TALES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Behold you are beautiful.
Your eyes are doves behind the veil.
Your hair is as a flock of goats,
that descend from Mount Gilead. Song of Solomon.
"After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendour. With a mighty voice he shouted:
“Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries.
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” Revelation.
The above biblical verses would not be out of place in George Athanasiou’s latest poetry collection, “Tales of Light and Darkness," launched on 21 September 2008. For in this collection, a manichaean dichotomy is made between two absolutes that are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Throughout its pages, an epic battle is played out between them, one that was hitherto hidden from us but which the poet generously entrusts to us, in the form of a revelation and prophecy.
From the outset, we are given to understand that the poet’s conception of himself is that of a lucifer, or bringer of Light into the pages of his work. It is noteworthy in this regard that the word “Light” is repeated constantly throughout the collection, appearing in almost every single one of the individual poems. Light, also known as Truth, is held by him to be a direct derivative of Love, which is its chief prerequisite. We learn also that in Athanasiou’s poetic domain, love has a gender and that it is female. The subject of most of the poems is an unidentifiable (or sometimes identifiable “she”) who is variously a damsel in distress, an angel or even in some cases, a predator.
That being so, it is therefore not by chance alone that the vast majority of “Light” poems that form half of the collection, are presented to us in the form reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, which is an allegory for love for God, through the form of a dialogue between two lovers – that is a love poem.
Indeed it seems that the Song of Solomon is Athanasiou’s chief inspiration in presenting the ideological basis behind the world of Light. In “A World Away,” we are told that true gnosis which is knowledge of the path of salvation, is derived from the outside and its warmth is illuminating: ‘She’s a world away/ she brightens up my day.’ A necessary corollary of such illumination is the granting by grace of sight, which is after all a condition precedent to one being able to behold light. Thus: ‘I thank God he didn’t make me blind/ And I’m not talking about physical blindness at all/ I’m talking about the light within each of us that stirs the soul.’ In “Beautiful Girl,” Athanasiou juxtaposes light from its surrounds and places it into the context of the primordial conflict he will soon enmesh the reader within: ‘Her eyes… glistening in the darkness from a distance/ like beacons of light/ paving the way to the depths of her soul.’ In doing so, truth/light is gleaned and it is beautiful: ‘…her endearing face, untainted by make up.’
If “An Observer’s Tales,” Athanasiou’s first collection of poems, was oblique and apophatic, “Tales of Light and Darkness,” is direct and emphatic. Having traversed the noetic and physical world and endeavoured to reduce it to its elemental constituents, Athanasiou has stumbled upon the battle of two extremes, Light and Darkness that defines our present day existence. As in the case of the Mithraic myths of Ancient Persia, it is incumbent upon the reader to make certain sacrifices if the sun of righteousness is to illuminate our world. In the reader’s case, the qurbana or sacrifice required is bloodless – it is merely a pledge of allegiance to the life-giving powers of Light. Instead, it is the poet who, in a manner reminiscent of the supreme Sacrificial Lamb, will shed his own blood, in the symbolic form of ‘fine wine’ (see “A Victory March in September” where the poet’s longing for the victory of Light over Darkness is symbolized by the motif of a Grand Final football match.)
Often, the poet despairs of his task, considering it futile. The world, especially humanity, seems to be too much in thrall to the nefarious powers of Darkness to be capable of salvation. In “The Fire of the Flame,” a poem that reminds one of the pop song “Candle in the Wind,” he laments: ‘The Wind breathes on the candle flame/ trying to blow it out in a tug of war/ but it still lingers flickering…though death is inevitable… till its warmth is no more than a memory/ etched into our recall.” The existence of pure Light in this corrupted and fallen world is precarious and beleaguered upon all sides. As if seeking reassurance to carry out his self-appointed and Herculean task, he resorts to asking of the reader in “Another Resurrection”: ‘In the name of the Father/ and in the name of the Son/ believe that the battle for emancipation can ever be won./ Do you believe his follower’s eyes or the pharisaic lies?’ The appeal to those who have seen the Light is an exhortation for the reader to believe in the evidence presented before their eyes. It is also an implication that the poet considers his own powers of convincing to be paltry and must resort to testimonials. Again, following ancient Persian tradition, the enemy is referred to as the ‘Lie,’ albeit with a judaeo-christian gloss.
Despite this despair, the poet finds consolation and solace in love, from which he draws the strength to continue to preach his message. Whereas his previous collection of poems focused upon unrequited love, most of the poems of this collection focus upon the consequences (mostly beneficial) of love requited. This, often in the form of a ‘sales pitch’ becomes extremely apparent in “The Gulf of Loneliness,” where he vows: ‘If I had to move mountains/ for you I would move them/ If I had to break chains/ I would shatter them all..’ For, and this is the crux of the poet’s guiding ideology towards his mission, adopted from the central Christian message in John 15:13, ‘what greater love is there than for a man to give up his life for his friend.’
Yet while he holds himself out to be capable of ‘carrying [us] over the gulf of loneliness,’ he not only despairs of his capability to carry out his mission but also whether he is able to adhere to its central tenets in the first place. If beholding the Light is to witness the ultimate reality, Athanasiou fears that he is a fake, easily given up to temptation and that this is the reason why he is experiencing difficulty in convincing others to abjure the ‘Dark Side’: ‘Why on earth would she go out with a boy like you?/ Get a hold of yourself Pinocchio/ You’re made from wood…’ Reaching into the darkness harbours the danger of losing one’s sense of reality unless they are spiritually prepared: ‘You want to be made of plastic fantastic too/ Made to look like some plastic toy/ Didn’t you always want to be a real boy?’ This inability to distinguish between the animate and the inanimate merely serves to highlight the quandary in which modern humanity finds itself. Athanasiou will return to the motif of the puppet in “The Art of Detail,” saying: ‘And I might prevail/ the mannequin rises to the occasion/ what exhilaration/ she brings/ to a mere puppet/ riding on strings.’
A consequence of the poet’s deep-seated feeling of inadequacy and illegitimacy is his ultimate fear of failure. Like the prophet Jonah, he often seems only too willing, in the absence of ready adherents, to believe that all his endeavours will come to nought and the darkness he has been sent to warn us about as well as ward off, will conquer all: ‘As the gladiator raises his shield/ On his last legs/ On his last breath/ In the end one will be vanquished/The other will prevail/ All hail/ the pinnacle of barbarism.’ The prospect of such a victory as is depicted in “The Gladiator” is so terrible that the victor cannot be named, causing the poet to resort to the euphemism: ‘the other.’
Conversely, when this contemporary Jeremiah is sure of his reception, he is renewed and in bliss. Assuming the guise of a port, the poet promises safe haven to those (females for preference) who would heed his call, see the Light and join him in his crusade. ‘Love Beckons’ to that mystical communion of purpose: ‘And aiming for the shore/ drops her anchor/ wanting more than a kiss/ what bliss!/ As she puts her arms around me/ she has me wondering/ and wanting more on the edge of my shore/ love beckons.’ Even the prospect of such a communion, without a guarantee of its actualization is enough to excite and sustain him. Thus in “Favourite Memories” he waxes: ‘My heart soars/ In anticipation/ of the possibility of love/ Reciprocated/ All I have to go on/ is a single smile/ Gone/ but not forgotten.’ It is implicit then that the poet’s salvation lies as much in his reader as his reader’s does in him. This serves to break down the barrier between the poet and his audience, lending to his work, a heightened sense of intimacy. He is particularly lyrical in the tradition of the Song of Solomon when he perceives that his target has finally acquired the gnosis necessary to distinguish light from darkness and rejoices that finally, ‘She knows’: ‘Her eyes flirt with darkness,’ but they are ‘brightened by the light/ that reaches out from her soul.’ Then, the synthesis, the apogee of gnosis is portrayed as an ultimately erotic experience: ‘And as she presses her lips on mine/ I can only find/ How much more I want to lose myself/ In the arms of her embrace/ My heart’s resting place/ My soul’s repose/ She knows.’
Such allies as are to be relied upon in the final battle must be bound to Athanasiou by the strongest bonds, and these are those of love. As a recruiter of disciples, he has particularly sharp eyes: ‘Not an ordinary girl/ I think/ But a pearl of wisdom/ And she can have my kingdom/ And though its early days yet/ I’m willing to bet/ her love will stand the test of time…’ (“From Long Ago”) Interestingly enough, in the Orthodox Christian tradition in which the poet couches his discourse, the ‘pearl of great price’ that marks the ultimate reward for accomplished Christians, is martyrdom.
Athanasiou’s readiness to provide his true adherents with a ‘kingdom’ is troubling, especially given that the terrestrial domain seems to be currently given over to powers infernal and dark. However, it is soon revealed that as in John 18:36, the kingdom of which he speaks is ‘not of this earth.’ Having satisfied himself that the reader is by now at least receptive to his call to sight, he prepares them for the oncoming battle by revealing and invoking the protection and assistance of otherwordly, divine powers. In “She’s Still Here,” he unveils the chief weapon in his arsenal to be St Mary, the Mother of God, who ‘embraced me to keep me warm,’ and advises that ‘if you want things to change for the better/ Call out to her in prayer/ She’s still here.’
The eschatological dimension to the poet’s perception of his world is further pronounced when he sizes up his enemy, the Zoroastrian Lie or Untruth. Even before he confronts the Ultimate Darkness, he observes the signs of its works everywhere: ‘A woman with no name/ has fallen from Grace/ lusting after hellfire.’ (“A Slave to the Syringe.”) The virtual reality and thus untruth of drugs is also a manifestation of the para-reality that distorts and parodies the perfection of Creation. Thus, ‘Drugs are like thugs’ and ‘these negative ideas/ are the rudimentary fears/ formed from fatigue and loneliness/ That is blind to the good that is out there.’ (“Drugs are like Thugs”)
The concept of planē or prelest in the Orthodox tradition as a spiritual blindness that convinces the deluded that they are on the right path, only to discover when it is too late their path is that of darkness and destruction is explored fully by the poet and indeed, it forms one of his chief concerns. According to him, it requires a good deal of discernment and spiritual preparation in order to avoid the pitfalls of darkness and traverse the path of enlightenment: ‘Cast your mind back to the days when you used to glow/ when you could distinguish friend from foe/ on life’s battlefield.’ Otherwise, we are dozing denizens of a “Fool’s Paradise.”
Indeed, some of the more accomplished poems of the collection are those that deal directly with the impossibility of identifying a foe that can take a multitude of forms and who, appealing to our basest instincts, attempts to elicit mastery over us through seduction. In “Horizontal Tango” it is noteworthy that the gender of the foe is female, highlighting how easy it is to veer off from one extreme to the other: ‘A horizontal tango with you?/ But I don’t love you,” he told her./ “You don’t love me yet/ But I’m willing to bet/ This will be one night you’ll never forget.’ The use of the vernacular and popular clichés lends an immediacy and relevance to the poem, to the modern reader.
In order to combat such an onslaught upon the senses, the poet adopts a somewhat homeopathic approach. The minions of darkness can often be cured through simple acts of love such as ‘giving someone a hug.’ (“Drugs are Like Thugs.”) This inversion of tactics ostensibly confounds the poet’s dualistic premise. There is an evil opposite counterpart for everything that exists in the world but it seems to be of the same essence. Is the poet hinting that extremes are not irreconcilable? Or is to consider the question seriously one of the more subtle forms of prelest? In “Wrong Train,” love, offered freely as a panacea by the poet throughout the work, is sold ‘to the highest bidder,’ befuddling the senses and rendering us unable to ‘distinguish between pleasure and pain’ (“Contrived Images”) until the final redemption.
Even prominent works of literature have their inverted counterpart. E M Forster’s “A Room with a View” appears in Athanasiou’s nightmarish looking-glass world as “A Room with No View,” where spiritual blindness leads to a cul-de-sac and ultimately, to total and utter annihilation: ‘As the blood gushes out of her wrists/ she closes her eyes and clenches her fists.’
In “Cyber Reality,” the poet even employs the motif to provide a counterpart for mankind - a cold lifeless world inhabited by machines. ‘The truth is lost/ somewhere between cyber reality/ And robotic failure.’ Despite all our efforts, we will fall low, very low and it will not be through us that redemption will come after all. In “Third from Sol,” he describes a reversal in the fortunes of his ‘side.’ ‘In a tug of war between night and day/ light and darkness/ the moon rises only to fall…’ Things seem hopeless and that is attributed to ‘…the grand arrogance of man/ by his own hand/ Civilisation reduced to dust/ Ashes to Ashes/ Dust to Dust.’
The enormity of this plummeting to the depths of desolation and degradation is felt so keenly by the poet that he suspects that the Enemy has penetrated his own defences. Thus, in “Weapons of Mass Destruction” he rages against the paranoia and confusion of a fallen world that cannot perceive the extent of its fall and rather, seeks to guard itself from illusory threats without concentrating on the task at hand and the possibility that he may, albeit unwittingly, assisting in bringing about this course of events: ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction are hidden throughout this poem. This poem may contain subliminal messages. Readers will be prosecuted.”
The above caveat notwithstanding, Athanasiou draws hope and reminds us in “The Ultimate Foe” that when all seems lost, it is only the ill-advised who abandon themselves to their fate, for much more is to transpire: ‘The other fighter is reeling/ It hasn’t been a bad show/ as for who’ll win/ that would be telling/ but in case you’re wondering/ Soon we’ll all know./ There’s one round to go/ Against the ultimate foe.’ For at the final hour, Athanasiou offers us consolation: ‘There is hope for a better tomorrow,’ where true love will triumph. (“Hope for a Better Tomorrow.”) As to when that felicitous event will occur, that depends on the reader and their capacity to acquire Athanasiou’s gnosis. When the time comes, he tells us, ‘you’ll know.’
The final outcome is most unexpected though hinted at throughout. The two opposing extremes, light and darkness will be reconciled in “The Two Lovers” in a manner reminiscent of the theology of Origen or St Gregory of Nyssa, with the ultimate apokatastasis of all things through Love and Grace, in Light. The intimate union and reconciliation of the two absolutes in order to form the ultimate Truth also takes on a particularly erotic tone: ‘And they are free/ Two passionate lovers/ Together/ Celebrating love the way it was meant to be…The day and the night finally meet/ Giving birth to the sun.’ In “A New Beginning” on the other hand, we are offered a further glimpse of the ultimate paradisiacal state as being one where Truth, again female in gender, can be glimpsed freely as it: ‘reveal[s] concealed images of her/ As images that have rarely seen the light of day/ Are captured by the sunrise/ That lights the pathway/ To a new beginning.’ Creation has thus been restored anew.
However, before the apokatastasis, an epic final battle must take place. In keeping with Athanasiou’s chief inspiration, the chronicles of that battle are, like the book of Revelation in the Bible, relegated to the final chapter. In that final section of the collection, entitled “The Excalibur Collection,” and featuring also in part in Athanasiou’s first book, Arthurian legends meld with Byzantine theology and Saturday Night Fever motifs to relate how the redemption and restoration prefigured in his prophetic writing takes place.
In “Tales of Light and Darkness,” Athanasiou appears variously as a Jeremiah, John the Baptist, his namesake St George and a multitude of other guises. It requires an attentive reader to discover as he himself helpfully hints in “The Alcove of Creativity,” that he considers himself as much more, for: 'Through his work…It’s been sitting there for a while/ Painstakingly being restored/ By the artist’s brush strokes/ And lush colours that evokes/ The canvas to come alive …Bathed in light/ To finally give up the images/ From a story… /Deep in an alcove of creativity/ Of an artist’s brilliant mind/ Till now.’
Now will someone turn on the lights?