The Ecstasy of the Eye: A review of Stelios Mormoris’s The Oculus by Maxima Kahn

In his debut collection, The Oculus, Stelios Mormoris inhabits a lush world, alive with sensuous imagery, rich in paradox and metaphor. The opening poem “Return of Icarus,” written in the voice of Icarus, confesses, “I set out to fail, I knew this,” as if apologizing in advance for the necessary failures inherent in any flight of fancy—whether of ambition or love or poetry. Yet, the collection celebrates those flights as the very things which make for a rich life, and Icarus admits, “I still hear that voice far above crying: come back, come back.” 

So, yes, there is yearning in these poems—for light and flight, for loved ones lost, for the sheer erotic pulse of being alive, and sometimes for greater clarity, “...watching/ low tide, caught in/ the ebb’s crossing/ of wanting to decide.” There is a sense of unfulfilled quests, unanswered questions and hungers, and “this lyrical tracing of summers past,” but these are woven through with the author’s enchantment with the eye, with landscape, and the sheer physicality of being. And the yearning is tempered by the passage of time, as he “buries” those same summers.

This is a collection, written by a man looking back over his life and finding it pinpointed by moments that stand as “sentries,” the title of the first section, and glowing with “aureoles” of light, as the second section is titled. So, the lens Mormoris peers through here is most often one of memory. The third section “Verdicts” grapples with loss, particularly of his mother, and with the past as it bleeds into the now, as, for instance, in “The Apron,” when he dons his now-dead mother’s apron and is carried back to the time that same apron covered his mother’s belly, pregnant with the speaker of the poem himself.

As the title of the collection suggests, the eye and the act of seeing, often through windows or other oculi, are central to this collection. Mormoris is in love with all that the eye sees and lavishes the reader with specific details and luxuriant language as he savors his life. In “Man in Provincetown,” the speaker of the poem watches another man working out in the gym, and peers out the windows:

“I crave the empty

picket-fenced lots

baring their burned-

out patches of grass 

the cut-off straw 

stalks of blue

and pink hydrangea—

once as bushy as

drag queens’ wigs.

I take in the molten

snarl of dead weeds

in the unloved spaces

no one has spoken for...” 

Mormoris speaks for what might otherwise go unloved as he celebrates the richness, variety, and vividness of the sensuous world, even as he reckons with its inevitable disappointments and losses. In “The Leaf,” he tells us:

“I decided to leave

you while idled watching

a leaf burnished and crisp,

flaunt its weightlessness....” 

His decision arrives as he watches the leaf’s flight and fall and discovers: 

“It turned out the leaf was

ordinary, serrated symmetrically

on each side, cradling me back

to boredom.”

Peering out from his oculus on seascapes and gardens, as well as cityscapes from Paris to San Francisco to Pamplona, the narrator of these poems finds a mirror reflecting his emotions, the vicissitudes of relationships and passions, and the vast impermanence of living and dying—everything from “flower-filled weddings” to “maroon-dark funerals.” And he embraces it all.

“How necessary it is

to lose yourself 

in tangles,

the seafoam

like torn lingerie

wrapping your shins,” he acknowledges. 

Mormoris willingly loses himself in word tangles and the tangles of the human heart, finding not verities there but insoluble mysteries. His often-complex sentences string clauses like beads, threaded with images, loaded with symbolic meaning, as if the poet’s eye and line cannot contain the muchness of the world. The edges of things blur into one another in the ecstasy of his looking. Even as a child he gazes out from a diner window on 

“...the stark

daguerreotype of leafless trees

caged behind mullions

birds sputtered against

while inside I took

small pleasure watching the flare

of steam emit from the spout

of a shiny percolator”

Those tangles reveal the contradictions of life—the way love can cut and also heal, the way the past is present with us in memory, the complexities of family relationships. He recalls his mother’s bracelet on her wrist as “decidedly cold/ and thrilling as/ loneliness can be.” Family is a central subject of this collection, as Mormoris recalls moments from his childhood and his mother, father, sister, and aunt. But, even as he eulogizes his mother or notes the way tourists bombard Paris each August, “grazing on the excess grandeur/ of gargoyled boulevards, which overdose/ and lose magnificence,” the speaker of these poems seems to have arrived at a time of peace:

“I feel the tirade of the surf breaking

over my head with its rain of sand,

and still have no regrets.”

In the poem “The Temper,” from which the quote above comes, the speaker of the poem tells his temper, “I feed you/ sparingly in shadows now that I am older.” He finds himself missing loved ones, but also “living the refrain of kinder days/ as my partner and I/ settle into lichen-covered wooden chairs/ with the need to speak less and less...”. He looks back over his life and honors it, the choices made, the people loved, the places seen. From this vantage point, he is able to hold the paradoxes. Indeed, many of the poems end on a paradoxical image—“the knives in the uterus” of a pregnant woman—or with some kind of unanswered seeking—“like our unfinished remarks.” The collection comes to a close as the speaker recalls one summer as a young fatherless child with his mother in the Catskills, “...when I heard/ her crying alone in a rented cabin,/ to my delight, and to my peril.” It is this mixture of delight and peril that ultimately gives the richness which Mormoris seeking eye finds. 

Maxima Kahn is a writer, teacher, and firekeeper. Her first full-length collection, Fierce Aria, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. Her work has been featured in numerous literary journals, including The Louisville Review, Wisconsin Review, Sweet, and many others, and on popular blogs such as Tiny Buddha, and she has twice been nominated for Best of the Net. She has taught creative writing and creative process privately since 2004 and formerly at the University of California, Davis Extension, and she is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Community of Writers and the Vermont Studio Center. She is also an improvisational violinist, an award-winning composer, and a dancer.