Skeleton Keys [+ Intro.] (Redbeck Press 2003)
LYKIARD(opoulos) was born in Athens, 1940. At the start of the Greek
Civil War that followed the German Occupation during WW2 his parents
sought refuge in Egypt, before settling in England. Lykiard learned
English at the age of six, and was duly anglicised. This necessary
if often painfully surreal process is outlined in the Introduction
to Selected Poems 1956-96.
The setting of his
autobiographical novel Strange Alphabet (1970) was the Greece of
1967, that fateful April of the Colonels' military coup. The book
was highly praised by, among others, Andreas Papandreou and Jean
Until now though, Lykiard
has never explored an earlier, equally troubled period in 20th
century Greek history - a shared past of family secrets and lies, of
public and private betrayal and heroism. Skeleton Keys describes for
the first time, through these distinctive and unsparing poems, that
extraordinary era with its aftermath and poisonous legacies.
Lykiard's book focuses therefore on some shockingly intimate and
tormented youthful memories. Here in sharp, significant detail -
recaptured by the wittily honest yet movingly precise use of
language for which Alexis Lykiard is best known - are various key
moments in an eventful writing life to date.
“There is some masterly poetry here … pure Greek in pure English”
“His argument with the world is brilliantly waged. Readers will
learn a lot while they are moved by it” [Angus Calder]
“Alexis Lykiard writes English poetry with true Greek
“A brave and painful chronicle… A very moving and provocative
confrontation with demons” [Kit Wright]
“National treasure” [Simon Darragh, The London Magazine]
“This voyage into a personal past – WW2 and its aftermath, savage
civil war – inevitably invokes the mythology of ancient Greece…
Poetry here resumes its storytelling function, interspersed with
memory and reflection, much as it did in its earliest traditional
role.” [John Daniel, Tears in the Fence]
[Dr Brian Hinton, MBE]
“Thank you for Skeleton
Keys. What a serious treat.” [Trevor Griffiths, 2008]
A Prisoner of
My Father’s Name : Alexis Lykiard’s Skeleton Keys
Is there such a thing as an act of vicarious expiation? Apparently,
yes, according Alexis Lykiard in his unsettling suite of poems,
Skeleton Keys, and you can be pretty sure that this unburdening
of his verses will join other Oedipal confessional texts that
Freudians are eager to pin down on the couch (I’m thinking here of
literary analysands such Ackerley and his My Father and Myself,
Gosse and his Father and Son, not forgetting – in terms also
of divided familial loyalties – Svetlana Stalin, who in her memoirs
laments her fate as a ‘prisoner of my father’s name.’)
Do my initial remarks appear irresponsibly flippant? Not so!
Like Athens-born Alexis, I can freely take such an informed line
because I, too, throughout my life, have suffered the emotional
fallout from the chain reaction that follows when one’s national
identity is compromised by ideological guilt, in my case a
German-born father who chose British naturalization before the
outbreak of WW2, a decision that was to condemn him to isolation
from his own family in Vienna for the remainder of his life. A
decision, too, that was to condemn me to a future of denied roots.
So the problem of the ‘deracinated writer’ can be seen to be a
leitmotif that’s all too recognisable; what’s more, it induces a
disturbing mood that cannot fail to colour one’s writings with
morbid darker shades.
And the darker shades of moral ambivalence (or certain amoral
half-shadows in WW2 Occupied Greece that recall Genet’s Funeral
Rites in Occupied Paris) are surely to be found in such
characteristic lines of verse as these, which indict Alexis’s
‘sullenly mendacious’ fascist father, a ‘wartime
collaborator’ or, more pragmatically, a ‘survivalist, dealer,
smalltime crook’ (who, worse, surely, chatted up and
ogled the poet’s girlfriend before she’d been properly introduced!):
Were you whatever you claimed, Daddy, / Resistance hero or
The German soldier by my cot, / officers billeted in our house, /
weren’t they a strangely friendly lot? . . .
A wireless lay hidden under me – / unlikely story, one more I was
told – / so you could tune in to the BBC.
Held by the Gestapo and then released?/ I discount these fairy tales
I was fed . . .
Each morning trucks collected up the dead./ Dad, I don’t believe a
word you said.
For certain things that slippery conman did . . . he tried to make
me and my mother pay . . .
I grew up unaware my father lied/ or that [Mother had] twice
been bride and dupe of such a man.
Despite ample evidence here to tempt the reader to regard the poet,
when a child, as standing in a classic Oedipal attitude to his
mother and father, Alexis (perhaps unsurprisingly, given his
birthplace) calls on another Sophoclean protagonist, Theseus,
founder-king of Athens, to guide him as a surrogate father ‘through
the labyrinth . . . slowly finding a way out of the darkness. And
onward – past the elusive dreams and false memories, all those
tortuous politics and outworn myths – until the confrontation with
what, in the end, was always instinctively guessed from the
beginning.’ A knowledge that ‘these reassessments of family ties
serve to underline how truth and lies are relative at last .
. .’ (My italics. A consolatory well-meaning resolution that echoes
Paul’s counsel to the devout Greeks of Corinth, that though now they
may only ‘know in part’ they shall know at the last Reckoning
even as also they are known.)
However, for Alexis, this magnanimity of the Ego is rather sabotaged
in the Reckoning by the assertion of the Id in the very last lines
of Skeleton Keys, page 52: If it were proved a god existed
I might pray / that there should be a showdown and a way / of
telling some home truths on Judgement Day.
Notwithstanding my rather glib attempt at a Freudian interpretation
(irresistible, in the context of Attic archetypes), readers should
not assume they will encounter poems arranged on the page as
psychotherapeutic agony columns nor, indeed, configured as versified
columnar agonies. No. For readers familiar with Alexis’s fluent pen,
be assured the characteristic wit and brio and aphoristic squibs are
ever present here . . . in superior vintage quantities.
Related themes, therefore, of dispossession, diaspora,
disinheritance and grief abound in this collection, for as a
teenager Alexis could never ‘guess that legacies might move from
bad to worse . . . Nothing was left me, other than / a clutch of
adult toys gone rotten . . .’ and no honour paid his
‘long-lost mother . . .’
Thieves may believe that money talks and sanctifies all power,
but I rate disinheritance as much my finest hour.
Alexis’s epigraph for At Chora Sphakion makes clear the
weight of yearnings for lost kin, for as Conrad writes, ‘One’s
literary life must turn frequently for sustenance to memories and
seek discourse with the shades . . .’
Yet in his Thesean labyrinthine search, in the harsh Greek sunlight
so many of these poems inhabit, a hard-etched meaningfulness is
often mercifully bleached from the poet’s impressions (in
neurological psychology, this ‘threshold reverie’ is defined as a
‘liminal state’, a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical
subjective conscious state of existing between two different
existential planes). As Alexis writes. ‘Partially blinded by . .
. light / that catches a knife and traps a tarnished spoon, / . . .
Motes, quotes, fragments, / swirl toward meaning and fade all too
soon. / Our histories are also drowned in shadow.
Alexis’s valediction to a venerated Greek poet-academic (Academic
Questions) seems to me (in quoting a Hellenophile admirer of the
departed) to be describing his own formula for writing in a second
language: ‘A foreign poet / writing in English may gain / by
handling the language with an old- / fashioned simple correctness
True. As Alexis writes of a second language, so he writes of an
exiled life: ‘If some truths get exiled, or lost, others are left
still to pursue . . .’
There can be no doubt that these poems are an expression of the
profoundest agonies of personal loss, evidenced by how as a toddler
caught up in a street battle of 1944 he receives ‘the first jolt,
the bruise of memory.’ The poet is saved by his mother who
flings him to the ground and covers his body with hers.
She’d kept her head, saved us both. So much I saw,
mourning with age, as though I’d never wept before.
Stepping into the dark, Alexis is an intrepid Thesean warrior to the
end. He writes: ‘. . . If you lose one fight / there’s always
next time: you might win the war. / Whatever’s stolen from you you
must not regret – / each true guerrilla travels swift and light
before / the burdened tyrant meets that last sunset.*
Although, I dare to say, I have interpreted many of these verses
with reference to classic Oedipal complexities, you will be
encouraged by an interesting solacing conclusion that arises from
these ruminations in that, in a certain sense, one kills one’s
tyrannical father when one outshines him; ask Mozart Snr, a composer
whose own music died when his young son’s musical talents became
So let there be no doubt. Alexis Lykiard’s superb musicality as a
poet is unmistakeably evident here.
It follows, then, that I propose we describe a new thing: a poem as
a substitutionary votive offering to provide atonement for familial
guilt. And, as it turns out, both writer and reader are
beneficiaries of this obligatory ritual of sacrifice, which has no
rules of conduct other than conformity to poetic best practice and
an atavistic memory of a primal crime. I see no contradictions in
this thought, for – lest we forget – before Original Sin, in the
beginning, there was the Word.
*Only lately have I learned that, beyond
the Thesean thread leading us into Alexis's labyrinth, there is an
Oedipal thread that is not fully unravelled for the questing reader.
I refer to 'that last sunset', which as the poet makes clear, in a
personal note to me, refers to 'the 1961 Robert Aldrich film The
Last Sunset, a very odd indeed Oedipal western!' An Oedipal
western? Correct. The screenplay is by the celebrated Dalton Trumbo,
and the movie stars Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson and Carol Lynley.
And, yes, this Freudian drama, like Alexis's own family history, is
as convoluted as any Greek tragedy.
“Skeleton Keys I have read with great
pleasure and admiration. It is, I think, the best thing you have