In her tenth book of poetry, Your Kingdom, Eleni Sikelianos offers an exploration of life’s evolution from stardust to small-celled organism to humankind, with its attendant extinguishing forces. For Sikelianos, the evolution of language complicates this narrative, as past meanings fail to fill the holes that humanity is insistently creating. As such, Your Kingdom attempts to be both a biography of being and a lexicon attempting to form the vocabulary of future extinction.
The heart of Sikelianos’s ecopoetry collection is “Your Kingdom,” which rests in the middle of this carefully ordered collection. This titular poem plays with and pulls apart the hierarchies we have established to provide order to an otherwise chaotic universe. In its fifty-one pages, “Your Kingdom” decodes a static human form into its barest evolutionary elements and unravels time’s forward march from its circular web. Structurally inventive, with frequent use of dotted lines, white space, and a repeated, small graphic of 9,993 birds’ evolutionary relationships that also serves as a quiet section break, “Your Kingdom” opens by encouraging us to find the inherited connections we have to other forms of life, “if you like let the body feel / all its own evolution.” In the remainder of this long poem, Sikelianos takes readers through life’s kingdoms, stressing relationships between redwoods and grass, flowering plants and pollinators, dust and the earth. Stressing relationships between humans and our progenitor cells and organisms, large and infinitesimally small.
If humanity believes itself as evolution’s perfected pinnacle, Sikelianos does not hesitate to remind that “extinction is a central feature of your model / you went wild with it.” For every advancement—a mouth and throat able to vocalize, an eye able to bend light for expanded sight, a mind able to name—the story of loss abounds in rocks and strata. Sikelianos moves through the far-past into a mutable present, telling us stories we have forgotten. For lungs, thank barnacles. For oxygen to breathe, thank bacteria. For our flexible fingers, thank frogs. Throughout “Your Kingdom,” Sikelianos calls on us to look internally, even if “you go dizzy from the deep // expanse of it—how to find yourself // in space in such an / animal carnival.”
She stresses truths that humans by and large prefer not to consider—that multitudes of animals have better senses, that viruses can hide themselves better. Likewise, she prompts us to remember how much we share with beings we’ve evolved alongside, and how our far-ancestors could have developed in some other way that led to humanity:
I wanted to tell you
how you still have to carry
the sea around inside you
I mean you walked out of the ocean with ocean
keeping the percentages pretty straight
The difficulty, of course, is determining how humanity’s relationship with the earth and its many kingdoms would change if we fully embraced that “every heart of every species unfolds / from the self-same germs : :” Sikelianos does not have an easy answer to that question, but posits that seeking out connections to all elements of the world is a necessary beginning:
you are a survivor
you, a true
together from bits of genetic
trash like syntax and the poem folds out
from all that’s also unreadable in you
“Your Kingdom,” by attempting to make those unreadable elements clear, becomes a vehicle that suggests our species’ survival might be marked by our ability to “learn to live with yourselves and all you carry.”
The poems that precede “Your Kingdom” set up Sikelianos’ vast dive into evolutionary history and humanity’s impact on so many species’ timelines. Your Kingdom opens with two prose poems that identify major themes in this collection, that humanity is but a living museum of past organisms and that language has a saving potential. As Sikelianos states in “‘Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of phylogeny’ (Notes),” “What life is is your cells remembering what other life did before it. / And even further.” Poetry’s language helps our memory by being both backward and forward looking, “like a to-do note, hoping that it will be seen at some point hence and remind us of something worth knowing, feeling.” These early sections also showcase Sikelianos’ interest in stretching poetic form, whether through use of images illustrated with quotations or other graphic flourishes. The poem “Tooth to Bite” is but one example of this formal play, with the poem’s text superimposed over a background of handwritten portions of the text that also includes simple sketches of teeth, horns, talons, beaks and more. The threat of evolution here is seen in the many ways life evolved to kill prey, with “Tooth to Bite” ending squarely in the human realm, “Then I got a gun and you / you showed up on the horizon with your nuclear weapons.” The extinction level of this nuclear threat also crawls in handwriting up the edge of the page, menacing on a visceral, visual level.
The poems that follow “Your Kingdom” are both more dreamlike and more personal, with memories and anecdotes bringing the poet more to the forefront. Images with light, water, birds, trees, red things, and the night sky give physicality to recurring examinations of time, sound, space, and language. While I would hesitate to say the poems tend toward hope, they often have a gentler quality that encourages introspection, as in the final lines of another multi-page poem, “Volcanoes / (National Park)”:
the space between words is inside you, lava-like
each word bright cellular packet of living
how the word and world hold in their own toward breaking
Perhaps freedom is central to the questions found in Your Kingdom. Our evolutionary connections bind us to a shared timeline, yet we like black holes circling each other on a collision course. In “Sfakiá to Loutró,” Sikelianos offers one potential end point:
just as she was born into a history
she didn’t make
and then continued making it
she died in time
and out of it
Humanity’s current failure to see itself as part of one larger world suggests oncoming catastrophe, but in her penultimate poem, “Aστυνομία Nοσοκομείο,” Sikelianos has not yet given up on human possibility moved to action, “Then I remembered language / is a lingering we keep hoping will draw / up exigence like water / from a well.”
For those who love to read and appreciate the complex work that ecopoets set for themselves, Your Kingdom will prove to be an exciting addition to this subgenre. For a casual poetry reader, Sikelianos’ catalogues and swerving wordplay will offer challenges that her engaging glossary and end notes can help clarify. Sikelianos’ ecopoetry confronts commonplace assumptions about what it means to be a human so we can reckon with our casual destruction of the planet, and Your Kingdom shows a poet sounding a powerful wakeup call.
About the Reviewer
Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and Adroit Journal.