Jonathan Gill reviews Charles Eager’s first book of verse, Synkronos. Co-written with Vlad Condrin Toma. Illustrated by Condrea and Camelia Toma. Preface by Ian Fairley.
I suspect most readers will suffer momentary disorientation upon picking up Synkronos. The first of its several obstacles comes from its layout. Synkronos is a poetry collection divided in half, each half by a different author, Charles Eager and Vlad Condrin Toma. Transitioning from one half to the other requires flipping the book upside down. It is a unique structure, one which brings with it a sense of vertigo but also a warm aesthetic tickle thanks to its charming originality. I comment upon its layout as it is rather indicative of the overall impression Synkronos leaves.
The very conception of Synkronos lies in doubleness. The title refers to the two words ancient Greek had for “time”. There is kronos, time as linear, structured, quantifiable. It is Time the Devourer, associated with death. But also we have kairos, time witnessed as qualitative, in-the-moment. It is ripeness, inspiration. These two temporalities are combined in Synkronos, the fictive god of this poetry collection. Such a supernatural motif has plenty of poetic implications, but Synkronos does not always seem preoccupied with fleshing out its own conceit. I do not necessarily think this a fault, as the book at its core is a collection of poetry; and poetry need not constrain (or explain) itself with intellectual justifications. But it does mean the book does not quite have the unity it first purports to have.
Eager’s poems are neatly arranged in several groupings, each presenting its own style. Perhaps ill-advisedly, the opening group, Orphic Verse, is the most abstruse. The wordplay frequently involves puns with Greek, Latin, or German words. When the poems are solely English, it is still an English fully cognizant of its roots in those languages. Combined with condensed syntax and references to both mythic and historical personae, this section makes for a sluggish read. The Orphic Hymns are the book at its most saturnine and solemn, and at its most determinedly anachronistic.
The section to which I would point potentially interested readers is the Lyric Interludes. These are much more accessible, written in a looser, more immediately beautiful verse. They often unfold by means of rich, well-developed metaphors. This is the section that contains some of my personal favourites, including “The Pallaksch Coin” and “Plaints Upon a Departed Love”. There are some poems in Synkronos that stand in my mind as unconditionally great poetry.
The Odes continue with melodic fluency. In them the poet strikes an assured, yet pensive, verse, the occasion for small wonders such as
The grey even falls as song
Upon this place of quiet ascension,
Where congregate the ghosts
Of every lonely thing,
And each and every thing alone.
The final grouping consists of several narrative poems. They tend to drag on a bit, but the Faust-like second part of “The Way” is highly entertaining and absurd. At one point, the verse shifts into sheet music, while the characters discuss the technicalities of playing it. It’s a lively escapade that balances the Neoplatonic brooding elsewhere in this group of poems; and it’s the most transformative moment in a book brimming with textual transformations.
Characteristic across all of the poems is a propensity for iambic metre. Admittedly, it contributes to the slightly sawdusty veneer of the poems. Yet the metre, more so than the subject matter, is what conveys the dual temporality of Synkronos. The iambs are ordered, predictable, and persistent. They are also loaded with surprise, mystery, the unforeseen turn-of-phrase (of which there are many), establishing a juxtaposition between the stately and the unexpected. This is the driving force behind most of the poems, and it is also the best expression of what Synkronos is the god of.
Toma, meanwhile, is more concerned with overt explication and formalisation of the Synkronos concept. His sections display a proclivity toward the metaphysical. They are characterised by long poem structures that are always inventive with their textual arrangement. At times I dare say they resemble stream-of-consciousness writing. It should be noted that Toma’s sections are largely written in Romanian, and this I suspect will be the single biggest obstacle for much of Synkronos‘ potential audience. I regret that I can read these passages only in the most superficial manner.
Toma’s verses are only sporadically in English, and if one cannot contextualise them through the surrounding Romanian, they can be perplexingly cryptic (“The tree of knowledge is not that of Life. / My tree of knowledge is not that of Life. / This tree of knowledge . . . [Toma, 44]). The monoglot in me wishes that we might have seen a collaboration between the two authors to offer an English translation alongside the Romanian. This is a foolish wish, made all the more foolish by Eager’s remark of translation as “an art of the impossible” (Toma, 83). I can only justify it by pointing to the incredible success of another collaborative translation elsewhere in the book, in this instance between Eager and Alyse Fan, from a fragment by Taiwanese poet Chou Meng-Tieh (Eager, 23). It is an entirely convincing translation, fluent and evocative; and it leaves one (pardon the pun) eager to see what the two poets might have produced together.
Within Toma’s half of the book, there are a few extended passages in English. Here Toma reproduces—in verse—correspondences between himself and Eager ostensibly about the development of Synkronos, but all sorts of tantalising topics are teased as well, ranging from biblical translation to a theory of poetry’s connection to science. One can’t quite dismiss the perception of the narcissistic in these passages—Toma talking about himself talking about his book—but nonetheless they offer the best explication of what the Synkronos project is.
Synkronos lives in two worlds: the classical and the modern. And the book will live or die by one’s willingness to accept the coexistence of these two modes. Its imagery comes mostly from nature and the divine—there are only brief hints at the technological, constructed world of the modern era. Its verse is classical in both form and content, and there are several passages that parody postmodern lexicon (Toma, 52, 77). Yet it is chock-full of qualities we associate with postmodernity. It is insistently self-aware and self-referential. It understands its own textuality and serves us a great feast of languages and styles.
Thinking on these diverse qualities, I imagine the god Synkronos upon his Olympian throne, having his honeyed cake and eating it too. But this is a god of duality and contradiction. That his paradoxes have been transmuted into poetry is this collection’s most cohesive and significant achievement—for it posits a congruence between the natural order and artistic creation. This congruence is the product of Synkronos‘ complex wordplay, structure, dry humour, and wide-ranging referentiality. These attributes are banes as well as boons, meaning that they coexist with each other, in a manner of speaking, synchronously.