Dimitris Lyacos’ long, tripartite poem, Poena Damni, is one of the most important and challenging literary works to come from Greece in the past generation, and it has achieved an international reputation. With the People of the Bridge is a thoroughly reworked version of the second part of the trilogy, originally published as Nictyvoe. We will perhaps not have a definitive version of the poem until its parts, separately published until now, appear in a single volume, and so a consideration of it as a whole may be premature. The separate parts, however, stand as individual works, and so the current installment can be properly considered on its own.
“Poem” is itself an approximate genre description of this complex and polyvalent text, which combines elements of staging, ritual, and passages whose indentation on the page seem to mark them as verse soliloquy, choral incantation, or simple description. There is a figure, the Narrator, who doesn’t narrate but seems to function as a kind of stage manager and director, assigning the other “players” their roles and action; tenses fade in and out of the first person, and, in the absence of named individuals, identities only slowly coalesce and are seldom stable for long. Lyacos gives a firm sense of mastery in these disparate materials, since nothing In them seems wasted or arbitrary and the sense of atmosphere they build is cumulative and compelling. But you will look in vain for anything approaching a resolution. This is not a world in which things are resolved.
The setting of the poem is likewise ambiguous. There is indeed a bridge, though it has no indication of traffic: perhaps it is a derelict structure, or perhaps the people who live by or under it, like any homeless population, are simply cut off from any economy beyond scavenging. On the other hand, they are not the people under or of the bridge, but those “from” it, which implies a more than temporary abode. Perhaps it might be better to suggest that their home is rather a situation, and the bridge, which comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere (an indistinct past; an uncertain future), is an emblem of it.
The ‘people’—thirteen more or less identifiable characters, but also assorted voices and disembodied presences that appear among them as revenants—are, like any homeless population, living in primitive conditions, burning fires for warmth and using a cut-down oil drum as a table-cum-altar. But they also have possession of a working TV and the cast-off technology of a video cassette, and books and newspapers are occasionally brought in from outside, primarily for fuel. The suggestion is that some form of modern civilization is still going on outside, but it is also true that past and present are interpenetrable, as if time had been beaten flat. If there is any privileged moment, it is the biblical one, for biblical texts are quoted, paraphrased, or intimated throughout the text, and the Bible is the one book the ‘people’ do not consider burning. This point d’appui creates the spatiotemporal grid on which the poem rests, enabling Lyacos to move from remote antiquity and folklore through visionary figures such as Dante to the stalled and crumbling enterprise of modernity. If we’re never entirely clear where (and when) we are, it’s because we’re everywhere at once, among the living and the dead, all of them copresent in the matrix of the text.
This is, one might say, a displaced Christian vision—perhaps the only vision of wholeness available to our own chronological hour. At its most exalted, the Christian vision was one of a kingdom of souls, living, dead, and yet to come, all comprehended in the eternal gaze and embrace of God—but torn, too, by the competing empires of Heaven and Hell. The vision, that is, was at once unitary and fluid, and deeply penetrated, as historical Christianity was, by the darker visions of folkloric myth, of wandering spirits, of vampires, of unseen presences just beyond the campfire. Christianity sought to banish or at least domesticate these dead/undead figures, but in its present technobarbaric decay (the Narrator with nothing left to narrate; the communication devices with nothing to communicate), they deeply unsettle us again. A quotation from Mark 5.9 early in the poem reminds us of the task of exorcism faced by early Christianity:
For he said unto him, come out thou
unclean spirit from the
man, and he asked him;
what is thy name? and he answered
saying ;my name is legion
for we are many. (13)
What Jesus expels is not a single spirit but a figurative host, and whether and to whom this is welcome is unclear. The dogs whose barking is invoked throughout the poem are also symbolic both of the underworld (Cerberus) and of the sensory alertness that detects the presence of the fearful and the uncanny; they are, too, emblematic of the feral creatures of social decay. This symbolic polyvalence takes the place of metaphor, and Lyacos is able, because of the temporal simultaneity he creates, to suggest a complex and reverberant matrix for which what seems the plainest of speech will serve. At the same time, however, this apparent simplicity and directness is undercut by broken utterance and fragmentary syntax that leaves the reader repeatedly suspended over a void, while it is also belied by the wealth of cultural reference embedded in it by silent quotation and allusion. This is no parade of learning for the critical cognoscenti, however; as in Samuel Beckett, the pressure of an entire civilizational epoch lies behind the most seemingly casual and transparent rhetorical gestures.
In what one might call the conventionally apocalyptic postmodern text, a vision of broken narrative, endless repetition, and meaning not signified but depleted by speech and gesture would appear to be the goal. There are moments that, taken in isolation, seem to suggest this in Lyacos as well. Speech and action are repeatedly broken off; circumstances seem, by sheer dint of repeated invocation, to grow, if not worse, then something worse than that: petrified. Fires will not stay lit; wounds will not heal. Seagulls that swoop to peck at exposed flesh seem to indicate a city under a particularly intimate and malefic kind of siege. But Lyacos’ aim is not to depict despair as such. It is rather, in the deeply Christian signification of the poem, to suggest the possibility of redemption. Indeed, his fundamental insight is that redemption is dialectically entwined with despair, and that one cannot be called forth without the other.