Helen of Troy and Other Poems by Dimitris Tsaloumas
University of Queensland Press, 2007
In a recent article titled 'Only Pinter remains to question authority', English literary theorist and thinker Terry Eagleton bemoans the decline of politically-engaged writing in English. He criticises, among others, the once radical, now conservative migrant writers like V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie who, after an initial period of producing exciting work, have become 'more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of their place of refuge'. A similar observation, unfortunately, can be made of the latest volume by Australia's best-known migrant poet, Dimitris Tsaloumas.
The only non-Anglo-Celtic poet to have received both the National Book Council Award and the Patrick White Award, Tsaloumas's bilingual 1983 collection, The Observatory, can perhaps be credited with launching multiculturalism in Australian poetry. Although not ostensibly revolutionary in either form or content, The Observatory was in many ways the first refutation of the policy of assimilation in the field of published poetry. His was a book – released by Australia's (at the time) leading publisher of poetry, University of Queensland Press – that not only challenged the hegemony of English language by including the Greek texts of all of the poems, but also depicted an Australian author's unashamedly and, for the time, daringly non-Anglo-Celtic cultural and artistic heritage.
After this auspicious entry into the milieu of Australian literature, however, Tsaloumas seems to have settled all too comfortably into his position as the sole non-Anglo-Celtic name in the elite anthologies of contemporary Australian verse. Over the decades his poetry has also lost much of its richness and sophistication, to the point that his latest collection, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, displays the same chauvinism and 'old age conservatism' that one would find in work by many 'established' Australian poets of the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture. This is not to say that this volume is a complete failure, but that it is a significant disappointment, particularly since the book's title alludes to – and hence promises a poetry worthy of – the immense wealth of the poet's Greek universe.
Tsaloumas is not, of course, the first modern poet to have been fascinated by the myth and pathos of Helen of Troy, one of the most controversial figures of ancient mythology. As the American modernist H.D. so brilliantly – and perplexingly – argued in her Helen in Egypt, the legendary adulteress's is one of the most misunderstood, and most debatable, of the founding narratives of Western patriarchy. Tsaloumas's Helen, on the other hand, as portrayed in his collection's title poem, is a routine rendition; a spoilt, beautiful princess who:
…lived in great luxury, content
with her handsome Prince,
if somewhat bored with all the fuss
and death beneath the walls.
More Paris Hilton than postmodernist revision, Tsaloumas's Helen is entirely responsible for the horrific siege of Troy, due to her feminine vanity. According to Tsaloumas, Helen has instigated the brutal conflict so that her 'beauty might be remembered sung/to the conclusion of time'. Even more clich?¬©d is one of Tsaloumas's other re-tellings of myth, 'Apollo and Daphne'. The most disconcerting aspect of this poem – other than its redundancy in merely repeating Ovid's version – is its callous narration of what is, after all, the tale of a young woman's flight from rape and sexual violence. Finally cornered by the predatory Apollo, 'the lovely nymph' has herself magically and mysteriously turned into a laurel tree. This suggestive and indeed poetic metamorphosis, however, registers no interest in the poet who decides to focus instead on the male aggressor's urge for sexual satisfaction:
Ah the frustration of it,
the bitter disappointment,
the parched up mouth and throat!
No doubt he found consolation
The poem ends with a celebration of the absolute objectification of the female, her becoming a commodity for use by, mostly, men; 'a tree of shiny leaves/which crown poets since and heroes,/ and flavour our pilaf, or lentil soup'. The woman, this poem seems to be arguing, must be of use: if she refuses to provide sexual 'consolation' for men, then she must provide them with clothing and food.
While this reading of Tsaloumas's treatment of Greco-Roman mythology may seem too gender-conscious, and hence unnecessarily ungenerous, many other pieces in this collection leave no doubt regarding the poems' reactionary values. 'Revolution', for example, begins with a suitably flat and detached tone that convincingly conveys the brutality of revolutionary terror:
Despite the enlistment of
the rubbishmen can't cope
with the number of heads
children are encouraged
to make neat pyramids of them
The poem's opening stanzas are sufficiently evocative of the indisputable barbarities committed by such revolutionaries as Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot. But the poet's Orwellian discourse soon abandons humanism to criticise not only 'the Leader' – a tragicomic figure reminiscent of many past and present Communist despots – but to also defame and vilify anti-war demonstrators through what seems like a crass caricature of the counterculture movement:
brandishing angry flags
march in the blood-sunset light
hirsute and bayonets
'down with tyranny' etc
'make love not war' etc
This association of semi-naked, 'hirsute' women chanting hippie anthems with a violent mob, armed with bayonets, 'brandishing angry flags', is homiletic, prejudiced, and frankly ridiculous. However, such a jaundiced view of the counterculture movement is not infrequent among many of today's neo-conservatives, according to whom 'treasonous' left-wing dissidents and drug-addled youths of the 1960's cost the West and Christianity a decisive victory against 'godless' Communists in Vietnam. Tsaloumas makes his affinity with such a distinctly reactionary religious view clear at the end of his poem when, during the despised Leader's speech, suddenly:
… this dove flies in
it carries a twig in its beak
it wheels three times overhead
then dips and lands
upon the great man's head
thereon the dove shits
As far as divine interventions and symbols of Christianity go, the above dove is stock standard and entirely unoriginal. It is also disappointing that an unquestionably talented, lauded poet such as Dimitris Tsaloumas would resort to such blandness (not to mention toilet humour) in order to, it seems, grind a personal and/or ideological axe. There is nothing wrong with poets being either religious and/or right-wing; but one may reasonably expect more than the examples cited in this review from a writer who, 25 years after his groundbreaking entry into Australian literature, remains perhaps the country's most prolific and recognised migrant poet. According to Terry Eagleton, 'adulation and that creeping conservatism known as growing old' are implicit in authors' turning 'inwards and rightwards'. Here's hoping that Tsaloumas's next collection will be less so.