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Published: Tue Jan 30 2024
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Eleni Kefala’s Time Stitches: Threading Muted Voices into Our Record of the Past

Time Stitches by Eleni Kefala, trans. Peter Constantine. 200 pages. Deep Vellum Press, 2022. $15.95.

  
Eleni Kefala’s Time Stitches, originally published in Greek in 2013, is a spellbinding adventure through open-ended, unbounded time. Dedicated

To al

l those play

ing

hopscotch wi

thin

the gaps of his

tory

the collection is a paean to those who’ve been cast into the dustbin of history: forgotten, ignored, and erased. Among them is the man at the center of the book, the poet’s maternal grandfather—an anomaly among the mostly recognizable names here—who opens the collection with a first-person introduction in which he neglects to tell us who he is, instead supplying the names of his seven siblings. An illiterate villager, his language is simple and unadorned: it lacks the taming and exacting mechanism of punctuation. Nonetheless, his intervention charts the volume’s course.

We see, in third person now, the grandfather’s youth in colonial Cyprus, where, at six years old, he reads the natural light and shadows outside his door to know when he’s supposed to be off to school. Within a winding series of vignettes is an immigration story that moves across the southern Mediterranean from Cyprus to Italy on the eve of World War II, to Marseille, and finally to Britain—told partly through the language and mode of its unassuming subject, the nomad, the traveler, the wayward wanderer:

he hoists sail
and unbidden
heads to foreign lands

Even as Time Stitches seems to upend canonical modes of reading the past, it flouts the conventions of writing it, featuring prose poems, calligrams inspired by Latin American poets, one-line poems, and poems prefaced by other people’s unattributed words. Kefala opens a few with Shakespearean English, which, somewhat ironically, produces the same sense of estrangement for its new audience as for its original Greek readers.

Certain quotations sound so foreign to a modern ear that they instantly draw us backwards into the past, marking the great distance in time. Antiquated language of a high register, reminiscent of the old annals of history—produced in courts by the elite and privileged, at a far remove from the people—replicates the linguistic hierarchies that existed then. The words of John Knox, for example, excerpted from his five-volume book on the history of the Scottish reformation, preface several poems titled simply “the fall,” which chronicle events such as Norman Leslie’s storming of St. Andrews Castle and the execution of Cardinal Beaton.

The humble villager-grandfather starts on a precarious path to Britain alongside the towering characters of the ages—Heraclitus, Odysseus, Christopher Columbus, Cervantes, Rembrandt, Borges—and world-historical events like the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the first sighting of the Americas from aboard Columbus’s ship La Pinta. We hear the grandfather’s vernacular morph into a mishmash of Greek and English as he strains to acquire a new tongue. When a government examiner tests his English (and eligibility for immigration to Britain), the villager’s words are rendered such that “my brother” reflects the hybrid:

he tells me who sent you the
invitation I tell him mai brathar
he tells me in Greek who sent you the invitation and I tell him
my brother-in-law he tells me
go away and learn and come back when you’ve learned good
English

Kefala intersperses this personal narrative with time-honored names and events that elevate the grandfather’s story by association. With a scaffolding of coincidence and synchronicity, the poet returns lost threads to the historical record, irretrievable if not through personal recollection, remembrance, testimonial, and writing. In the poem “sacra lega,” we learn that Cervantes (“the whimsical hidalgo from Alcalá de Henares”) “will lose the use of his left hand” in 1571 in the Battle of Lepanto, following the Siege of Famagusta, the Cypriot port from which the villager-grandfather departs with thirty shillings in his pocket on August 24, 1939. Kefala effectively restores the villager’s story to the historical record by way of Cervantes’s valiant entrance into battle.

Winner of the State Prize for Poetry in Cyprus, Time Stitches is Kefala’s second collection. The English title—a feat by translator Peter Constantine—is a quaint reminder of the art and beauty of story-crafting, the delicate work of weaving narrative threads that at first may seem ill-matched. The original Greek title, Χρονορραφία, is a neologism, a play on words that combines χρονογραφία, chronography, and ραφή, seam or stitch. The title’s associations with chronicles, chronology, inventory, history-making, and the work of the dutiful scribe bring temporality and writing into the same semantic field. Constantine’s translation, printed en face, brilliantly ferries Kefala’s spare, measured language—of a woodworker’s precision—into English with concision, restraint, and a respect for pitch.

In the book’s title poem, the collection’s seeming miscellany of narrative threads is at last braided into one, following the hint (delivered as a curt, one-line poem of its own) that “Time Stitches” conveys “the last thought of Odysseus”:

they sit on an empty beach
(or on the banks of a river with
raging waters or of a lake large
as a sea) and waiting embroider
time beneath the afternoon sun

The subject isn’t explicitly revealed, but the act of stitching and embroidery recalls the myth of Penelope: one can imagine her seated alongside the villager, among people idling on an empty beach. In Time Stitches’s topsy-turvy, multidimensional world, Penelope warding off her suitors through the simple act of weaving could just as easily be read as the poet herself stitching fragments of time (in such a fabric, nothing is never past). Kefala knits together incongruous eras, disparate historical events, even so-called aberrations (incomprehensible to those who write traditional narratives of history), and intimate, hardly knowable details (Aztec emperor Montezuma Xocoyotzin “does not eat, does / not sleep”).

This transhistorical approach, which skips back and forth across centuries, lends itself to a broad horizon of meaning and interpretation. Time Stitches is freewheeling and associative, polyphonic and experimental, anchored in images of ships and nomads who travel through time. Time itself is non-linear and amorphous, refracted through light and shadows, harkening to an era when our eyes weren’t glued to time-stamped screens. The impulse behind this present-day oddity is probed in a poem titled “questions”:

a voice is seeking
somebody who will hear it.
within time

The author’s play with various registers of language endows the text with the distinct texture and mark of time: a visible stitch, if you will. With this, the collection enters a longstanding debate about the philosophy of history. Following Walter Benjamin, Kefala sympathizes with the idea that time is much more unruly than the rigid logic we apply to it: strict cause-and-effect relationships seem untenable in the collection, and constellations emerge as a better metaphor for groups of events in time—a more appropriate model for interpreting and making sense of the world.

In Time Stitches, a new conception of time surfaces, one that eschews the logic of chronology and, with it, the assumption of progress. Time is fragmented and looped, accommodating both forward and backwards movement:

the days are feasting
they are forming and destroying
histories

In the poem “walking the line,” Kefala lays bare her project most explicitly:

We learn about you, in luxuriant publications we encounter your accomplishments roving proudly among unwieldy and formidable chronologies. We often read about you, about your unparalleled valor and glorious victories, about your ever opportune encounters with History—but at times our eye will alight on some blusters and blunders that roam as nomads through the gaps of history and your gilded pages

Nomads, the villager being among them, once again show up as errant intruders, time-travelers whose mere appearance in magisterial History is instantiated as a transgression—“πάθη και λάθη,” rendered as “blusters and blunders” for a springy sonic equivalence. Contrary to our assumptions, they, in fact, are the central subject of Kefala’s musings. She trains her gaze on the nomads who have been overlooked for so long, not at the cost of noticing the towering figures that have overshadowed them, but so as to see the full-scale picture and dimension of a historical moment as it was.

In an interview with Adam Goldwyn in World Literature Today, Kefala described poetry as a way to break open space through language: “We know that poetry expands language through metaphor and silence. Each word and image carry us over to different temporal, spatial, and semantic planes.” As Time Stitches’s opening poem suggests, poetry is an art form that “[redistributes] silence / in language”. Within the collection, poetry is defined by what it is not. It “is not a solace,” nor a “song of joy and of sadness” nor is it “beauty that looms in a room with mirrors and half-burned logs.” Poetry, as Kefala puts it, simply is, which is to say that it far exceeds our expectations of what it was designed to or purports to do.

I recommend the experience—both exhilarating and edifying—of reading Time Stitches in one sitting. As Kefala will have you know, poetry—like any great form—can alter our perception of the clock’s inexorable march, and perhaps tune our senses to the hidden congruences wading through an endless present:

We create verse
To soften the passing
of time

Suzana Vuljevic is a writer, editor, and translator (from Albanian and Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian to English) whose work has appeared in Artforum, Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Undark, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in history and comparative literature from Columbia University and teaches in the Modern Languages department at DePaul University. (updated 2/2024)

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