Reviewed by Brad Flis
“I see the lines of our ancestors laid out in filaments looping here and there, bifurcating, disappearing; and there are breaks in the thread and dead-ends into the dark . . . the ranks moving forward and forward, branching, fucking, splitting, until they reach the edges of history; and forward, farther, till they hit the periphery of family lore . . . This portion of the tale is about my father, Jon.”
If The California Poem, Sikelianos' majestically composed long poem, in vitally reconceptualizing what may pass for American pastoral, memorizes and recites back to us the viscera of a nation's atoms, her memoiresque poetic work, The Book of Jon, acts as an immaculate compliment in its cartographic inscription of a nation's adam, an elegy for the idealized abstraction and often plaintive realization of a distinctly Americanized father figure. Sikelianos traces the recklessly haphazard life of her father through personal and familial document and recollection, but extends her textual canvassing far beyond the particular toward a communal amplitude indistinguishably human, where the unsettled ruminations of our own past facsimiles reject the idea of a nurturing pop-iconography, the father's book and the book's father, outlined in simulacra, where mimicry and failure serve as paths to passed love and a love suddenly passing (on/through/out).
Jon is the antithesis of Musil's Man-Without-Qualities. He is the Man of All Antagonistic Extremes, suffering from pride, drugs, restlessness, poverty, and misdirection. In portraying her father's brusque nature, Sikelianos skillfully constructs as many forms of depiction within the book as will elicit some fragment of his daily nemesis and her own anamnesis, capitalizing on the dynamic formal potentials of list, interview, notes, essay, poem (some pulled wholesale from her own previous publications), story, letter, photo, travelogue, myth, dream, obituary, memorandum, and family tree. Her dexterous manipulation of form grants her the freedom to multiply the permutations, resculptings, reformations, and sleighted similarities which veer into biographic variance, revering the slimmest of revisions, yet Sikelianos steadily inverts the reverence of a father-vision, reverbs further through new versions, re-verbs father through nude visions: ad lib (i.e., adam's rib), a visceral broadening and breaking of lines and delineation to shear away the rehearsed. What you seem/seam is what you get, greet, regret, rebeget:
“Dear Dad Dear Father Dear Jon Dear Pop,”
“It is wearying to write about my father the big-bad-druggie-with-gun-dabblings-guy over and over. I'm tired of the brilliantly-talented-tortured-father-sometimes-mean-guy persona on him. I know this to be because I saw him today and there before me was my father”
“There is my father
in the doorway. What is he
He stands. He happens
again and again. I happen
to be here, where my father is”
Sikelianos' here-vacant, there-invaded parent-space, spared the predictably complacent Plathic vapours, venerates the Paleolithic in poetic patrimony (“My father's early aquatic life is redeemed”), sacrificed clean slate by confiscating the confusion of tales passed down from clan-pattern (Abraham's tabula pater), no confession, no secrets, only furtive secretion through historical plateaus, the invisible playthings of creation vacated. Within this orphic patronage, Sikelianos fidgets, furies, and falters in her tracking the trans-parent, valences of what is seen, has been sensed, envisions, will evince, and dispenses before the lost begetter, what these sentences present as unseen evidences after an incensed apprentice, what, uncensored, is descended and a parent, the tapered patriot's part-patois, self-entrapped as in another dream (“The sounds of the voice and the music . . . wondrous topics . . . there on the . . . at that house . . . with those people . . . the music . . . the Jon . . . the Chris . . . the son and on . . . where and when you're . . . been with the Bald mother the Daughter of Southern my the sound heard own voice pipe in lyric recurring . . .”).
Divisions and dreams interceding the ancestral lyric, clipped echoes jutting from the father's centripetal mouth. Yet Sikelianos keeps her volumes vocal, speaks to her selves (“I went through it in all the languages I know. My father is dead”), wreaks havoc on the “thin veil, a flimsy partition” of the dispersed person, Jon, and the patrial-personal, attributing to him neither slave nor salvation, no safe salve but value veiled as vice where Jon is “full of an unboundable energy that fairly ripples under his skin . . . strong as anything” but also the judged and addressed Jon “with a shoelace strapped onto your biceps, or tumbling down a long flight of stairs with your brain in a quivering yellow seizure,” no ideas but skin-things, forged and foreign scratchings (feigned scathings) of the superficial surfaces (hero or hag/Hague?). All these hollowed faults forgiven as dad fled fads, fed fears, and feared Feds, but retamed in the dream of escape and the dream-like escapist's trapeze, one which Sikelianos teases into place. Take her scant litany of unliteral advents in “An Inventory of Jon's visions I know about (Dream Events)”:
--Owl with a 60-foot wing span flits over the highway at Tres Piedras
--Ghosts arrive in carriages for a high-class tea in an orchard
--Enormous ponies crossing the roads to Chama
--Devils and ghouls and the generally dead busting through doors in Mexico City
This unilateral spatialization of the mind's dim frieze, a coroner's animated Americana, a cornered-in American animism (whose views? New Mexico's young zoos? poets exhumed through Jung?), though here a fork-tuned landscape, a fortune freed from the ma(i)zes of made space and demasked spasm (“What this has to do with is pipe-dreams. A man, my father, a nation of pipe-dreams. Enough pipe-dreams to fill up several countries, countries full of pipe-dreamers”). Autonomy is not automatic, and where we converse is not where we conceive. Nativity is a naturalized (nationalized) cul de sac, so as dreamt-up dreamers redeemed, we are also culpable, also capable of our own self-replacing, one's glance-rip in the mirrors.
From California to New York Island, as folk goes, this Jon is our Jon, a sojourn, and should be scene as such, not the person but the personification, not the citizen but the city sung, the buttressed citadel, where Sikelianos incites, “I would like to be inside the lights / of these peoples' / houses (with our ancient nostalgia for fire) but not / inside these lives.” And always the returning which Sikelianos nurtures. The look back to light, her glint, yours, mine. As I embark with Jon by lamp, what begins with me is ample, my father in the turnpikes. With one man in his trough, the name is not enough. Thus, I applaud this book's balked apple. What Sikelianos tempts the reader with is dearer than addiction or desired dad, unlicensed trundle without additioned rupture, dad's last asp for breath. The Book of Jon asks us to excuse our fathers through kind gestures, fleeting love. By Jon's own rattled testament:
The time of us on earth is spent lightly
on good peas and gravy
good enough for a seconds time
in an hour