Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos. Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.
In her second collection of poetry, Bull Days, Tina Giannoukos elaborates on the dyad of the lover and the beloved, a relationship she guides through a cycle of fifty-eight sonnets, each more than equal to the exigencies of the form. Giannoukos nuances both the mutability and the steadfastness of love, its vows and caprices buoyed on thematic waves that break afresh in contrapuntal procession. This is a work of great finesse and accomplishment, daring in its navigation of the inconceivable, and plaintive at times with the spectre of a love welcomed into the life of the word at the very moment of the lover’s bereavement. The poems move with grace and proportion, euphoniously lamenting and celebrating this capacious and sometimes wraith-like affection, its lineaments ranging from the querulous and wearisome to the tender and marvellous. The poet salutes, resonates within, and invigorates a lyric tradition whose history informs her transfigurations, all the while staying open to a more contemporary idiom, the fusion handled with poise and a supple, writerly discipline.
The poems play with what Carole Birkan Berz (2014) calls the ‘iconicity’ of the sonnet, asking profound ontological questions at the very limits of what language makes possible. Describing an arc across time and space (mediated by a number of bird poems), they proceed through what Annie Finch (2009) terms ‘energy and containment, development and resting’ to a dialectical and speculative synthesis. In ‘LV’, a poem of equivocation and conjecture, the speaker asks, ‘what if / […] it’s the impossibility / of our being which troubles me more than our love.’ The play of iconicity and iconoclasm, of presence and absence, results in ‘another try at the impossible’, the success of which is attributable to the efficacy of the book’s underlying conceit.
As a sequence, the cycle manifests a ‘gestalt’ (Birkan Berz 2014) whereby the whole, greater than the sum of its parts, is rendered haunting and inexhaustible. Yet individual poems stand their ground, each evidence of this same dynamic writ small, and each teeming with its own expansiveness. Proliferating with variable connotation, the poems inhabit one another, evincing a spectral narrative beneath their elegant modulation. This narrative is one of both mutual reference, with words repeating across sonnets, and a going beyond such reference, by virtue of the subtle differences in the echoic inflection of the shared image that the words evoke. For example, the ‘gorgeous’ in ‘the gorgeous girls line up’ (‘XXXIX’) both informs and is quite other than that in ‘as if gorgeous beings, imitating / my dance, intend my imitation of them’ (‘LVIII’). Music, extremes of temperature, the conjunction of heavenly bodies, nature, and the power of the withheld name each constitute a substrate whose continuity is expressed fugally, each element taking on new tonal colours as new verbal environments and instruments adopt it.
From the opening poem the reader is witness to a love of vast amplitude and intensity, figured by the image of a cornucopian boundlessness, and made all the more striking by the measured tone and deft restraint in use of phrase and archetype. Here the beloved is a centaur who will appear to the speaker as she sails ‘across the empty doom’ (‘I’). Chronicling vicissitude and vagary with a light and playful touch, the cycle moves from an explosive detonation of love, as momentous and mysterious as the creation of the universe, through to disillusionment, imprecation and alienation. Love may be squalid, the lover a saboteur, or the dyad grievously denied, as in ‘XXX’, where ‘I saw the grief in your eyes when they took away / our silks and red cloth.’ The cycle ends with an invocation to ‘sleep in sea’s crooked arm, a starfish’ (‘LVIII’), and recapitulates the motifs of voyaging and subjection to the gods found earlier.
Giannoukos honours and disrupts an enduring and accommodating tradition whose lineage spans from Giacomo da Lentini (1210 – 1260), the Italian poet credited with the invention of the sonnet, to Ted Berrigan (1934 – 1983), a prominent member of the second generation of the New York School of Poets, and beyond. She titles the poems with Roman numerals, and in so doing, plays with linearity and its subversion, while also alluding obliquely to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Both as tribute and in their refusal to reproduce ‘the voice ventriloquised for [women] by men’ (Padel 2002, p.42), the poems enact a departure from the mainstream sonnet. They manifest what Jeff Hilson (Birkan Berz 2014) calls a ‘radical defamiliarisation’ of its scope and capabilities. ‘XVIII’, a call and response poem in multiple voices, ends with a witty, self-reflexive volta that deflates and undermines the propositional bombardment of the preceding thirteen lines, all the while intensifying their irony:
Give them subscriptions to porn. Get ‘em goin’!
The private is the domain of the public. That’s right!
Tell ‘em sex is good. Don’t panic. It’s a ruse!
Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!
The strength of this collection stems from each poem ‘bend[ing] the form to its own will, instead of obligingly succumbing to the form’s demands’, as Rachel Richardson (2013) writes of the contemporary sonnet. Giannoukos invents her own constraints, her novel use of punctuation (or its absence), of enjambment and internal assonance furthering what the sonnet can achieve. ‘[N]ew things’, writes Ruth Padel (2002, p.17), ‘come from breaking old ones. That is how a poetic tradition moves forward: it risks itself to maintain itself.’ In Giannoukos’s hands, the form becomes malleable and ghost-like, a submerged backbone for her linguistically innovative play. Interestingly, she uses both the word ‘risks’ (‘XV’) and ‘ghosts’ (‘XXXIII’), and accommodates both old and new in her vocabulary, the ‘bounty’ in ‘LVIII’, ‘glee’ in ‘III’ and ‘Behold’ in ‘XXXVI’ resting well with the ‘über-humans’ in ‘XXXVII’ and the ‘zilch’ in ‘V’. In ‘LVI’, registers as variable as the musical (‘My music’s no match for your melos’), the scientific (‘We count nerve cells. Measure the minutes’), the imploring (‘Give me what’s mine or a reprieve, life’), and the metatextual (‘These shifts in mood are impossible to endure’) coexist harmoniously.
Giannoukos uses variable line lengths and metres, giving the poems a music which plays rubato, in rhythms of flexible and spacious emphasis. Even where end rhyme is used, the rhyme may be visual, as in ‘XXIX’, where ‘[…] all despondent, the die / cast, men ramble about daughters and a son / intent on crushing all remaining dreams. / You propose instead one more drink, all bon- / homie. Pinot Gris, your pick’, or on the unstressed syllable, ‘Macho’ with ‘virago’ in ‘XXI’. Furthermore, where the poet does employ iambic pentameter, it may be ironic, as in ‘XLVIII’, where ‘I lose the rhythm, bop a pantomime’, or quite transcending any metronomic stringency, as in the beautifully modulated ‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’ (‘II’). Elegiac, ecstatic and witty, the poems move in and out of each other. Their polyvocal echoes, hauntings, playfulness, and risks are emblems inscribed in the fabric of the text, as well as descriptors of the poetics at work. In this sense they ‘interrogate’, ‘what [the] poem is doing, from inside it’ (Padel 2002, p.44).
The beloved is not portrayed as the idealised paragon encountered in some quarters of the tradition, but rather is the pivot for a response to, and questioning of, the sonnet tradition as much as the lyrical, enacted from within. ‘XXIII’, paralleling Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘CXXX’, where he begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, addresses a beloved with ‘degenerate’ eyes, the speaker’s quest for him arising from her desire for a Corybantic communion (the Corybants were the wild attendants of the goddess Cybele, who performed elaborate dances in her honour). Exquisitely and voluptuously the diction stretches into a hyperlyrical meditation, kept just within the bounds of equilibrium by a finely wrought and chiselled virtuosity, fusing the simple with the exotic in images of singular beauty. In luscious and sensuous language the speaker disavows the ‘luscious youth’ with the ‘sensuous fringe’ in favour of the greying and ‘weathered’ older man.
The metrical fluidity of ‘I searched for your image in the disc before my eyes’ (two amphibrachs, one anapest and two iambs) recalls Alexander Pope’s dictum: ‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/ as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance’ (Barnstone, 2016). The iambic pentameter of the final line, ‘It is / in contemplation that I know us best’, both seals the poem and restores, at least in spirit, the absent beloved to the lover. Interestingly, Giannoukos echoes Shakespeare, using the word ‘rare’ in relation to the beloved, ‘The dark curls, like a rare fringe’ referencing and playing with Shakespeare’s ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.’
Different echoes are encountered in the poems which inhabit the interstices between eros and thanatos, where love is haunted by echoes of death, and death by echoes of love. The speaker in following love’s course says in ‘II’, ‘I begin the long march in death’s dominion’, and in ‘LIII’, ‘I feel / the pulse of your breath as quick on my skin / as the fevered pulsations of a dying man.’ Elsewhere there is a more brutal echo of death, particularly in the poems that refract the dyad through the metaphor of the bull fight, in which the beloved as matador by necessity betrays the lover as bull. A gender ambiguity permeates these poems, as do ambiguities of voice and time. In ‘XX’, the bull as speaker asks:
What trophy to keep? My ears, my tail, my hooves?
No, throw my body parts to your sweetheart.
I hope she hurls flowers at you for it.
The crowd will wave handkerchiefs.
The bull anticipates the blade through its heart, its evisceration for the glory of the beloved. Through the use of the caesura and the imperative, the poet creates a staccato, emphatic sense of high tension as the contest plays out its potentially ineluctable end.
The ironic play of death and resurrection is hauntingly captured in ‘XLVI’. Here the Venusian volta, preceded by the taunts and bellowing of the rabble, is tempered by a picture of earthly ruin. The poem leads us to ask where is love’s congregation now, now that the face of light is hidden and the places of worship razed by time, neglect or nature:
I am a skygazer. I am witness to your
eclipse. The blue glow of your beauty
beatifies heaven. I gather myself
around me in horror. In the old temple
love-astrologers hand out business cards.
They spy you parachuting into Mongolia.
How you blacken the sun! It burns with a fiery rim.
This is the time of fear. It grows cold.
The moon bites the sun. Oh the crowd jeers!
It masks the sun. Oh the mob roars! Oh how
people rear their heads like the huge cobra!
In the glow of the dark Venus shone again
on the fallen stones and collapsed columns
of the ancient temples and on the eroded rocks.
Other figures of play also feature prominently in these poems. The ‘game of hearts’ in ‘III’, to which the speaker may or may not be equal, plays with a music that in ‘XXVII’ makes her ‘bountiful’, inheres in a ‘masquerade of teasing love-note, / where two quake on a crater’s perimeter’ (‘XXIX’), or makes us ‘conjure the sour acrimony / of two wearied by the thing dividing them’ (‘XXIV’). By the end, in ‘LVIII’, the speaker says, ‘I’m still gambling on signs, as if the gods / might yet sprinkle blessings and bounty over me’. Play may thus denote the innocent sport of affectionate largesse, a dissembling and perilous banter, the bitter fruit of schism, a wager on true or false portents, or a sexual dalliance, as in ‘V’, where the speaker says, ‘To know you played / me twice holds the truth I won’t / name: it was for zilch. I’m out.’
This refusal to name, which occurs elsewhere in the book, points to the unsayable, and to a speaker engaged in a recurrent working at the limits of utterance, crossing the threshold beyond which nothing can be said, and bearing in her train an array of ironic utterances. In ‘LIII’ she says, ‘Without / words to describe the colour of my love– / deep as the emerald I covet in the jeweller’s window– / I am helpless to offer reparation.’ Giannoukos alerts the reader both to the semantic insufficiency of the utterance, the divestment of language of any claim to adequacy in matters of love, and to the paradoxical challenge afforded by the apt simile. Similarly, in ‘XXVII’, a poem of love’s expansion and contraction, the anadiplosis or concatenation of ‘this’, and its use both as a pronoun and as an adjective, serve to render it able to be spoken in proliferating ways, thus showing the power of the rhetorical device:
The temperature of your love is changing.
It breaks my heart: there are no words for this.
How do I know? Because you have done this before.
Your love has always been a desert of climatic extremes.
My love for you cannot flourish in this chasm:
ecstatic in its reach it turns scornful in sorrow.
My love becomes extinct. Nothing compares with this.
This rubble of stone is all that remains of its immensity.
If ‘form should have an organic relation to sense, not merely be the vase into which content is poured’, as Tony Barnstone (2016) says, then Giannoukos styles her sonnets organically. Indeed, the words of the speaker in ‘XLII’ may be taken as her aesthetic credo: ‘Fill up / this jug with the amethyst liquid / of wild vines civilised in vineyards.’ With consummate craft Giannoukos adapts the sonnet’s form into a series of shapely, diversely contoured, amphora-like vessels, into which is distilled a nectar ‘civilised’ in the poetic tradition or ‘vineyard’. Han Yu (Barnstone 2016) stated that, the poet in the ‘chains’ of the sonnet may be said to ‘dance’. In a multiplicity of voices, moods, textures and transitions, she asks the reader to query the identity of the lover (woman, man or heavenly envoy) and the beloved (man, woman, centaur or God), whether they are singular or plural, and whether their very being is possible at all. In its entirety, Bull Days is a living opus of interdependent parts, communing through sonic reflexion, the vision of the spectral, a ludic and rhapsodic poetics of rapture and fellow-feeling, and elegiac tilts at the problem of the impossible in language, surmounted rhetorically by an overarching and richly polyphonic conceit.
Barnstone, T. 2016, A manifesto on the contemporary sonnet: a personal aesthetics, The Cortland Review, 9 December, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/06/december/barnstone_e.html>.
Birkan Berz, C. 2014, ‘Mapping the contemporary sonnet in mainstream and linguistically innovative late 20th– and early 21st– century British poetry’, Études Britanniques Contemporaines-Revues.org, No. 46, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://ebc.revues.org/1202>.
Finch, A. 2009, ‘Chaos in fourteen lines: reformations and deformations of the sonnet’, Contemporary Poetry Review, viewed 26 November 2016, <http://www.cprw.com/Misc/finch2.htm>.
Padel, R. 2002, 52 ways of looking at a poem or how reading modern poetry can change your life, Chatto & Windus, London.
Richardson, R, 2013, Learning the sonnet: A history and how-to guide to the famous form, Poetry Foundation, Chicago, 29 August, viewed 26 November 2016, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/articles/detail/70051>.
Lucy Wilks is a Melbourne-based poet whose work has appeared in Verse, Meanjin, Southerly, Rabbit, Otoliths, Plumwood Mountain and Cordite.