A Passionate, Lyrical, Desperate Voice: Antigone Kefala Remembers Dimitris Tsaloumas 1921-2015

Antigone Kefala took part in a talk at Gleebooks event, Remembering Dimitris Tsaloumas 14th May 2016 as part of a panel with Vrasidas Karalis, Ivor Indyk and Helen Nickas

Dimitris Tsaloumas with Antigone Kefala photo by Helen Nickas, originally published in Cordite

Dimitris Tsaloumas with Antigone Kefala
photo by Helen Nickas, originally published in Cordite

I met Dimitris Tsaloumas in 1978, when our friend, the painter Nikos Kypraios brought us together one evening at his home.

I remember reading Resurrection 1967 and Triptych for a Second Coming at Melbourne airport, waiting for a six o’clock flight to Sydney in a lounge room of blue plastic seats, full of business men reading the afternoon papers.Antigone Kefala

The immense surprise of discovering a writer with a fully developed style, writing in Australia for so many years, in a language that seemed both immediate and stylised, yet so much part of a Greek way of life, that provincial life presented so movingly by Angelopoulos in his Travelling Players and which I think, represents the new classicism of Greece.

Would Tsaloumas have written as he did if he had remained in Greece? How much influence had Australia in determining his style, subject matter and that strong longing of the exile that underlines his poetry?

In an interview with Wendy Morgan and Sneja Gunew in 1981, he said:

Some people in Greece say, why don’t you write about Australia? I tell them that whatever I have done is due to the fact that I am not in Greece, that I have been writing in Australia. My poetry would have been quite different up there. That I don’t refer to Australia specifically means nothing, because I refer to no particular place in my poetry, nor do I refer to any particular time. But the fact that I live here has really had a tremendous effect. For one thing, distance lends clarity to perspective, it sharpens one’s perceptions, and also heightens one’s sense of irony.

The stylistic changes between the early Resurrection 1967, published in 1974, and the Observations of a Hypochondriac are quite marked. Resurrection 1967 speaks with a passionate, lyrical, desperate voice, bitter and engaged in the heat of the market place where the fighting is being lost. With Observations of a Hypochondriac, the voice begins to distance itself. In The Sick Barber and other characters, Tsaloumas is already watching the past from afar, a static landscape full of vulnerability and youth, and in the Book of Epigrams, the tone has become resigned and ironic.

But whatever the stylistic changes, Tsaloumas’ language in Greek remains charged, yet deceptively simple.

Philip Grundy, whose translations in English were published by the University of Queensland Press in 1983, in a book titled The Observatory, speaks in the introduction of the difficulties he faced:

Some of his poems are so deeply embedded in Greek soil as to defy understanding without a profound knowledge of the native culture from which they derive. Such virtually untranslatable poems have had to be omitted.

And later:

The language of modern Greek poetry compounds the difficulty of translation. A continuous tradition over some three thousand years give to even such everyday words as sea, courtyard, olive grove, echoes and shades of meaning that English cannot reproduce. Only occasionally, as when the poetry recalls the he cried, “The sea, the sea!” will the reader hear something of those echoes.

The themes in his later English poems remain the same – the Greek landscape, the past as one of the few remaining realities, betrayal – a world that has not lived up to its promise, and anger – sometimes expressed directly, sometimes as bitter irony.

To end, I shall read a few poems, from The Observatory, UQP 1983, translated by Philip Grundy and will end with a poem by Lolo Houbein dedicated to Dimitris.

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The Comforter

So that’s how the land lies?
You’ve no idea how I hurried in this heat
with not a leaf stirring in the poplars
and my throat as dry as a bone.
It’s closed: I shut it.
Yes the window too. Don’t worry.
I’ve a good mind to put you out in the yard
so that he’ll find you there, next to the tin-can
with the jonquil, where you can see the shore
crowded with the sponge-boats back from Barbary.
All hell’s let loose at Rebelos’s place
with sponge-divers
chucking their money around by the fistful.
I can hear you. Your voice is a bit hoarse
but I can hear you. And don’t turn to the wall
and curl yourself up that way.
You’ve never been scared of war or woman
in your life. What’s got into you now?
It’s nothing – you’ll see.
He never comes with a taxman’s satchel in his hand
or in his gendarme’s uniform.
In fact, they say he’s rather gently-spoken
so perhaps he’ll just sigh a bit and say
come on, Nicholas old chap,
come on, we’re running late and ought
to cross the border before nightfall.
No matter how often you take this road
you never get used to it.
You know, he’s got his problems too.
I can see you, I can see you – 
don’t imagine I’d take my eyes off you now
you poor bugger!
And where’s that no-good son of yours?
You can bet he’ll be coming home now,
as soon as he gets the message,
to rip open the mattress.
loo, I’ll get the woman next door
to light the icon-lamp. I’ll be back,
never fear. I’ll go for a stroll on the beach
and I’ll be back.

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The Visit

After so much time
after such an age that, if it were a river,
it would flood through me
to leave me with no helmsman

after all those newspapers
books and tribulations
so money wars and such devastation
how was it, brother, that tonight
you came to remember me?

And how did you pass the trenches
the traps, the no-man’s land,
all that death
with your inept, inadequate years?

How to cope with you now, I don’t know.
I wasn’t expecting you
and I want to hide my embarrassment
and my possessions are not enough
to sweeten this bitterness.
Even speech is not much help
because our own words
are weighed down with so much difference
that they even piece the shadows
Like hot lead.

If you only knew, poor chap,
if you only knew how life rewarded us
for despising it
as though it were not our own
as though it were a house we were renting
and let it go to ruin.

Come in if you will.
sit by the window
and let us not say a word.
Nothing.
that’s where I sometimes sit
when I’ve finished my work
and brood

and the wasps come down in watersprouts
the locusts storm in clouds
and the sun flickers, brother,
like a lantern in the rising dust
as my neighbours, dim shadows
come out to beg.

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Remembering a Wise Man
Dimitri Tasloumas of Leros – died 2015
by Lol Houbein

We remember him talking passionately
while dining with minor literati
– German, Dutch, AMerican –
in that Chinese restautrant
in Hindley Street
when the festival was on.
He hardly touched the food

His intellect and the burden of Greek history
flowed like a sauce over noodles and bok choy
cramped in an old country
longing to forge a neww culture.

How forntunate he made it back
to the home island
to die at an age of completion
surrounded by relatives who’d never left.
Embraced by the choppy Icarian Sea.

 – Antigone Kefala

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Antigone Kefala is a Sydney writer who was the first Multicultural Arts Officer at the Australia Council for the Arts. Her poetry publications include Absence and a forthcoming collection, Fragments from Giramondo Publishing. Her prose works include Summer Visit: three novellas; Sydney Journals and Max: the confessions of a cat.
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