Among the Ruins: Guide to Greece by George Kalogeris

Drew Swinger
| Reviews

Guide to Greece by George Kalogeris (Louisiana State University Press, 2018).
The title of George Kalogeris’s latest collection of poems is a nod to an ancient travelogue in ten books written by a Greek man named Pausanias in the second century AD, sometime between the reigns of the Roman emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Collectively these ten books—which described for Roman travelers the surviving art and architecture along with the myths and history of ten regions of mainland Greece—have come to be known in Greek as Hellados Periegesis and in English as either Description of Greece or Guide to Greece.

And who is this Pausanias, you might ask. You wouldn’t be alone. Sir James George Frazer, who had translated and critically annotated Description of Greece in 1898 before he went on to write The Golden Bough, his classic study of ancient myth and religion, had this to say about the author:

        The Englishman in Greece who pays any heed to the remains
        of classical antiquity is apt, if he be no scholar, to wonder who
        a certain Pausanias was whose authority he finds often quoted on
        questions of ancient buildings and sites.
        —Preface to Pausanias and Other Greek Sketches (1900)

Yet according to Frazer, Pausanias’s importance to modern-day readers came down to two points: 1. “Of no other part of the ancient world has a description at once so minute and so trustworthy survived.” And 2. “No other people has exerted so deep and abiding an influence on the course of modern civilisation as the Greeks.” (Introduction, Description of Greece)

But for Kalogeris, Pausanias’s guidebook not only matters as literary artifact; it matters personally. Kalogeris is one of roughly 1.3 million Greek-Americans in the U.S., many of whose families had immigrated to major cities like New York, Chicago, and his hometown of Boston in the first thirty years of the twentieth century due largely to economic hardship following the war for Greek independence and to displacement of Greeks under Ottoman rule. Kalogeris notes an ancestral connection with some of the sites Pausanias visited. While this cultural inheritance and personal familiarity with the ancient sites increase the voltage of the many poems in this collection that refer to, address, or speak in the voice of Pausanias (as well as the several translations from ancient and modern Greek that accompany them), Kalogeris’s sympathy with the ancient author goes deeper. As Pausanias’s guidebook attempted to recover a Greece that even then was no longer as it had been, Kalogeris’s Guide to Greece traces connections to an earlier Greece from an even further outpost of the Greek diaspora and amid cultural forces that threaten to diminish those connections.

One of Kalogeris’s more lyrical and affecting poems in the collection is also fairly representative in terms of form and procedure—and fittingly shares its title with the entire collection. Kalogeris’s way of introducing us to Pausanias is by throwing us into the thick of the ancient writer’s material:

        Endless genealogies, as densely entangled
        As a grove of olive trees, his grasp of their roots
        Extending all the way back to Epaminondas,
        Who sprang from the earth of Thebes, before it was Thebes;
        Cities erected on sites of ruined cities,
        Their marble temples and strange foundation myths...
There are many verbal felicities in these opening pentameter lines. Among them are how each half of the first line seems an aural entanglement of the other; how the anapest figuring a stretch in time in the phrase “all the way back” reverberates in the name of the Theban general whose exploits preceded Pausanias’s lifetime by 500 years; how the repeated words “Thebes” and “cities” are like dips in a Heraclitean river, the same but not the same. And there is subtle ironic play in the repetition of “Thebes,” which reads at first as if the city had reasserted itself when in fact its liberation and subsequent elevation under Epaminondas was bookended by Spartan rule and Macedonian conquest at the hands of Alexander the Great. Even so, you’ll have to wait three more lines to confirm that Pausanias is indeed the referent of the pronoun “his” in line two, and six and a half more couplets to reach the end of the sentence at the end of the poem.

Drew Swinger’s poems have appeared in Poetry and AGNI. Recent review work for Salamander has appeared in Poetry Daily’s Prose Feature. He is a graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing Program and manages analytics for a global higher education company headquartered in Chicago. He lives in Lexington, MA.

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