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Mermaids and Ikons by Gwendolyn MacEwen

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Poets are always poets. They can’t help it. Poetry is another world, full of sound and allusion, nuance and symbolism. The idea with poetry is to be free of the constraints of prose, to go places in the heart and soul that are reachable only by the images and rhythms that poetry can wield. To escape that resonating universe of the mind is impossible. So when a poet chooses to write prose, one expects something a bit different.

The late Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen was a versatile writer who produced radio docudramas, novels, and short stories in addition to her poems. Her one piece of nonfiction, Mermaids and Ikons, was first published in 1978 and is now being re-issued by the House of Anansi Press, with a new introduction by MacEwen’s biographer, Rosemary Sullivan.

And yes, this short volume is different. One could call Mermaids and Ikons a travelogue, for that’s what it is on the surface. But there is far more going on. MacEwen writes about visiting Greece with her Greek-Canadian husband, Nikos Tsingos, in the summer of 1971 and then in the last chapter, five years later. The couple does what one would expect tourists to do. They visit the sights: Athens, Mycenae, Olympia, as well as spending time on the Aegean island where Nikos was born. At the historical sites they feel the weight of Greece’s history, like any foreign visitor. On the island, they have meals with the locals, go snorkelling, spear octopus, and walk in the hills. Good touristy things again. One more version of what every visitor to Greece inevitably does.

But while MacEwen’s eyes and ears take in the physical veneer of Greek life and history, her poet’s sense absorbs and explores their depths. She begins and ends the book knitting with some women friends in Athens (this despite the fact that she can’t knit!), the Acropolis in view out one of the windows. Her friends tell her that though they live in Athens, they never go to the Acropolis, that quintessential symbol of the glory that was Greece. Why not? It is because they live in the present. And it is exactly this wonderful Greek art of existing in the textures, scents, and flavours of the moment that MacEwen celebrates in this book.

MacEwen was enamoured of the Middle East and the ancient world and treats the past as a seamless part of the present: her trip to Mycenae is a search for the giants who could only have been the ones who made that fortress out of such huge blocks of stone, or Mystras where they look for the white horse that is rumoured to appear—the ghost of Constantine Palaeologus, the last Byzantine Emperor, who once ruled the city.

The last chapter is a return visit to Athens, five years later and after the Junta had collapsed and democracy restored. It is a reflection on Greece and modernity, on poetry and history, and especially on what she calls the “multifaceted crystal” that is human existence.

For those who have never been to Greece, read this book first so that your senses will be open to all it offers. For those who have visited Greece already, rediscover it here. And so, a travelogue yes, but something else. A revealing journey in place and time.

Mermaids and Ikons is published by the House of Anansi.

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