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The Sequin ‘oh!’

A Fortnightly Review


Collected Complete Poems
by Iliassa Sequin.

Grey Suit, 2021 | 296pp | £14.95  $20.97


Even the most ardent enthusiast was left with the impression that Sequin might yet turn out to have been a rumour, an Oulipian prank…

SPEAKING IN 1968, John Ashbery sug­­gested ‘It is no longer possible, or it seems no longer possible, for an important avant-garde artist to go unrecog­­nised.’1 Iliassa Sequin arrived in England the same year, and, as if setting out to refute this claim, proceeded to write in almost complete obscurity for the next fifty years. Of course, for the seriously eager there were traces: she published one pamphlet and appeared in a handful of magazines in the United States. But still, even the most ardent enthusiast was left with the impression that Sequin might yet turn out to have been a rumour, an Oulipian prank who would dissolve into wisps of glitter and puns when the time came.

She had admirers, including Trevor Winkfield – in whose magnificent Juillard magazine she made an early appearance in 1972; Ashbery himself, who published her in Partisan Review in 1977; Larry Fagin, whose Un Poco Loco she graced in 1979; Peter Gizzi, who published her chapbook Quintets in 1991, and in issues of his magazine o-blek and in The Exact Change Yearbook (the latter selected by Tom Raworth); and Miles Champion, who included her in The Sienese Shredder in 2009. This is illustrious company for sure, and you can just imagine them conspiring, dreaming up Iliassa Sequin over the course of a long lunch. A great poet, originally from Greece, living just off Brick Lane and writing brilliant, fragmentary, difficult poetry which hardly anyone has seen? Friends with Paul Celan and André du Bouchet? All her poems are called ‘Quintets’? It sounds too fantastic to be true.

And yet here it is: nearly 300 pages of work, a major gathering, which allows us at last to meet Sequin on something like her own terms. Here is the first section of the first poem in the book:

i wish of boredom an oath on never
oh! I was spoken to thus oh! thus
‘gaily love’
with gluttonous tears
‘urging for the forgiving margins’

behind a gaze of sorrow
‘nibbling at relish’
oh! I am enchanted, a captive

Exclamatory intensity is one of her central registers. The Sequin ‘oh!’ – like the Sequin ‘ugh’ – is, by itself, enough cause for recognition and celebration. She speaks the same English as Mina Loy. Every stanza stages a linguistic skirmish, where outbursts are tested and reactions recorded. Everything wheels around a delicate music and architecture. It’s as if each stanza has an alphabetic key: stanza one is in o, stanza two is in g, and stanza three is in i. There’s plenty of space for the reader to move around and listen for echoes and slips. The ‘gluttonous tears’ are so nearly glutinous, like rice, for ‘nibbling at relish’. And maybe what we hear is the nib of a pen, working between the ‘forgiving margins’ of poetry. Elsewhere she writes with disdain of ‘clickity-clack’ poets. Her work is all scratch and glide.

SEQUIN WAS BORN in the Cyclades, a cluster of islands south of mainland Greece, in 1940. She was an infant in Athens under Nazi occupation, and a child during the civil war. She left in 1958, travelling first to Germany and then to Italy and France. The air around her English hums with these other languages, like petrol in water, opalescent. Though her poems are often playful, they’re also saturated with violence and histories of violence. This includes both personal injury and the bloody conflicts and follies of empire. The ‘cyprian quartets’ collected here seem to have been written between the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July 1974 through to Kofi Annan’s plan for reunification in the early 2000s. There are brief references in other poems to the war in Ireland (‘shrouds of trojan Ulster’) and to more recent mass displacement, including Mediterranean crossings and migrant camps on Lesbos. Sequin writes, in an aside, of being ‘(prematurely stoic in the wake of violence)’ and she offers her reader little in the way of reassurance, get-out clause, or pathos. This aspect of her work – a cold visionary passion – reminds me of H.D., her Trilogy, though perhaps this is because H.D. wanted most of all to be a Greek poet, something Sequin clearly felt ambivalent about.

But Sequin’s neglect in England obviously has something to do with her status as a Greek woman, which placed her at an oblique to the mostly Anglocentric and homosocial British Poetry Revival of the 1970s. She writes, in a poem tellingly subtitled ‘submission’:

recalcitrant as a muzzled foreigner
whose mongrel’s sucker am i
ungrudgingly roaring in silence

not amiss – being led to stultifying safe-conduct
‘a dog not safe to touch’

She appears, for the most part, to have spurned publication and to have had little interest in submitting to magazines or publishers.

She appears, for the most part, to have spurned publication and to have had little interest in submitting to magazines or publishers. I’m reminded of something Hugh MacDiarmid says somewhere, in his usual cantankerous way: that too much of modern poetry is like being licked by a dog, all too eager and friendly and needy for approval. Not Iliassa Sequin. She preferred instead to continually revise her work, writing and rewriting, beginning again and starting over right up until her death in 2019. The book’s title Collected Complete Poems alerts us to the eccentric status of her texts. The poet’s husband, the artist Ken Sequin, holds her archive, which includes copies of her magazine appearances, every one of which is marked-up with crossings-outs and additions.

Her preferred mode was her own invention: the quintet. The majority of poems she completed are in five parts, working through brevity and combination. Although her work is punctuated by quotation, these tend to act as feint rather than allusion. She has a tendency to quote herself, with phrases recurring in slightly altered form, often many years or even decades apart. Uncanniness abounds. While the editor Anthony Howell has overseen a miraculously readable and well- presented book, literary archaeologists will yearn for a variorum.

BUT FOR NOW, there are all of Sequin’s other forms to explore: sextets and quartets, a riotous prosodion, the fragmentary ‘words on poetry’ (which promises to be aphoristic, but isn’t), and the mysterious le tableau inachevé. This latter text, subtitled a monologue / subsumed under a dialogue was, as a note explains, written on papyrus in 1964 while Sequin was at theatre school. Copies of the papyrus were distributed by Odysseas Elytis, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The text was unearthed and published without Sequin’s knowledge in Athens in 1991. A friend brought it to her attention, and she translated it into English between 2014 and 2016.

Although her other sequences have less complicated stories, Sequin’s aura is always somewhere between a letter in a bottle and an intricate artefact, an Aegean treasure hauled up in a fishermen’s net. Her poetics of buoyancy and submergence comes to an impasse in her long poem on the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000. Sequin overlays the names of real sailors with a mythic cast of betrayed and abandoned literary women, including ‘orphic ophelia’, ‘mutilated nausicaa’, ‘nuclear persephone’, and ‘nuclear juliet’. My sense is that the poem suffers under the compression, the ambition turning claustrophobic. But, to quote Ashbery a second time, perhaps my doubt is in the poem itself, part of ‘the vulnerability which makes it possible to love the work.’2 The great ideas overflow, and though Sequin can be difficult, beguiling, and wilfully obscure, her art is wholly original and never dull.

There is a great deal of humour and surprise. Several poems take up from Pindar, swapping out Ergoteles of Himera (et al.) for unlikely characters: the snooker player Alex Higgins gets a whole ode to himself; Manchester United (‘made in the image of god’) brush shoulders with Pelé; and there’s horse- racing, boxing, and plenty of cricket. Besides the classical inheritance, I wonder if Sequin was interested in sport because the rules of play are agreed in advance, and much of it is there on the surface. Her poems, beyond the quintet/quartet/sextet divisions, tend to keep their inner workings secret. But taken as a whole, her art is more like a pitch invasion. Pairs of characters – Titania and Oberon, Orpheus and Eurydice, Punch and Judy – lose each other in the crowd, chase each other from poem to poem. In my favourite moment of the condensation of ancient and modern, I’m pretty sure Sequin alludes to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure:

contemptuously air guitar playing
launched into derision

There are many other great moments of audacity and theatrics. I put an exclamation mark in the margins next to ‘sensually balled off limits / in thespian disguise (as if I care a heavenly damn)’, and found myself dumbly mouthing ‘orphic to the point of insanity / I staked my life on a pair of dreams’ long after I closed the book.

If she’s stoic in the wake of violence, she’s also capable of beautiful clarity. She writes early on of being ‘edged in sleety tenderness’, and later of ‘the summer’s shaken complicity’. These moments are rare. Her tenderness is more usually like the image of exhausted boxers holding each other up so the fight can go another round. Though her politics are frequently inscrutable, she is unquestionably a wronged woman in a long line of wronged women. In addition of those already mentioned, Philomela and St Cecilia are also recurrent, bitter links in the mythic chain that ties song and music to gendered and sexual violence. The commitment to justice and the desire for vengeance seem finally to be entrusted to the fates and the furies. The last line in the book, attributed to Callimachus, is the fragment ‘i sing nothing that had not its witness’.

This short review can only really gesture towards the full extent. I haven’t touched on her interest in music (Xenakis, Maria Callas, the rebetiko singer Sotiria Bellou…), or her references to film, especially in the ‘two cinema sextets’. Nor have I mentioned her many references to visual art, particularly the work of Richard Dadd. In the ‘gas black’ sequence she seems to duet with Ken Sequin’s paints (‘monastral blue half credible’), a kind of loving and playful collaboration. But I want to end with a section of her early quintet for Paul Celan.3

It alludes to his 1963 volume Die Niemandsrose (‘No-man’s rose’):

whether the niemandrose bears witness to a winter flower
open, in silent blossom

or whether it has disbudded the riot of language
nevertheless, glowing amok, in it i read myself

Ever mysterious, the poem teems with possible meanings. Is Sequin the ‘silent blossom’ beside Celan’s rose? Would ‘disbudding’ the riot of language be an act of inhibition or encouragement? In a later poem for André du Bouchet – part of the constellation of poets around L’Éphémère journal in Paris, where Sequin’s earliest work was translated and published – she describes ‘sun-slaughtered blossoms’.4 The names of the great swirl around her. What unfolds from Sequin’s work is another set of co-ordinates: she is her own centre of gravity, she has her own magnetism. She may have stayed in the shade, roaring in silence and glowing amok, but the Collected Complete Poems brings so much into the light. Now it’s our turn to read it. Viva – make that ζήτω! – Iliassa Sequin.

Luke Roberts is recently the author of Landscaping Under Duress (Cambridge: Equipage, 2021) and Glacial Decoys (Boise, ID: Free Poetry, 2021). His critical work includes Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of Post-War British Poetry: Seditious Things (London: Palgrave, 2017). He lives in London.


  1. John Ashbery, ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (Manchester: Carcanet, 1989), 389-95
  2. Ashbery, Ibid.
  3. Sequin wrote at least one other poem for Celan, which remains uncollected. See ‘to Paul Celan’ in Un Poco Loco (September 1979). Her ‘Love Quintet 2’ was published in the special Celan memorial issue of La Revue de Belles-Lettres (1972).
  4. Sequin’s translation of du Bouchet’s 1974 text La Couleur has yet to be published. André du Bouchet’s translation of her ‘Words on Poetry’ was published in L’Ire des Vents, Nos. 6-8, (1982-83), and was republished along with his translation of ‘Love Quintet’ in La Treizième, No. 8 (2001) An earlier translation of ‘Love Quintet’, by Philippe Jacottet, was published in L’Éphémère, No. 17 (1971).
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