Nathanael O’Reilly Reviews Angela Costi and Dimitris Tsaloumas

By | 1 May 2015

The sequence of fourteen poems comprising Tsaloumas’s chapbook A Winter Journey (also part of Owl Publishing’s chapbook series) were first published in Helen of Troy and Other Poems (UQP, 2007). A Winter Journey contains an introduction by publisher Helen Nickas, in which she notes that Tsaloumas originally composed the poems in English and recently translated them into Greek. The Greek translations or ‘re-writings’ of the English versions of the poems are published for the first time in the chapbook alongside the English originals. Unfortunately, I do not read Greek, and thus cannot comment on any differences between the English and Greek versions of the poems, other than to note that sometimes the stanzas in the Greek versions are longer or shorter than the stanzas in the English versions, and thus the overall lengths of the two versions of each poem are not always identical. However, I imagine that reading Tsaloumas’s collection would be an even more rewarding experience for readers fluent in both languages than for those who only read one or the other.

The fourteen poems in A Winter Journey are all short lyric poems, ranging in length from eleven to nineteen lines. Tsaloumas divides all fourteen of the poems into stanzas, but uses a variety of stanza lengths, ranging from one to six lines. An examination of the structure of the poems reveals a surprising range of organisational strategies, especially for a sequence of poems that each fit onto a single page and would upon first glance seem quite similar, structurally. Tsaloumas uses the first person voice in ten of the fourteen poems, but even when the poet uses the second or third person voice the perspective of the speaker is limited and personal. Tsaloumas’s subject matter includes travel, winter, the passing of time, hope, the search for meaning, and nature. In the opening poem, ‘The Call’, the speaker declares ‘I’ve come to this place / against my will / summoned by unknown spirits’, and later in the poem states, ‘I wait / cradle my head / elbows on the boards / of this rough table’. The idea of a vigil pervades the poems; however, in ‘Wolves’, the speaker claims to ‘see no point in this vigil / despite its eternity’. Tsaloumas’s speaker constantly waits throughout these poems, but it seems that neither they nor the reader can really know what for. Tsaloumas’s speaker may not have achieved Keats’ state of negative capability, yet the lack of clear answers does not irritate. Rather, Tsaloumas imbues the poems with a tantalising aura of mystery.

Tsaloumas possesses the gift of succinctly conveying sights, sounds and smells in a beautiful and memorable manner. ‘Hallucination’ contains some of the collection’s most striking images and descriptions. Thus, within a sixteen-line poem he provides the ‘smell of fresh seaweed / left on the shore / by the latest storm’; ‘a woman pegging clothes / in a whitewashed yard’; and ‘the syncopated mallet rhythm / calking a boat on the beach’. In the next poem, ‘Voices in the dark’, Tsaloumas concludes by depicting ‘people on a courtyard stone bench / talking among the basil / assured of healing sleep’. Tsaloumas writes with a wonderful directness and simplicity; he often uses short lines (sometimes just a single word), and never uses more words than necessary. He also has the ability to depict commonplace scenes and actions with a slight twist or unusual emphasis, thus creating an individual voice. For example, ‘The path from the old house / cuts through a summer day / down the hill’ (‘A dream of summer’), and ‘vortex of leaves at sudden gusts / over autumnal bitumen’ (‘The law’). A Winter Journey is a beautiful, insightful and rewarding collection composed by a master poet who is at the height of his powers after spending decades upon decades refining his craft. Owl Publishing has done a great service to Australian literature by publishing Costi and Tsaloumas’s chapbooks: reminding readers that Australian poetry is not monolingual; highlighting the work of immigrant writers (both first and second generation); and making excellent poetry available through beautiful design and production, and affordable prices. May they find many readers.

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