Astra Papachristodoulou’s stellar Constellations reviewed by James Davies

We published Astra’s poetry in Ambit 244.

Astra Papachristodoulou, Constellations, Guillemot, 2022, £12

This is a complete book, which is to say that every element has been fully considered and carried out: the book and page design and the concept and content of the poems. Beautifully produced by Guillemot, it is a hardback production sans dustjacket. Colour: dark, outer space blue. Embossed in silver, the Pegasus constellation stands in front of the rest of the night sky; using a kind of metallic glitter, stars are dappled onto the dark blue, twinkling in and out of sight. 

The initial beauty of each poem comes from looking at its shape, which is the structure of one of the 88 constellations in The Milky Way. Conventionally, in stargazing, each star is labelled with a letter from the Greek Alphabet. Papachristodoulou retains the labelling but the letters in her constellations are shuffled. A further innovation is that she replaces the names given to the constellations and stars with her own text. So for instance, in her translations Ursa Major becomes Torture Tattoo:

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The limited word count and open-endedness of the poems immediately highlight these poems as minimalist but there is another minimalist dimension to the poems, the trait of slowness, rendered by the author’s suggestion to read (we might say navigate) the lines in alphabetical order. A Greek Alphabet is usefully printed at the beginning of the book, next to the author’s note for suggested reading. If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek Alphabet you will have to slowly decode the poem; keeping your thumb in the crib and another finger in the page you’re on. We need to concentrate in a meditative way. This feat of achieving a slowing in the reading process takes on another dimension when we also discover that we can read the labels in alternative orders that create subtle changes in meaning and rhythm; it’s automatic remixing with purpose. One Headstrong Poison, according to the prescribed reading, should read ‘the bottle’s/empty/and/there’s/nothing/left’. Yet mixed could read ‘there’s/nothing/left/and/the bottle’s/empty’ or ‘and/there’s/nothing/left/the bottle’s/empty’ and finally ‘and/the bottle’s/empty/there’s/nothing/left. See Necropolis I, Everyone Says ‘Hi’ and Trapped for other multiple orders of reading that work nicely. ‘blue, blue, cosmic blue/that’s the colour/of my room/where I live’ reads Trapped in a prescriptive reading. 

In One Headstrong Poison we can see the humour – the absurdism – that is a facet of so much of minimalism, whether the artist intends it or not. A humour in the bisociation of the itness of things and their otherness, What for example is funnier than a pile of bricks in an art gallery? (this is a rhetorical question and not a Christmas cracker joke). The open-endedness of a minimalist reading of One Headstrong Poison, could convey one: the literalness of an empty bottle (maybe you’ve finished off the ketchup and there’s nothing left for me?), two: the image of someone intoxicated, needing a dram more, or three: the image of someone who is out of energy. It’s a thrilling thing to be able to work with the poems easily and also to be intellectually stimulated.

The collection is peppered with other games too. There are four opportunities for readers to ‘Match The Constellations With Their Names’ – these ‘bonus’ poems have the tone and feel of a game found in a kids’ comic. Yet unlike a game where you have to match say the baby animals to their mums there are no factual answers; the matches can only be made by intuition, like the initial naming of the constellations. 

Some poems make explicit contextual reference. Concrete poetry is a theme running throughout, as in Moonshot which pays homage to Mary Ellen Solt’s incredible and seminal moonlanding sonnet Moon Shot Sonnet https://socks-studio.com/2019/12/15/mary-ellen-solt-moonshot-sonnet-1964/ whilst others recall pop music from Bowie, Blur and The Pet Shop Boys. Domino Dancing (Existential) lifts lines from the song by The Pet Shop Boys and re-appropriates them along the drawn lines of the constellation, perhaps with the effect of slowing down the speed at which we read the lyrics, subvoiced or voiced, sharing affinities with Rob Fitterman’s Nevermind, a slow down of Nirvana’s classic album. Stars Who Are Stars is a series of malapropisms from Blur’s cult song Girls & Boys. The poem – as a translation of the explosive looking constellation Monoceros, as opposed the ‘thereness’ shape of the Musca, which has become Domino Dancing (Existential) – lends itself to a much faster reading speed, multi-directional and quietly shouty, reminiscent the original Blur song. 

There are likely connections to astrology and mythology in the mix here but I’m afraid I’m no expert on those topics – they remain things for other readers to pick out. Triggers here, triggers there; in the knowledge that there are many more fine games lurking in Constellations, out there in the Astraverse.

James Davies’ writing includes stack (Carcanet), a book-length, minimalist poem that explores experimental walking practice, as well as the collection Plants(Reality Street), a set of conceptual poems. A new collection, consisting of 201 minimalist two-liners, is coming out from Pamenar Press later this year called it is like toys but also like video taped in a mall. He is also the author of two novels. The Wood Pigeons (Dostoevsky Wannabe) is a tale about a night-in for two, slenderised page by page, and When Two Are in Love or As I Came To Behind Frank’s Transporter (from Crater Press, written in collaboration with Philip Terry) is an Oulipian psychedelic extravaganza about a romance at the beach. His latest prose is the short story The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton (Ma Bibliotheque), ten rewrites of the first page of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. There’s more at his website www.jamesdaviespoetry.com  

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