Vrasidas Karalis reviews Southern Sun, Aegean Light
Poetry by Second-Generation Greek-Australians
Edited by N. N. Trakakis
Arcadia: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011, 317p
Reviewed by VRASIDIS KARALIS
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).