Eternity and Oranges by Christopher Bakken
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016; 88 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
The poems in Christopher Bakken’s Eternity and Oranges are touched by The Muse—what book invested so heavily in Greek poets, settings, and history wouldn’t be?—but they also rely on something more mysterious, something darker that leaves us haunted, not just inspired. To borrow from the Kostas Karyotakis epigraph prefacing the collection, they are impressions of a man drowning in language and feeling, in loss and beauty.
The poems are precise, chiseled even. Diction, sound, and rhythm work to create many small, perfect moments amid the chaos that surrounds these speakers. In “Resistance,” for example, there might be “From the shore, / old music from a world that had collapsed,” but a larger force still keeps order:
The sun had an agreement with the sea:
neither would move for at least an hour.
While I went deep, you waited on the boat,
watching for the anchor in the blue.
I’d made you come to the water at last.
Even when the poems address the world’s largeness—as in “17.ix.07” which has Polytechnic Day, a holiday which celebrates the 1973 student-led revolt against the military junta, as its backdrop or the fourteen-part “Kouros/Kore,”—they still manage to feel personal. Bakken doesn’t overwhelm the head in expense of the heart. The intimate, shared experience of speaker and reader is his focus.
Because of that bond, we trust implicitly these speakers’ desire to touch something that exceeds their earthly grasp. As the “we” in “Possession, Macedonia” makes contact with a spirit from beyond, “AHAG—a VICTIM OF THE MARCH,” it’s hard not to want answers too, even if “our game turned nightmare” as a
voice that took her
place spelled out FUCK YOU five times
before we wiped the surface clean, broke
every shell, slammed the heaviest door we could
on the dead, then returned to the living.
When we are open to the world, we risk being ruined by it. Our faces could “change shape… as if hardened / for some invisible battleground.” Or we could face a similar fate to the speaker in “The Skyros Papers” who as he leaves this town that has been so important to him, writes, “The place has wind. It has blown clear through me.” Whether we turn to stone or feel emptied of ourselves, we experience proof that we have been moved by the world and that our gambles will pay off. Though we may feel sometimes that we are drowning in our pain and our desire, Bakken reminds us that, without always understanding how, our mouths will come up to the surface.