The above poem, the key-note and lynch pin of Dean Kalimniou’s latest poetry collection, “Apteros Niki,” is perhaps the reason why Anna Dimitriou, in her review of his work to date writes:
“Translating Dean Kalimnios’s poetry is like unravelling a complex and very challenging puzzle. His work is often in the form of a riddle, like an oracle which represented the source of truth, knowledge and revelation in antiquity. He is simultaneously the θεωρός, the person who sees and who consults the oracle as well as the one presents his vision through poetry. He represents both the spectator and the scribe, using material from his experiences of people and places as well as ideas of the past mixed with the present, and presented as a rich cross-fertilization of cultures which have an Eastern orally based influence interwoven with his observations of Australia’s indigenous culture.”
This no less applies to ‘Apteros Niki,’ a work that though penned in the Greek language, is liberally interspersed with Albanian, Arabic, Coptic and Persian references and words, a signature of a poet who delights in language. Despite his admission that he writes poetry in Greek because his “most intimate and undisguised thoughts are in Greek,” he shows that for those able to think and feel in more than one language, it is impossible, as Sneja Gunew states, ‘to consider language as a natural and unproblematic expression of experience.’.
Dimitriou perceptively states, by: “analysing and interpreting his poems we have the situation which S. Mishra refers to in his paper on ‘Diasporic Criticism’, ‘that each individual diaspora contains a cacophony of complexities that must be taken into account.’ Kalimnios work demands to be ‘taken into account’ as his poetry collections offer new multicultural perspectives in combination with a negotiation over identity, based on personal revelations of a borderless Hellenism viewed from the outside which invite reader participation…. The use of Greek in Kalimnios’ poetry could be seen as the cacophony that Mishra refers to in the sense that these words might not be understood by the ‘uninitiated,’ except through translation. In the strict sense of the word, however, his poems are not ‘cacophony’ because his tone is not harsh but rather subscribes to a paramythic style. This style and genre does not aim at a wide audience but acts on the local small scale as a personal ομολογία (confession) of resistance against the dominant discourse and literary institution. He seeks to use the dialectic between myth and reality in order to explain the world through poetry, borrowing from a borderless Hellenistic tradition and incorporating varied personalities and places. In this he shows that as a diasporic, and fluent bilingual writer he does have the contrapuntal vision that Said refers to when he self evaluates his poetic inspiration as being founded on an intercultural exchange strongly affected by Hellenism and Orthodoxy not in a ‘chauvinistic or patriotic’ way but through a vision that is looking from the ‘outside’ into Hellenism.”
Having followed Kalimniou’s intellectual progression and the evolution of his writing since his university days, when his law books would be heavily annotated, not in notes but in Greek poems written in elegant byzantine-style handwriting, I am unsurprised at the teleological tone of Apteros Niki, or the choice of the motif. I am convinced that somewhere out there, there are legal files, contracts and complaints with the whole draft of Apteros Niki scrawled on the back of them. In her introduction to the collection, which focuses mainly on the psychedelic and surrealistic imagery employed by the poet, Dr Erma Vasileiou of Australian National University extensively analyses the historical premise of the work: Apteros Niki refers to the Ancient Greek goddess of Victory. She was portrayed as wingless, so that she could be stationary and not fly away. So what exactly is this Victory that Dean Kalimniou is drawing our attention to. Perhaps the scene is set for a labyrinthine exploration by the first poem of the collection: ‘In the Temple of Wingless Victory:’ “Tracing the rupture of obverse forms, you hatch detrimental tongues, and half-marbled shadows. Wingless Victory, whatever you do, do it quickly. I shall not endure, the lace of your gravity.”
In this oblique manifesto of the manner in which he writes poetry, Kalimniou departs from the painstaking circumspection of his two previous published collections in that the poems of this collection are heady, ecstatic and often erotic. There is a heightened sense of arousal and anticipation permeating the words, even when Kalimniou is falling back on one of his more usual mini-motifs, that of gardening. Thus, in “Unwitherable,” (Αμάραντος), he dexterously and ingeniously refers not only to the imperishable nature of things, but also the elusive and mythological flower of Greek folk-songs: “Purple, as the reversed altars in the windows, may they flow, petal, rose-headed secateurs, withered by the vapour of the rocks. I cut and cut, unwitherable.” The sense of urgency, of excitement and a strange, disturbing feeling of gloating is palpable. In “Love Letter,” Kalimniou turns what should be an emotional victory into a counter-productive defeat: “You continue to dominate, even my infertility. In the hour that I think of you, I write a gospel, in the mansions of Tartarus.’ In ‘Night-Flower,’ the pain of seeking authenticity of expression is explored: “Schematic nooses sway pendulously in the bright rays of traceable cessations. Smooth surfaces seek, a single virgin word, in the immeasurable spaces of enclosed sepals.” Kalimniou will seduce us further into this strange, dysfunctional erotic dystopia, juxtaposing Albanian grandmothers chanting requiem masses for dead poems (Pëshpëritës ie. Whispering) with this gem, entitled ‘Periplus’, which is a cursory overview of the whole history of the Greek musical tradition, an intertextual reference to Seferis’ ‘Argonauts’ and more besides: “Naked, you spasm in allegories and equations of velvet. Such matins, in high-pitched maqams, are paid for in arches. So relative then, is the gulf of Calypso, with the bronze-gutted oars that reject her, every Friday, upon breaking their fast.”
In many respects, the highly charged world of Wingless Victory is frighteningly Kafkaesque. In “the City,” we come across sunscreen-wearing skeletons drinking tea on footpaths, while the cows of the blue moon sharpen the teats of their udders. In ‘Paraspondia,’ which could possibly be translated as ‘Mis-libation,’ he teases: “Only in your mask can I pillage the dampness of the forest. How can you reciprocate the endless demands of the Sirens? We empty our realization of ideals into the empty echo of watered down wine-pots. Vessels will chase you on their knees, with your tongue hanging out, until your demise.” In others, he is uncharacteristically frank about his perception of his cultural references. In “Paramythia” (fairytales), he says: “We have allowed many fairy-tales to wake up without a beginning, rivers, to sleep without end. They were not ours. They belonged to those who came before us, to the death-rattle of the soul-battling rushes of the grass matting.” In this poem we have the description of the creative process which is founded on the rupture from the paramythi, evoking imagery that appears to derive from the lake at Ioannina – an important geographical reference point for Kalimniou. The piecing together of rushes, into a mat that one can step on but also forget, are gathered from diverse and disparate sources to form a συλλογή (a collection of the mind). In this process the worth of the paramythi is not diminished but rather it is assigned an archetypal positioning as its abrupt cessation and its symbolic dismantling becomes the source of inspiration, allowing for new stories to be retold and written down.
As Anna Dimitriou explains: “This he does using an expressive version of the Greek language, not limited to the past hundred years as he himself says, but rather one which ‘spans the gamut of the Greek language from Homer to Ritsos.’ His mind contains not only many words but also disparate images which together with words form stories from the material and the immaterial world… One cannot accurately translate all his words, nor can one describe the sounds of these rhythms together with the meanings and associations embedded in these tones, but one can convey the effect that these tones make on the bicultural and bilingual interpreter and translator so that these can be shared. His τέχνη (technique as style) is related to the way he identifies with his cultural heritage for as he himself admits ‘it is impossible to understand Greece, Greeks or Greek-Australians and their αυτοαντίληψη (self conception) without reference to the paramythic.”
This is absolutely true. More than his previous works, Apteros Niki is concerned with the influence and confluence of illusion and delusion upon the reader’s psychology. The poems, heavily laden with cryptic influences to the 3000 year range of Greek literature and other literary traditions, such as Babylonian, Persian and French, almost defy translation without extensive footnotes to explain the significance and multiple meanings of the words. For in Kalimniou’s poems, every single word is important, to be glossed over at the reader’s peril. Further, as Anna Dimitriou righly points out, each word is also culturally significant: “Kalimnios shows that language is not a relic, nor does it have an autonomous life of its own. He shows through the wide range of words he employs that language is part of a dynamic system of adaptation and change occurring within culture and therefore the focus becomes a cultural one not a linguistic one. Such cultural pride allows him to write poetry solely in Greek in order to show that ‘a language like Greek, in a multicultural country such as Australia, can be a valid Australian literary language.’ … It appears as an act of defiance against universalisation of English, with his play on words and meaning showing that the superficial universality of English can be encroached upon by great works of thought in national tongues and especially in the demotic language of the people. As his level of dexterity between languages, English and Greek, is so fluid he defies assimilation and reduction and makes a forward movement in literature which invites an ignorant, even hostile audience to make an effort in interpretation as the effort is worthwhile…. The paradox with Kalimnios is that, although his poems are literary and exclusive because of the wide knowledge that that the writer displays in regard to history and culture, the tone of his poetry invites understanding which transcends logic, and can be considered to belong to the sphere of the subconscious. The best analogy to describe this is a connection with words which though not readily understood, require mediation through translation. They captivate the imaginary, the senses and the soul even though linguistically they are not so accessible.”
For all its triumphalism, mysticism and hyperbole, dashed to pieces by the subtle interpolation of instability, fear and insecurity, it is for the reader to go through the physical and emotional trauma necessary to face the Minotaur at the centre of Apteros Niki’s labyrinth and to gauge its victory or otherwise for itself. When, as Dimitriou expounds, there is an exchange between ideas and ways of interpreting poetry such as Kalimnious’ highly allusive and enigmatic poetry then there is an opening up of Australian literature. He opens up for a revision of the way that our present can poetically be negotiated through memory, history and the experiences of the past. A person’s experience can be simultaneously individual and collective and Kalimnios shows that although the hegemony would like to categorise and dominate those who are on the margins, projecting a certain image within a specific frame, and enforce a specific tongue and language as well as written text, it is the individual who is equipped with a sound knowledge of his cultural past who can re-assert his true identity and speak in his own language without the need to cringe. The oral tradition enriches his intercultural vision and expands the poetic collections’ meaning by giving it an added depth and rhythm. Maybe, then the ultimate victory of Apteros Niki, is its conception and publication.
University of Melbourne English Department
The launch of Apteros Niki will take place at 3pm 31 May 2009 at 3rd floor, GOCMV building, 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.