Channeling the Duende: George Kalamaras’s “A History of Green”

George-KalamarasGeorge Kalamaras’s poem draws inspiration from Charles Wright’s “Yellow,” a sonnet-length catalogue replete with images of that color. But Kalamaras’s “A History of Green,” three times longer than Wright’s, evokes an even greater abundance. It careens from Fort Wayne to Greece to India, Burma to Spain, to encompass poets and shrines, plants and animals and insects, in lines thick with rhyme and sound repetitions. The color green suggests a poetics of the duende, which the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called “the spirit of the earth,” invoking death and desire in a single whirling moment.

Kalamaras, who began his term as Indiana’s fourth poet laureate, on January 1, 2014, is currently teaching a course on the poetics of place at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, his academic home for many years. Poets mean different things when discussing “place.” For some, it connotes an allegiance to region in the narrowest sense. For Kalamaras, the term has cosmic dimensions: the local—whether on the banks of the Wabash or the Ganges—if intimately seen and heard and touched and smelled can connect us in a flash to places distant from our own. The effect is akin to a certain Tibetan Buddhist meditation called “Take the One Seat,” in which the person sitting allows herself to be rooted to a single spot on the earth even as her mind moves freely through space and time, aware of impermanence.

Although the catalogue of “A History of Green” initially seems to suggest the world’s breadth at random, in fact, the connections between its list items convey a covert order. Many images in the poem simultaneously evoke liveliness and death: “Cricket scratch tugging anemic green / before the rain-stoked sky”; “the lightning green of haloes of violet / at first bloom of the infant’s crown at birth”; “the sudden gash / of aged cheese, of sun-bit trees, of the hosta back home / bowing darkened with cloud-crowded May.” Even the newest leaves are already “bowing darkened,” and “lightning green” strikes the “first bloom of the infant’s crown.”

And the poets mentioned in the poem—Nikos Gatsos, García Lorca, and Miguel Hernández—also walk an aesthetic path between ecstasy and death. Gatsos, whose “dark Aegean loneliness” embodies the duende that Lorca sought, also translated the Spanish writer’s Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba into Greek. Lorca and Hernández both supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, Lorca killed by Francisco Franco’s Guardia Civil in 1936 and Hernández dead a few years later of tuberculosis while imprisoned for political resistance.

Lorca’s well-known “Romance sonámbulo,” sometimes rendered in English as “Sleepwalk Ballad,” opens with the lines (here in William Logan’s translation): “Green, how I want you green. / Green wind. Green branches / . . . . she dreams on her balcony, / green flesh, her hair green.” Lorca’s poem marries green’s fecundity with its deathlike tinge. It expresses a wish for peace in a time of civil war—the speaker wants to trade his horse for a woman’s house, his “saddle for her mirror,” his “knife for her blanket”— then laments the impossibility of that longing when soldiers of the Guardia Civil pound drunkenly on his door.

The poem’s hinging of life and death, peace and war, gives way to another cusp between the mundane and the sacred. The speaker tracks “the green of sunset ox-carts” in Banaras, while also noting the “monk’s left foot mesmerizing [the] Ganges River.” Later, he mentions Jammu, known as the “City of Temples,” with its “[c]olonized fruit stalls” and “dead English smells.”

So many regimes toppled, the bodies of poets and dictators alike buried beneath acres of green. Kalamaras wants us aware of the grave but also alert to the “great pulsing / galactic placenta green” where Fort Wayne rubs elbows with Rangoon and Granada.

A History of Green

Green is for growth, fatigue, Fort Wayne, Indiana
spring, the burgundy of a smoke tree
slosh against horse chestnut and oak.
The centipede’s blood, that green, incursion of lust.
The dark Aegean loneliness of Nikos Gatsos
green. Cricket scratch tugging anemic green
before the rain-stoked sky. Spark-stacked might,
the lightning green of haloes of violet
at first bloom of the infant’s crown at birth.
Banaras green of sunset ox-carts, that lull
in a monk’s left foot mesmerizing Ganges River green.
The paleness of curds cut by lemon juice
from goat or water-buffalo milk. The sudden gash
of aged cheese, of sun-bit trees, of the hosta back home
bowing darkened with cloud-crowded May.
The Stilton green of dead English smells.
Colonized fruit stalls in Jammu
and Rangoon. Mung bean, yarrow green, bull-rush
and reed, the scent of her clarinet
breast through bamboo. The momentary green
of all the water in the world.
And how everyone is everybody else
in a freshly shaved underarm
as she reaches for a dish or cup.
The Saturn turn of complete nothingness,
and your tongue stands scars
where might a star. Green of the circus tent
telling the juggler yes or no or maybe one day
so. Not just three or four pears in the air
green. Not the torn planet of sliced avocado
seed green. Nor Nikos or, even, Gatsos green
but Lorca green. Trench-lip green. Willow smoke
of motorcycle skid, husky green Granada.
The momentary Gobi retracted green
of every desert in the whirl, even the year
1936 back-hoed below sumac
shade of 1963 Indiana green, of all things
in reverse. The way Franco green
throws away the key, retreats
to repeat itself in black,
in blue. Green wanting green
wanting green (yes, Miguel Hernández green)
to fall its onion tentacle shade-shift
self all the way through the earth
as an echo of ferns reaching further
into most moist starlight. Fade back,
that is, to a great pulsing
galactic placenta green, before love
or color, touch or color, tongue or
color, a great ghost-got green
far away from dark sound light
sound tuberculous seed from this and that,
yes and no, from, even,
maybe one day so.

(after Charles Wright’s “Yellow”)

This poem originally appeared in Boulevard and was reprinted in And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana, ed. Jenny Kander and C.E. Greer (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2011).

George Kalamaras was born in Chicago and grew up in Cedar Lake, in Lake County. He has published six books of poetry and one of scholarship; six poetry chapbooks; numerous articles in scholarly journals; and more than 725 poems in anthologies and magazines in the U.S and abroad. His work has received many honors, including a Creative Writing Poetry Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Individual Artist Fellowship Grants from the Indiana Arts Commission. In 1994, he received an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship to India. Since 1990, he has served as professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.