Islands by Robert Zaller

Reviewed by Kostas Myrsiades



In this 75 page collection of 48 mostly epigrammatic poems by Robert Zaller the Greek islands come to life as the poet contemplates the ebb and flow of time while painting in words the patterns the Aegean Sea creates on the broad canvas of its universe.


One day an island crawled up from the sea

sucked and folded on itself

licked itself clean

crouched on the horizon

tawny as Rousseau’s desert lion.


This is the story of islands.

They mutter darkly at night

and leap joyfully as dolphins

at daybreak.

(The Story of Islands)


Throughout these finely crafted poems, the poet marvels at an anthropomorphic sea (“The sea wears these islands / like a bone bracelet” [Prophets Go Mad]) chiseling its architecture on the monoliths that emerge from its depths to form the Greek islands that  the reader observes strewn over the Aegean’s vast tapestry of blue. Once born these islands take on a life of their own emerging like an Aphrodite out of the sea’s depths, leaping like dolphins in a vast play yard of sun and light (“A surf of hills / makes its lunge / /against a wilder blue” [Keros]), and basking in a playful glimmering sea, changing shapes like shape shifters in the ever-changing wind and waves that constantly caress them.


Dawn. The first cast of silver

on the bare blue shield

the islands rough-shouldering

themselves into the sky

the first gull hunting the wave

the sun’s angry eye

wetting watchfires on the sea.

Gold hastens to the rock.

It is all one chord of light

Struck from the silent gong,

Rehearsing another day.

(The Rehearsal)


At other times the voyager/reader is confronted by menacing waves beating these islands mercifully while the sun’s rays whip them with fire. The entire universe in this body of work becomes an immense canvas of light and air on which these islands are constantly arranged and rearranged in ever changing shapes, colors, and forms as the awe struck poet contemplates the meaning of existence and relishes in the beauty and wonder of creation. The universe that the poet creates throughout these poems is one of sound, movement, and light, a universe almost devoid of people, although when the few sparse fishermen or local peasants do appear, they are integrated into the fabric of wind, rock, and waves that constitute the backbone of these islands. Everything the reader observes on these islands dotting  the Aegean like multicolored pebbles, whether they be birds, rocks, dolphins, clouds, or trees, randomly  tossed on an expanse of blue as they skip across the water creating the patterns and designs we are asked to contemplate, become part of a vast symphony of sound rising and falling, changing color, submerging into silence and reappearing out of the blue like crashing cymbals occupying time and space, beckoning us like Sirens to the depths of this celestial music, uniting us with the rocks and stones, the wind and the waves, rendering us indistinguishable from the very elements that constitute the islands themselves.


the waves come flying ashore,

marshaled by the horizon

herded by the wind.

You can hear nothing

but its roar, a thousand whips

cracked at once.

(Four Elements)


The voice of the sea is great

at night. It hurdles the dark

like a flood in the valley

and only the island’s bulk,

thin as the walls of a dream,

holds it back. Day restores

the bounded world, limned by light,

patrolled by wind. Night belongs

to the chaos of Old Ocean,

that surges through the salt veins

that branch from silence to silence,

star to star. That drowns the heavens

and spares only the rock

straining to rise, unshaken by night,

unmastered by dawn.

(The Voice of the Sea)


Like a modern Odysseus, the poet is lost on a never ending journey in search of the perfect island—his true Ithaca. But as in C.P. Cavafy’s “Ithaca,” he is not in a hurry to arrive for once there the journey will be over. Instead he hopes the journey will be long so that he can enjoy the beauty of all the islands he encounters for “They are all / perfect, but each in its own way.” From an alert Odysseus struggling to reach his destination, the poet here is mesmerized into a Lotus Eater as he drinks in the scenery that enraptures him, and in taking in this beauty, he becomes instead a Cyclops, who would rather remain a voyager forever cannibalizing on the islands that constantly appear before him,


Nisophagos ise, says Minas,

spreading his big fishcatcher’s

fingers and smiling

the slow smile of his sixty years.

You are an island eater. It’s true.

I go from one to another,

always looking for the last,

the perfect island. They are all

perfect, but each in its own way.

So I go on to the next,

and the next. One day

I’ll take the last trip

and see them all together

like fish on a string.

Until then, show them

to me one by one,

each by each.

(The Island Eater)


Islands by Rober Zaller is a beautiful collection handsomely published by Somerset Hall Press, which evokes all the feelings and emotions one encounters when sailing the Aegean with its myriad islands greeting the traveler beyond every rise and fall of an incoming wave.


Zaller, Robert. Islands. Boston: Somerset Hall Press, 2006


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Islands by Robert Zaller Reviewed by Kostas Myrsiades