Symposium on the Body’s Left Side, poetry by George Kalamaras
Shivastan Publishing, 2011
Imagine the warmth of a single life, a column of smoke, great crane migrations over the Ural mountains or the perfume of a Civet cat imprinted on handmade, Nepalese lokta paper in Kathmandu, Nepal, and you have a virtual approximation of the chapbook that is Kalamaras’s Symposium on the Body’s Left Side.
Kalamaras is a profoundly physical writer. Constant reference is made to physical sensation: breathing, smelling, touching, hearing, bleeding, healing, gnawing, seeping, tumbling, eating. His imagery abounds in sensual, erotic play: “… say my name sadly as you might the erotic texture of plankton,” “Would you kiss me even if I was not composed of starlight,” “I’ve spent so much time desiring women, I’m tired of my feet,” “I’d drag my paramecium self over the eyelid of certain women I’d one day hope to love.” The eroticism is mingled with celestial longing, with a craving for wisdom, the wisdom of the body, the wisdom of moss, and willow-root, and the heart pumping out blood in its cage of bone. There are numerous references to yogic lore and eastern religion, but the work itself remains true to the puckish instincts of poetry, which thrives on a playful contrariness, a subversive energy calling out constantly to the actualities of life.
It’s as if Kalamaras channeled Bo Diddley and the Buddha simultaneously. At the core of this work is a fabulous disparity, the fundamental paradox of all life: mortality. The inherent ephemerality of all living things. Curiously, this is the crisis that fuels all great art: the awareness that we are always in flux, and that with each ripening there comes a dissipation, fuels a mania for living as passionately and intensely as possible. “Then a sense of perspective frees me also,” observed Robert Duncan, “that I am indeed to die, as you are to die, makes life all mine to live.” The fuller resonance of this means that nothing circumscribes “the flowering of being into its particular forms.”
Symposium on the Body’s Left Side is part of an ongoing work called Bone Sutras.
In Hinduism, a sutra is a form of literary composition based on short, aphoristic statements. The texts were intended to be memorized by students, and so concision was a valued element in their composition.
Kalamaras makes a slightly different use of them; he combines riddles, koans, puzzles and occasional surrealist flourishes. He avoids strict linearity and logic in the service of a higher, more transcendent form of cognition. What Hart Crane described in a letter to Harriet Monroe as an “apparent illogic,” an inflection of language, that “operates so logically in conjunction with its context in the poem as to establish a claim to another logic, quite independent of the original definition of the word or phrase or image thus employed.”
Here, for example, is “Saluting the Bruise,” in which the poet remarks, through a series of puckish contradictions, on what Nietzsche referred to as the “eternal wound of existence.”
As if my heart was the canticle of the Milky Way, I am exact in my
Yes, I’ve said it before. I am in the business of regressing evermore
Chess? You require a blue and green board to combat your black
and red regret?
I’ve skillfully hidden the black and blue, and now my strategy might
How distinct from one another are we, really?
I’ve ordered the mirror, buried the jar of ants in the sand, and still you
speak through me in absolute threes.
As if my heart. As if my canticle. As if my Milky Way where the
healing might begin.
I might be exact as an epaulet, confiscating the shoulder, even, of
every civilian who dares salute the bruise.
This breath wherein the world goes on dying.
This breath wherein the world forever goes.
People tend to have strong feelings about the use of the second person as a literary strategy. Some people hate it. I like it. I like the ambiguity of it: the writer could be referring to the reader (or listener), to a hidden, mysterious identity, to oneself, which gives it an argumentative tinge, or to all of the above, simultaneously.
The line “I’ve ordered the mirror, buried the jar of ants in the sand, and still you speak through me in absolute threes,” speaks to the circumstance of a rite, a ceremony of magic, a shamanistic journey. The combination of mirror and ants is effective; the one an object of reflection, the other a teeming, as of words, picking up pieces of nourishment from the world, and then descending into the ground, into a deeper realm where these articles are digested.
Kalamaras brings with this chapbook a beautifully crafted inclusion in his Bone Sutras series, which in itself offers something unusual to contemporary poets and writers: a sense of the sacred, certainly, but one which is delivered in words that have the juiciness of plums, the tart vivacity of wild chicory, and the spicy warmth of Ethiopian red pepper.