasp of Zeitlichkeit, for Eleni and for us. Her existence in California is the condition for her writing The California Poem, and this existence is effectively, it should become clear as the writing of the poem progresses, not that of being situated in this place during a particular time, her life, insofar as she leads her life in California, which would in turn be related to the whole life of California, namely its history, and therefore her history and our history. The poem’s beauty lies in relations that are in place very much to the contrary of that form of evident situating in this place and this time and the whole time. Eleni’s place in California comes through, and shines through, not as a datum in a continuum but as a direction and a forum, as the character and quality of her interest in California, and so as the topics or the topology of this interest. For Eleni, being in the world introduces concern, for our edulcoration, perhaps as being situated but not secured, conveyed in one’s place in the bolstering of confidence, not as existence always and everywhere, but because it is this beautiful California that is given and giving, for her place, and in a manner of speaking for our place:

What the little dangers what the large   What medicines will be

needed, collecting     California in the littoral

What was

indicated on the tide charts

under bridges, in bays, in North Beach

Chinatown, what was writ

in water, under wharves with

mussels clinging by byssus threads, stringy

grit-filled frilly girl lips (“The orange flesh of this mussel makes fine

                 fish bait and is also excellent as human food”) (170–71)


With this brand of interest, amplified by all of her special concerns, it comes about that all of the feelings about California take center stage; the melancholy, and joy and humor, and all of that great sadness in Eleni’s inevitable response to the impending loss and extinction, to that unavoidable loss, make their appearance. They persuade us with their beauty, and with their depth and charm, just as California is a destined realm hovering to persuade of belief in beauty. They and California join, in the Dasein-fleeting-floating movement and rhythm celebratory, all because of the way they emerge out of the repeated telling; because of the way, in gorgeous and exceedingly varied yet somehow consistent rhythms, they dream their interest in her California, and her poignantly illuminated caring for California. California and the idea of California, inside these gestures, form the instituting and empowering span of time in which these attempts at definition situate themselves.

Sikelianos’s writing thus makes possible instead an attitude — a positioning and a projection — to the total circumstances of becoming California, as an awareness of the historicity of one’s being California. The poet’s relation to her subject is a matter of choice and hence interest, but expressly to the state of California as California’s historicity. Every observation and assertion in the poem creates anew, again and again, the relation of the poet’s being to California, and also the relation of California’s being to the whole history of California as the existence of Californians in California in the act of their taking stock, in all relations they conceive in that whole time considered at once in some way, perhaps as a time for them, of the being California.

All of this explains how the writing becomes so complicated and so beautiful. It explains how the writing comes across as a beautiful adventure and yet also as a soberly, carefully sustained reentry into our being, in California, as part of the elaborate, and hence delightful however grimy, matter, the occasional piked expression of her quality of being in California. The California Poem admits of scientific writing and lists and tables, all a taking stock for Sikelianos. It admits of detailed, riveting, eloquent, and even metaphorically enlivening writing of natural history, and so taking stock with a purpose toward redefining life among exquisite and surprising paradigms. It admits of passages like this page:

sine & cosine & radian argument

 non-knowledge engulfs me

 In the trackless desert        will I see

     a pillar of light [endnote omitted]

 burning tumbleweed blowing across the Great

 Basin; “plainly men lived here, women

                   died thereabouts”


 I think it’s too late

 to make this poem

 into a specific traffic (pall

 of bright melancholy)

 to know where I falls

 on the inside or outside of time/space

 too late   —   the marked


 of the land has

 submitted its own

 dream & question

      seize me a city from that pale corridor, the future, traveling headfirst

                    into the magnetized sun’s dizzying pits (73)


Following the strict geometrical coordinates of the epigraph, the poet heads down to the directional time of “too late,” not time past or lost but acknowledgement and backtracking to past time’s “Da-gewesen.” It happened there, it happened, it is as Dasein, as considered, felt, there. The speaker is found there, found and lost and delivers herself in her historically conditioned “melancholy,” her personal historicity of being “too late” but really thereby taken back into the presentation of the land and of the dream that equals and plans coordinates with that land. Plus, directed not only backward but inward and forward, perhaps in non-expiring even non-actual (uneigentlich) hope, Sikelianos achieves in and through her sadness her full unreal and fully real presence, her being where she is not, being “too late” but more really on time than ever, even when sneaking around in the corner in government subsidies (49), even when “like a piece of cardboard” (51), in this exquisitely timely too-lateness.

The end of the extraordinary page of writing just quoted above, establishing a mildly “poikilos” flair and tapping in at least two places into Sikelianos’s major Pindaric dance-rhythm, does not end the section. After it, on the next page and all by itself and smack up against the upper-left corner, show forth these amazing, and these piquantly even vengefully awkward, dialectics in extreme brief of California becoming poem and poem becoming California:

Instructions:  Write the character’s death scene, character

California, what would Character California

consider, what

egret flown from

the lake, what regret? (74)


How can a character’s death scene become such a glorious dream, here as more and more melancholy, but revealed as potentiality in dream by the mere but greatly earned existence of the poem as long, big book itself? The answer, a profound feeling escaping irony, is, of course, one of the handful of pastiches on the “what … what … what” paradigm from Pindar’s Olympian 2. Here the “what” scheme that marks the poet’s reinitiating circumstances gleams transparent and undimmed by context and, what is more, equates California, as historicity, with this all-totalizing, richly existing sadness, this well-spent sadness. What you get, then, is the immensity of time (of California) made available (for the first time, as it were) to a poem, incorporating natural history equating with the thought of extinction naturally leading to a personal history, as the Dasein of the historicity of the feeling itself.

Thusly may we find what we are looking for. Heidegger marrying historicity with temporality truly lived (Geistlichkeit and Zeitlichkeit) recaptures sense fully grown through the directedness of Dasein, of unactual or actual sense of existence where you are not, where you are coming, what has been lived and done. Writing can only be living. It can only beam into a horizon as a coming together to place this Earth as California. It only comes in openness to a truer history as time-presence right there, where being same as here is there in this pacing, this patching and practicing, and is a (t)history, according to Sikelianos, recovering what Husserl does not envision, much less let it slip in, as the horizon of geometry. Yet it is by Husserl’s, and earlier Immanuel Kant’s, example that Heidegger could provide the platform of a constructive horizon functioning within a schema of existence in time, and not directionless as a surround, but still directionless and at the same time even more directed than ever. Sikelianos’s geometry, creating against opposable odds her “bright melancholy,” is not a pulling through an endless and hopeless succession of spaces and times, part of what “specific traffic” (73, the page of writing just quoted) would amount to, and so is not at all an unfolding flow of “time/space” dynamism and urgency, but something else again, and nevertheless, and now for yet another first time, gloriously entering into a glowing time and expanse, as if led by that “pillar of light” (73).

Whatever this could be, it is what it has to be in The California Poem. Upon considered reading, there is no doubt of it. If “into the magnetized sun’s dizzying pits” (73) symbolizes adequately Heidegger’s discovery of these geometrics, it also clearly realizes and grasps and finds, finding itself as well, the pillars of Pindar’s oh-so-famous description (from the strophe given above) of “εν αμεραι φαεννον αστρον ερημας δι’ αιθερος.”

For Kant, the intuition of space is the necessary condition for the principles of geometry. This space is necessarily infinite. It simply is that way (as it is “given to our senses”). Thus being so vast, space as presented by Kant in the beginning expositions of Critique of Pure Reason [10] would not serve well as a horizon for the directedness of thinking through and living through existence in what would have to be considered as a form of place. One’s choice of spatiality is crucial to understanding The California Poem by Eleni Silkelianos because she often explicitly and also often implicitly records her experiences geometrically. The task for the reader in turn is to form a picture of Eleni’s geometry and thus, even, to experience along, in some fashion, her being-lived life. Trying to live a life, or thinking or writing about doing so, in unlimited space, or even in any kind of surround, a notion so vaguely delineating, would be meaningless.

To live in and hence draw the shape in and of a detached, dry world filled with light of another order, a thirstling curl of a world as we have seen, requires a practice. So only the meant and directed activity, governed as mathematical and therewith a considered geometry, can fashion the precise “curve of horizon” (100). Leaping into this world measures the form in, and of, the horizon, and so finds the historicity, with the sought empowerment, of Dasein, always a kind of place in the world, always a self-constituting and, indeed, originating world itself, the space and the time of it always poetically informed, possibly. The horizon that the poem seeks may be said to constitute its Dasein in its raised temporality of taking back, anticipating and creating the moment, past, future and present richly understood (Heidegger talking about a horizontal schema of time), and always as a plus the renewed, the redreamt elsewhere and nowhere:

When it “breaks,” we can say it “shatters,”

but there is                   behind                  the breaking line the

                                                                                                                     blind horizon line

and no thing will be broken again

           till another shore (miles and miles past rough sea)

                   border curve — world’s curve — his voice curving past … (101)


The poet sketches a concept of horizon in these pages by means of her choice, and somewhat elusive, turns of phrase and image. The writing in these pages does not, however, prove a subjective experience that would lay claim to a boldly persuasive or strongly impressive instantiating of California depicted. While thrilling, these notions do not themselves compel. Searching and powerful in their approach, they are a kind of mounting evidence urging the project forward. As talking points the projected images might serve the going ahead and doing, by initiating (once again) a form of inquiry that proceeds by inviting the reader to consider how well — and how precisely, intricately, convincingly, and movingly — The California Poem does indeed draw a sufficient curve of horizon. Method and manner lend themselves to finding of home and place. Constituted in vectors and felt in an exquisite geometry of telling, guided by coordinated factors among which the notion of horizon especially compels (“For my pelagic perfect cosine wave / that holothurian travel game // there may be dust on that border between South and Central / but the dividing line between land and sea is no line at all” [132]), Eleni’s efforts to dream her real, historically realized California press on. Thus a shorter section, concentrated and centered vertically (almost) on one page, a well-wrought imagistic poem of sorts, expresses the seeking after paradise and so provides in turn evidence of the nature of the telling, with almost a hint of substantiating geologic time:

     In my seekness I

           salutate California as Empire

           which rendered us capsized

                      to sizes of hipses & thighses


     but like a burger I will rise

                            in bits of bodily heat such as

      god’s abstinence to show

            the Sun’s always a virgin in this assembled

      paradise and every gray whale is gorging

             on amphipods amidst the quantum foam (79)


Poem as sequencing, with educated pace and timing, accumulates to a mythmaking in the service of recreating origins. The how of this telling determines the horizon as a configuration, again aligned with Dasein as poem as California as Eleni as earth. The reader assumes the task of realizing how well this telling unfolds, the quality and character, with California as main character, of a passionate “mythologizing,” a term Eleni employs although when making an apparent wrong turn: “mythologizing the landscape beyond recognition” (95).

It should come as no surprise that the question of California could feature so importantly as a question of horizons. To the extent the concept of horizon contributes to, is already a part of, existence as temporality, with a bead on interest and even caring towards past, future, present, any concern of existence in time rates in the question of horizons. The functional horizon for Pindar’s Olympian 2, as it also functions not unrelatedly though distantly for Heidegger, is Death. So, Death is the Death Valley part of The California Poem, but really more as continuing involvement with sand and dust, and extinction, and it is also the uncounted sands (ψαμμος αριθμον περιπεφευγεν) that serve as horizon for the poet of Olympian 2. To celebrate with ethical and aesthetic distinction is to attend to a concept of recompense. In his giving back, the poet himself shall take care that his arrows do not misfire, for consider the misfortunes endured after Oedipus’s long-foretold slip, and conversely imagine the easy fortune and prosperity of Kadmos’s daughters Semele and Ino, followed by shocks and then followed by honor and a blessed eternal life (βιοτον αφθιτον). Spectacularly, and evidently drawing on mysteries creating in this part of the world a liaison with the beyond,[11] Pindar’s poem takes up the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, to which his private fear of offending by κορος, by presumption in the amount and elevation of his claims, gives ear. The poem ends humbly in the recognition of an unnumbered immensity imaged as sands on the shore and identified with Zeus and for which the poet has no answer except that his power does not extend that far. Sand is his horizon as totality mythically embodied, and so focused and clearly affirmed, and against which the poet speaks in the optative, and thereby both confidently affirms and admits to the uncertainty that without a doubt controls:

   επει ψαμμος αριθμον περιπεφευγεν,
και κεινος οσα χαρματ’ αλλοις εθεκεν,
τις αν φρασαι δυναιτο; [12]

This Victory Ode is special for dwelling so forcefully on conduct and rewards. The poet sets an affirmation of responsibility towards matching pleasure or counter-matching comeuppance against a background of myth hierarchically defined with Zeus at the top. The kind of authority that Zeus embodies in Greek mythology is much qualified and assuaged. The three-person threads of fate or mysterious power of “Moira” itself (this goddess making appearances in Olympian 2) are either beyond Zeus himself or put up there as things go. Yet it is significant where Theron stands, as parallel to where the Olympian wields authority and as a fit subject for praise, on the dispensing of wealth and prosperity ablaze in areta:

ο μαν πλουτος αρεταις δεδαιδαλµενος φερει των τε και των
καιρον, βαθειαν υπεχων μεριμναν αγροτεραν,

αστηρ αριζηλος, ετυμωτατον
ανδρι φεγγος

It is all brightness and light and imagination and brilliance connoting the areta, but proper use of one’s good fortune and staying in the path of one’s shining accomplishments, one’s ολβος you might say, stands firmly behind this presence that Pindar celebrates. The poet performs excellent service in all directions, in memory and awareness, in new and everpresent mythmaking. Whereas the types may come into their own, the reenactment of just and fateful consequences by way of cautioning against irredeemable offenses and by showing what happens in the case of αλιτρα, and also how you can get to the other prize of undimming ease and enjoyment, brings the study and the gesturing of ordered benefactions closest to home. 

Taking her cue from her namesake world, which is Pindar’s new home from home from the home of Thebes from which he travels across the sea (like a piece of cork hopping a fence in another ode), Sikelianos models her own form of responsibility in some ways on that of Pindar. In a soaring and bountiful early section, she cuts her own boat adrift to relive and to describe not a geological or pantheological success but rather the materials of a “green geometry” (31). Against a backdrop of her own life, and personal illumination, and personal character as philosopher, she finds the history, both human and natural, of California. The mythology of sleep and dreams would be the sandman, while dream is littoral and fecund and thus not too much unlike the threaded rim of the sea. Sand and dream hold the answer here. The mythology of time would include the hourglass, time running out and yet time practiced and held and always in new creation as the temple of recurring and return. These little kernels of sand afford a different look from that of the uncountable sands of the poet Pindar’s approaching. Zeus and other fates and distancings as all-powerful are all well and good and connect to a vibrant personified form, indeed, of historicity the like of which doubles as groves of possibility for Sikelianos. 

In the following page from The California Poem, taking to its close a seminal and reinitiating stretch of writing for an understanding in best time, the practice of seeking the profound questions and answers of the day in the form “what … what … what,” as absorbed from Pindar, allows a revealing chink in the mythopoetic armor. So the first one is not a little desperate. Instead of “What friend” it becomes, with significant appeal, “What, friend?” The entire page is fraught with those delightful difficulties abetted by that charm of rhythmic largeness and variety that has made its mark in Eleni’s hopes:

           Yo, thou thouest

 little bird in the earth black back

 of the car            —               Oh, what’s this — the

 car is an earth! the bird is a self! the

 mask is human!      & shows the

 insuperable nest next to the second

 ago, shattered, saying, “What, friend?” “What

 precision” “What art” in proper names we repeat

 tea habits over complex

 centuries in     gold = discovery,   gold =

 luminosity,    gold = grief, greed, the

 killer at the back of the sea, say, says

 words do describe my aversion to drag rag-

 dolls down to the river, a river

 sibling over the middle waters

                It cleans “you”

 Now I’m planning on not being that person that I was

 So you, so you go

 toward the music, human


 It was distant & luminous beyond

 an 8-year-old of my position to move across

 it down toward the sea.

                                   the sea.                   or

     that is how I remember it, what

     I remember I believed (35)


The existence that offers itself to situating in California, from eons ago and in this time of critical mass for living in California in all forms, includes wealth named as money and greed, and therefore without accompanying areta, to be absolutely sure. The horizons known as California include the thirstling curve of horizon in which the dust- and heat-laden aroma of imperiled land finding its horizon features the “eucalyptus” as renowned resurrection plant. If truth unfold, it is from the lignotubers and their many dormant epicormic buds that the eucalyptus grows back after a fire.[13] As words unfold, mythopoetics may return and recapture these origins, these recreation imperatives, as expressing a hope different from the “apocalyptic” moment we are used to calling our time, and so not “bursting apart” but holding fine and secure and “well-wrapped” as it were, in this moment. Myth can express itself as symbol where “eucalyptus,” without too much cleverness, can take place as Dasein, hence of beautiful unfolding and infolding all held in poise and confidence. In the meantime, there is still this very time and temporality (Zeitlichkeit) constituted in and with this historicity (Geschichtlichkeit), by way of the coinage “(t)history” as we have noted, and directed metaphorically as science and measure of earth with tangible results always, an all-constituting geometry necessary for the poem to assume its truthful form and place, with the shining gold, of Pindar’s interest and caring, however tarnished, and the best water now a best and complexly mixed solution of our fecund and immemorially generative sea, scientifically speaking among other aspects, and the target of Eleni’s remembering.

The poet’s initiation into and assumed completion of The California Poem, the California of all life-forms not to be forgotten, fields a deep responsibility extending the ancient Greek poet’s ploys and plays and concerns, in turn undertaking a full assignment of responsibility for its debt to this brilliant model. It is now her brilliance, moreover, in present and perfect struggle, defining prosperity and life by courageously tapping into that gleam of money, a new and different tyrant and not the generous “tyrannos” (or properly “βασιλευς”) trimmed and cleaned to a sparkle by another poet in another time. As Eleni closes another compelling early section of the poem marking her purpose and course, she thus reinitiates, for many occasions and in pure homage to her occasions, her living in the world as understanding of California, hers and ours; she thus redefines the history of her being, tries yet again the Earth-song, hers and ours:

I might find “occasion to
sing war & perfect soldiers”—

 the war that wages over the

 face of the Earth, against

 every edible turtle &

 movable tree, the tyranny

 of money (43)





1. Eleni Sikelianos, The California Poem (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 7; cf. 24–25.

2. See, for example, Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Wilard R. Trask (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 5–14.

3. See Charles Segal, Aglaia: The Poetry of Alcman, Sappho, Pindar, Bacchylides, and Corinna (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 106.

4. It is hoped that the reader (and particularly the reader of ancient Greek) will make allowances for the fact that quotations in this essay are presented without accent and breath marks. Also, iota subscript will be indicated with the letter iota after the respective vowel. In the text quoted here, moreover, please note that the Greek word for “water” (the third word) would be written with the aspirated breath mark, so that a corresponding word like our “hydroponic” is spelled, as you can see, with an “h” to deliver the sound that comes simply with the breath mark at the beginning of the Greek word. 

5. The edition I am using is Pindari Epinicia, ed. Alexander Turyn (New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America, 1944). Semicolon means a question mark.

6. See A. D. Morrison, Performances and Audiences in Pindar’s Sicilian Victory Odes (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2007), 5–19. In his survey of scholarship on the question of performance, Morrison notes the view emphasizing dance and song elements in performance at page 7. The arguments pro and con may become intricate. For my liking, “dance” being the basic meaning of “choral” is enough to suggest how the splendor of physical movement may be sensed in Pindar’s forms by the reader. It may be enough, in other words, that dance simply be thought of as being essential to the form, regardless of the debate over historical practice.

7. This punctuation feature means semicolon and will occur again, as you will see, five lines later.

8. Mary R. Lefkowitz, The Victory Ode: An Introduction (Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press, 1976), 97.

9. Edmund Husserl, Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 266.

10. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (1929; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).

11. See Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Pindar and the After-Life,” in Pindare, Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique 31 (Vandoeuvres-Genève: Fondation Hardt, 1985), 245–83.

12. Please note once again that the semicolon functions as a question mark.

13. John Dawson and Rob Lucas, The Nature of Plants: Habitats, Challenges, and Adaptations (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005), 132–33.