01 January 2010

Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants by Elena Georgiou

Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants
Harbor Mountain Press
Paperback, 88 pages
ISBN: 9780981556024

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Ann E. Michael  
Elena Georgiou’s first collection of poems, Mercy Mercy Me, introduced her poetic voice to readers through a willingness to experiment with line length and poem patterns and a speaker who engages in self-doubt and second-guessing while courageously moving toward assertion and understanding. A good number of those poems also deal with the literal and figurative aspects of transporting a person from one place to another, the restlessness and the settling-in of a body and soul in transit. Her new collection, Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants, unfolds poem by poem as an intimate and believable set of portrait-like pieces that attempt to communicate the immigrant experience to the reader. The poems’ images and sentences track the inevitable trek from homeland to new-homeland and do justice to the awe and disorientation in which a newcomer to New York City finds herself immersed.

The narratives suggest the typical “journey” theme yet Georgiou is playful enough, experimental enough, to keep these poems from treading too closely to expected patterns. The last line of the initial poem announces “This is my city—home to the person I’ve come here to be,” but the rest of the book challenges that assertion. In “Immigrant #2: Under a Public Skin,” the character in the poem wants “to proclaim, ‘This is my home.’//It is a lie, of course. This is not her home.” Nevertheless, “Like a good American, she tips generously” and learns “her city’s unspoken rule,” (which is “don’t look//up”). She breaks that rule on September 11, 2001—in that poem (“Immigrant #5”), a page is devoted to four words, and typography acts as form. The choice is unexpected and wholly appropriate. Another surprising choice Georgiou makes in some of these poems is the decision to use footnotes as little prose-poem commentaries. In the poem subtitled “Two Lives,” the footnotes document the second life in the title. Here’s an excerpt that also gives an idea of Georgiou’s sense of humor:
3 God continued to drop off a cardboard box of groceries on Saturday mornings. The mother never saw him—His elusiveness began to bother her. She thought He could ring her bell to say hello. Surely, it wouldn’t kill God to come in for a cup  of tea.
The strongest poems here compel the reader to partake in the daily lives of people who are displaced; whether forced from their homelands or seeking new homes in a place perceived as “better,” these characters shuttle through subways, eat at diners, and ponder the losses of family, childhood places, necklaces, languages, lovers. They are never certain where home is. Music, prayer, and travel are concatenations that draw the reader toward more abstract themes such as compassion and love, from the “Freedom” in the initial poem to the closing poem’s plea:
Forgive me, for I have learned every scream goes both ways—
death, lament, birth, praise.
The very titles of Georgiou’s poems include these “screams”: there are psalms, aubades, an elegy, nocturne, prayer, rhapsody, praisesong. Popular music weaves in and out of the poems, especially in the section called Mass in Transit, which consists mostly of a long poem, “Train,” in three parts, in which the speaker seems almost a diarist and which together comprise one of the best descriptions of taking New York subways I can think of.

Another aspect of Georgiou’s Rhapsody that strikes me as worthy of attention is her keen reflections on and experiments with the idea of what is public and what is private. These poems question where “the line” between public and private is drawn, and who draws it, and if poetry exists partly to shift and subvert that line. In Georgiou’s case, the shifting and subverting make the exercise novel and inviting. The poems in Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants do indeed establish her, as one of her poems suggests, as an “…Alien with Extraordinary Ability in the Arts.” They offer a way for all of us to experience ourselves as immigrants, actual or metaphorical, as we travel through life trying to make sense of society and self.

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