Ananios of Kleitor, by George Economou. Shearsman Books. 144 pp., $17.00.
George Economou’s Ananios of Kleitor seems to be an academic monograph, collecting the fragments of a fourth-century Greek poet and documenting their reception. In fact, it is a polyphonic, adventurous, genre-breaking work where fictions proliferate. Rather than spin a continuous tale, Economou inhabits a series of voices, first in Ananios’s poems, then in the comments and correspondences of scholars, from the distant to the recent past, who study him. Far from the dry work it first appears to be, Ananios of Kleitor is a restless, searching book, less a novel than a poetic meditation on desire, knowledge and history.
The poet Ananios ties the book together, but we learn early on how spectral his presence is: virtually nothing is known of his life—only that he was born in the Arcadian city of Kleitor around 399 BC—and of his work a mere “forty-one poetic items” remain, most of them fragments. To be sure, Economou is hardly being fanciful when he constructs Ananios as a set of tantalizing clues. Very little is known about the lives of most ancient authors, and usually only a small portion of their original work survives. In fact, what’s missing from Ananios is precisely the point. For the scholars interested in him—who are learned, obsessed, and deluded in equal measure—he is less a stable foundation than an obscure object of desire.
Not coincidentally, many of Ananios’s poems deal with eros. A poet and translator in his own right, Economou adeptly manages the tension—so characteristic of ancient Greek love poetry—between technique and emotion. Poets are fools for love but they also take craft seriously. In the following poem, for instance, the narrator’s desolation in the final three lines plays beautifully against the compressed storytelling of its first five:
[Th]ucydides measures the Attic war’s
first eight-and-a-half years by the tenure
as priestess at Argos’ temple of He[ra
of Ch]rysis, who fell asleep and let it
catch fire, then awoke and fled in the night.
She was old, and you, much less than half her age,
what’s your excuse, Pyrrha, for the havoc
you have made of my life in just three months?
What initially seems to be a history lesson (The anecdote comes from Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War.) becomes poignant and personal at the poem’s conclusion. On rereading the poem, one sees that the historical recollection serves as a metaphorical narrative, a substitute for the missing love story, and gives content to the poet’s dejection: the priestess who flees the temple after setting it ablaze stands in for Pyrrha (whose name, after all, is related to the Greek word for fire) and the ruined temple provides an image for the narrator’s dejection.
Here and in the few other complete poems, Economou fashions a compelling, complex voice for Ananios, one that is both steeped in literary history and bruised by eros’s rough ways. But most of Ananios’ poems are fragments, consisting of a few verses or even a few words. In some of these Economou reflects on the formal aspects of the fragment itself. Thinking along similar lines as Anne Carson in her discussion of desire in Eros the Bittersweet, Economou see the fragment as inflaming a longing in the reader, a desire, moreover, that the poem may also represent in its subject matter:
As the shepherd tilts his ear into the wind
to catch the lost lamb’s bleating, so [
The textual break here, which strands the reader mid-simile, transforms the shepherd's desire ("to catch the lost lamb's bleating") into a version of the reader's own. Like the shepherd, the reader also wants to hear something (in this case, the rest of the poem).
Elsewhere Economou does not so much thematize this aspect of fragments as exploit it, fashioning verselets that resonate sweetly precisely because they lack context. Some of these seem to evoke erotic situations (". . . lips that cry for wine . . ."), while others are more ambiguous on that score (" . . . the most beautiful time . . . ") and a third type can only be called musical word-paintings (" . . . black broth they drink in Sparta . . ."). Like all poetry, Ananios's asks that the reader take her time, but it repays careful reading and, improbably—because one must remember that this is original poetry meant to sound like ancient translated verse—succeeds on its own terms.
In fact, the poems themselves make up only a small part of the book. Economou's subject is not, finally, Ananios himself or even his work, but what others see in him. Ananios's first commentator, another ghostly voice from the past identified only as the Anonymous Alexandrian, supplies lines or phrases from Ananios's missing poems in the course of a treatise on poetic language. Reflecting on the Alexandrian's selective quoting, the narrator writes:
[W]e must be aware of the distinct possibility that these items tell us as much, if not more, about the Alexandrian’s reading than they do about Ananios’ writing, especially since we are once again left in the position of gazing upon phrases, lines, and short passages that have been isolated—I am tempted to say and do so, amputated—from their poetic bodies. Thus, in giving us one kind of context, the Alexandrian has deprived us of another.
The narrator’s own desire—to see Ananios’s works in their original form, rather than “amputated”—lies, of course, just beneath the surface here, along with a hint of pathos. He neatly articulates the double bind of the scholar who is at once driven to recreate the “real” Ananios and continually hampered by the limited material that history provides. Another of the poet’s ancient readers, an eleventh-century monk named Theophanes, underscores the narrator’s point when he relates how a demon in the form of Ananios tempted him with “pleasures immeasurable” if he would “open [himself] to the enchantments of [Ananios'] poems.” Like many early Christians, Theophanes is stuck between “pagan” culture and Pauline morality. (As Theophanes writes, “Paul admonishes us to part company with fornicators, idolators, adulterers, sodomites and the effeminate.”) He is therefore more of a historical symptom than a trustworthy witness to an ancient poet.
Ananios of Kleitor picks up narrative momentum significantly when it reaches the poet’s twentieth-century readers, a group of classicists whose complex relationships (with one another and Ananios) Economou unveils piecemeal in a series of correspondences. In a certain sense, the less said the better about the twists and turns of the most novelistic portion of the book. The reader’s pleasure in this section comes, at least in part, from seeing how the story unfolds, with its layers upon layers of intrigue and deception. Beginning as a tale of academic theft—in which a Cambridge student accuses his former teacher of pilfering a German colleague’s work (The work in question is more or less the current text of Ananios’s poems.)—Economou’s narrative builds gradually and widens in scope until—though the reader hardly notices this occurring—it is treating its characteristic themes on a much larger stage, namely Europe before and after World War II. Here Economou is particularly deft at connecting what appear to be his character’s moral foibles—their psychological blind spots, minor cruelties and sins of omission—with large crimes and horrible, unforeseen consequences, all of which play out against the backdrop of the Nazis’ rise and fall. If Economou’s poetry reveals him as an heir to Sappho and Archilochus in the book’s beginning, by the end his skillful plotting and broad moral vision show him to be a latter-day Sophocles.
Another pleasure of the book’s twentieth-century narrative has to do with what one might call Ananios’s return. While this may not be apparent on the first reading, Ananios’s poems are not simply random verses chosen for their musical qualities or even their capacity to function as standalone poems, despite their intrinsic interest. Rather, they are the seeds out of which the rest of the book grows, appearing variously as leitmotifs, whose meanings shift and deepen as the story progresses, and as fundamental to its basic structure. The aesthetic effect of all this, finally, is sublime, as if Ananios were the real author here and the characters were living a story he had already told. Even if, as I imagine, Economou could not endorse this as a final reading (As a narrator, he indulges only a few times in such metaphysical speculation.) it goes against the grain of the book’s pessimistic currents just enough to produce some ambiguity and wonder. If the real subject here is self-fashioning through literature—that is, how we create ourselves through interaction with texts—who’s to say where agency truly lies?
Finally, Ananios of Kleitor is a labor of love. It is unthinkable that Economou ever imagined this book would find a large audience (based on its title alone) and it asks a lot of its readers, who must occasionally wade through pedantic discussions of Greek meter and esoteric arguments about authorship on the way to the juicier bits. But Economou is uncompromising out of sheer artistic abundance. A book this accomplished comes along rarely.
Geoff Maturen holds a PhD in classical studies and is a freelance reviewer based in Ann Arbor.
 The square brackets in this poem indicate where the “original” text is incomplete. Anything within the brackets is a conjecture, though in this particular case the supplied text would seem to be uncontroversial—if, that is, the whole thing were not an elaborate fiction. (Economou is nothing if not loyal to his premise.)
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