In her latest book, poet and University of Denver professor Eleni Sikelianos throws the dressing robes off the essay, exposing the literary device’s exotic form, just as she exposes the bare mettle of her maternal grandmother Melena.
This book is part of a longer family history, a circulatory system that encompasses morphine and heroin addicts, refugees, Ionian counts, … several poets and lesbians, opium-runners, forgers, waitresses, tavern entertainers, a burlesque dancer called Melena the Leopard Girl (one of her many stage names), and a dwarf (one of her five husbands), all landed, eventually, on the coasts of our American homeland.
Sikelianos’s Melena history draws upon poetry, pastiche, and graphic memoir, as she essays in the broadest imaginable strokes. The 154-page memoir follows The Book of Jon, a hybrid work about her father, and in turn will be followed by another simmering family history about the author’s lesbian theater director great-grandmother and her husband, the Nobel-nominated Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos. As for Melena, she shimmers before us, mirage-like, first as a catsuit-clad exotic dancer in post-war Middle America, and later as Grandma in her fringe-of-the-Mojave rock shop. In between, we learn about the Greek immigration to America (Great-grandfather Yiannis Pappamarkou came from Smyrna. “And into the heartland of a distant country he burrowed with not a loose dime in his pocket. America: wide streets with ice that whispered when you walked, the glowing lights of boomtown Detroit.”) We learn about the history of exotic dance in America (“a miniature history of the way women are watched.”) And we learn about Melena’s five husbands and three daughters. We see the Leopard Girl most clearly when the author interviews these three daughters, one of whom is the author’s own mother. The dancer also effectively materializes in a scene in which Melena attempts to impart her skills to her granddaughter.
My grandmother teaching me to dance around a coffee table. You move your hips to the drums, she is telling me, your feet to the rest. She’s drunk. We’re having fun in that way you do with someone who might punch you in the teeth at any moment. Like standing at the edge of a dark cliff, below you, the nighttime waters aglow with dense possibility.
Many reviewers label You Animal Machine as experimental – which it is, in both the artistic and scientific senses. Sikelianos uses the artistic concept of negative space to navigate Melena’s life, to glean as much from what is not there as from the few sketches that exist. And like a scientist, the author conducts experiments with her work on this book, asking it to fill in variables where concrete particulars are lacking: If this, then that. If you build it, she will come, with ‘she’ being a clear picture of Melena/Melena’s life. What of the ‘it’ that’s being built? The author describes it as a net, “a net of family giftings, woven in darkly luminous filaments.”
“I’m trying to make sense for her,” writes Sikelianos, “[to] build her a net that connects to everything, let her slide around in an elegant way in daylight.” Yes, she acknowledges, a net is by nature full of holes. “It matters that there are holes in a family history that can never be filled, that there are secrets and mysteries, migrations and invasions and murky bloodlines. In this way we speak of human history.”