A review by Max Goodwin Brown
Dimitris Lyacos’s book, With the People from the Bridge, translated into English by Shorsha Sullivan and out now from Shoestring Press, is a compressed epic, a small-scale wide-scope apocalyptic tragedy. Lyacos uses both poetry and prose to evoke a murky landscape, or rather a set of landscapes that merge into each other, like the literary equivalent of a multiply-exposed negative. Brooding and vague, yet also ambitious and strangely graphic, the piece definitely leaves an impression.
An unnamed protagonist sits among a group of people, watching a play being staged in a derelict space beneath railway arches. The book’s main narrative emerges from the poetic verses that constitute the play, but the poetry is broken up by prose inserts, in which are given detailed descriptions of the performance space (crumbling walls, the shell of a car sunk halfway into the ground, coloured lamps) the actions of the performers (they burn newspapers in a cut-down oil drum, make crosses out of bits of wood, climb in and out of the dilapidated car) the props available to them (a TV set, a cassette-player) and the state of the audience (some of them have brought their dogs).
These elements combine to create a mood that is not so much dystopian as apocalyptic. And it’s a mood that only becomes heightened as the piece progresses and changes shape. It starts off cavernous, with room for the reader to pinball around, bouncing off of bits of disjointed imagery – Bible quotations jostle with allusions to waterboarding and vampires – before whittling itself down into a more decisive storyline. Sort of anyway. The main narrative concerns a tormented man who dwells in a graveyard and is preoccupied by the idea of resurrecting his dead lover, but it’s a narrative that goes in and out of focus, so that it seems like only one of a multitude of memories, struggling to make itself heard at the end of the world. Yet there is also something cyclical about the piece. Its mythical overtones, themes of resurrection and suffering, its echoes of classical antiquity and Biblical times offset against its distinctly modern setting, the apparent weariness of the performers and the restlessness of everyone in the audience save the protagonist…you begin to get the feeling that this has all happened before, which feeling serves to amplify the bleakness and confusion.
Billed, in the blurb, as avant-garde, postmodern and genre-defying, the book is potentially intimidating but actually quite easy to slip into. Epic in feel, but a breeze to consume in one sitting and certainly deserving of such a time commitment; abstract and mysterious without being obscure – there’s much to engage with and be provoked by. Plus there’s the constant half-presence of things rumbling just below the surface. Pace-wise, the book is rhythmic and relentless: it marches along and the reader is swept along with it, images rising up, making impressions and then sinking back down into the text, so that a cumulative sense of unease is instilled in the reader, an unease that is compounded (as in stamped on) by the book’s macabre epilogue-like sign-off.
With the People from the Bridge is the middle part of Lyacos’s Poena Damni trilogy, a project that has been realized in a slightly astounding variety of media – paint, sculpture, video, contemporary dance, opera and so on – and is still widely performed by theatre companies. This last fact is perhaps unsurprising; the text of With the People from the Bridge takes the form of a surreal play-script, after all. But when you actually read the text, the prose passages, the bits that provide the reader with relatively clear pictures of the setting and action of the ‘fictional’ play, perform more of an immersive function, dragging you into the point-of-view of the protagonist. It’s the poetry that draws the attention, and stylistically, though the poetry is hard-edged and vivid, it is also minimal, austere and enigmatic:
Mud. Rain. Ash. Ground bones.
Grey dough. No worms at all.
The fire will not last long now.
Green stomach shining. Dark net of veins like a tree on her skin, lips almost black, a little blood on the chin.
It is the odd, tangled imagery of the poetry, rather than the straightforward descriptions in the prose, that you end up grappling with, this that you feel compelled to try to bring to life by staging a performance of it in your own head.
Most striking, though, is how densely layered the whole thing is. Voices drift in from the distant past and the literal beyond, crackling out of a TV set or issuing from a cassette-player. The piece reads like a cross-section of a microcosm, with the prose inserts making you aware not only of the shadowy underworld of the performance space but also of the world outside it – trains pass by overhead, audience members get up and leave, even a few of the performers creep out through back-exits – and of the world outside the text itself, i.e. that of you, the reader. In this way, Lyacos allows you to peek through the gaps; you don’t see all the way down, but you do get an idea of just how far down it goes.
More information about With the People from the Bridge can be found here.