Vrasidas Karalis reviews Southern Sun, Aegean Light

South­ern Sun, Aegean Light:

Poetry by Second-Generation Greek-Australians

Edited by N. N. Trakakis  

Arca­dia: Aus­tralian Schol­arly Pub­lish­ing, 2011, 317p

ISBN 9781921875120


Almost twenty five years after the last anthol­ogy of Greek Aus­tralian Poetry, Nick Trakakis’ recent pub­li­ca­tion comes to cover a con­sid­er­able gap in the bib­li­og­ra­phy and at the same time in our under­stand­ing of how “Greek-Australian” poetry has evolved in a quar­ter of a cen­tury. Trakakis’ book is an impres­sive selec­tion from young and not so young poets who either cel­e­brate their ori­gins or seem puz­zled by their hyphen­ated iden­tity. Trakakis stresses that “as edi­tor, I was not in search for a Greek-Australian poetry (what­ever that is) but only for poems by Greek-Australians” (p. xv). The state­ment itself shows the scope and the per­spec­tive of the volume.

Thirty five poets are selected—most of them writ­ing in Eng­lish. In the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion the poems of S.S. Charkianakis, all writ­ten in Greek, not only cel­e­brated the exis­ten­tial eupho­ria of being Greek in the Antipodes but in his best work, the Delir­ium of the South (1988) for exam­ple, Charkianakis encap­su­lated the new fris­son with which the Aus­tralian expe­ri­ence had infused Greek lan­guage. The poetry of Dim­itris Tsa­loumas on the other hand with its border-crossing bilin­gual­ism estab­lished the poet­ics of hybrid­ity that we see now per­me­at­ing the new poets in this book. Most of the poets in this col­lec­tion seem to be the chil­dren of these two found­ing fathers.

The sub­ti­tle ‘sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Greek-Australian” is another deci­sive marker in order to under­stand the scope of the anthol­ogy. Trakakis notes that the most com­mon expe­ri­ence in second-generation, “or per­haps mal­ady”, is an inten­si­fied dichotomy about belong­ing; this feel­ing framed the “dual nature of the second-generation” as he men­tions and gave the title to the book: “born and nur­tured under south­ern skies, we nonethe­less grav­i­tate towards the light of the Aegean” (p. xvii).

The reader of the poems is indeed impressed by the diverse tonal­i­ties in their poetic voice, the poly­mor­phous lin­guis­tic expe­ri­ences, indeed the com­pletely new poetic abode expressed now in Eng­lish. It seems that this gen­er­a­tion, fully edu­cated and formed in Aus­tralia, finds fear­lessly and pas­sion­ately its poetic home in the lan­guage of Ken­neth Slessor, Les Mur­ray and Judith Wright. They feel so much at home in their lan­guage as mush so as to take lib­er­ties with its poten­tial­i­ties, to recre­ate its rhyth­mic pat­terns, and to rein­vent its musi­cal patterns.

I feel that most poems main­tain a strong sense of oral­ity: the poems of George Alexan­der, George Athana­siou, Phillip Con­stan, Kate­rina Cos­grove, Komni­nos Zer­vos and Angela Costi are texts to be read aloud, indeed to be drama­tised. A very strong per­for­ma­tive ele­ment per­me­ates their lan­guage, ask­ing for its musi­cal orches­tra­tion and cor­po­real expres­sion. In other occa­sions, the poems are heavy with ref­er­ences, puns and exper­i­ments indi­cat­ing a com­plex and some­how tense rela­tion­ship with lin­guis­tic artic­u­la­tion. Anna Cuani’s poems for exam­ple frame almost a tragic vision of an adven­tur­ous tran­scul­tur­al­ity. Peter Lyssi­o­tis’ ellip­ti­cal verses also frame an inno­v­a­tive rela­tion­ship with Eng­lish based on nuances, silences and omissions.

The same but from another per­spec­tive can be said about Tom Petsi­nis’ work: his poems artic­u­late a pro­found exis­ten­tial vision about human expe­ri­ence that tran­scends national des­ig­na­tions: “It’s time, leave your soli­tary work, /stop tap­ping syl­la­bles on your forehead./ Remem­ber, the let­ter conceals,/ and images are worth­less forg­eries of God.” (p. 253) M.G. Michael’s poems also come from another way of being: their epi­gram­matic and seman­ti­cally charged verses con­struct a new gaze over human home­less­ness through the per­spec­tive of eter­nity: “he was marooned/ on a large white tear/ sink­ing fast–/ all the while pray­ing /for a passing/ isle of drift­wood” (p. 231).  Nick Trakakis’ poems mean­while ver­balise the shiv­er­ing of human mind in front of the mys­terium fasci­nans—the mys­tery of awe-inspiring oth­er­ness: “Do rela­tion­ships ever die/ or do they merely fade to grey/ los­ing their colour/ their vibrant glow and fervor/ refus­ing nev­er­the­less to let go/ hang­ing on to the last breath/ wait­ing in half-lit sub­ter­ranean caverns/ com­pletely hid­den from passers-by/ ven­tur­ing every so often/ to emerge unexpectedly/ shockingly/ in that verb you inflected in a way you didn’t recognise/ in that feel­ing of remorse that was never yours/ in that truth­ful answer you would never have given/ in the morn­ing smile that doesn’t belong to you.” (p. 288). Also poems by Georgina Crysan­topou­los, Melissa Petrakis, Rachael Petridis Chrisoula Simos, Helena Spy­rou, Vas­sili Stavropou­los, Vicky Tsakonas and Panayiota Vertkas express in diverse ways and from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives the lib­er­at­ing feel­ing of being at home within the Eng­lish lan­guage. The feel­ing is extremely poignant, as Rachael Petridis writes: “Fam­ily is lan­guage” (p.244)—or maybe the other way around?

We must also point out the har­monic archi­tec­ture of Tina Gian­noukos’ Son­nets, the trau­ma­tised sen­si­bil­ity in Andrea Dimitriou’s verses, the ago­nis­tic assertive­ness in Koraly Dim­i­tri­adis’ poems and the emo­tional den­sity in Kon­stan­d­ina Dou­nis’ words. They all show that the old sen­ti­men­tal pletho­rism char­ac­ter­is­tic of first gen­er­a­tion writ­ers has been replaced by a bal­anced com­mand of lan­guage, a sym­met­ri­cal expres­sion of feel­ing and the sense of a strong per­sonal pres­ence that can­not be refuted or over­looked. In Dou­nis’ poems, beyond the theme itself, the reader can feel the most cen­tral ele­ment of Greek poet­ics: the explo­ration of the phe­nom­e­nal­ity of light: “the sound of the dice/ falling rhythmically/ onto the mar­ble board/ tempt­ing strawberries/ lan­guish­ing volup­tuously / in porce­lain bowl/ north­ern haze/ envelop­ing par­tial view/ through con­crete mantle/ golden walls fram­ing / fate­ful players/ within their iri­des­cent glow.” (p. 110). And if a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion could be made about such a diver­sity of voices and poet­ics, the explo­ration of the enchant­ment with lumi­nos­ity inter­twined with the poets’ entan­gle­ment in the labyrinth of con­tem­po­rary ambi­gu­i­ties expresses the cen­tral axis of most works included in this anthology.

Other poets expe­ri­ence a pro­found nos­tal­gia for a long-long past not nec­es­sar­ily in Greece; the dream-like pho­tographs of Eve­lyn Dounis-Hambros and the anger in Luka Haralambou’s words express the wide range of emo­tional re-enactment of those painful mem­o­ries. Zeni Giles’ tran­quil med­i­ta­tion on death and Luka Haralambou’s poetic revi­sion­ism of his­tory frame an inter­est­ing polar­ity between gen­er­a­tions and idio­syn­cra­cies. Nicholas Kyr­i­a­cos’ sen­si­tive depic­tion of ephemer­al­ity and Adam Hatz­i­mano­lis’ ham­let­ian solil­o­quies also express cre­ative exper­i­ments with lan­guage whereas Efi Haz­ti­mano­lis’ serene sub­tlety frames a pro­foundly pri­vate vision of being.

Spe­cial cases amongst the poets anthol­o­gised are Dean Kalimniou and Chris­tos Galiotos. Kalumniou’s writes in Greek and his min­i­mal­istc ver­si­fi­ca­tion stretches lan­guage to its lim­its; it seems that his verses are con­fronting the inef­fa­ble and strug­gle to frame some­thing that lan­guage evades and hides. Galiotos’ poems in both lan­guages indi­cate the dichotomy of the poet express­ing feel­ings of been “Greek” through Eng­lish words. As Komni­nos Zer­vos put it in 1990: “nobody calls me a wog anymore/ i’m respected as an aus­tralian / an aus­tralian writer/ a poet.” (p. 304) Nev­er­the­less sev­eral years later he will revisit the ques­tion: “look! up in the sky. / it’s a bird. it’s a plane./ no…it’s SUPERWOG […] “…who/ dis­guised as con pappas,/  mild man­nered fish mon­ger at a great met­ro­pol­i­tan ship­ping complex/ fights a never end­ing bat­tle against macdonalds,/ Ken­tucky fry chicken, and the amer­i­can take away.” (p. 312) Obvi­ously the tran­si­tion from the sim­ple to the super must have marked the real dif­fer­ence in poetic iden­tity over the last thirty years.

By all means not all poems are of the same quality—but it seems that there is a dis­tinct progress from the end­less quan­ti­ties of poems writ­ten in the pre­vi­ous decades. The works included in this anthol­ogy are pri­mar­ily works of poetry and sec­on­dar­ily hyphenated/Greek-Australian lit­er­a­ture. First of all they are pure poems and only after­wards poems belong­ing to a spe­cific tra­di­tion or form­ing a spe­cial group. Con­se­quently they all frame not only the pro­found emo­tion of self-recognition and self-assertiveness but at the same time impose upon their read­ers the ethics of transper­sonal accep­tance beyond dom­i­nant per­cep­tions of dif­fer­ence and alter­ity. Indeed a dis­tinct aspect of these works is their ele­men­tal sim­i­lar­ity with par­al­lel cases in the dom­i­nant Aus­tralian literature—a sim­i­lar­ity, with Ital­ian or Pol­ish Aus­tralians for exam­ple, that needs to be explored and analysed; only then we will be able to realise that these poets are Greek-Australian poets indeed but their gen­uine space can be found within the het­ero­ge­neous tra­di­tion of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture, as long as we still accept national lit­er­a­ture as a valid con­cep­tual framework.

Fur­ther­more, the main char­ac­ter­is­tic of the anthol­ogy is that it is con­sisted of poems writ­ten after reflec­tion and med­i­ta­tion. They are not any more char­ac­terised by the art­less spon­tane­ity of most works writ­ten in the six­ties and sev­en­ties; they are not ele­gies to a lost vil­lage or a dis­tant moth­er­land, heav­ily ide­alised and mostly expressed through the nos­tal­gia of loss and the trauma of dis­place­ment. Most poets look around their imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment: they expe­ri­ence the urban and rural land­scape of Aus­tralia as their per­sonal exis­ten­tial real­ity. The Aegean light is an inter­nalised force: it illu­mines their gaze as they search around their neigh­bour­hood and through­out their very inti­mate habi­tat. There is a strange absence of sen­su­al­ity indeed of sex­u­al­ity in most verses (the pres­ence of which char­ac­terises the best poetry in Greece of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury). What most poets have adopted from Greek poetic cul­ture is a sense of his­tory; through such his­tori­cism they define them­selves and their sen­si­bil­ity. Reli­gion is also strong, not so much as spir­i­tu­al­ity but as an off­spring of the Ortho­dox litur­gi­cal tra­di­tion, mainly to be pre­cise as rit­ual lan­guage and less as spir­i­tual quest. We must also stress the absence of the tragic as an exis­ten­tial dimen­sion in the poems: emo­tional lyri­cism is prob­a­bly the real poetic space where they emerge from.  Judith Rodriguez in her insight­ful pref­ace notes that: “Greek-Australian poets engage the huge prob­lem: where is home, if the entire world is acces­si­ble? How do we know it, become its peo­ple and find and keep the tra­di­tions of leave-taking and home-coming?” (p. xii).

Indeed that’s the ulti­mate dilemma for the poets in this anthol­ogy: not only where they belong but where they are and expe­ri­ence them­selves. Most of them strug­gle to attune them­selves to the ten­sion they feel as they stand at the inter­sec­tion between col­lec­tive space and per­sonal tem­po­ral­ity. The poems pre­cisely frame the new poetic gaze over the self and the world as it is formed dur­ing a tran­si­tion from a mono­cul­tural tra­di­tion to the poly­cen­tric open­ness of con­tem­po­rary post­moder­nity. The poets recre­ate the extremely poly­mor­phous osmo­sis in which the Greek expe­ri­ence is man­i­fested as a dis­tinct dimen­sion of Eng­lish; or indeed their per­sonal appro­pri­a­tion of Eng­lish through the sen­si­bil­ity of their ori­gin. Prob­a­bly we need a new con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion of lit­er­a­ture not only based on lan­guage in order to be able to appre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tion of these poets to the renewal and the rein­vig­o­ra­tion of Aus­tralian poetic experience.

This ele­gant, well-designed and beau­ti­ful pub­li­ca­tion estab­lishes a new prob­lem­atic about poetic lan­guage, belong­ing and mem­ory. It deserves closer study and Mr Trakakis our admiration.


Pro­fes­sor Vrasi­das Kar­alis is the Chair of the Depart­ment of Mod­ern Greek Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.  His research has been in Mod­ern Greek, Byzan­tine, Cul­tural Stud­ies and more recently New Tes­ta­ment Stud­ies. He has trans­lated Patrick White’s nov­els into Greek (Voss, The Vivi­sec­tor, A Cheery Soul).