Margaret Christakos: Children of the revolution

Reviewed for Arc Poetry Journal
Published online and in print March 2012

Welling, Margaret Christakos’s eighth volume of poetry, weaves across the borderlines between past and present and explores the significance of place. The “welling” of the title refers to Wellington Heights in Sudbury, where Christakos grew up. But it also alludes to welling up—to a sense of things brimming to their edge, about to tip over or shift—whether it’s a change in oneself, how one relates to the environment, or how people negotiate one other. This is a collection of poems that freeze-frames moments at the edge of transformation.

The poems explore family, technology, spirituality (or lack thereof)—and it is this thematic dynamism that makes it possible, and necessary, for Christakos’s poems to take a range of fluid and florid shapes. The gaping spaces between passages create motion and allow for great leaps in both form and idea.

Some of the most striking poems revolve around her relationship with her children. The poem “Relative” highlights a conflict that ensues between the speaker and her son after they see a panhandling teenage punk. The mother embodies an all-knowing mixture of concern and pity for the homeless boy:

           
The mysterious boy without
parents has a gash in his purple
face…
            [D]oes his blood backward-somersault
            toward a green lake & sand pail
            & a set of soft arms to catch him?

 

The son, having benefitted from being loved and cared for, takes a contrarian position, and without gratitude, hisses: “I get why he’s out there. Think of the freedom, man.”

Later, in the fourth section of the book, Christakos opens with a blunt statement: “my child is a child of the revolution / destined to fail,” which explores what it means to grow up in a highly technological, largely atheistic, almost apathetic world: “epiphanies were pro-choice to my generation—win some, lose some, buy a Lotto ticket.” When the speaker’s daughter asks when time began, we are both touched by the innocence of the question and dismayed by the weight of it along with the speaker: there are points and peaks for every parent when we won’t, or can’t, take a child by the hand and walk them through everything. This poem, by turns caustic and touching, examines what kind of world we are bringing our children into, and admits to a parent’s own helplessness.

The final, long poem—“Wellington”—is about Christakos’s own youth, and so we end at the origin and source, at the beginning of the cycle of welling up. Building beautifully on the metaphor of her up- and downhill walk home to the “heights,” she extrapolates the environment that has shaped the contours of her character. Christakos attributes her tenacity to the daily climb: “maybe it’s why I love the unloveable ones: / more work. Work is a climb of the highest order.” Christakos equates love with work, and asserts that the banal repetition of work can become a ritual—something transcendent. This hard work of true love, and the resulting transcendence, is the “welling” that is constantly cycling throughout life. Without a trace of sentimentality, Christakos looks backward, and forward, and shows us what needs to be done, and how to navigate the terrain.