Translingualism, Home, Ambivalence: The Poet Dimitris Tsaloumas

1 August 2016

But something unexpected happens with his English work: it is a poetry without genealogy in the language. Its sonorities, cadences and imagery only indirectly can be traced in the language itself, let alone to the main body of Australian poetry. No poet of a specific English tradition can be sensed in his work. Even if someone feels that there is some vestigial T.S Eliot in his verses, it is an unorthodox mediated Eliot: first Hellenised and then re-Anglicised. Fortunately, the pretentious theological angst is totally missing precisely because of the Seferis mediation, a poet for whom religion was exclusively Greek folk-lore. Furthermore, as Tsaloumas’s English work evolves, and his English did change over the period of thirty years, the modernist whisperings are simply receding and by 2008 are totally absorbed. Tsaloumas constructed his own poetic space out of the gradual cleansing of his verses from the intertextual weavings that defined his pervious poetic practice through his immersion in the lyrical pragmatism of English poetry.

English is a language of lethal precision: if periphrasis prevails then the poem becomes a paraphrasis of itself and therefore it becomes a comment in verse. With time, he became bolder, more affirmative, and less indecisive. In order to gain poetic solidity, Tsaloumas founded each one of his verses on the magical specificity of the noun: the noun dominates his verses with its objectifying rationalism and its grammatical concreteness. Even when abstraction is introduced his verses are structured around the gravitas of nominal precision.

In his Greek poems, the adjective appears to play a central role in the creation of tone and atmosphere. In his English poems the noun rules supreme as the poet experiences a new reality of essential rhizomes which he localises in the continuum of language without qualifications or stipulations. His ironic spirit functions as a further defamiliarising factor which tames the rhetorical expansiveness of emotions through self-distancing and the gradual emptying of his poems from the abundant lyric I that dominates his Greek verses. The translation some of his English of his poems in his collection Diforos Karpos / Twofold Harvest (2006) is equally interesting; the Greek language is harsh, uncouth almost tuneless, whereas the English text pulsates with smooth, gentle and frictionless vowels. He translates for example Falcon Drinking with Geraki sti Gourna, the last word being one of the most dissonant words to render the pliant fluidity of the English sounds.

English gave him the ability to recalibrate the sound, pace and sonic patterns of his verses. Some poets structure their verses around the plethoric expressionism of adjectives; others on the kinetic dynamism of verbs. Tsaloumas bases his verses on the stability and the vigour of the noun. He is interested in the essential gestalten of felt experience, in the structural invariants that go beyond its linguistic articulation. In a sense, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early theory of language as a picture of existing states of affairs finds its partial justification in his translingual poetry. Language pictures moment by moment the process of building a self with words through its interactions with people, mediated by cultural symbols and determined by objects in their actual contexts.

English was, or indeed became, his living reality for emotional experiences in concrete contexts: each poem mobilised thought and affect in order to make the reader responsive to the emotional evocations of language. In the first poem of Falcon Drinking, aptly entitled ‘Exercise for three Voices,’ we read: ‘… the idols sense a presence / of dark winds / beyond imagination’s outer gates / I’ve got no other secrets / have drawn the bolt from the door / move in and our erect / tune my voice correctly by / the supersonic messages of bats …’1 Michael Tsianikas called this aspect of Tsaloumas’s poetry ‘hyperacoustics’2 as indeed it stresses the sonic force of the verse through an imagery of sounds and echoes. This is a central contribution by Tsaloumas to Australian poetry. When not formalistic or formulaic, or under the seductive rawness of Arthur Rimbaud, Australian poetry shows an excessive surplus of orality, quite obsessively stressing the performative function of words, through an overabundance of confessional writing or by acting-out the emotional impact of the poem. Such orality prevents the reader from entering the poetic utterances when the poet does not act out the poem. Furthermore, performance poetry, when not satire, is self-performance, a theatricalising of the self, and therefore a romantic self-revelation of the ‘truths’ within the poet. Tsaloumas spoke repeatedly against such romantic self-laceration which undermines the verbal self-sufficiency of the poem.

In his early poems in English a disembodied perception of poetic language, or at least one focused on sonic symmetries, dominates his poetics. After the collection Portrait of a Dog (1991) his language is playfully Australian and to a certain degree self-ironic: ‘Asked at an interview / whether his life was fiction, / he said this was a question / of how to look at diction.’3 The collection is also strange, a series of monologues of Greco-Roman masks imagined out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and his Tristia, the emblematic ur-text of all poetry of exile. But Tsaloumas adds the Australian dimension, the empowering self-irony of the convict and the criminal, of the persecuted who know that in this new land they become something beyond the total sum of their errors in their previous existence. Australia becomes salvation and redemption, the space where the poet is allowed to reinvent his life without being a prisoner of class, dogma or tradition. Although for every wandering soul, Homer’s Odyssey is the ultimate text of mythopoeic reference, Tsaloumas seems to compile the story of his exile in terms of lyricism and elegy rather than epic and tragedy. Since the time of Henry Lawson, Australian poetry saved its poets by an abundance of sarcastic wit addressed against themselves as they bitterly experience the resistance of reality to the claims of desire. In reality, all poetry is about the primal reality of the body, as the only home that anyone has is their body: the incarnational aesthetics of presence are the central concerns of poets.

In his next collection The Barge, Tsaloumas achieves his finest poetry by defining the locality of his presence. His ‘Rhapsodic Meditation on the Melbourne Suburb of St Kilda’ are exceptional works of mood and sentiment: ‘I live in the fear of the superfluous / in the blessing of abundance,’4 he writes as an admonition to himself. The gradual relocation of the self in his new home takes places in the physical and the imaginative levels: ‘The room’s ambiguous. / Nostalgia haunts the deciduous soul / like a memory of leaves in naked days, / yet there’s a comfort in counting things …’5 The past and the present intersect at the most mundane things of daily life; and at the same time recall myths and stories from a previous existence both remembered and imagined. But now the mythical battle has been relocated: its new Troy is called Melbourne, the warriors are called reffos, and the fortification walls are the gigantic factories and refineries. There is another Helen lurking in the Antipodes, illusory, fatal, carnivorous but equally irresistible and seductive; it is called work and its new faithful community is that elusive and slippery social entity called ‘the working class.’ The new locality regenerates the power of the palpable and the empirical. The poet has given a ‘local habitation and a name’ to the vague impulses and desires of his displaced being. The impregnable city is the city he lives in, and it is called Melbourne, the city of sorrows and hopes, where so many everyday tragedies await their translation into a comprehensive mythos.

In order for this to be achieved their sorrows and hopes had to emerge within the existing architecture of emotions as established by so many poets before them starting with Charles Harpur, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall. Tsaloumas’s poetry represents the exact point through which the experience of exile is redefined through the existing structure of emotions as crystallised since the early poets like Fidelia S T Hill wrote: ‘Here may I dwell, and by experience prove, / that tents with love, yield more substantial bliss / Than Palaces, without it, can bestow.’6 Along with many poets ever since, Tsaloumas encapsulated the brooding ephemerality of the white presence in the land, together with the melancholy of the city, its music, its departed mortals, finally the poetry of its buildings. In a touching vignette entitled ‘My Neighbour’s House’ he looks upon the significance of the house walls, the building blocks of an mundane ontology: ‘Well, yes, indeed, beauty and pleasure / must be the requisites of happiness / but death takes more, demands / strong foundations and lasting walls.’7 When a poet sees what is in front of him then he has become the place itself, he is part of its natural geography and its imaginary topography – no nostalgia for something else, no search for an elusive paradise no folksy artificiality but pure immersion in the here and now, living moments of unmediated clarity and transparency. ‘Books are rare / therefore I read from memory / I accept the great distortions of fact / the luminous tracts …’8 Poetry is consolidated through such intensified localisation: the surrounding environment ceases to be a mere landscape for the individual adventure and is transformed into the topos of an aesthetic ‘gathering.’

The quest for similar localisation can be seen in Les Murray’s love for the specificities of the natural landscape as found in his best collection Translations from the Natural World (1992). Murray writes his best poetry when he forgets himself and looks outwards, as he did in this collection. When he is ‘verbal and conscious’ he becomes a preacher and an orator with the diabolical power to distort his own poetic vision. However, oftentimes the outsider can see clearer than the locals what makes them unique and singular: natural topography and human experience come to them as a unity simultaneously without the knowledge or the intuition of their disastrous past. Tsaloumas expresses this existential singularity in The Harbour a collection of high complexity and unevenness. ‘I have squandered my words / on substance less generous’9 are two evocative verses which frame the innovative structures of phrases that we find in its poems. ‘Our truth, he said with distant patience, / our truth in in another’s fiction. / We are incapable of dreaming.’10

  1. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 140
  2. Michael Tsianikas, ‘Dimitris Tsaloumas Hyperacoustics,’ in Helen Nickas (ed.) Dimitris Tsaloumas, ib. p. 115-116
  3. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 229
  4. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 273
  5. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 279.
  6. The Puncher & Wattmann Anthology of Australian Poetry, edited by John Leonard, Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2009, p. 436
  7. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 288
  8. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 412
  9. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 334
  10. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems, p. 339
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