Review: A Soul Inside Each Stone, Poems by John Tripoulas

A Soul Inside Each Stone  by John Tripoulas

Published by Dos Madres Press,  2016

In these moving, introspective poems, ancient myth, modernism, daily island life and the raw elements of sun, sea, moon, and rock combine with masks, ruins, and airplanes to create a revelatory, personal landscape –Ikaria, the poet’s home and ancestral homeland to which he returned from his native Ohio to become surgeon general.

His book,  written from his rough island outpost,  is divided into five sections.  Part 1, “View from the Emergency Room”  begins and ends with a journey,  offering pictures of village life, including–aside from rustic olive presses and local taverns–acerbic  glimpses from the hospital and the morgue. In Part 2, “Time Without End,” the journey deepens to myth – in these place poems, Tripoulas celebrates that addictive quality of Greece – where two or more timelines unexpectedly converge in an ordinary location. A metro rumbling over a buried altar, a beach where ancient bronze bodies come ashore, a mountain trail where the Germans invaded “to devour the ancient land” yet ending up with “nothing but stones,”  Ikaria with its predisposition toward falling, are all places where we’re likely to stumble into a time warp, and possibly into eternity.

Speaking of the Byzantine ghost town, Mystras, Tripoulas writes, “Here beside its ravaged walls/ one draws in air/ that Helen once breathed, / a drug evoking/ time without end.”   In such realities a mosquito may be a harbinger of the underworld, the moon,  the mask of Agamemnon, a blind girl on the metro an incarnation of Kore.


Part 3, “Twice Told” takes us even further into literary landscape, retelling stories from Homer and Dante. In  Part 4, “Stone Song,” the core of the book, the tone shifts to an elegiac mood. These are poems for the dead and the lost, for fathers, patients and heroes, where stones like votaries conceal souls within.  Here the deeply personal, the mythic, and  literary allusion  resonate together in powerful poems, such as  “Sailing to Alzheimer’s” – truly a country for old men.  “I closed the barred door/ turning the lock/ that keeps  the old man/from wandering to the rocks.”  Or in the more intimate portrait of his father, “Bikes.”

The poems in  the last section, the “Disquieting Muses” (the title comes from De Chirico’s painting of sinister dressmaker’s dummies and Plath’s remaking of it) deal with creativity, death, madness, and  inspiration, evoking epiphanies from the lives of Lord Byron, Cavafy, Rupert Brooke, Chet Baker, Monet, and from Tripoulas’ own life,  waking in a storm  to write the “poem of his house.”

Just as currents ripple the surface of the sea, undertows of literary influences from Homer to Yeats, from Keats and Coleridge to T.S. Eliot, Donald Justice, Charles Simic and A.E. Stallings  tug at these poems from below to create complex eddies of meaning.  In “The Prince of Asine,” Tripoulas pays homage to George Seferis’ great poem, “The King of Asine,” telling of a search among ruins and potsherds  for traces of a person Homer mentioned only once,  hoping to touch “with our fingers his touch upon the stones.”  Seferis’ futile search for a palpable sign of those who have gone before seems to peter out in a wasteland.  Tripoulas’s poem (like the whole book itself)  is a reenactment of Seferis’s empty  quest  -and suggests that the element of stone can never  transmit the warmth of a vanished touch from the antique world.  Rather, as  he hints in “Mystras,”  it is the air we breathe — the same that Helen breathed — that allows this transmission of live sensation  to occur across time.   Breath – Pneuma– is the soul but it is also the voice – speech, poetry. It is the soul inside each stone.

Enigmatic, rich, reflective  these are poems to live twice in. Tripoulas’ book is a wise companion to take along on a trip to Greece where you may savor the poems in the settings that inspired them, or to read nestled in an armchair, dreaming of the  Aegean, the bluest sea that ever was.

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