The grass never stops
Vana Manasiadis’s interest and use of history and mythology — grounded in her own biography — is a welcome strain to New Zealand poetry. Her reference to Greek and classical traditions, and her borrowing of forms from her poetic forebears, lets her cultivate a poetic voice relatively peculiar to these shores. She holds an MA in Creative Writing — the standard currency for emerging poets in the English-speaking world — but her work has a scope much greater than the contemporary institution’s remit.
Manasiadis is currently working on a second collection of poetry, titled The Grief Almanac: A sequel. Why this forthcoming collection is a “sequel,” Manasiadis doesn’t say. But reading into and around her work, it is soon clear that each poem, or series of poems, is either a prequel or sequel to another one of her own. Her work is deeply layered, constantly turning and returning back on itself; an iterative poetics that both mimics and capitalizes on the classical mythology and nomenclature it utilizes while drawing on the colloquial New Zealand of her childhood. As Manasiadis herself says, “layers and exchanges fascinate me,” and that in her work, historical records and private narratives “don’t remain untouched themselves: there is exchange, and I’ve been keen to explore the residue, the channeling, the muscle memory.” The reverberations of Anne Carson are strong throughout Manasiadis’s work, but I also detect traces of a New Zealand tradition, of Ian Wedde perhaps, who is never afraid to name a building or street, however obscure it might be. It’s an unlikely but successful marriage.
Manasiadis’s “channeling” and versioning happens in the spaces between one place and another, one language and another, one historical time and another. Her poetry has a deftly woven texture, merging her sharp intellect and curiosity for etymology and classical mythology, her poetic finesse for delicate and lyrical observations, and a softening of the binary between fact and fiction. Here is an example that exhibits some of these things:
Here, as elsewhere, Manasiadis nimbly plays in slippages of language, urging these “inbetweens” to become the stuff of the poem. She highlights the absurdity of translation in the face of a globalized reality. The malleability of self — to have “one tiptoe on the Pacific rim and one not,” to be both in the twenty-first century and not — is personified by the lyrical definition of “meta-phora,” to “carry one place to another.” Even the title of her first poetry collection, Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, maintains the layers of in-betweens that the poems themselves exemplify: Ithaca Island (the island in Greece) meets Island Bay (a suburb of Wellington where many Greek fishermen settled in the early twentieth century) meets bay leaves (a common ingredient in Greek cooking). There is also the echo of “leaves” in the undercurrent of migration.
There is also a graceful nostalgia in her work for her Greek heritage, particularly the matriarchal line, and for the oracularity of the important matriarchal figures in her life. Her book Ithaca Island is dedicated to both her grandmother and mother, and it includes at least a couple of poems with these characters retelling ancestral tales. From “Hook for a Tale”: “Yiayia, show me how to crochet like that // Teach me before your bullet-proof glasses cloud over those greying retinas of yours.” After a few passages of calling to her grandmother or “yiayia” to indulge her with stories and knowledge, the narrator of this free verse is snappily told: “white white granddaughter, don’t be so nostalgic.” It is not sentimental; it is self-aware, but with the generosity of a rich and colorful backdrop.
Manasiadis first collection of poetry, Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: A Mythistoramia, was published by Seraph Press (NZ) in 2009, and in 2016, she edited and translated a chapbook of six contemporary Greek poets, also with Seraph Press (No. 1 in the Seraph Press Translation Series). As a translator herself, she has the skillset required to straddle two worlds. As a second generation New Zealander, her work acts as a conduit between her ancestors and this New World, between classical and colloquial Greek and her New Zealand English, between mythology and reality, between the past and the present, between her last poem and her next. The grass never stops. — Lynley Edmeades
My most recent writing has been exploring the relationship between the visible surface and the parenthesis, the permeability of texts and spaces (the major and minor, the private and public). I’ve been very interested in the role of memorialisation, the ceremony of it, and the intersections between poetry and historical record. To that end, texts such almanacs, and Victorian annuals — where miscellaneous collections of literary and artistic matter gave the reader a central role — and the much more recent lyric essay, have been very inspiring. They are all texts that condense and curate selections of facts or ideas, predictions and associations; and these layers and exchanges — often formed through ordering and proximity — fascinate me.
The poems ‘The sharing of atoms is the nature of things’ and ‘Endnotes’ are from a collection The Grief Almanac: a sequel that I’ve been trying to finish; and is currently housing a kind of poetry of layers, of palimpsests, of overwritten and rewritten texts where the relationships between the texts, spaces, objects and times don’t need to be discrete (just as those between poetry and prose needn’t be). I’ve been trying to use historical record — and artworks that become historical records — as wormholes connecting to more private narratives. But they don’t remain untouched themselves: there is exchange, and I’ve been keen to explore the residue, the channelling, the muscle memory.
The sharing of atoms is the nature of things
Loves Labours Lost (William Shakespeare, first quarto, 1598)1
Reading then naming happened in the library (Armado: Of what
Complexion? Boy: Of the sea). Deconstruction reposition
the dictionary and mischief Complectare, complexio:
you are embrace then combination a constitution in balance –
perfect melancholy choler brain and heart - before the reckoning
For example the messenger will announce death at the end of the play
for example the elements might draft new compounds
for example the Rankine Brown building teemed historical:
dark furniture dust suspended but hark the time-bomb of shivering air
Crossing the Tararuas (Wairarapa Times, 13 February 1909)2
Two settlers carried a swag a map of the district and a camera
after completing their climb they descended
arranged to signal by lighting a fire by hoisting
a white sheet When darkness set in long rows of street lamps
could be traced in the western towns A glorious sunrise
such as a man sees but once A swim such as mortal man
had never before attempted An ocean of glory the gilded peaks
the mighty Ruamahanga river Tuesday morning broke
with a heavy nor'-wester raging and a thick driving fog
Messrs Adkin and Lancaster decided not to climb the Peak
[They] took no less than fifty photographs wonderfully clear
and good Of course it is only experienced men familiar
with bush country who can safely cross
Waiohine River Valley (George Leslie Atkin, 1909, Photograph)3
or perhaps the Nida Plateau smooth without the snow-chains
or perhaps Anogia peak village of wildmen (statue of a gunman)
or perhaps Acharnai habitat of wolves and were-creatures: maero:
who can reassemble return to bush bare their long nails
waits between mortal visits by collecting strange sticks
kindling shards of language: Styx the river Acheron
Not lethe though — you don’t like to lose things
Dear Complexion Boy,1 Yes, you were radiant, but you weren’t the
only one. There were, I’ll admit, other loves, other tunnels. It’s true,
that when I walked down the Dixon Street steps, the city lights
nearing, the library books bearing me down, I’d hear the poles clang
and say: this is my sound, the sound that represents. So I’d reach for
the handrail, (ears ringing, snake-like hair stinging), and stand against
the gale-force of that place. But four humours used to form our
architectures, four elements the Universe, so now I know that the air
could only be felt because the earth was: green darkness, wet
undergrowth, the tramps into Tararua bush with Danny.2 He didn’t sit
with us on the study floor, didn’t waste time reading rays, or marking
marginalia, though things with him weren’t simple. What was it about
our combination? We followed routes that could just as easily have led
over cliffs as to huts Cone or Kime, we dragged rivers behind us along
the flats, we almost always lost the tracks: red arrows in the trees,
other fellows to ask the way. Close and tight. Everything would get
pulled in black-hole like, and the kamahi canopies would scratch the
tops of our heads before Danny would leap into action at last,
resolved to forge forward. Was he a lizard, or a fish? Tauwharenikau,
Waiohine, Otaki.3 Time to bush-bash, he’d say in the leaving light,
slithering downwards towards the banks. He was a geographer and
looked for channels; he collected mud samples and analysed their
contents. He didn't need a map — like I need now — to navigate the
spacetime. The now-time. Because let’s face it: you are still seated by
the light shining, the poles on the steps are still trilling, Danny is still
digging. And when I look back, and there, (here), I see our synchronous
cosmologies, the points of our conjunction, (the tunnels overlapping as
if warrens). I see the molecules we formed while believing we were
Searching for Stowaways, ink on newsprint, 1850, Anonymous.
Four men are combing the ship’s hold. They are identically hunched, identically
impassive. Their torsos are thick with salt-pork and swill, their legs truncated
and merging with the floor. They could be four versions of the same man: the same
man at different moments in time. They are concentrating. The man to the right
is holding a flame into a hollow. The man to his left, has stopped at cracks in the wall.
The furthest, stares into his hands over something he has found: a giveaway skincell,
a stray hair. And the last man — or last version of the one man — is walking towards
the stairwell. He is looking towards the light descending from the deck, past the chain
coming down from the ceiling, the bundle of random necessities on the floor.
He is leaving the recess wanting; pots scattered, barrels spilling, stowaways
deficient and bored.
Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light, oil on canvas, 2000, James Rosenquist.
‘A stationary spectator sees an event or fixed point differently from a spectator travelling at the speed of light’
Let’s say: that the viewer is the stowaway. That Stowaway is the event.
That we have crammed ourselves into a tight box. Like fish. That we can only look
through gaps in the planks. That we are missing the point. That we have missed it.
‘Talking tectonics,’ and the excerpt, ‘Dixon Street. The shortest day,’ from ‘Penelope the Mythic’ come from my collection Ithaca Island Bay Leaves. As I said in an interview with New Zealand writer and reviewer Tim Smith at the time of publication, ‘I’d been drawn to questions of mobility, transferability, and the various notions of home, like comfort, familiarity and repose.’ I was interested — and still am — in the tensions between people’s desire and ability to reinvent themselves, and in the ache and longing for the points of departure, for origins.
Mythology, myth-making, retelling and unravelling, as well as Greek tragedy and irony, formed the DNA of that book, and in some ways constructed a response to a particular iteration of white New Zealand culture which is straightforward, practical, unsentimental and firmly rooted in the present.
‘Penelope the Mythic’ was a conflation of the myth of Penelope and the story of my mother who immigrated to New Zealand in the 1960s. But since the publication of the book my mother has died and the Penelope sequence that imagined those final moments has come — in some way — to pass. My mother was a Greek tragedy figure in a great many ways whose emotional responses always exceeded the norm. She was wholly conscious of — and mournful of — her story and exile, and she interpreted her surroundings to suit the arc. She also loved to tell us stories: so voice, language, argument, and singing formed the sensory backdrop of our childhood. Perhaps that’s why I am also interested in the performative aspects of oral history, myth, and theatre in much of my writing. From the same interview: ‘I tried to make sense of all the different forms in the book as transcripts.’ ‘Talking tectonics’ is an imaginary conversation with my oracular grandmother, (also then alive), and expresses my interest in the great natural forces — the pulling apart of the two tectonic plates on which New Zealand sits, for example. ‘Dixon Street’ is a home-going.
Or, the ocean is what I’m standing in — one tiptoe on the Pacific rim and one not.
The Colombian artist Doris Salcedo has recently talked about the importance of creating a poetics of mourning. Aside from the personal story of grief in The Grief Almanac, I’m also interested in how unique and collective mourning can mirror and inform one another; and again, in the idea that neither can remain distinct. It was only when I started to face mortality in the wider sense, mourned finiteness, that I could start to put my own loss into some kind of perspective; think of it as being part of the gigantic fabric of losses and mourning, of ends and limits.
The idea that most physical objects will outlive one, that most houses will stay standing once its residents have moved on, calls into question ideas of ownership and possession for a start. And if it’s true that one has to grieve fully before one can hope to emerge from pain, then perhaps really facing, then really mourning, our own mortality — and so the inability to truly own anything material — might help adjust all our material expectations and desires while we live. And in a world of diminishing resources, and climate catastrophe, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I don’t practice Buddhism, but I read Mind of Clear Light during a dark and frightening time, and in it the Dalai Lama talks about preparation. So perhaps I’ve assumed this into my writing a little: perhaps I’m preparing, arranging, trying to make sense of the suitcases full of seemingly random, yet connected, objects whether by smell, or feel, or other sense.
This is the outside.
The Look-Out: Mt Victoria,
or Seurat with his specks for faces, stalled strollers,
cars dissolving. Here are the lanes of the world:
red lights and islands, trafﬁc on skin — sun-spots,
moles, maps of accidental scars. At Odlin’s,
the timber’s been turned into pixels. The wind-tunnel
effect means draughts the size of noise
get sucked between two walls.
This is the inside. The muscle that joins the jaw
to the cheek. The pterygoid stretch of long vowels:
mourn, my’o-car’di-um. In the living room,
there is a car-wash, or Mirò’s Blue I, II, and III:
red lines humming highways, valves closing,
barometry. Which is to say: I watch your softening
pace; which is to feel, your pulse, falling,
under my ﬁngertips.