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

By | 1 August 2012

While Tsaloumas came from a small island to live in a large city, Vasso Kalamaras did the opposite: she went from the centre of Athens to settle in a farmhouse in the outback in Western Australia, 500 kilometres from Perth. The surrounding landscape had a profound, almost mystical, effect on Kalamaras. The following poem reflects those early times when the poet lived on a tobacco farm, next to wild bushland.

‘Landscape and Soul’

Today it is raining,
all the paddocks in the farm are dull,
wrapped in a mystical deep silence.

The yearling calves, well fed
ruminate in quiet repose.
Enormous sculptured dreamlike figures,
the never-ending forest a black background behind them. 
Their eyes shadowed in sweet melancholy,
you would think for a moment they reflected
those worlds I keep secretly in my soul.

Moist, mythical cemeteries
where wild grasses adorn the gravestones. 
Spiders and reptiles come and go
over the years I buried so deep in there.
My tears like soft gentle rain cover all.

(The Same Light, p. 54)

While a pervasive theme of Vasso Kalamaras’ poetry from those early years is loneliness, it is not the negative kind. On the contrary, her descriptions of the landscape and the people in it (all immigrants from various countries in Southern Europe) are raised above their earthly predicaments to become ethereal.


An endless loneliness and he a speck
in the paddock that lies in the valley.

(The Same Light, p. 53)

This short poem shows the insignificance of humans against the vast and wild landscape of Western Australia. Anecdotally, the image portrayed here is the remote sight of the poet’s husband working in the fields, while she stays in the house.

Kalamaras has tried to delineate her surroundings not only in poetry, but has written and published several collections of short stories, where the same preoccupation with the vastness of the landscape and the loneliness of people prevails. On the other hand, amidst all the loneliness, love comes as an antidote. Kalamaras has written many love poems, which reflect her love for her husband and by extension, also the love for country (native and adopted). Seeing him doing backbreaking work in the tobacco fields was most distressing to her. Her husband, who was an artist, later became an Art lecturer in Perth. On the tobacco farm, they expended ten years of their young lives.


Such strength and pleasure
at your lips warm verge
I taste,
that, soul unsated,
I drink on and on ...
How much I love you, and how much I long
to throw about your neck my avid arms,
making our two hearts one;
to bend, to kiss, and kissing to find death.

(Twenty Two Poems, p. 41)

Like Kalamaras, another writer who has also written many love poems for her husband – and country – is Dina Amanatides. She arrived and settled in Melbourne in 1958. Having witnessed the worst side of humanity with the German Occupation and the Civil War in Greece, she arrived in Australia with many traumas that never healed. She held on to her language like a lifejacket, never writing a single poem in English. For almost six decades after her arrival in Australia, she wrote endlessly. Thousands of her poems were published in Greek collections. And at last, in 2011, a selection of her poems from all those decades were translated into English by Konstandina Dounis – a poet, academic and translator who belongs to the second generation, and has a deep respect for the suffering her parents’ generation endured. In a way, the English translations are a tribute to that first generation.

Above all, Amanatides is renowned for her short poems, or ‘scattered thoughts’ as she calls them. However, these are no mere scattered thoughts, but the distillation of deep thought and reflection. For example, the whole immigrant experience has been captured perfectly in two lines:

The bread of exile is bitter
Yet it nourishes us.

(Dreams of Clay Drops of Dew, p. 62)

Amanatides can also cut to the core in her longer poems. Her closing lines can be extremely potent, as in the poem below (my italics).

‘The Hot Wind of Assimilation’

My friend, here in the Antipodes
the indolent summer comes late.

Cocooned in the memories of youth
we have remained faithful to our nostalgia
for our homeland. 

Remembering Greece’s
sweet smelling fruit and her hot sun
chills our winters even more. 

Memory is a knife that cuts.
(Dreams of Clay Drops of Dew, p. 151)

Her several poems to her dead mother are renowned for their sensitivity and aching love for a mother lost much too early.

‘Message for my Mother’

I have not forgotten you
but even if I come
you won’t be standing at the front door
waiting for me
and that is why I cannot bear the thought
of return.

(Dreams of Clay Drops of Dew, p. 67)
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