Author(s): Evangeline Riddiford Graham
‘Ginesthoi’, or ‘Let it be done’, believed to be the only surviving written word in the hand of Cleopatra VII, is the impetus for this series of poems by Evangeline Riddiford Graham. These tightly-woven poems scroll through history, empathising with the past and lingering on its archaeological and allegorical bones.
The only words generally accepted to be actually written by Cleopatra VII of Egypt herself are “ginesthoi” or “make it so”, signing off a series of tax exemptions for Publius Canidius, one of Mark Antony’s generals. Although the exemptions and privileges are unromantic, and ordinary enough for a Ptolmaic court, the legendary and literary loading of the relationship between Cleopatra and Antony freight these words with subtexts and implications that exceed their denotation. The correlation or disjunction of inclination and obligation, of power and desire, of declaration and implication are themes that run also through Ginesthoi, a collection of poems by Evangeline Riddiford Graham published by the tiny and interesting Hard Press in Auckland. Presented as a series of fragments, much in the manner of the scraps of text discovered by archeologists, these poems are partial unearthings of an emotional life as intent upon concealing itself as it is upon revealing. What are we make of these twists of words, half earnest, half mocking, leaping back and forth across millennia, overlapping past and present while simultaneously reinforcing and dissolving the distinction between the two? There are two moments of awareness, one sealed in the past, encased in a museum cabinet or a memory, isolated from its context but preserved beyond a healthy span, resonating compulsively in its isolation until it has become little more than this resonation, and the other pausing in the present, gazing at the artefact in its current out-of-context context, attempting to make contact with the past moment, the past awareness or experience, to catch its eye, to pretend that the past reciprocates the gaze, or glimpse, or at least entertains the possibility of such a gaze or glimpse, to make believe, even to believe, if one can make oneself believe, that one can be not only aware of oneself in the past but that that past self can be somehow aware of the present self being aware of it, a game of memory working in both directions. In fact this is what we always do with memory: we are caught in a trap of tense, completed actions in the past are restrained there, playing in our memories or in our imaginations, if memories and imaginations can be distinguished from one another, but sealed in the perfect tense, whereas, though our present awareness may enter this case, cast itself backwards, project itself into the past, it can do so only at the expense of losing the capacity to act, to make things different to any effective degree. Expression is always ambivalent: to share a thought is to isolate oneself, to shut oneself within that thought; or, rather, perhaps, expression is quadrivalent: to share a thought is to shut oneself within that thought but, as the sharing of a thought is dependent upon a medium which necessarily replaces whatever is it applied to, both for the one to whose thought the medium is applied and the one, either specified or more generally implicated, to whom the sharing is directed, the act of sharing creates always a counterfeit artefact, at best a gloss, or label, upon the authenticity it causes to be lost. If poetry is the archeology of subjective experience, the poems of Ginesthoi are artefacts with all the clarity, obscurity and productive ambiguity of the papyrus fragment of Cleopatra VII to which they so playfully refer.