The Chamber of the Possible: Eleni Sikelianos' Earliest Worlds

a review by Jono Schneider

Saying: One night in a cloud chamber
I discovered a thing: that a thing (I used to have a crown
of light) a thing could be more
than True, and more again

than False, a thing
could carry its name

with a ticket of lights
called Possible: in a cloud chamber, particles are betrayed
by movement and water vapors

leave trails.
-- Thus, Speak the Chromograph

The Possible may just be the key to the world we want to exist, and, through our wanting it, we might open the door to the first world. "The first world" not necessarily that which originates all things, but where things can be discovered as if they are now existing for the first time. The "as if" is key here, because it, as the Possible, is the key the artist-idealist holds in his/her hand which unlocks the actuality of art as a methodology of what is produced as a creative object. When Wordsworth spoke of the "Imagination", he meant to reach something with the mind he could not reach in the world -- that's why, in the Prelude, when he misses the mountaintop because he's not paying attention to the landscape but to his own inner impossibility, he recreates the mountain in the poem, "more" of a mountain because of his desire to see it and his failure at having seen it. But Eleni Sikelianos, in Earliest Worlds, reconfigures the Possible as a subject of writing and, consequently, the object of contemplation that writing attends to and attempts to unlock. The attempt is also key, because Possibility is made actuality through the act of approaching.
I keep using the verb "unlock" because the book itself acts as a chamber where ideas are stored within poetic fictions (but one doesn't "unearth" them ­ they reveal themselves as poetry). The "deep crypt" of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" comes to mind. (In that story, revenge is the Possible made "actual" by writing, but it reverts to the Possible because "no mortal has disturbed the bones" since the narrator has committed the murder. Sikelianos' poems seek a similar immortality.) But there's no "revenge" upon people here, or even the world; instead, Sikelianos attacks the acts of both lyric and narrative by approaching the "I" with a caution that is both patient and tenacious because it does not rest upon an ending that ends the Possible. It's a tentative "I" to the extent that its narrator cannot decide exactly what to say -- "First I go up, then I go down, sometimes I go up or down again. Sometimes there is a town, sometimes a small walled city, sometimes a drugstore and a stop to the left" -- but this indecision may lead back to the fact that the "truth" of a thing does not exclude what contradicts it; the possibility of truth relates exclusively to what truth allows into it. Narration may very well be the perfect contradiction that lays writing bare, because the lie cannot be detected. That's how I take the "ticket of lights", hardly illuminating the walls, like Poe's flambeaux, which "glow rather than flame". The glow produces a brilliant illusion of wall, of thing, based on the irreality of partially seeing and needing to imagine to then fully see.
"Lyric" has never been opposed to "narrative", but the divisions, from the position of the writer, remain, as one mode hearkens back to the "I"'s truth while the other pushes to believe in the sequential order of events. Sikelianos' double-truth is that a cloud chamber is a place of discovery -- the science that makes The Possible possible -- and a place of impossibility -- the betrayal of the actual object by apparent movement. So when, in the second part of the book, the "I" begins to push a belated, and almost excessive, confidence through the material, the storytelling aspect of the "I" gains full force, because "at the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious" --

I knew you as the vehicle's answer to history & art & of fertile creation
cigars & long
& short noises
& syllables

moved not with the singing

but with the thing sung

& the think sunk sung think and the think the thung sink & who
to be known is

you along with
that of poetry philosophy
poetry poetry & architecture & poetry
-- ESSAY: Ode

-- space narrows as the Possible emerges. The Possible's emergence is what changes space as something contingent upon what it contains. Space, in the above, contains "thing" and "think" and "sung" and "sunk" and "thung" which all lead to "you", follow the narrative trail to "you", who are always poetic, you give poetry back to itself because you are the Most Possible.
I don't mean this is a "story", that this is the "story" of "you" -- I mean "storytelling" in the way of the following sentence -- "Yet all he could think of was running away" (is running away what is being "thought" or being "done"? So what's possible about this sentence?) -- what Peter Handke calls "the rhythm of narrative". This rhythm is inherent in Sikelianos' repetitions, which fall all over each other, stumbling from line to line like the act of looking for something to say by saying the same thing until it spills over into another word or unlocks the possible world of that word, or displaces one word's parts with that of another because each word is the other's Possible. This is a peculiar grace -- like Wordsworth's catching himself by renaming his experience in writing. Because The Possible is only accessed by the repeating the impossible, a door that does not open but which must be approached by knocking on it. And then the door does open -- poetry contains philosophy and itself and the coupling of the actual form of what we build (architecture), but only to come back to itself to announce itself as real:

This is the classic story in which a hero
sets out on a voyage, like Homer's or Dante's, and
along the way finds out something about
her / himself, only this time there's nothing
left to find out. For the world like Sappho was either

small, dark, and ugly
or small, dark, and beautiful.
-- ESSAY: Delicately


Poetry reveals a power of the unknown. But the unknown is only an insignificant void if it is not the object of a desire. Poetry is a middle term, it conceals the known within the unknown: it is the unknown painted in blinding colors, in the image of a sun.
George Bataille, The Impossible

What is to be found out is what is impossible, like knowing the Earliest Worlds without also not knowing them for the "I" one believes oneself to be. In "The Cask of Amontillado", it is when Fortunato stops screaming that Montresor, the narrator, becomes aware of what he has done. But this awareness is the supreme silence of having done what is possible, which is no longer the Possible, but what cannot be undone. In Earliest Worlds, poetry is the act of a narrator who undoes the story that s/he might tell and the lyric "I" s/he might have been in order to unearth what comes earlier than these divisions, the world that precedes writing, but which we can only access through writing, the earliest of all Possibles, what's happening now, at the moment of reading, and is always changing.


Read six poems from _Earliest Worlds_