by Livia Meneghin
Cicada by Phoebe Giannisi
trs. from the Greek by Brian Sneeden
New Directions, 2022
Phoebe Giannisi’s Cicada masterfully holds conversations on the accuracy of language in the face of mortality and truth. For me, the image of a cicada on the front cover first evoked eco-poetry, the motif of metamorphosis, and even allusions to the Old Testament. But as I looked closer, I saw there was so much more: music, color, flora. Within the pages of this surprising and philosophical collection, Giannisi leans on nature, Greek mythology, and the deeply mundane to engage with the concept of time that permeates life as she knows it.
One of the most exciting aspects of Cicada is how Giannisi abandons punctuation. Her poems flow according to an ancient hum outside of the lines of human language. A middle section, “Winged,” is made up of six prose block poems without a single grammatical mark. “Rose Geranium,” for instance, starts with:
A plant in a pot a pot beside a table a table with chairs with
people a plant in a pot in front of a road followed by sand a beach
then sea the plant is green intense green. (33)
The words here blend together, and the heavy use of repetition compels readers to speak the poem aloud in order to find its cadence. While these images are simple, stationary even (except perhaps the people and the sea), there’s a quickness to the pace of this poem that plays with the fleeting nature of time. The poem ends on the idea of eternal tranquility (23), a note emphasized by the seemingly endless sentence that shapes this poem. Without punctuation to make readers pause, they are confronted with the inevitability of time.
“Rose Geranium” also engages in one of the other themes prevalent in Cicada, which is the notion that words fail in conveying true meaning; human language, no matter how careful and considered, cannot sufficiently represent objects, memories, or truths. Just after noting the “intense green” in this same poem, Giannisi continues: “I don’t know the names of the green when you cut it and rub it between your fingers the / plant has a smell its smell is intense I can’t describe it smells and / colors are never described except in metaphors” (33). Here the speaker’s mind reaches into the depths of language to name what she knows, but she cannot find the words. She instead returns back to the senses, to touch and smell, but even there she stumbles. The following poem, “Touch,” continues this conversation: “I thought touch and smell are closer to memory closer to truth / because they’re nearer to the body” (34). In this moment, Giannisi advocates for the oneness of humanity and nature, encouraging readers to rely on their corporeal intuition rather than only what their intellect can offer.
A delightfully stimulating poem, “Archilochus,” walks readers through this very failure of language, landing in an unexpected yet satisfying place. Giannisi introduces us to a sample of preserved verse from the Greek poet, Archilochus. She notes,
Someone (Athenaeus) wanted to commemorate someone
who in turn commemorates something (the figs). (39)
Multiple interpretations and meanings lie at each link within this chain of memorialization. Giannisi smartly and excitedly runs through the various definitions, connotations, and associations of each word from the cited quote. She draws connections to Cavafy (39) and Odysseus (40), considers sika sometimes as figs and sometimes as vaginas (41). As the poem continues, the richness of language is heralded; readers are free to choose from multiple interpretations. It’s important to note that Cicada is translated into English from Modern Greek by Brian Sneeden. As Giannisi works through the verse, I read it transformed from the Greek alphabet (which I can read for sound) into Greek words spelled with the Latin alphabet into English. The linguistic conversation on the page would arguably be quite different without the presence of English imposing on the poem. What’s most exciting about “Archilochus” is that it is designed as a loop, taking readers on a journey through time and language until we arrive at the beginning again; the poem, therefore, mirrors the cycle of life. “Or, better yet:” the speaker says, giving in to the imperfect perfection of words, “ἔα Πάρον καὶ σῦκα κεῖ να καὶ θαλάσσιον βίον”—the original text (44). In short, what better way to understand a phrase’s meaning if not the exact phrase itself? Poets, after all, are the master of words.
Giannisi, as a poet, commits to an epistemology of evolution and an acceptance of biology as the main ruler of life. “Even Achilles,” she notes, “best of Achaeans dies” (62). No hero is above death. Existence, the human experience, is both tangible and intangible. Images splash onto otherwise cerebral and philosophical poetry to ground readers in this truth: “Cicada eaten by ants” (71), a “sparrow dances with the butterfly” (7), “a swan [grieves] its former life (26). All life is connected by the same fate. As different thinkers such as Aristophanes and Socrates attempt to explain why and how we’re trapped in this circle of life, Giannisi always returns to the reality of the passage of time. In “Rites of Passage” she asks:
How do we go from one season—to another
one hour—to the next
slow and tortuous and continuous
hence the rites of passage
all the ache
all the fear
severing before from after. (23)
Still, despite the inevitability of mortality, Giannisi considers the respite within such a prison. The passage of time is circuitous, but it also is freeing. The everyday things provide comfort: “a red fishing boat” (81) a dog named Daphne (63), “cast-iron chairs from the ‘60s and ‘70s” (72), “the sea the sea” (61). Within life we all, as humans with breath and thought, forever have the familiar—language that inches us closer to understanding, even if imperfectly, and cicadas that shed and sing with the seasons just as humans do.
Livia Meneghin is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair and a Review Writer for GASHER. Her writing has found homes in The Academy of American Poets, BOAAT Journal, tenderness lit, Entropy Magazine, Tinderbox, So to Speak, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at Emerson College, where she is now affiliated faculty and Program Coordinator for EmersonWRITES.