In books, death is the great finale. It's Agamemnon slaughtered in the bathtub, the charge of the Light Brigade, Emma Bovary gobbling arsenic. But in real life, death is rarely like that. It leaves the storylines hanging, the payoffs unclaimed.
On January 6, 2000, for no particular reason, Jon Sikelianos died at age 54, squalid and homeless in a room of the De Anza Motor Lodge in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An autopsy revealed crack cocaine and alcohol in his blood. He had liver disease and an enlarged heart. He might have missed a dose of methadone. His antipsychotic medications might have caused a seizure. The initial word was "heart failure." It was the medical equivalent of a shrug.
"I had tried to write about him many times," says the dead man's oldest child, ex-San Franciscan poet Eleni Sikelianos. "It was always a story I knew I needed to tell." The question was how to capture the essence of an arbitrary and dissolute life. Sikelianos -- author of the National Poetry Series-winning volume The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls and the forthcoming The California Poem -- decided that she couldn't do this one in verse alone.
"I would hate to see my father's life told in a poem," she says. "For me, a lot of poetry has to do with music, and the line break, and the formalities of a poem. I think that because of the formalities of poetry, just using that genre would not fit his life."
So she created The Book of Jon, a slim literary scrapbook of remembrances, photographs, and, yes, poems, that is new from City Lights. It includes the obituary she co-wrote with her siblings, which describes their father as "fisherman, boat builder, lover of animals, seer of ghosts, pocket knife collector, cigarette lighter thief, eater of unpaid-for peaches at Landmark, good cook, teller of dog stories ..." Other chapters call to mind less gentle terms: junkie, brawler, wastrel, deserter.
She kept trying to get at the contradictions of his life from different angles, "because any one angle seemed insufficient. I still didn't get it all. That's the thing: How do you tell the story of this complicated life? It doesn't stop at the book. The book is just trying to indicate his life and by extension, anyone's complicated human life."
It's the first volume in a projected family history that promises to include artists, musicians, schizophrenics, addicts, and a burlesque dancer with the stage name Melena the Leopard Girl. In the background are the paternal great-grandparents: the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and his wife, Eva Palmer, a bohemian heiress who exhausted her fortune trying to resurrect the Greek theatrical festival at Delphi.
By the time Eleni arrived, the family's continental glamour had vanished along with the money. Her parents conceived her in a stand of bushes. Her father left soon after she was born. He crisscrossed the country, scoring drugs, reading, playing music, and getting in fights. He took odd jobs at zoos and learned to trim tall trees. He stole the occasional chicken. He had three more children with two other women. He fell in and out of heroin addiction.
Meanwhile, his daughter was growing up near Santa Barbara on welfare and food stamps in Section 8 housing. After high school, she landed in Europe, hitchhiked through Africa, and studied language and literature at the Institut Catholique in Paris. She returned to the United States, finished community college, and received a BFA and an MFA from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Keroauc School of Disembodied Poetics.
Though she saw her father only a couple of times a year, he played a large role in her imaginative life. "He was such a powerful figure because I was becoming a writer, and he was very artistic and loved to talk about books, loved to talk about writing," she says. "I had lots of hopes and fears around him -- hopes of spending time with him, hopes of connecting with him."
Despite her own bohemian credentials, or perhaps because of them, she has no romantic notions about her father's freewheeling ways. "Wanting to be authentic all the time ended up stopping him from doing anything," she says. "It drove him to extremes that ended up being detrimental and destructive."
She expects the book to disturb her family. "It's possible there will be family members who won't speak to me," she says. "They all mean to be very supportive, and I think they are, but when the realities of the book are there, I don't know how hard they'll find it. For one thing, no one has leveled with my little sister yet that her dad was a junkie for most of his life. I've written this book about my father, but it's about her father as well, and because she didn't get to come to terms with him as an adult, it will frame how she thinks about him. That worries me."
Why write the book at all? "Because of the intensity of the story and the life that went along with it," says the author, who will be at City Lights bookshop on December 9. "I had to figure out how to communicate who this person was. It didn't occur to me necessarily when I first started the book, but I was writing it for him too. I had this idea that the living are helping the dead along in the way we live and what we do. If they're still out there in spirit, they are still dealing with what happened in their time on Earth; so by our actions and what we're doing, we're helping them along."
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