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

By | 1 August 2012

‘A spiritual journey’ is how Sydney academic Vrasidas Karalis has described the poetry collection Triptych which Yota Krili – a compatriot of Amanatides – has written. It is her only published collection, a dense volume which consists of three groups of poems, reminiscent of the Byzantine tradition and the triadic form. An epigraph, chosen by the poet for the second group of poems titled ‘Memories’, reads: ‘Let us not allow the dead to be killed.’ This epigraph poignantly indicates the poet’s sense of obligation to resurrect the past and to honour it by immortalising it. Her writing is a process of remembering through language, images and experience. Her personal memory of people, places and events in her native Arcadia, in the Peloponnese, ultimately translates into cultural memory of a long gone rural life in Greece.

In a long poem titled ‘The Seasons’, Krili does more for rural women through her powerful and striking images than she would through verbose protestations about women’s hard life in rural societies: ‘Women carrying huge loads of hay/on their backs, moved like giant tortoises’(p. 92).

On the other hand, far from being gloomy about the struggle of these women, Krili also depicts the rural woman in a positive light as provider of sustenance, creating a universal human experience. The images of the ‘mother’ sensitively reconstructed in some of the poems attest to this. Here is a brief example:

‘The Gardener’

When the swallows returned
she would work and rework the moist soil
of the garden into a fine texture
and lay each seed like a baby in its crib
whispering magic spells.

In this poem about her mother, as in ‘The Seasons’ and many other poems in Triptych, Krili makes vital connections with the homeland and its rural past. This is not, however, nostalgia for some idyllic past. Rather, these poems are a poetic evocation, a hymn and a tribute to the life of women in earlier times. These women are omnipresent in our lives today through memory. From the ‘living archive of cultural memories,’ (Introduction in Triptych) Krili validates the experiences of her mother’s generation; she reconnects past and present, and urban dwellers with rural – an element missing in many younger writers who are often eager to see modernity as an erasure of the past.

Of the poets mentioned so far, Antigone Kefala is the only one who started publishing her poetry in the English language. As mentioned above, Kefala arrived as an adolescent and received most of her education in English. Her first collection, The Alien, appeared in 1973, its title suggesting foreignness. Together with the subsequent collection in 1978 titled Thirsty Weather, Kefala was entering the Australian literary scene as an outsider but with a voice that demanded to be heard:

To find our measure, exactly, 
Not the echo of other voices.

(Thirsty Weather, p. 8)

Kefala’s writing is about ‘journeys, revealing constant shifts in time and place.’ The time she spent with her family in Greece, in the late forties, as refugees before migrating to New Zealand, was a traumatic one that was to shape the rest of her life.

We waited there two summers.
Tall birds with upturned beaks
picked us like grain.
We moved in herds
waited with patience to be fed
drank at the water places
between the walls our necks grew longer
stretching for the light.

(Thirsty Weather, p. 13)

Underpinning Kefala’s writing is the fear that the past will be obliterated if she doesn’t tell her story. So her work becomes a bridge maker, connecting past and present. Memory is the vital tool in keeping the past alive. The speaker in the poems relies on memory for sustenance, for making the connections with the past. Where the speaker lives, there are no reminders of the past back in Europe. The fear of memory loss is expressed most evocatively in the following poem:

‘Coming Home’

What if
getting out of the bus
in these abandoned suburbs
pale under the street lights,
what if, as we stepped down
we forgot who we are
became lost in this absence
emptied of memory
we, the only witness of ourselves
before whom
shall the drama be enacted?

(Absence, p. 86)

To conclude, as is illustrated by the five poets examined in this article, the past is imaginatively constructed and redeemed for us. Kevin Hart’s comments below, taken from his review of Kefala’s book of poems, Absence, seem to capture the essence not just of Kefala’s poems, but also of all five poets in this article:

It is an old truth: inspiration requires absence rather than presence. Only when something is far away, or no longer exists, does it press upon the imagination and truly belong to the writer … not even the most elated of poems can wholly disguise the fact that it is a labour of mourning.

Kevin Hart on Absence (The Age, 28/11/92)

Dimitris Tsaloumas’ last two lines in his poem ‘Consolation’ encapsulate the above sentiment aptly:

Yet to have held something in your hands
is worth the bitterness of losing it.

(The Observatory, p. 161)
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.