Anne Germanacos’ new book “Tribute” — described as a combination essay, poem, novel and collection of aphorisms — is both spare and rich. The single bright line of its narrative follows the interior monologues of a middle-aged woman wrestling with quotidian concerns and questions of life, love, sex, loss, and personal and societal history as she struggles through the process of her beloved mother’s death.
Written as an accretion of sentence fragments in the style of the classically influenced early 20th-century poet and Freud disciple H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), “Tribute” gathers emotional momentum to become far more than the sum of its parts. It is a richly nuanced, heart-rending and fully embodied exploration of the urgency of both the physical world and the world of longing and the soul.
Germanacos will hold a book reading and conversation about “Tribute” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. The event is co-presented by The Kitchen and the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.
The author says she originally titled the book “Tribute to Freud (After H.D.: a challenge, a rivalry, a love song, a dirge)” — referring to H.D.’s fictional memoir of her experience with the psychotherapist, which Germanacos first read about five years ago. Around that time, Germanacos had returned to her native San Francisco from Greece to attend her Alzheimer’s-striken mother during her last illness, and had embarked on a journey of personal exploration by seeing a psychotherapist. These major life changes coalesced around the idea of written “tributes,” and, says Germanacos, “I wanted to write my own.”
The book takes its narrator from San Francisco to New York to Greece to Israel and the Palestinian territories. In each section the lines weave back and forth through time and through a kaleidoscope of poetic meditations.
“I came up with the sort of one-sentence paragraph pretty much intuitively,” says Germanacos. The work was “whittled down to what was most important and what sounded right to me.” As she wrote, she realized the book was becoming more musical. She began “speaking it as I was writing. Toward the end, I read it aloud over and over again as I was editing.”
Germanacos wrote the first section of “Tribute” in San Francisco, where it is set, and edited it in Greece, continuing to work on each section in the place where she found herself during its writing, and revising after she’d moved to another. She spent 38 years living and teaching in Greece, on the tiny island of Kalymnos and on Crete, alongside her husband, Nick Germanacos. The couple met when she was 18 and studying in Greece — her husband was originally her teacher.
She had returned to San Francisco to apply to Sarah Lawrence College, hoping to study with Grace Paley and E.L. Doctorow. But “Nick called and asked me to marry him. Marriage wasn’t really on my list, but I was in love with him and knew somehow that I would probably find an interesting life if I took that risk and went back to Greece.” They married when she was 21.
The two went on to run the ITHAKA Cultural Studies Program, a study-abroad experience in Greece for young Americans with her kind of wanderlust. (As it happened, neither Paley nor Doctorow ended up teaching at Sarah Lawrence the semester Germanacos would have attended.)
Today, the 56-year-old Germanacos and her husband spend most of their time in San Francisco because “two years ago, life in Greece got a little isolated.” She oversees the S.F.–based Germanacos Foundation, an offshoot of her late mother and stepfather’s Louise and Claude Rosenberg, Jr. Family Foundation.
While “Tribute” is filled with Germanacos’ profound sense of the loss of her mother, it is also a moving celebration of the beauty and power of the physical world, and of the body in particular. Agreeing that Western culture tends to create sharp separations between mind and body, Germanacos says Greece offered her “a very sensual life … where the body and the mind are fully merged,” particularly since she mostly lived in rural communities there.
“I come from the fourth generation of a San Francisco family on my father’s side,” a family that was “very separate and divorced from the ‘Old Country.’ ” Germanacos treasured the Jewish rituals that informed her paternal grandmother’s life, although her mother’s family was not immersed in Jewish tradition, she explains. “There was a coldness to life in this country. I went abroad seeking something warmer and more emotional, and I found it.”
“I think that warmer emotional life allowed me the freedom to go anywhere, deep into the mind and the body and not pulling them apart; they’re one,” Germanacos says. “And when one is most fully emotionally awake, as one is when one’s beloved parent is dying, one feels that more than ever.”
“Tribute: A Presentation by Anne Germanacos,” takes place 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4. Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www.jewishcommunitylibrary.org