Translingualism, Home, Ambivalence: The Poet Dimitris Tsaloumas

By | 1 August 2016

His poetic language expands to new territories of feeling as the poet rediscovers the existential uncertainty that makes all poetry possible: The Harbour is full of experiments with the medium incorporating uneasy tonalities of ominous shadows with hypersonic meditations on the flow of time. ‘Six Improvisations on the River’ constitute some of the most powerful explorations of human temporality, expressed in terms of musical compositions. After the discovery of place in his earlier collections Tsaloumas delves into the intricacies of time: ‘because, being river, it gives rise / to contemplation’ he states in two of his most suggestive verses. The continuum of space and time becomes the main focus of his language in his final collections, like New Poems and Helen of Troy (2007). Yet till his final collection the human outweighed the natural and its order avoiding the facile environmental eco-psychism that dominates much of Australian writing indicating a badly digested understanding of Aboriginal spirituality.

Helen of Troy is an exceptional epilogue to his English work, as he didn’t published anything else in English after this. Martin Duwell aptly observed that: ‘The overwhelming tone of Helen of Troy is valedictory and the characteristic move is one of making final journeys.’1 What we find here is the clearest distillation of style, verse and language: sparse, skeletal, bony language without the sonic euphoria of his previous works, commemorating and celebrating simultaneously, time lost or time regained through poetry. The central dimension in these poems is the simultaneity of emotions, the ontological ambivalence towards life and death, the polarities that motivate creativity. In a sense the poems are the perfect examples of what Edward Said called ‘late style’ when he talked about another Greek poet, C P Cavafy, and stressing ‘the convergence of absolute stillness and totally organised, pleasurable sound (…) wonderfully kept together in an almost prosaic, accentless diction.’2 Such accentless expression is what characterises his last collection: flat, monotonous almost neutral writing, reminding us of the Roland Barthes’ ‘writing degree zero’ totally stripped bare of rhetoric or metaphor portraying ‘… the perfection of some new Adamic world where language will no longer be alienated.’3

His last poems are the result of a profound evolution in his poetic language and read like the final poetic statements by W H Auden in his Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974) or in the final works by James McAuley. Discarding all superfluous devices of poetic language, he focusses on the lyrical pragmatism of each verse with minimalistic technique and simplified visual patterns. Tsaloumas’s last poems are about the objective character of lived experience; they are not impressions or subjective reactions, they picture a de-subjectified poetic voice in search of permanent, indeed conclusive truths. They glorify the body and its senses, and celebrate every moment of pleasure and suffering that befall us, even as grief and affliction, sickness or depression. The poems farewell the act of living, constructing an elegy on life: ‘On this my last pilgrimage / I seek no evidence of fact / but firmer certainties / not hope / but truth of nobler substance / where, in secret folds, the mind / still dreams of wings.’4 We mentioned already his final published verse: ‘The truth of his living’; here we can truly find the ultimate testimony of a life dedicated to language and defined by poetry. Being between languages is the truth of his living, an ever-changing reality, without the certainties of a solid basis or the assurances of a recognition.

In a sense, what he called ‘the attainment of maturity’ happened in Australia because of the local idiom; as he was ‘maturing’ Tsaloumas understood his Australian experience in terms analogous to Manning Clark’s understanding of history, as an enormous battle between the utopian projects of Enlightenment and the failure of the individual to create something out of the intensity and the anxiety of failure, while at the same time the study of history ‘can help a person find the answers to the great problems of life’.5 In effect he saw the experience of immigration and indeed the reality of living in-between cultures and societies as an ethical project with existential consequences and articulated it in a language culminating in moral precepts. His late poetry establishes a language of moral detachment simplifying all forms of rhetorical force and tropes of literary expression. ‘I have been seeking a word far into night/to make a line luminous. Then it was dark news,’6 he writes: the imagery of light as moral empowerment is probably what distinguishes his final works and makes them so emphatically humanistic. In many occasions, late poetry is often pessimistic, disillusioned, somehow nihilistic, renouncing all projects as false and deceptive. ‘You’ve come, the voice drones, you’ve come / into your brightness, the true, the unbetrayed’7 ends the previous poem. In a sense, old age came to Tsaloumas through a deep feeling of ethical stoicism or indeed of strong moralism.

In his last collection again he records: ‘Three are the hardy trees that haunt / the space of my obsessions’; the cypress and the poplar as one would expect from a Mediterranean native. But he culminates the poem with: ‘the gum, its vastness of land horizons / and sun-struck screeching birds that mock / the stubborn traveller who staggers on / trusting the certainties of maps.’8 If the first symbols were signs of origins, the gum tree becomes the final symbol of his moral empowerment against the indecipherable mysteries of the real and the endless perplexities of life. In his final works Tsaloumas becomes the poet of existential ambivalence, opening is verses to the unpredictable indeterminism of the event: ‘Blown over the lands and the oceans / on either side of the median belt / it tells of my gratitude for everything / I love and hate in your creation / before they’ve done turning it / to a valley of tears.’9

The striking reference to the Latin poet Catullus is another indication of Tsaloumas’s elegiac mode of writing in his late works. Ambivalence is the deep skeleton of his moral fabric, as Catullus would have said: ‘I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask? / I do not know, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.’10 Tsaloumas adopts this expression of a private emotion, of a flippant stimulation of sensuality, and transforms it into the revealing vision of a mundane truth about human psyche and its temporality. It is really interesting again how he described the genesis of his poems in the essay ‘The Distant Present’: ‘Remorse, regret and, a sense of betrayal and guilt were to plague this second half of my life. It occurred to me that it might be possible to pacify this conflict or even exorcise it through incantations in English. And I tried. Of course it didn’t work but it provided some relief in the excitement of exploration, the discovery of new possibilities.’11 Very few poets presented their work as incantations to appease an erosive guilt, an emotion relatively unknown to the Mediterranean sense of the self. The elation of exploring new territories is moderated by the corrosive feeling of remorse for the matricidal abandonment of the language of his childhood.

Tsaloumas’s poetry fuses tropes, emotions and symbols which cannot be found either in the tradition he was coming from or in the tradition he entered. From his Hellenic origins he brought the phenomenological brilliance of startling surfaces and from his conscious maturity in English the overwhelming vision of an emotional complexity. In a sense his work describes how the Orthodox sense of light merges with the Protestant understanding of shadows, in creating a portrait of an individual sensitivity in constant emotional conflict. With his work we rediscover Judith Wright’s suggestion that Australian poetry provides ‘… the means of regaining faith in man through a new kind of exploration of human meanings, human language and metaphor.’12

In a strange way, his Helen of Troy delineates such uncharted territory of an unexpected osmosis in statu nascendi. Furthermore, in these poems both ends of the ontological spectrum seem to coexist almost amicably as if the poet is immersed simultaneously in them: birth and death frame the emotional energy of his verses, infusing them with vigour, force and a certain sensuality: ‘Born in time’s wilderness long / before memory / when light was forged / colour endures obstinate in this / my darkest season …’13 At the same time, they avoid the folksy almost plebeian moods that frequently scar Les Murray’s artificially vernacular muse and transform its mode of writing into an unhistorical pastoral idyll in search of a presumed innocence. There is no innocence in the Australian geography, or indeed in any geography; both the autochthonous and the heterochthonous populations had their share of suffering in the land. History itself is a traumatic loss of innocence; and immigration is part of the historical experience of trauma and loss. The traumatised poet is able to sense and visualise the ‘trauma-scapes’ that define Australian topography. The ‘post war kingdom of Australian nothingness’ is a white fantasy and delusion: for the Aboriginal every inch of the continent is a distinct moment of imagination and history. For the white Australians, trauma is also everywhere: only the conquerors cannot see it because they themselves are under its sway – their blindness is a cunning, or a convenient, defence mechanism to avoid the pain, the guilt and the fear.

  1. Martin Duwell, Review off Dimitris Tsaloumas’s Helen of Troy (2007) in hotsdots.com/poetry/2007/
  2. Edward W. Said, On Late Style, Music and Literature against the Grain, New York: Vintage Books, 2006, p. 147.
  3. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, transl. by Annette Lovers and Colin Smith, London: Jonathan Cape, 1967 p. 88
  4. D Tsaloumas, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, p. 96
  5. Manning Clark, A Discovery of Australia, Sydney: ABC Books, 1991, p. 1
  6. D Tsaloumas, New and Selected Poems p. 467
  7. D Tsaloumas, ib. p. 467
  8. D Tsaloumas, Helen of Troy, p. 66
  9. D Tsaloumas, Helen of Troy, p. 68
  10. Catullus. The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition. Translated, with commentary, by Peter Green. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, p. 145
  11. D Tsaloumas, ‘The Distant Present,’ in Helen Nickas (ed.) Dimitris Tsaloumas, a Voluntary Exile, Owl Publishing, Melbourne, 1999, p. 27-8.
  12. Judith Wright, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1965, p. 209
  13. D Tsaloumas, Helen of Troy, p. 36
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