The memoir where it matters

A review of Eleni Sikelianos's 'You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)'

You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)

You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)

Eleni Sikelianos

Coffee House Press 2014, 126 pages, $17, ISBN 978-1566893602

And I then came to Karthage. This is, truly, a blinding opportunity. And it will fall, but the book, in the severing action of its detailing, will not:

Now I have to get back and find each body part at each lost place and stitch it back. The first place was a well, and when I realized the word in Greek, το μάτι [sounds a little like “mother”], was an eye letting the water not fall but see into the middle of the earth, I knew my way. [bracketed insertion mine]

And truly Eleni Sikelianos tends her portions; truly she keeps to her arrivals. Truly she paints her Gestalt, paints it in her favorite sand-dripped, her favorite gemstone-cracking colors. Yes, it is truly and industriously she charts a human history in You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek). In eloquent form, she has many targets, and many names for them. At her most painfully precise she names “a net of family giftings” and recalls the shirt that Nessus bore and a great hero wore, and what we know about that burning. Her gift to the reader is, equally, tormenting at close quarters, as well as being magnificent.

Yes, this going back is a difficult facing. This research is, or becomes by virtue of Sikelianos’s bravest candor, a trick you play and a trick that your history, your subject’s history, will likely play in turn. It is marvelous, and always, always exhorts with menace and the countering mechanics that may appeal to the reader. Beyond that (if possible), it is a body of writing, truly, and searching-where, for the body surely, hers, her mother’s, her grandmother’s (“It [the where of the telling] bumps into all the body’s soft clocks”). It is truly a toughening (restated), this memoir that may read as if “[s]craping the silver nitrate backing.” After extreme fashion it duly and rigorously tests the turns of memory with regard to how-to, pictured and punctured in the wound.

What is a body, then?
I’d say it’s free.

Yes, a difficult remembering is how it stands as the many elegant ramifications, bristling in brilliance, become possible. It is thus understandable that the writing (with poetry) from and about memory should seek its travails, and keep seeking them. It is also not surprising that it should not quite attach to where it starts. Say that it starts in the desert, closely defined (very closely); it also starts with the grandmother, who symbolizes a woman’s quintessential plight, and who is “Elaine Marko, sultry exotic.” Of many aliases and many twists and turns in many places, she is heir to Victorville and eye-popping “dance delineator” of the halls of burlesque, for putting food on the table. That the granddaughter so admires her story is also part of the writing where it starts.

And surely this is not coincidental. Surely “The Golden Greek” (as in the promo-flash of the soon-to-appear “MELAINE”) is the holding place to be searched out, and never to be so, and yet so to be. Surely something must click and compel. There is memory, with “its sharpening knives” to realize the danger. There is knowledge of matters pressing and personal, to ward off trouble, if barely. There is this unflinching pursuit, so close to the bone, so metaphysical, as is all “iridescing.” Going further there is one’s always homewards regard, which can only angle at achievement, as if through space. It is not all one, it seems. The coordinates, however confidently named, will never be established except in great anguish. They shine like stars among us, but from a distant and pained and ever-not-escaping point of attention, so that having a “spotlight,” say, or four or five, well-placed, may serve for starters. So indeed a cropped and wholly patterned searching it is, a bright and crucial questioning, that brings the crisscross to the finding: “How can a memory travel to its event, kiss it, and shoot back to the present?”

Reading this book will be a putting to, so to speak. Reading this scorching disquisition into a fragmented, or (better) partial, past, reading this creative unraveling all the while so splendidly put to its lyrical paces, will be to go to another place, to clean up and grow up. It is possibly, or possibly ranks as, “another future.” In the event, defragmentation happens where the beautiful is sordid, as having such details as its means (“If you’re on a train, the windows won’t shut; you’ll need a bandana to cover your mouth. Endless grit in the nose and teeth. Blackened particles and splotches of red bleeding into sand.”); where the beautiful is replete with fates, challenges, and courage; and where it becomes a “tale of the toughest, hardest-assed woman to ever eat wood and bite nails on the face of the earth: Malena the Cat Lady, Woman-with-the-Bullets-over-Her-Breast, the Leopard Girl, Marko, my grandmother, the Golden Greek.”

You could also say that the beautiful is like being flayed alive. A shoring against it, however, will succeed where the lowlife’s estimation is marginal (see the Greek rembetes; see the refugees hoveling, around others having a last glorious time, “on the hillsides that form a ring around Athens,” famous Greek city, circa 1922; see familiar story); but rather, to pause for correction, is where

[t]he outskirts (rejecta) make their own centers, and in this center the Leopard Girl and the dwarf named Paul Roese embraced each other and collapsed.

Correcting for winds, then, for the signs and stigmas and petty salvations, is part of where it starts, and reaches and resumes. A part, moreover, of these retracings that are not retractions are certain essentialist themes. This may or may not surprise. What will count here is a decidedly magical presence, that of dwarves in our world. What will save us here is not to differentiate but to recognize a useful potency. Thus the dwarf who is the fourth of five of the Golden Greek’s husbands will illustrate essence, what that can mean. Thus a past event serves as topos, and the turning and turning as Sikelianos depicts it, the torn scrumming through the lists, even, as she invests it, will reveal this essence to be itself a kind of space. Indeed what being becomes, what it is and what it does in turn, a being one of many perhaps and often unaccountably, will disclose a beaming and assured centrality. It will become a kind or a brand of one, and be found, and be a coming forward not in a form of difference, though it is approached differently (cf. “middle of the earth”); not as a freak show’s presaging, though that is one of its guiding spirits.

Being thusly by all accounts centered in a paradoxical reading, of a privileging of contraries, of houses falling and “shards of dirty mirror” not touching, and of shimmering abundance, of fecundity in the desert, is a challenge that the reader, after the rebound, may not be up to. The experience may prove outlandish. In truth, it is for and by those only who have “brushed mass death.” It may be thus, in truth, for any of us, and may become too familiar in the being told. The charge borne is a heavy one, with knowledge and thrills (and sheer ills) in wait.

One wants to write of avatars while revealing a patch of skin between stretchyarn and bloomers. One wants to write, robustly, about being watched, how that goes down. One wants to write about ascension, about towers and not tombs (apparent tombs), and not always about those hoochie-coochies and a few filthy towels thrown in where the child sleeps backstage. One wants to write, in all sorts of ways, what it is to be a wife:

A wife is a woman and a woman is a wife unless she’s a femme. If she’s a
, she’s a woman or a wife. If she’s butch. André Breton says:

Ma femme à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre

Mother midnight, wife this child.

To repeat, “Mother midnight, wife this child.” The reader, if he chooses, may want to ponder these many reversely sphinx-like answers to these many questions.

So then. To recount. Memories are not frightening though tending that way, but they are surprisingly violent, and not exactly Proustian. Where the Proustian atavism takes is in the species forms, and the star of the series that is You Animal Machine is the Feral Child, in numerous emanations, “[w]alk[ing] on all fours, … dumb, … covered with hair.” One has been invited to consider all things Greek, and that includes Aristotle. Further, the task of understanding the stories, of oneself and others, proves fruitful because the subjects, then and now, can be cleverly described as “walking libraries.” (“They met in a bookstore.”) From such intuitions flow multiple inclusions. The mention of that guy Averroës, for example, pushes links both to extended Mediterranean influences, not lost in the transfer to new homes and new worlds, and to Sikelianos’s family progression, that extraordinarily varied coming up and contending as it is infinitely (as by her) resourced and secured (even where the sources are scant). It is not so much that everything figures (“What card is missing? Taraka (Arabic), ‘to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind’”) as that the daughter’s realizations are so expressly promoted to finishing the dance, for it exhilarates strangely, this precocious patterning as of “[a]toms flying out to space, no longer trapped between life and after-life.”

From the essentialist concerns come all manner of richness and, it goes without saying, great textual appeal, such that the fascination that takes hold in Sikelianos’s writing, equally as with the subjects of her writing, lies in how it plays out in kinds. It figures to become a question-and-answer consideration beyond all questions and all answers. (It asks us, at the outset, to find “the key that turns the lock of the poison dress.”) So what is it? Is it, upon consideration, confessional? Is it of scholarly material? Is it of origins? Is it fodder for goats (she claims it is not)? Is it primarily philosophical in its searching out the truth? Is it innovative and inventive, again in its searching out the truth? Is it any or all of these essentials?

Is it “speculation” and therefore proof that searching out the truth is not enough? Is it of a documentary tracing, a “crackling” variation thereof? Is it new-informational, with body-machine replacing language-machine? Is it instead elegiac in the main of its turning, for that a truly sad passing into Leopard Girl and jaguar kin, and clutching and clasping and totemic affirming and symbolic acting and affirming and affirming of the mysteries (“pulling poppies, pulling corn-flowers”) and determination and desire and grit (plenty of it), and all of their aftereffects quanto pro tanto, enclose the author’s feelings to the end? Is it, then, träumerisch? Is it even, or does it amount to, a strong-armed, and often arm’s-length, panoply of various kinds of lists? Thusly is it informed aggressively to the posing of many tanked and tattered questions, and not without some well- and materially-weighted appeals to the gods? Is it in its many breathtaking turnings graspingly confessional (as mentioned), and vastly, introspectively brave and truthful? Of many questions, is it not a tinctured and tortuously living quest? Does it not progress, the magic underneath, wrong side or right side but still magic? If so, does it find its way inconclusively, or largely so, or barely missing, as in all the best expectations, in the end?

And finally it is, and so what is, this game that the reader, if she chooses, will find all-possible?


Ps. L’élan de vie dont nous parlons consiste, en somme, dans une exigence de création. Il ne peut créer absolument, parce qu’il rencontre devant lui la matière, c’est-à-dire le mouvement inverse du sien. Mais il se saisit de cette matière, qui est la nécessité même, et il tend à y introduire la plus grande somme possible d’indétermination et de liberté.