GEORGE ATHANASIOU: AN OBSERVER'S TALES
No greater key can be provided to unlocking the secrets of his poetry. According to George Athanasiou, this is a matter of some urgency: “It’s getting late/ but I can’t wait/ because it’s not about hate/ but about the need to communicate.”
At the eleventh hour, when post-modernism has eroded the world of the meanings and constructs that gave it shape in the hearts and minds of the individual, leaving in its stead a valueless grey moonscape existence of blandness, coupled with craters of despair and disillusion, George Athanasiou dynamically asserts his unique voice in his ‘Public Announcement,’ in order to provide the hope that: “From beyond the plains of shattered dreams on hold/ beyond the bitter cold/ something glorious would unfold.”
Yet one would be mistaken in thinking that George Athanasiou’s poetry is merely expressive of a vague and timid hope in the alleviation of suffering, fear, confusion and purposelessness. As expressed in ‘Serendipity,’ (the name really says it all,) George Athanasiou’s poetry is triumphantly eschatological, indicating a final restoration of the cosmos, unparalleled in its magnitude by anything hitherto experienced by mankind. His is therefore not “a pale and insignificant revelation/ but an unparalleled restoration,” where if one follows the discourse, all will be set right, as was originally intended, in the Beginning.
If, as the critic Vagenas states, the language of poetry is essentially a religious language – that of man’s desire to enter a paradise of expression, then George Athanasiou’s poetry is most definitely religious, having as its chief concern, not only the ‘condition humane’ of Sartre but its final apokatastasis, positively delineating the path towards the guiding source of that restoration he so desires: “Don’t lose sight/ Behold the light.”
In order to achieve his aim, George Athanasiou insidiously unlocks his heart to the reader through his ostensibly extremely personal and individualistic poems. Very quickly however, the reader discovers not only that the deceptively subjective experience of the poet is of catholic application but also that in so indulging in what could only be described in Orthodox terms as a kenosis or emptying of the soul, he has actually managed to penetrate the reader’s own soul, and through his poetry offer consolation and, if the requisite element of gnosis is achieved, salvation.
In order to achieve his soteriological aim, the poet needs to explain why it is that the ‘light’ to which he refers cannot be beheld, the reason for our ‘fallen’ and manifestly miserable state. This central question, which occupies almost every single one of the poems in this collection and to which he returns again and again has one answer – a lack of communication, stemming from a number of sources, arrogance, indifference and fear being but a few. Thus, in ‘The Girl with Red Hair’ he asks rhetorically: “Why does it interest me for her to know where I’m coming from?/ How I feel?” whereas phrases and words such as “if only you knew,” “ignorance” “misunderstanding,” “don’t know,” feature prominently in almost all poems. It is only deep understanding, which has as its pre-requisite the example of kenosis, the self-emptying of all those things that obstruct the attainment of untrammeled communication, that one will be able to behold the Redemption. This then is the poet’s revelation: “to reveal.” (‘The Girl with Red Hair.’) As he points out, the attainment of such a level of communication in the modern era is not easy: ‘even when you make asking for a café-latte a crime.”
George Athanasiou, through the exposition of his own life experience and especially focusing on potential or actual amorous relationships, again a prerequisite for the unencumbered unity of souls, appoints himself as the enemy of such ignorance as masks the path to Redemption. Perhaps the most blatant example of the exposition of his own role as poet can be evidenced in the first lines of ‘The Sounds of Silence’: “The Sounds of Silence have been raised again/ like walls of silence that cannot be broken/ from either side they refused to open/ so a daring plan was hatched/ and a single soul was dispatched/ to try and communicate through prose and song.” Again, in ‘The Inquisitor’ the poet, an inquisitor of the reader’s soul clearly declares his manifesto: “As the inquisitor reaches out his hand for her to take a hold/ And as he brings her out of the hellfire and into the fold/ He restores her to what she was in the days of old/ To her rightful place in the light of the sun/ As we all wait together for the last days to come.”
As is evidenced by the above extract, though possessed of the unique knowledge necessary for the salvation of mankind, George Athanasiou often identifies directly with the reader: “She is decent/ She stands up for the innocent.” (‘Her True Name is Love.’) Often, like an Old Testament Jonah, the prophet Athanasiou despairs of his self-appointed task: “But alas the questions didn’t come/ and the battle against the sounds of silence is far from won.” (‘The Sounds of Silence’) “What’s the explanation?/ What’s this all about?/ As I’m trapped behind a wall of doubt.” (‘Behind the Wall of Doubt’). He also despairs of the reader’s receptivity to his message as well as his tolerance of them: “Would you walk away?/ Would you look any other way?… Would you break my heart?”
There clearly is a long way to go for the reader to become receptive to George’s message. As such, he demands complete and utter self-revelation before the final restoration can be made: “If only she thought she was able/ to put all her thoughts upon the table/ I’d listen to her anywhere.” Yet like the mystic monks in the Orthodox Christian tradition, George Athanasiou is possessed of unlikely clairvoyance. In ‘The Girl with Red Hair’ for example, it is not coincidental that he receives “a piece of her mind,” for that describes exactly the relationship he has with the reader. In this, George Athanasiou ingeniously reverses the usual premise in the relationship between poet and reader. While it is customary for the reader to extract from the poet’s writings, in this case, it is Athanasiou who demands his pound of flesh, or rather, his pound of soul from the reader.
As within the Orthodox Christian tradition of the confessor/spiritual father, this process of soul entrustment can be long, tortuous and delayed but the final union of humanity in which no boundaries between people or the Creator exist is assured: “I must convey/ The next chapter in an elaborate play/ but the lead has gone astray/ She’s gone away/ There’s going to be a delay…to be continued.” (‘To Be Continued.’) This element of hope that underlies all of the poems of this collection is subtle yet omnipresent.
In keeping with George Athanasiou’s passionate love of humanity, most of the corpus of this collection is permeated by erotic allusions and many references to unrequited love. The paradigm of humanity’s spiritual isolation from itself is viewed invariably through the poet’s search for the basic ingredient in the solution for attaining that redemption – love, in its various forms. Thus lines such as, “But alas without her/ I have nothing/ I am nothing,” (‘I am nothing’), “If I were right there by your side, to say I love you” (‘How Could You’), “She is the backbone of my belligerence/ Wearing down my resistance to love” (‘Don’t Tell Anyone’), “I could still dream about you…Love you more than I’d ever let you know,” (‘You Never Know’) indicate an all consuming passion. This can be contrasted with a more paternalistic form of love as this is manifested in ‘I Ache For Her,’ a particularly accomplished piece: “I ache for her/ Not for love/But for the possibility that she might get hurt…Because a love born out of someone else’s pain/ procured is a love of convenience.” Here then is a starry eyed, passionate idealist who has no illusions about the objects of his desire, or the difficulties of his chosen path.
Despite this, George Athanasiou frequently intersperses his writings with hints that despite the often tearful and uneasy path the soul must tread in order to find its redemption, the success of the traveler on that path is assured. In this way, George Athanasiou’s poetry transcends mere social commentary or negative criticism in order to achieve the desired outcome. Having traversed the ascetic path of kenosis, for which humility and self-knowledge are essential, the chthonic garments of pride, arrogance, fear, illusion and indifference are cast aside to reveal a pure soul in communion with the poet, the Redeemer and the entire cosmos.
George Athanasiou’s poetry thus demands the total participation of the reader in order for it to be fully appreciated. Its utilisation of the traditional form of the rhyme, punctuated in parts by alliteration and even, interestingly enough, use of the fifteen syllabic meter of Greek poetry give the poems an essentially lyric quality and indeed many of the poems read like song-lyrics, dirges, ballads or ecstatic doxologies. In doing this, George Athanasiou actively draws upon and partakes of the poetic tradition of the Orthodox Church as exemplified by the Song of Songs and the hymnodies of Romanus Melodus, not in an emulative but rather an interpretative capacity. He is particularly successful.
As we leave the endearingly self-doubting prophet George Athanasiou to “wield Excalibur.. for a girl of her caliber,” (‘Excalibur’) and indeed for all of us, we cannot but look forward to the final moment when in the culmination of his entire message, he will announce: “We interrupt this poem for an important public announcement. Communications have been restored.” (‘Public Announcement.’)