A Diasporic Journey: Greek-Australian Poetry in Bilingual and English Publications

By | 1 August 2012

It was his way of writing about the past. His autobiographical piece titled ‘The Distant Present’ published in 1984 (Island Magazine 18/19) provides an explanation: ‘There hovered in the background demanding, insistent, resentful, the old forsaken world, haunting an ever-deepening perspective, forcing comparisons, providing standards, offering wisdom.’

Geographical and cultural dislocation of the self forms the basis of this poet’s work. Despite the fact that in the last 20 years or so he has been writing a plethora of poems in the English language, and not directly connected to the theme of a ‘home’ elsewhere, the experience of exile most certainly continues to inform and shape his work. And it is this very characteristic of Tsaloumas’ poetry that Australian critic Judith Rodriguez found early on to be the most interesting and valuable aspect in his work. In Dimitris Tsaloumas: a voluntary exile, she writes: ‘A Greek poet must come to terms with his past and his present … Maybe this (Tsaloumas’) is the generation in which the anatomy of past and present can be better appreciated in our arts.’

The deep loss felt throughout his work is not of the melodramatic kind. He fights a nostalgic construction of the past through an extensive use of irony, a tool which checks any excessive sentimentality that the characters and speakers in his poems may be feeling. Even in his earlier poems, as the following example indicates, while there may at first be a recollection of an idyllic island life, it is subsequently deflated by the ironic last three lines:


In the middle of my brain, in the yard, a plum-tree
stands, open in bloom like an April window. 
A yellow-beaked blackbird, jacket collar up,
swings on the Easter-vigil bough.
The colour on the flagstones in blossom.
With the books heaped on the floor
and winter jobs unfinished, I think again of seas,
of island neighbourhoods, of corn patched hills.

(The Book of Epigrams, p. 179)

Or he employs various personas, rendering his poetry polyphonic and multifarious. Through the persona of the ‘hypochondriac’ in the poem below, the poet reflects on the exilic condition:

The poets who, singing in bygone ages,
extolled immortal love, and the prophets
who heard God’s voice from the scaffoldings
of the world, never knew the depression that is ours
who, locked up the whole day,
study the woodworm in the cavities of time.

(‘Observations of a Hypochondriac 10’, The Observatory)

The sense of loss, so profoundly expressed in most of his poems, is also redemptive. As Jena Woodhouse observes in Dimitris Tsaloumas: a voluntary exile: ‘While the realisation of loss may seem complete and final [in Tsaloumas’ poems], it is precisely in what is redeemed from time by memory that one of Tsaloumas’ major strengths as a poet lies … In his poetry, memory is not something hampered by nostalgia but an active, vital, shaping force.’ The poem below illustrates this point vividly:

‘Eighth Poem’

A small marble-wind of March
goose-pimpling the softest flesh
past barriers of yielding

From so many spring-cleanings
a minimum of rescued things,
a sprig of green smile and
chamomile sleep of old men
in pine wood sanatoria –
minimal comfort
in the austere azure of your eyes
the sterile sky.

(‘A Rhapsody of Old Men’, The Observatory)

Distance, clarity and wisdom are often words used by critics when referring to Tsaloumas’ poetry. If – according to the ancients – wisdom comes after much suffering, then Matt Simpson speaks of wisdom in Tsaloumas as possessing an eye which is, in turns ‘compassionate, tearful … sometimes searing with pain … Always it is a living human eye, one educated by suffering …’ (ibid.) The following poem ‘Conflict’ exemplifies Tsaloumas’ ability to express, in artistic terms, the ‘… sense of separation from the source of one’s very being’ – to use the poet’s own words.


Strange that in the native heart
of this unending summer
there should be another land,
and that this land should abide
where the mind fades
into a greyness,
like the monstrous continents
of antique maps with plants
and beasts unseen before
in the worn margins of the parchment.

Often this land moves out
of that far vagueness
into the light, precise and sharp,
to claim dominion
over these regions of older truth.
And then the day divides in strife,
and broken marbles,
split mirror ikons, shift around
seeking perfection.

Like a judge in fair detachment
I sit to match them as I can
and probe the ways of arbitration. 
But long before the session ends
the continent begins to drift
back into greyness,
leaving the heart of summer to beat
in a void of absence.

(The Barge, p. 32)
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