Translingualism, Home, Ambivalence: The Poet Dimitris Tsaloumas

1 August 2016
Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
Catullus

The death of Dimitris Tsaloumas (1921-2016) invites us to revisit and re-evaluate his poetry without the critical anxiety to place him within the historical taxonomies of Australian literature or the hermeneutical suspicion about its belonging. The task of situating his poetry will take time as the canon of Australian literature is still fluid and its main parameters are not yet finalised. After his death however his work becomes a space in which we can detect both patterns and particularities; it is transformed simultaneously into a social text and to an individual testimony. Furthermore, beyond the politics of cultural memory or the ideologies of literary traditions, now there is a unique opportunity to study the compositional qualities of his work and explore its constitutive poetics, without reducing it to its social circumstances or attributing it to the emotional upheavals of his biography. The death of the poet liberates his work from the particulars of his life: with time, biographical information becomes significant only if and when ambiguities eventuate while the interpretation of his work is not exhausted by simplistically corresponding his verses to events in the life of the individual.

Moreover, the fact that Tsaloumas was an immigrant does not really say much about the qualities of his poetry. In the 80s, many theorists of multiculturalism used his work to undermine the Anglocentric character of the dominant literary canon. This approach diminished his significance and marginalised his work since it underestimated the fact that poetry survives the intellectual horizon that defined its reception. It was an approach which had to do more with the cultural politics of the day and less or at all with the experience of his poetry. To Tsaloumas the poet, immigration might have been similar to what ‘Australia’ was to the generation of Judith Wright who defined the condition of the Australian writer as: ‘Australia is still for us not a country but a state of mind.’1 Immigration was an analogous state of mind, both an outside setting and a psychical mind-scape, which had to be poetically inhabited and be expressed in terms of lived temporality.

It seems that gradually, especially after writing in English, Tsaloumas thought that immigration was his fundamental existential reality, indeed his very raison d’ etre was to be an exile, a voice arising between cultures, utilising their emotional tensions and ultimately reconciling their mutual ambivalence under the solidity of poetic form. Contemporary readers feel that even if Tsaloumas’s poetry is reduced to a document of the era of multiculturalism or to the label of migrant literature they won’t understand much of his poetry. What the personality and its history overshadowed now is transformed into a poetic happening, within language.

Tsaloumas is essentially two poets: first a Greek poet, whose work in his first language needs to be also studied and understood; and then, another poet, who wrote in English, in Australia. However, it is not a matter of belonging anymore or of a new form of identity politics which undermine any comprehensive view of poetry produced in the country. For many decades, Tsaloumas was a Greek-Australian poet, suspended between his origins and his present, a hyphenated writer without a clear perception of his poetic space or a definite position in the mind of the critical community. In an unduly overlooked essay he defined his position as ‘the distant present,’2 being here and there at the same time, an Australian for the Greeks and a Greek for the Australians, therefore being neither, or indeed being both, present and absent from the languages he wrote in, a guilty enigma to himself, an unclassifiable entity to literary historians and a puzzling amalgam to his readers.

In his various statements about his position, indeed his placement within the cultural continuum of his two languages, Tsaloumas was well aware of the problematic that his English work inaugurated. In other parallel cases, there are Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Nabokov, the two most recent writers who consciously chose the language in which to write, establishing a tradition of modernist transligualism which defined their personal idiom. Prose was always more open to such experiments, if we remember Joseph Conrad or Samuel Beckett. Poetry however is exceedingly precarious as a new language re-invents the rhythmic tonalities of a poem and at the same time the identifications of the poet.

Today, it is rather difficult to talk about ‘maternal’ language as many people grow up with different languages since their early childhood. Identities are by definition multilingual as they are formed by symbols from various linguistic traditions and early in their formation are exposed to various expressive modes. It would be more accurate to call Tsaloumas, a translingual writer, who lived through symbiotic linguistic realities, imagined his self through interconnected linguistic potentialities and objectified what he called ‘the truth of his living’ through a variety of verbal symbols evoking their interactive networks of meaning, sentiment and reference. Since his early childhood, Greek, Italian, French and English seemed to have coexisted within his experiential landscapes. Tsaloumas learned English early in his life but he chose to write in the language after he had lived for over thirty years in Australia. His transition from one language to another happened en plain air, since he could have continued to write in Greek, remaining within the safety of a cultural ghetto and the approval of a literary microcosm. The fact that he decided to write in English means that he felt that he could say something in that language that he couldn’t say in Greek, or indeed couldn’t be said by anyone else in English.

The transition was completed in the 80s and 90s when his poetry started being written in stark, painterly, almost expressionistic English full of colourful contrasts, linguistic uncertainties and existential questions that we haven’t seen in the language before. In his pioneering study on the poet, Con Castan suggested that ‘each poem begins anew, without dependence on pre-existing moulds.’3 In an unexpected way, his language in English is not derivative or stereotypical: it bursts with tonalities of its own, breaks down dominant versification patterns and rearranges the prevailing iconography. Certainly, he is not a radical or indeed a revolutionary poet: the efforts of poets like Michael Dransfield, Robert Adamson, or John Tranter at roughly the same period, are totally alien to his poetic universe. However, because of his foreignness he constructs an in-between poetic space which bridges the august high formalism of A D Hope, Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright with a new generation of writers who liberated poetic forms from a rigid and sometimes stifling self-consciousness. His loose almost disjointed early English verses breath with an air of their own, full of references to another literary discourse or through the re-moulding of existing patterns of poetic expression. In a sense his poetry is much closer to A D Hope and his perception of poetic form, as Con Castan pointed out, minus his metrical schemes and rhythmic regularities but within his mythographical patterns and imaginary pantheons, ‘a radical in conservative clothing’, as David Brooks aptly characterised him.4

The first thing that made his transligualism possible is the hospitable openness of the English language, especially as it is written in Australia. The second, his need to reinvent the forms that have shaped Australian poetry and infuse them with emotions, images and rhythms that haven’t been encountered in its historical trajectory. In a sense, he is one of most interesting postcolonial writers who recolonises the dominant language with the feelings and the imaginings of the stranger and the outsider. His transligualism was an amicable arrangement, a marriage of overlapping sensibilities, as he was a modernist without its fragmenting radicalism, romantic without its excessive sentimentality, classicist without its rigid formalism. Furthermore, he sensed the existential angst of White Australia against the background of the Aboriginal genocide; in the end he was himself part of that White conquest of the land and his precarious position became part of his own poetic landscape. As an outsider he sensed the deep angst of many Australian writers vis-à-vis their inherited past which has established a culture with an elusive identity in a perpetual search for ephemeral gods, unable to see itself as a legitimate inhabitant of the land.

The convergence of these fundamental realities led to his late mature work which starts in 1988 with Falcon Drinking, a collection of poems in which the poet seems to rehearse his voice, expand its limits, and experiment with its potentialities. His two previous publications in English, The Observatory and The Book of Epigrams do certainly belong to him but the language is Philip Grundy’s, his most felicitous translator; yet, the feeling that these poems are translations is very strong and permeates the reading itself. Falcon Drinking however framed something new: its language is an act of matricide, which takes the poet away from the landscapes and the certainties of his childhood. The angst is obvious, expressed with awkward English, replete with unfamiliar patterns or limping iambics but at the same time with an appealing sense of unfocused originality. English verses are hewn into Greek patterns of articulation: their symbiosis is really interesting, reminiscent of how the Latin poets of Rome ‘imitated’ the stanzaic forms of Sappho, Alcaeus, and Asclepiades. Tsaloumas, who knew Roman literature well, is a neo-Latin poet, a cives Romanus, recasting existing prosodic practices in order to produce new tonalities of expression, formations of imagery and sonic articulations.

His first English collection is a transitional work of cultural and poetic intersections. ‘Where I live all oceans meet / where I walk all roads come crossing,’5 says the poet, not absolutely certain about his position: this early oscillation between nostalgia and actuality makes this collection highly significant in its unreconciled ambivalence towards his existential realities, indeed towards the poems themselves. Until his last English collection in 2008, Tsaloumas was struggling to construct a language that would mark a distinct territory of conflicting emotions – an indirect indication of his lurking romanticism. In many occasions, poets from other linguistic backgrounds, like Joseph Brodsky for example, when they write in their new language always conflate themselves with their various linguistic personas or the poets they study in the language (W H Auden being the case for Brodsky). Sometimes nothing makes sense, in other cases it makes too much sense because it is a trite commonplace. English is a labyrinthine language, multilayered and polysyllectic; it borrows from every other language in a flexible manner creating fusions and transfusions of rhythm, imagery and meaning that have established a tradition of innovations transfused into the language from outside.

In the case of poetry, it becomes even more interesting: when you translate yourself, you must choose between what theorists call foreignisation or indigenisation: you will either make obvious that this is a translation or you will make it read like the local idiom. The interesting thing with Tsaloumas is that his mature poetry in English does not sound at all as a translation of his Greek. Whoever reads them both understands that his English poems are superior which means more complex to his Greek ones. In Greek, his voice sounds derivative, artificial, occasionally antagonistic to the idioms of the great poets of the tradition: Angelos Sikelianos and Kostis Palamas, but mostly George Seferis, occasionally even Odysseus Elytis, in the end, Yannis Ritsos. Even the T S Eliot mood that we find in his work comes from Seferis’s translation of The Waste Land in which Seferis transformed Eliot’s high modernism into a Greek demotic song. His Greek poetry suffers from the illicit presence of such great fathers which he could not overcome or transform. Especially the pernicious influence of Seferis with his nostalgic mythologisation of Greek landscapes, his unhistorical eulogising of classical past and his romanticised extolling of people’s sufferings can be felt even when Tsaloumas is ironic, sarcastic or even a left-wing rebel – something that Seferis would have viscerally abhorred.

  1. Judith Wright, ‘The Upside-Down Hut’ in The Writer in Australia, ed. By J Barnes, Melbourne, OUP, 1969, p. 301
  2. D Tsaloumas, A Voluntary Exile, Selected Writings of his Life and Work, edited by Helen Nickas, Melbourne: Owl Publications, 1999, p. 20-28.
  3. Con Castan, Dimitris Tsaloumas: Poet, Melbourne: Elikia Books Publications, 1990, p. 143
  4. David Brooks, ‘Introduction’ to A D Hope, Selected Poems, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1992, p. xi
  5. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2000, p. 140
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