DINA DOUNIS: POEMS FOR MY MOTHER
Cafavy wrote of the Poeidonians that the only thing surviving from their ancestorswas a Greek festival, with beautiful rites. Ιn her poem “Visiting my mother,” referring to a visit to her mother’s grave, Dounis writes: “I kiss her photo, light the candle , prepare the incense... and let it burn …I tend to the flowers… The familiarity of ritual frames me, in my shadow of sorrow.” The bilingual language use thus frames a conceptual Poseidonian ritualism for reasons that will become apparent as the collection unfolds.
In the poem “My Childhood Home,”
“My childhood home,
rendered more cognizant now…
enshrouding the translucence
of that most poignant of mysteries.”
The last sentence appear in Greek as «του πιο οδυνηρού μυστηρίου.»The word poignant signifies something that is profoundly moving; touching. Οδυνηρός, however ventures off into the painful and the horrific. There seems to be a parallel narrative here, depending on which language you speak and the mythological requirements of each one. An experience (such as death or migration) may be poignant for the purposes of an Anglo-Saxon narrative) and horrific and painful for a Greek narrative. This is the language of myth and mystery. The poet will refer to this plurality of narrative and its convergence time and time again.
In the field of folkloristics, a myth is conventionally defined as a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. It could be that Poems for My Mother forms a personal myth and that Dina Dounis, in inducting us into its mysteries – for what else was a mystery in ancient times but a series of myths, symbols and stories about the divine that would only be revealed to the initiated? In the Orthodox tradition, it refers to that which, being outside the unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation.
The revelation here, then is the poet’s own cosmogony. We know that the poet came into being in her present form due to the union between her mother and father. However, what we also come to learn, is that her world, could very well be our world and that it is underpinned by a mythology and sacred doctrine of experiences of those primieval parents. Like Hesiod, she reveals to us the golden age of our antipodean existence:
“In the photograph is
a beautiful looking couple
they are happy
they are together
they have just arrived on this foreign shore
the endless hours in the factories and shops
have not yet etched
their endelible scars
on their face and body
there is only the anticipation of a better life.”
Reading this poem, which goes on to list the many sacrifices the poet’s parents made for her, one gets the feeling that much more is at play here. One feels as if the poet is describing a ritual and not just any ritual. If you remove the photograph and replace it with a chalice, you have a description of the Orthodox mystery of communion, replete with Orthodox hymnology. For the Eastern Orthodox, Christian life is centered in the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, the union of God and man. The Sacraments, or Sacred Mysteries are the most important means by which the faithful may obtain union with God,. Ιt could be said that poetically at least, Dina seeks that type of union, that communion through an understanding of the lives of her progenitors, including but limited to the sacrifice they made for us. She will do so by enumerating their works and deeds, much as Hesiod did for the ancient Greeks, in the hope that they imbue everything we do and that even when they are long forgotten by future generations, they will at least remain in ritual for tomorrow’s Poseidonians, to unsettle them and make them uneasy. That faith and ritual are at the center of this work, can be evidenced by the poem Byzantine Hymns, is a parallel and a response to Cafavy’s poem “In the Church”. Dina’s description of ordinary long lost events also is imbued with Orthodox symbolism:
“Every Easter a lamb was kept in the yard
And then slaughtered for the feast
The hanging carcass
Becoming the lamb on the spit
And the sausages, their deliciousness
An immediate recompense
For the horror of the preparation.”
Here we have the Pascal sacrifice, the book of the Apocalypse all rolled into one culinary morsel for easy bolting down. When the poet witnessed her parents slaughtering the sacrificial lamb, was she in fact witnessing the slaughter of their own hopes and dreams of happiness in a land not their own? Isn’t this the most poignant and horrific of mysteries – the myth-busting of the myth that we had nothing to eat, then came to Australia worked hard, had kids and then lived happily ever after?
As an aside, the poet related to me her daughter’s response to this particular myth element. It was one of incredulity. Such things, which many of us in this room have witnessed or partaken of have already passed into the realms of implausibility for the next generations.
One of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behavior. The figures described in myth are sacred and are therefore worthy role models for human beings. Thus, myths often function to uphold current social structures and institutions: they justify these customs by claiming that they were established by sacred beings. In this case of course, founding fathers/creators.
Another function is to provide people with a religious experience. By retelling myths, human beings detach themselves from the present and return to the mythical age, thereby bringing themselves closer to the divine. In fact, in some cases, a society will reenact a myth in an attempt to reproduce the conditions of the mythical age: for example, it will reenact the healing performed by a god at the beginning of time in order to heal someone in the present.
We see this approach to myth in the poem Greek school.:
“Australian at day school
Greek at home
The epicentre of cultural identity
Crystallised in the four hours at Greek school…
the glories of Greece
gave way, in our senior classes
to the world of Greek literature.."
How Poesidonian a moment is this. We go from the blind recitation of almost unintelligible mantras relating to our past, to a period of knowledge, knowing that we will swing back to a period of Poseiodianism once again. That small window of knowledge however, is a mythological age, the time when we truly knew what this transported culture was all about. It is a time that we need to refer to and perpetuate.
Time itself, for the Greeks, was a mythological being. In Dina Dounis’ work, time is of the because mythology is of necessity, backward looking, looking to the past to establish and explain the presence, as well as to guide the future. In Summers at Sorrento, while following the Poseidonian listing of symbolic elements, such as spanakopita, dolmades, roast chicken, honey cookies), what makes time wonderful, is our mother’s selfless fussing. Summers at Sorrento, describing the now largely lost custom of mass Greek picnics by the seaside, takes the same form as and is sister to the poem Soccer at Middle Park, which follows the same format: a liturgical listing of symbolic elements “an assortment of treats, oranges nuts and cake, passed along” as if in a communion of all those united by their attendance and adherence to the same tenets of identity. This moment is a break in time, a snapshot before the real essence of the progenitors existence, which is back breaking toil, again part of the sacrifice of those by the virtue of whose labours, time began for us.
Dina is, like Doctor Who, a Time Lord and she can play with time, showing that it is not just linear but can be looped, so that we are can be ensconced in a space time vortex. She can “resurrect the past” as she does in the poem “A Minutiae of Rememberance, where she recalls the exact details of a doll. In “Meanderings,” which again describes a semi linear progression that weaves back upon itself – a true reflection of Dina’s conception of time, we learn however, that this resurrection has side effects, namely “the intangible ache of the heart and the sadness of time’s passing.”
It is important, not only because of its attitude to time, its attempt to create a teleturgy for the mythologisation of the works and deeds of an entire generation but also because of the sensitive manner in which it mourns the passing of a truly remarkable woman.