‘The tongue of love tastes tough in these bull days’
Poetry review by Jena Woodhouse
The fifty-eight sonnets comprising the sequence Bull Days, Tina Giannoukos’s second poetry collection, are the work of a highly accomplished practitioner, and indeed this poet has worked in the sonnet form before, with the sequence “Abelard”.
As these texts demonstrate, the contemporary sonnet, in the hands of an innovative, audacious and assured poet, can accommodate a seemingly limitless variety in terms of both subject matter and subjectivities, and is therefore an ideal vehicle for the interrogation and anatomisation of romantic love and its contemporary possibilities/ impossibilities (as Petrarch, Shakespeare, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others discovered at various times).
The blunt title Bull Days sets up certain expectations – and indeed the beleaguered bull in the arena does appear in sonnets II, XIV, XX, and XXII as a kind of proxy, speaking in the voice of the lover who must die, and conjuring spectres of ancient ritual sacrifice, although the Minoans are not mentioned, and the allusions here are not to the bull-leaping acrobats of Minoan Crete -- much less the Minotaur -- but to the later version of this sport, the Spanish corrida.
I’m ready. Your men did their bit.
Now do yours. I hang my head.
My back gleams red. Celebrate
this richness. I’m waiting.
Blood drenches my mouth.
In sonnet XXII, the bull again instructs the matador, and the sonnet ends with the line, "I am a bull and must die. That is the point".
However, in sonnet XXIII, images that do seem reminiscent of Minoan Cretan wall paintings, and of the figure of Dionysos, are transposed to a suburban context, and the tone is softer, evoking yearning for an elusive synergy of spirit, an elaborate dance of mind rather than the frenzy of Maenadic intoxication.
…….……….What is the last image of you?
A man pouring wine. You wore the bracelet of
gold and lapis lazuli, like an invitation. In my cement
backyard, a young artist painted the fresco of me bare-breasted.
……………………………….I wanted an elaborate dance
of mind, pure spirit……….
in contemplation that I know us best.
While atavistic allusions such as these appear fleetingly (see also XXVII, with its evocation of days of honeycombed rooms and courtyards, dating back ten thousand years), the nature and movement of desire throughout the sequence might be described as labyrinthine, or perhaps serpentine, sinuously interweaving underlying themes as in a labyrinthine dance, notwithstanding the frequent and effective use of contrast in language and emotional pitch.
Those embedded themes include transience and the precarious nature of being; dividedness within and between people; mortality. The tensions set up by complex states of being, the interplay of emotional and philosophical nuances, and fluctuations in intensity coexist in a state of dynamic equilibrium that is perpetually at risk of destabilisation, tantalising the reader along with the unidentified persona/e of the poems.
At times, language and the experience it embodies are brutal, confronting, visceral reminders of our animal mortality, as in the poems where the bull speaks. However, intense engagement and detachment can alternate in the same poem, as in Sonnet XV, which is juxtaposed with XIV, the latter depicting the bloody death of the bull:
the mellifluous alphabet of ache
in the afternoon stroll through the gardens
risks the narrowing of the imagination.
In the sculptured stream a dragonfly lays
her eggs while her perfect mate hovers.
And, in many instances, bitter irony undercuts passion and engagement. This encounter is characterised as the fabrication of two people / in love with hate (VII); In dialogue,/ we discover the monologue (XI). Paradox is inherent in the liaisons of these poems. The progress of desire and its frequent retinue -- disillusion, dissonance, antipathy -- is tortuous. The contemplation of various forms of disjunction subjects pain inflicted and endured to unflinching scrutiny. While there are sensuous and sensory images from the natural world of gardens, fruit, wine, the imagery of weather phenomena and short-lived insects such as dragonflies, and the poems that focus on migratory birds, reiterate the transient and mutable nature of human states and relationships, particularly amatory ones.
The image of the desired other morphs through a series of masks, from the mock-heroic narcissist to the matador reproached with cowardice for being hesitant or reluctant to deliver the coup de grâce; from the present but alienated or disaffected lover to the memory of a former love; or a (Platonic?) yearning for an ideal love that might yet be, or might have been.
In the land of striking women you search
for the one whose Spartan body, toned from
the rigours of lovemaking, tresses cut
to the root, yet delicate as a girl
sharpening a knife, will let you grapple
with the image of yourself as the heroic
The shifts in mood and tone throughout the sequence, the restlessness and lability, the mutable identity of the first-person speaker, evince a cryptic, elliptical, enigmatic effect, matched by the wide-ranging but subtle improvisations on the sonnet form, so that the vision and viewpoint of the subject can seem to circle the object of desire/ the unattainable or elusive other, in attitudes that evoke various states of emotional and philosophical tension. The difficulty of loving is conflated with the difficulty of being. The shadow of death, whether actual or metaphorical, is a pervasive presence throughout the sequence, seemingly inseparable from the presence of desire for a union of true minds, and
more corporeal forms of desire.
The penultimate sonnet, in its implicit yearning for the limitless, the eternal, echoes the foreshadowings of the opening poem, which are developed more fully in the course of the collection:
What if I were to tell you that I grabbed
on to the universe, floated out
into the stream of life that connects me,
not to you but to what might yet be, the life led
not as a woman or man, but as pure thought,
The breathtaking opening sonnet seems to seek beyond mortality, to contemplate a vast panorama involving cosmic history, the poet’s Greek ancestry, the universe -- training a wide-angle lens on deep time and deep space, setting the metaphysical parameters for the collection as a whole, and locating the human element within that vastness:
When the time comes, whenever that be,
I shall look back to my ancestors,
seafarers all, gliding over oceans,
now coming into ports. This earth,
this blue planet, will not circumscribe me.
I will sail across the empty doom searching
for cyclopean marvels…………….
The astrophysics of our encounter,
this dark energy of love, are unknown.
In a singular moment the explosion
that drove all things apart drove us too.
In space I hold the horn of plenty.
Bull Days is an ambitious, accomplished and sophisticated work, in terms both of intricacies of form and the complex nature of its content. The poet does not shrink from confronting the metaphysical by way of the physical. In pushing at the extremes and limitations of her chosen domain of human experience, she exposes the chasms that divide us and engender a desire for intimacy, for true affinity of mind and spirit, as well as the more ephemeral manifestations of this in corporeal forms of attraction.
Bull Days was shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry. Deservedly so.