Ariana-Sophia M. Kartsonis, Intaglio,The Kent State University Press, 2006

Gunnar Benediktsson

[Review Guidelines]

Intaglio, the title of Ariana-Sophia M. Kartsonis' first collection of poetry, evokes an image from the science of printmaking—the etching of an outline into a flat surface, as in lithography or woodcuts. It's a compelling image, one which Eleanor Wilner's foreword claims "rests on a paradox, one perhaps central to the poetic impulse itself: that design can be shaped by what is cut away, by the loss that surrounds it, so that what is missing creates the negative space which raises the figure in relief" (xi). However, this book, whose poetic images frequently rest on sudden, deliberate misprisions and aural confusions, seems to invite us to consider the sound of this word. If, as in the poem "Caravansary," which opens the collection, the word "sea" can become "see-if-I-care," then surely "Intaglio" melds entangle and imbroglio. And since this is a book more about legacies than printmaking, the title implies the complexity of familial relations, the entanglements of mother- and fatherhood, and the imbroglio of lexical confusion, in the sense of that acute misunderstanding that exists in poems like these between the apperceptions of the ear and eye.
      In many ways, this is a book which follows a generational logic—tracing the legacies of its speakers' Greek ancestry, and following ethnicity through the lens of motherhood, at once exposing with a finely intoned pathos the wounds a parent can inflict on a child, and also intimating that legacies are poetic as much as they are biological—both in the sense that it is the "legacy" of ancestry and the legacy of Kartsonis' poetic forebears that hovers in the background of this intricately crafted collection. As if to signal this, Kartsonis has inserted a short epistle to Rainer Maria Rilke—and when I saw this, many of her formal choices were brought into a sharper focus. For Kartsonis' poems do indeed recall Rilke, with his pared-down lyrics and careful, parallactic metaphors. The poem about Rilke, like most of the pieces in this book, winds up returning to a meditation on the speakers' mother—and we learn here that part of the legacy that this mother has left is violence and grief:

I write you now, seven hours after they've cut my mother's body down from the rope that leads to where you are, dead as anything, excepting of course those angels—ashes they must be or so hot to the touch that no one gets near them and they stay shiny as the day they were made. No one fingerprints them. (81)

We cannot help but realize as we read these lines that fingerprints are themselves a kind of intaglio, an identifying mark carved into the veneer of our skin, and then marked as a void, transferred by pressure onto another surface. More importantly, we begin to realize that this carving is also a way in which experience leaves its trace in the human psyche—the grief over a lost mother, the anger, the wistful way in which Kartsonis describes a grandparents' utilitarian but loveless marriage—these leave their own marks on the topography of life. And the carving is sometimes a mere trace, an after-image—at other times, a wound.
      The title poem of the collection bears the subtitle "a love song for the living dead"—and it occurs to me that the image left by an engraving—marking the voided areas, signaling absence rather than presence—is quite aptly described as "the living dead"; moreover, it is clear that it is from this problem—that poetry ultimately delineates and demarcates absence—that the misprisions of these poems arise. "Intaglio" is a good example:

My Sweet       engraveable You
depressed below the surface                                                               smooth to the touch
              saddest at that
craving elision (69)

Here, "carving" becomes "craving" as it crosses the gutter of the printed page—and although our ear immediately senses the difference between these words, our eyes can sense the resemblance—and in that momentary misprision, a new symbolic language is born—one in which the void on the page can give rise to a third signifying moment, one in which to "crave" is to "carve," to desire the absent central space of the poem, while carving out its delineations. In the end, poetry is a process that is fraught with epistemological problems—but Kartsonis seems to suggest that it ultimately rests on an agreed-upon fiction that the subject of poetry constitutes a real center, when what we crave is actually "elision." Here the dual sense of "imbroglio," both as an entanglement and an acute misunderstanding, becomes a crucial concept—and as if to confirm this, both words occur, in separate context, in the text of the poems. The final analysis, a kind of semi-fatalistic ars poetica, is buried in the middle stanzas of "Caravansary": "No one gyrates anymore. / The globe spins stupidly alone" (3). We may perhaps be forgiven for sensing a connection here to Yeats' remark that "Things fall apart / The center cannot hold." And yet here is a deeper meditation, one that reflects on the linkage this book creates between the private legacies of an individual poets, and the inevitably blanker public legacies of that poetic readership that Kartsonis has here summoned into existence. For me, her notion of misprision as interpretation seems exactly right for our distracted, frantic age.