DEAN'S INFLAMMABLE VERSE
τα πουλιά της αυλής μας.
Μόνο που έφυγαν τα δέντρα»
This poem, «Επικουρικά» more than any other marks the link between Dean Kalimniou’s first collection of poetry (Garden Enclosed) and his latest collection, «Αλεξιπύρινα» (Inflammable.) For me, «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος» was about establishing a secret garden of the soul and planting and cultivating in it all those home truths that we so desperately search for throughout our lives. Its prototype was Dean’s own grandfather’s garden, a place where as Dean would often say to me during our years at university together, his grandfather, having left Asia Minor for Greece and Greece for Australia, could turn his back on the world he found so faulty and restore it anew.
In many respects, «Αλεξιπύρινα» is the fruit of that secret garden, which can last even after that garden’s demise. The word Αλεξιπύρινα is a paradox. It can mean something that catches fire quickly and it also can mean something that can withstand fire. In it is represented a key facet of Dean Kalimniou’s own paradoxical character, his dualism.
That dualism can be evidenced first and foremost from the manner in which he uses the simplest of words to convey the height of emotion. In the above poem, a simple garden description becomes a cry of anguish for a lost direction, for the excessive belief in symbols that no longer have any substance. In other poems in the collection such as «Χειμάρρα,» he employs what can only be described as ‘big words’ like «βεβορβορωμένοι,» a Byzantine word meaning dirty. Yet this use of big words is uncontrived, as the poet’s conception of the Greek language is not limited to the past hundred years. It spans the whole gamut of the Greek language from Homer to Ritsos, all dialects and constructions, as anyone who has ever spoken to Dean would know. Dualistic even in his speech, he is often laconic, curt, enunciating his words with a heavy, rolling Samian burr, then switching to Modern Greek with ease and embarking on long sentences of amazing complexity and even more amazing vocabulary after which time, Albanian, Turkish, Persian and even Chinese words will begin to make their appearance. He rejoices in language more than anyone I know.
Furthermore, just as in his poetry, he talks in parables. If Dean’s grandfather is the foundation for «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος», then undoubtedly the foundation for «Αλεξιπύρινα» would have to be his great-grandmother who at 99, still reels off reams of advice in perfect decapentasyllabic meter, as cryptic and as meaningful as the Oracle at Delphi. This is a boy who learnt to read people before he learnt to read books and the traditional riddles and circumspect way of expressing oneself so as to delve deep into the core, the very essence of his subject matter without causing offence, is present throughout. I once wondered aloud whether this form of poetry does not take advantage of the reader by disarming him through a prism of images and words, then entrapping him into a sense of viewing the truth about himself when he least expects it. After all, did not Ritsos, Dean’s poetic hero say: “και να αδελφέ μου που μάθαμε να κουβεντιάζουμε ήσυχα και απλά»? Another thing about Dean is that he not only experiences extreme difficulties in talking about his poetry (‘why would I write poetry if I had to explain it anyway? As Archbishop Stylianos says, asking a poet to explain himself is like asking someone to withdraw their confession,’ Dean ripostes.) but that he also answers all questions is a self-deprecating and cryptic fashion. “As the Bible says, he who has ears will hear,” he responds.
In many respects, Dean resembles an alchemist. Just as medieval alchemists sought to turn base metals to gold, so does Dean try to reduce words, ideas and constructs to their lowest common denominator. His poetry is elementary in the sense that he believes, or at least leads us to believe that he does, in certain core values or πυρίνες from which everything stems. This is the reason for the quotes from the work of Heraclitus, which introduce many of the poems. «Αλεξιπύρινα» is then a crucible in which our petty egotisms, face saving constructs and facades are burnt away through the purging fire of Dean’s sarcasm, wit, probity or introspection. This is evident in the first poem of the collection «Φλόγιστον» which was the name given by early chemists to the gas that they believed caused things to catch fire. In that poem he states that «φλόγιστον και μόνο φλόγιστον ρέει στις φλέβες μας.» In other words, Dean declares that we are all able to purge ourselves of whatever obscures our particular vision because the strength to do so lies within us all, though the methods may be varied and subjective.
As compared to his previous collection, sarcasm, as a purgative is developed to a high degree. It is interesting that in many of his poems that express futility, he turns to the Greek community in Australia as a prime example. In «Πρώτη Γενιά» he writes: «Μπήκαμε στα ημιτελικά/ με την αυθάδεια/ ενός Διαδάλου/ που χάρη του/ βλέπουμε τους Ίκαρους/ να μεσουρανούν/ και να προοδεύουν...» The style of humour is decidedly deadpan and all the more so scathing because it is so unexpected. Some of the humour is cryptic itself and culturally specific. For example, one can only appreciate the poem «Προφητικόν» («Μέχρι να έρθει/ το ποθούμενο,/ το μύδι/ θα βγάλει γένια,» unless they have some knowledge of Epirot culture and are conversant with the prophesies of St Kosmas. Yet it is in picking apart these small gems of humour that the process of reduction in one’s own crucible can take place.
The dialectic between myth and reality also concerns Dean in his poems. In many he seeks to demythologize our own conception of our importance, often by juxtaposing totally disparate elements. In «Ολονύκτιος Ίαμβος» he talks of rats under one’s bed worshipping a ray of moonlight as their Sun whereas in «Μετάπλαση,» he views broken clay bricks as our brothers. The masterly way in which symbolism is employed to highlight the difference between myth and reality is astounding but again it requires the total devotion of the reader, who must delve within himself to decode the subtle clues that are given. If in «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος» we are required to ‘dig’ for truths, is it not easier to just burn them out with a flame in «Αλεξιπύρινα»? I asked Dean. “Not if you have to rub two sticks together to produce the fire,” he answers laconically.
One of the key features of Dean’s poetry is his approach to Hellenism. Though he has produced some excellent English poetry (produced reluctantly during endless discussions with me over a cup of coffee, where exasperated and struggling to put a voice exactly to what he is thinking, he scribbles furiously on a piece of paper for a few minutes and then says: “there, that’s what I’m talking about” – a perfect, finished poem.) he avoids writing poetry in English, just as he avoids speaking English to his close friends and loved ones. Greek is obviously a language of special significance to him. Quite apart from his idiosyncratic retention of the old polytonic system of writing Greek (“the words look naked without the aspirants,” he says) Hellenic culture as viewed by Dean is extremely individualistic and broad in scope. Dean doesn’t confine himself to narrow geographic or cultural definitions, exploring both the origins and the overflow of Greek culture. Thus, while we will not be shocked to find Empedocles, Aristotle, Nikolaos Kavasilas, Heraclitus, Procrustes or Karyotakis peopling his poems, or to be transported to ancestral places such as his father’s village of Mitylinioi, Rio, Karlovasi, Arkadi and Ioannina, his view of Hellenism is broad enough to embrace such people as Jelaleddin Al Rumi, the founder of Sufism, Ibn Al Mutaji, St Anthony the Copt, the prophet Jonah, Arp Arslan and places that are no longer ‘Hellenic’ in the strictest of senses. His scholarship and knowledge of history is immense and he consciously adopts the Orthodox view of time which permits all things past and future, to co-exist on the same plane. There are some four or five poems that deal with Albania, Northern Epirus and Asia Minor, ancestral places of special significance for the poet and these increase in number in the third, yet to be published collection. It is remarkable that he can apply these as paradigms for our daily lives. The city of Melbourne gets especially bad press, as if the poet cannot cope with the thought of living there: «Εδώ δεν φυτρώνουν/ παπαρούνες κάθε χρόνο/ούτε ξεφυλλίζονται/ τα δέντρα πριν πλαγιάσουν.» («Χειμερινή Μελβούρνη») Nonetheless it still forms a part of his own unique conception of Hellenism, though often, divorced from absolutely any feeling of chauvinism or patriotism whatsoever, one gets the feeling that this is Hellenism viewed from the outside and that in the poet’s hands, it is merely another tool for explaining the world around us. The only other Greek poet who views Hellenism in such wide scope is Cavafy and it is fitting that while he did this from Alexandria, Dean does this from what many here in Melbourne call “the new Alexandria.” I remember attending challenging Greek lectures with Dean given by Stathis Gauntlett and Anna Chatzinikolaou at Melbourne University where we were told that «Εδώ πρόκειται για ελληνισμούς, όχι μόνο ελληνισμό.» Dean has adopted this outlook wholesale.
Two elements which are omnipresent in Dean’s «Αλεξιπύρινα» and yet are dealt with subtly and can therefore be easily overlooked at the risk of totally misunderstanding the entire premise of the work are love and hope. In keeping with the poet’s Spartan style, a product of his obsession with reducing ideas to their elementary form, there is no place for a romantic treatment of love here. In fact the tone of almost all of the poems is emotionless and this correlates with the character of a master poet who will not dictate to his reader how he should feel but rather permit him to extract the emotions from the images and ideas he evokes. Eroticism in poems like «Πήχες» does not appear in the form of the traditional love poem. Instead it is again reduced to its chthonic elemental form, something which comes out of us in spite of ourselves, belying our own self-righteous attempts at self-control, or lack thereof. Perhaps the most masterly example of this is «Υγρό πύρ,» which employs the motif of fireworks in a novel way.
Hope is a central message of «Αλεξιπύρινα» and is present in almost every single poem. Though the poet’s view of the world may seem negative or futile, a close reading of the text reveals small, subtle nuggets of optimism. In «Επικουρικά» for instance, the birds remain though the trees have gone, assuring us that nothing is banished forever. Mostly, the poet places his hopes in his ability and that of reader to transcend themselves. Thus in «Χαραυγή» he states: “I touch the universe with the future in my palm./ I jump/ past my fingers/ into the infinite.” In «Εμείς,» he asks why we, who can make it rain by speaking just one word, wake up in the middle of the night bathed in sweat. Thus, in keeping with his own deep humility, he empowers the reader, rather than dictate solutions and pathways.
For Dean, illusion can be dispelled through preparation and incantation and many of his poems read like prayers and litanies. It cannot be denied that the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church is a key inspiration for Dean and that he draws on it considerably. After all, one of its greatest lyricists, Romanos Melodos, is the subject of one of his poems, while in another, «Συμποτικόν» he talks about composing one’s own Song of Songs. On the same token, he is just as influenced by the ecstasy of the Sufi tradition, the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Al Rumi this comes out when least expected. «Φλόγιστον» and indeed the entire «Αλεξιπύρινα» are rich in Zoroastrian symbolism. In «Σοφία» the marriage and conflict of two related but opposing cultures, Byzantine and Islamic are signified through a confusion of both architectural styles and religious ceremonies. At the same time, the need for cultural and religious continuity is stressed is poems such as «Άσκηση» where the reader is exhorted to ‘fast from the sky.”
In keeping with the poet’s esoteric message, his sarcastic sense of humour and humility, his final poem, «Παραοπισθόφυλλο» marries opposing and contradictory elements in order to poke fun at his own temerity in attempting to pass on a message to the reader, thus placing himself above him. He likens life to a book, adopting for this purpose, the first lines of the Gospel of Matthew. He then says: “The aim of our life/ is to decorate its parchment with calligraphy and miniatures./ Ours is the final hope/ that the splendour of the last page/ entraps the eye./ So that it [the Book]/ needs not be read at all/ and remains closed/ in glory.” The final joke then seems to be on the reader, who was expecting an Apocalypse but has received quite the opposite, signifying that just as the alchemist’s task in turning base metals to gold is futile, so to is the chosen task of burning impurities and conglomerates in the crucible of one’s soul. The final message then seems to be Cavafyesque. It is not the destination but the journey that matters and Dean certainly takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of self-discovery in «Αλεξιπύρινα».
It is again fitting with the poet’s self-deprecatory character that the cryptic message of his final triumph is not to be found in the end, but somewhere in the middle of the work, where it can easily be overlooked, in the poem «Κογχύλι» where he exclaims: “I am complete./ I sew my mouth shut/ and curl up in your ear/ to listen to the sea.”
«Αλεξιπύρινα» is a work that compels you to read it over and over again in order to savour its full meanings. It is also begging translation into English, something which I have attempted here and which I hope the author seriously considers. In a rare moment of revelation, Dean remarked to me last week: “For me poetry is a window that lets in light and fresh air into the room.” For countless readers, «Αλεξιπύρινα» does the same. That a third generation Geek-Australian can embrace and delve into Greek literature to such an extent and with such skill is proof of the vitality of our community here in the Antipodes.
George Mouratides MA
University of Melbourne