Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ruin: Essays in Exilic Living

by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Red Hen Press, 2014
pp 179, $15.95
A review by Andrew E. Colarusso

What does it mean to live in ruin(s)? A better question still, how is life humanely experienced in and after loss?

Poet, professor, and essayist Kalfopoulou (Language & Literature/Hellenic American University) explores in her collection of essays the various ways we inhabit liminal space—that is, how each of us might slip into the unforeseen cracks on the sidewalk of life and still manage to live our lives. These essays verge on memoir, revealing vignettes of Kalfopoulou’s life as a nomad (of sorts) in search of personal rootedness, frequently touching on Orphic loss, on what it means to lose something (or someone) invaluable. Born in Vietnam to Greek expatriate parents, mother to a bright and idealistic daughter studying in New York City, professor of language and literature teaching in the middle of a tumultuous Athens, Kalfopoulou’s life is a whirlwind of places, people, and events. From the impersonal interpersonal exchanges of post 9/11 America to the limits of suicide as a means of reclaiming one’s body, Kalfopoulou enacts a free discourse with cosmopolitan candor and maternal tenderness. Each of her essays structurally simulate a relationship between tempo and mood. This can be somewhat overwhelming, given the often episodic nature of her subject matter, but her prose functions as mimetic representation for the experience she conveys. Fragments of significant thought (vignettes/episodes) are expertly braided to poignant and haunting affect. Take for example Ruin’s opening essay “Gift-Giving as Exilic Baggage”, a tragicomic account of her experience checking-in luggage at the airport, literally burdened by excessive souvenirs. Elongated/truncated syntax simulates the breathless pace at which Kalfopoulou moves through restricted space. The rushed, stop-n-go cadences of the essay shoulder a clever metaphor for the exile’s tendency to think of others before self and suffer (pay) for it. Ruin shines in its treatment and knowledge of the divisiveness of power and privilege in the everyday lives of everyday people.

"The language of truth is the language of experience, and when it does not recognize or reflect the language of power, it becomes the language of the refugee, the immigrant..." (26, Dislocated States)

She plumbs the depths of languages (and para-languages) displaced, opening them to the imaginative possibilities of their power and beauty. Like any true astrological Leo (I say this as a proud Leo), Kalfopoulou places herself at center, taking full responsibility for the world around her, sharing all of the pieces of her own "'...individual detail that tend to stray from the schema,'" (54, Miosz) 

Ruin was written to remind us: from a fragmented sense of self, from the memories we carry and the experiences we live, it is possible to cull meaningful wholeness. This is a sui generis collection of sage and relevant essays for a world that seems more confusing daily.

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