Helene Pappamarkou, Melena the Leopard Girl, Yagureté or "true carnivorous beast": these names are aliases, and Eleni Sikelianos jumps into each one in her genre-refusing essay-memoir-invention You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek). With The Book of Jon (City Lights, 2004), Sikelianos established herself as a family cartographer, concealing and revealing familial lines through tales of her father. This time around, she inhabits her grandmother's identities and spaces: woman, mother and burlesque dancer; Ohio, the Mojave Desert and western Turkey; the woman's belly, hips and movement. The Book of Jon tells a human history. You Animal Machine travels further, zeroing in:
"This is a miniature history of the way women are watched."
Sikelianos speaks of "what slides between the leopard girl and the men watching her," and as a reader, I wander and I wonder, but I do not watch. Sikelianos traces a woman's career without creating an audience space. The reader finds snippets -- an ad for Margo's (add that to the list of stage names) "scintillating dancing" -- yet like Sikelianos herself, the reader never locates the performance venue, let alone the dancer. The page tells of a performer while resisting, missing and moving beyond choreography. Melena (Margo, Helene, the leopard girl...) moves, but she moves through Sikelianos' words.
Paragraphs, stanzas and pictures flow together. Words are omitted, lines enjamb and Sikelianos funnels narrative from herself to her mother to her mother's mother. Sikelianos shows no allegiance to a single identity. I flip through newspaper clippings, photographs of Melena in her burlesque cat costume and portraits of the mother and grandmother off-stage, and then I ask, when did Melena decide to be a mother? Sikelianos is proof that bodies beyond dancing ultimately took precedence. Yes, Melena was a dancer. Melena was also a mother and a grandmother. Where is the seam?
As feminism reaches the height of the hashtag, Sikelianos instead drums forward a woman's experience with other words: again and again, I meet jaguars, leopards, mountain lions, a nagual. I get stuck on nagual. I'm sitting on my peacock couch and its animal print feels right and indecipherable. Sikelianos teaches me to say "no" to formulaic femininity: a woman is not a genre and neither is her life. I pick up my phone, stay on the peacock couch and Google search nagual. I pour through its Wikipedia entry and then annotate You Animal Machine: "A nagual is a human being who has the power to magically turn him- or herself into an animal form, most commonly donkeys, turkeys, and dogs, but also other and more powerful animals such as the jaguar and puma."
I think this nagual is the perfect cat lady, and I laugh while scribbling down notes about a woman with the magical power to assume feline form. Here lies Sikelianos' prowess: she gives readers the power to imagine and inquire and be ridiculous as we do so.
This book is weird, I think, and I know: if this is foreign, then we do not know how to read women. We do not know how to read family. We -- and I say "we" because Sikelianos refuses any rigid line between "I," "you," "her" and "us" -- read and readily know Melena's immigrant (Greek-American) and biological (mother, grandmother) identities, but like Sikelianos, we must imagine Melena's desires and departures. Seeing Sikelianos inquire into this imagination maps a feminine history: "You will be abandoned. You will be lost, you will be alone. You will be this woman, this leopard woman..."
The cat lady becomes other and more powerful animals, and in these transformations, Sikelianos creates an ongoing turn from working-class mother to predator. Between genres and metaphors, another refusal becomes clear: the woman is not prey. "Her nagual is prowling..." and so the reader follows, falling "somewhere between human and animal."
"I can't seem to keep her in reality," Sikelianos confesses, and that's the point. Sikelianos tackles five marriages, romantic and platonic heartbreaks, dwarf lovers and three sad, obsessed and confused children, one of whom becomes her mother. The links and relationships confuse, and they should. Between paragraph, stanza and photo, white space shows what Sikelianos refers to again and again as "holes," the stuff of the mind.
She can never quite get at her grandmother's mind, but You Animal Machine asks questions that marinate on the page:
What would we learn? How to live? How to live forever? How to repair the unraveling rug? How to die? How to connect the pieces, how to connect to those around us, how to feel a part of things, a part of who we are?
We do not how to read women, not completely. We try, though, and Sikelianos makes it a woven effort. Her prose demands confusion: "Who is us?" After reading You Animal Machine, the reader is not afraid of asking this question because similar uncertainties riddle the text. Few are explicated; none find definitive answer.
"What is a place without its stories? It's nothing.
What is a body, then? I'd say it's free."
And just when I thought it was Sikelianos or Melena or the cat or any form of "her," I realize the stories and the bodies are shared. In review, I realize they, she, it is me. Ridiculous, imagined and shifted, the book and its reader become the nagual.
You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)
An Essay by Eleni Sikelianos
Pub Date: June 3rd, 2014
Page count: 126pp
Publisher: Coffee House