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Dean Kostos

Dean Kostos’s forthcoming poetry collection is Pierced by Night-Colored Threads. His books include This Is Not a Skyscraper (recipient of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, selected by Mark Doty), Rivering, Last Supper of the Senses, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and Celestial Rust. He edited Mama’s Boy and Pomegranate Seeds.

Blurbs

"Dean Kostos writes the poetry of ‘life’s mathematical string—untying, uniting me.’ That spooling and unspooling of the various threads of our lives, our DNA code binding us and unhinging us all at once is the fabric of this wonderful book. Kostos writes of the burning sky and us, examining our potential for flight, pen in hand."

– Kate Gale, Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, author of The Goldilocks Zone, winner of the Red Mountain Press Editor’s Award

"Dean Kostos is a poet for whom a formal imagistic stance offers harsh truths and some solace. In conversation with Emily Dickinson, Neruda, his neighbors, western civilization, he holds his own. Pierced by Night-Colored Threads continues this intense and complicated investigation of how the West in its beauty and brutality continues to shape our destiny. He makes each of us look again at those we admire or the ideas we question. And with phrases like ‘Mystic / opulence exceeds,’ we see a poet who claims justice and awe. It is an amazing achievement."

– Patricia Spears Jones, author of A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems

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Pierced by Night-Colored Threads

Dean Kostos: Poet of Two Worlds

09/10/18

It can be argued that all poetry is a negotiation between two worlds. An interior, private jumble of imagery and sound, a chaotic montage, must find the proper words to convey meaning to the world. For a poet who has suffered from severe mental trauma, the task of creating balance and harmony in language becomes even more crucial.

Greek American poet Dean Kostos is one of these damaged negotiators. In his early books his language is playful and inventive; he is adept with forms such as ghazals, but underlying all is an uneasiness with surfaces. The discomfort is made clear in a poem called “Rampart” from his first book The Sentence That Ends With a Comma: “You never realize it, but the/ dust is the world’s gradual crumbling/ as you proceed to speak.” An increasing poignancy enters his work for the residue of lost lives, civilizations, and dreams. This is often reflected in poems that reference both ancient and modern Greek history, language, and art.

His poem “History Tilts across Your Hips,” from Rivering, is addressed to the famous Kritos Boy statue by a narrator who remembers “ravines perilous as love” in his own life and looks into the eyes of the statue with worship. But also, sadly, despair. “When your eyes speak, one talks / of arrivals, the other / of departures, each a tunnel / away, your thoughts unspooling / toward the vanishing point.”

Later on in the poem, a chiton (as remembered clothing) falls, “heart-roots snap/ from muscles memory,” and yet a divisive distance remains in the last lines. “One eye: Leave;/ the other; stay, stay.” Can this be the distance between an ancient past, idealized as more whole, and a contemporary world marked by ambivalence? Or is it an attempt to reconcile the two? As it stands, the poem is a brilliant evocation of the two worlds each lover carries within: the fight between past and present, between avoiding desire or accepting Eros.

Kostos writes about outsiders, but not as an impartial observer. He endured the violent bullying of classmates at his boarding school for being gay, and at one point was thrown down a flight of stairs. At the age of fourteen he entered a mental institution, where he stayed for two years. However as an adult he became a professor respected by his peers, won a Benjamin Saltman award for his poetry, and is the author of eight books.

In his poetic landscapes, figures move about who are damaged and marginal. A dwarf pushing a pram, Coney Island sideshow performers, Miss Havisham from Dickens, Jack and Ennis from Brokeback Mountain, even the Dauphin, the ten year old son of Marie Antoinette who perished in prison, his “mushroom-colored” heart stolen from his corpse. The poems insist that we live in two worlds: the world of commodities, appearances and structures, and another world accessible to those initiated by suffering, then understanding and compassion.

In a poem called “Creature of Two Worlds” from Last Supper of the Senses, there is a metaphor for this suffering, a description of a sycamore tree placed by a fence secured with a padlock.

Despite its growth, the tree can’t bend
to thrust out the obstacle, and so pretends

to need it, burling pulpy meat
over the metal like a punched lip eating.

The desire to be freed may not relent,
yet a saw would gut the core to cut the fence.

The preceding lines certainly have a precedent centuries ago in the Romantic movement, however Kostos, as a poet living in an age of deconstruction, creates a dialogue between what he sees as a place where truth springs from wounding, and the often false, commonplace world based on social interactions and shared assumptions.

Because Dean Kostos believes the true heroes of this struggle are outsiders, he gives us a persona poem whose narrator is the ghost of Amadou Diallo, an innocent man murdered by New York City policemen. Kostos makes readers empathize with the wounding of Matthew Shepard, another man murdered, this time for being gay. And mathematician Alan Turing’s life is also celebrated, though his untimely death is mourned. Ashile Gorky, Sylvia Plath, Hart Crane, and Frida Kahlo all appear as guides who hold the key between two worlds.

Most of his poems are also lyrical, with striking imagery. Here is a poignant description of a Coney Island sideshow performer in the beginning lines of “Scorpion Cowboy,” from This is Not a Skyscraper.

How does he tend to the body’s needs?
Clunk! His pincers thud like sand-filled shoes.
Making his mother’s body bleed

when he was a boy, he swore he’d
mask his thalidomide shame like a bruise.

In a poem called “Turkish Man With Cinnamon Eyes,” also from This Is Not a Skyscraper, the narrator speaks from historical wounds inherited from four hundred years of oppression, when Greece was under Turkish rule.

I say the world is text & we read it.
The world is history & we bleed it.

I say, I’m unable to love. Love me.
We stand above the bridge, peering down,

the East River rippling below us—
hair of a deity about to breathe.

While a wish for healing may exist, Kostos is too fine a writer to present his readers with New Age homilies about self-acceptance. There may be no conclusive way to bridge a gap between two worlds, despite the clever use of an ampersand or skillful line breaks. “Wounds Wound with Poems” suggests that the creative process itself is a kind of surgery. “Perhaps all poem are bandages,/ pristine or blood-soaked.”

Kostos implies that all of us, whether or not we create art, have “sought approval from monsters who traffic shadows.” It’s fitting that that he mentions a chilling episode from The Twilight Zone television series that involves unwound bandages and approval. And poets themselves hold chisels that are “dark & dripping.” But Dean Kostos is one poet who does so with grace.

We wait in hell’s white-enamel cellar.
Plants shrivel on sills. Our hands
flicker like wings, as computer keys

clatter, carving words into luminous
screens. We try to hew our David
from all that he is not—
our chisels dark & dripping.

—“Wounds Wound with Poems,” from Pierced by Night-Colored Threads

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