Vana Manasiadis’s debut collection of poetry, Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: a mythistorima (Serpah Press, NZ$25), is a beautiful atlas of real and fabled locales—mapped, charted, and photographed by a distinct poetic voice. The collection’s cast of characters range in eclectic splendour from modern-day Penelope, weaving and unweaving the loves and wars of history, to Theseus the DOC ranger, to stubborn Icarus, flying over Miramar Peninsula with the glued appendages of kiwi-feathered wings. However, spanning waters, generations, and genres, Manasiadis does more than merely mix the mythological with the ordinary. With poems like “Hectic Hector” and “King of Mycenae,” she fills the quotidian spaces of family and community with mythic abundance. In this abundance, a cross-cultural poetic voice emerges confidently and provocatively, inaugurating a text very much aware of its humour and the boldness of its manipulations.
As the collection’s back cover describes, the poems explore an “ex patria feeling of ‘being here and being there,’” the limbo in which former homelands leave us suspended. Indeed, there is a sense of lightness throughout Manasiadis’s work, invoked no doubt by the gusty winds and cyclones of the poems, but also in the poet’s seamless and manifold transitions between cultures and lexicons. Ancient and modern Greek names, tales, and traditions are inflected and infused with Italian, Maori, and Kiwi citizenships. Pieces of language, shards of faraway places, and purloined mythic figures surface and re-surface; yet the Penelope of Manasiadis’s collection eschews the creative embellishments of recorded history: “It was all too mythistorima,” she says, “too story; too paramythi, too fairytale for her” (59). Consequently, alongside the levity and humour of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, a self-proclaimed mythistorima, there is an earnest wish, which at most wants to contain the embellishments of storytelling, and at least, alerts us to the perpetual subjectivity of those stories.
Sophocles’s looming shape is a particularly mournful force in the text. More anachronistic than the other players, Sophocles is embedded in an ancient time and place, living parallel to the present as opposed to in it. Yet it is his voice, his bearing a gift of home, “a jar of Island Bay sand,” that resonates throughout the collection (72). “Shoebox” foreshadows “the cancer victory” of Sophocles’ death with its “funeral almonds and wheat and coffee,” and describes the shoes he made and then left behind (47). Worn “unwaveringly” by his daughter until only the shoebox was left, “I filled the box with photographs” she says, “long loose here and there” (47). Pleading with her psyche to leave in peace the “here and there” of her memories, she lists the photographs’ settings, the vestiges of history: “my shoebox geography of lasts,/ my cartography of there and not there” (47).
Defining one’s place by negation, by the “not there” is often the work of exile—exile from place as well as from one’s own memories. Although the hybridity of genre and content of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves defies the rigidity of classification, the themes of exile, belonging, and geographically strewn histories bring the text in lucrative dialogue with postcolonial poetry. Reaching into the past with characteristic humour and craft in “Island Hoppers,” Manasiadis tells of Sappho and Moana, women of the earth, ocean, and sky, mapping the universe in the sand. This geographical work is not unlike Manasiadis’s own transcriptions and cartographies, yet we are told when the island women stopped their work
they were mournful
neither honey or bee for me/
rimu-rimu, tere tere
So they leapt off cliffs
their hair for parachutes,
dug deep for toheroa
and Turkish delight.
Like all good ancients, Sappho and Moana are versed in hospitality, and the poem ends with their celestial guests:
Like Corona Borealis,
back from Princess Bay.
She’d unpin her crown
and go to bed with Orion
in completely the wrong
In the figure of Sappho, Manasiadis invokes the authority of the first recorded woman poet and the surviving fragments of her verse. Ithaca Island Bay Leaves celebrates this ancient femininity while also managing to bring a personal and culturally-hybrid history into its fold. This collection is a masterful debut, speaking with grace and candour to ancestry, migration, community, and love—well worth getting for that long, perpetual trip ahead of you.