I reviewed the book version of 3rd i about a year ago, and since then, have been given a CD version. Listening to the music after reading the book is a curious and altogether different experience. One of the key differences is that, when reading silently, I hear the work in my own voice. When listening, I'm struck by the forceful exuberance of Eliades' own vision. Poems that might come through as quiet and reflective on my own reading, come through as loud, strong, and excited in Eliades'. His emphases often differ from mine, and force me to focus on a word; a phrase; or a linguistic twist that I might have missed. There’s a powerful intertwining between the husky impact of Eliades’ voice as an instrument, and other effects used, such as vocal layering, echo, music and pure percussion.
The book has 50 poems, while the CD has 22, including two versions of "why". “why” both opens and closes the CD and presenting a kind of parenthesis to the work – forcing the reader to think about both meanings of the word “I read” – that is, reading for oneself, and reading aloud, which is more akin to the process of creating in the way it comes through on 3rd i. The increasing speed and power of the reading, coupled with percussion and a powerful sense of linguistic ecstasy, sets a tone that permeates this CD. The lines are, at times, so extraordinary, that the listener wants a moment to reflect, but there are no pauses here – "the skin of existence is translucent" or "because, daily, I forget how lovely breathing is". Life comes at you fast, and you have to pick up the beauty of each moment as you’re propelled along between the mundane and the extraordinary. Reading the poem in the book is a much slower experience, but "why" works perfectly as a performance. Eliades shoots these magnificent words at the listener – a shotgun of powerful imagery which only slows on the last word: "delicious".
Most of the poems on this 3rd i are spoken, and Eliades' delivery is powerful, moving through the spectrum of emotion, and commanding a response from the reader. Sometimes he speaks tenderly, as if to a loved one. In poems like “Kundalini rising”, the reader is both part of the “we” and addressed as “you”. The pain and pleasure of life is a tremendous war – the place where we move from passive to active:
Adhere, preserve this:
To taste your tongue is to coalesce from liquid to solid,
Threaten the stable self,
And embrace the front
At times the poetry is more detached, as in the sexy exploration of Brett Whitely (“brett whitely, Internuncio”), which is a completely different piece spoken than it is on paper. Here we lose the arrangement of words, with the slightly ironic notations on the left hand side, and gain the actual delivery in those tones. In many ways, without those notes, this poem becomes almost overly rich – slurping at the marrow or fornicating through collage. It’s as visual as a Whitely painting, but done in words, looking at process as art, rather than the finished product.
A number of poems on this work also have the addition of music. Alfred Abraham is the muso behind Eliades' words, and his work is superbly matched to the poems. Although the backing music is striking at times, combining percussion with strings in a way that creates its own non-verbal meaning, the music always allows the words to lead, emphasising the increase in intensity, or bringing the pieces back towards contemplation. It is always a complimentary, rather than competing force. "essence and form" is one piece that is so well engineered, that it changes from an tight analytical poem to one which is lyrical enough to be a true song. It helps that Eliades is a talented performer, and moves beautifully between the whispered, slightly detached paternal opening and closing, and the intense intimacy in the middle ("self saturated turmoil"). The poem moves in great waves — literal and metaphoric — between drowning and swimming. I liked the poem when I first read it in the book, but listening to it with Eliades echoing vocals and the Red Hot Chili Peppers sounding guitar riff that drives it along, is a whole new experience. As with all of the poems, Eliades' enunciation is exact, and his renditions bring out the strength of each carefully chosen word, the rhymes and alliterations, creating new meaning. As with much of Eliades’ work, this poem is both reflective and subjective – both about the personal struggle for meaning, and the way an artist makes meaning with art. The metaphoric and literal are perfectly balanced, and the experience of listening to this as a song is extremely powerful. This is definitely one that belongs on the radio.
"episodic memory for two voices" is also a completely new experience, extended through the hypnotic percussion and guitar, and the very subtle inclusion of the additional vocals of Vanessa Lee. So well blended is Vanessa’s voice that I couldn’t hear it – but I did note the slightly richer, deeper sound as the work progressed. In this poem, singular and plural stanzas alternate, creating a new space in that gap between individual struggle and collective meaning. In the verbal version, we lose the neat positioning of words on a page, but we gain the vocal spaces, and the poem is stretched out by repeated musical refrains. The ending to this poem is handled superbly as the music drives us towards the most wonderfully drawn out “flow”.
There’s not a single poem on this CD that is unpleasant to listen to, and all are delivered beautifully, with the skill of a great actor. Though never simple, Eliades’ work is always accessible to the reader, but more so when read aloud. The rhyme and alliteration are made stronger, and the tonal quality of his voice draws out meaning. In “3rd i”, for example, the title poem, we have a godlike poet’s voice which is capable of whispering, shouting, seducing, and directing. It celebrates the power of poetry, both to make our lives immortal, but also to turn the simplest of moments into the most extraordinary: “we warn tragedy away by breathing.”
For a lover of the kind of complex poetry that Eliades writes, there will never be a substitute for the slow, repeated reading of words on a page. But listening to 3rd i is indeed a completely different experience – one where you can chant along, or allow lines to permeate directly into you while driving. Listening to Basil Eliades deliver his exquisite lines with breathless excitement, sincerity and elan, is indeed, delicious.
For a live performance of a few pieces from this collection, and an interview with Eliades, visit The Compulsive Reader Talks from the 12th of March 2008.