"Australia of impatient departures and pleasant arrivals. Fifty years later, who are the dinky di Australians, and are the migrants? Who are the New Australians? And what are the Aborigines who didn't count, back then?"
Academic, man of Greek letters and radio programmer extraordinaire Christos Fifis' second published collection of poems: "Where is the place for a village?" turns explorer and grazier John Batman's statement of 1835, upon viewing the future site of Melbourne: "This is will be the place for a village," into a quest for soul-searching and an invitation to enter into a dialectical discourse about identity. Statements such as "The drums beat ceaselessly: The earthen men, belong to the soil on which they dance, for they will enter the soil, in their earth..." as well as "My Greece... has no borders, it is beyond the map....Now that I am departing for Athens, I know I am going to another foreign land, but my old voice calls from deep inside me. I can no longer stay," provide bittersweet truths about the migration experience. The paradigm shifts ancillary to relocating to another country and culture often remain imperceptible when one is concerned with the difficult task of acculturation and resettlement and are only identified years or decades later, when, the realisation comes that the basic values and underlying ideologies of the host country and the country of origin, have changed. Then, a whole identity shift is made: "Our new country is our children, who we brought up during the war, privation and longing."
I would have liked to have seen a good deal more of Christos Fifis' countless students, those who have had the benefit of his knowledge and who have been the main recipients of his passion for Greek letters over the many years of his contribution to the Greek community, at the launch of his collection. For apart from, like many of his counterparts, expressing the heart-wrenching predicament of being torn between two countries, Christos Fifis' poems do something infinitely more valuable. They transport us back in time, to a dim period in our community history, which has all but been forgotten. Our founding myths tend to grant Olympian status to the migrants of the 50s and 60s who arrived here by boat. Those migrants were only dimly aware of the doings of the Titans who arrived before them in the 20s and 30s, and whose history is even more fascinating. Through his poems describing the migrants of that forgotten era, and especially when he depicts them in their declining years, Christos Fifis not only brings them back to life but also provides a noteworthy parallel between them and their younger counterparts, who, it is suggested, are undergoing the same decline, with the same concerns as their predecessors today. In the poem: "When affluence becomes a double-edged sword," a denizen of one of the long gone city cafes, Barba Stathis muses: "I think of you youngsters, of whom we are so proud. Where we began, where we have gotten to. The lawyers, the doctors, the successful business men. Who we are, where we are going. Our community often loses you, and is diminished. Always remember us, old Alfros added. With you, our community expands. Through you, we live." This is a most poignant lament of the mass rejection of the organised Greek community by latter generations and especially those 'professionals,' who earlier generations believe are equipped with the skills to propel and further the interests of that community.
In "Now the Community is affluent," Christos Fifis emphasises this mass desertion by juxtaposing it with past arguments and debates centred around making the Greek community more inclusive. Considering the situation today, this grants the poem an ironic tone that guarantees its success: "Now the youngsters want action. To express our opinion and be heard. To enter the Committees, to re-establish the Communities, to democratize the Archdiocese, to rejuvenate our organisations...To suggest to the President of the community, to demand that they send great musicians from Greece for the Glendi, tsiftetelia and American songs for the youth...to value and honour our local poets and the musicians of the second generation."
The inference is clear. Somehow, affluence has presided over, or caused the erosion of the close knit Greek community, along with its values. For Chistos Fifis' poems reveal another aspect of the migrant experience that these days is also in danger of being forgotten: their progressive spirit and fight for social justice. As the poet reveals in: "Gathering for Peace," the protagonists of such endeavours were always few but extremely influential and their ideals transcended the everyday humdrum existential quest for sustenance and material security. Those idealistic youths with the noble ideals are now hidden behind the creases in the care-worn faces and the grey hair of their older avatars. Nonetheless, these stalwarts of change still have much to say and contribute to any modern social debate - arguably much more than their progeny, nurtured in the stultifying materialism of the affluence that was a byproduct of their forebears' energy and exuberance. Fifis' elephantine memory restores some of the more important social activists from the forgetfulness of the communal Lethe. In particular, in the "Southern Argonaut," which describes the poet's friendship with Nikos Ninolakis, an important Greek literary figure, Christos Fifis paints a picture of a politically aware generation, scarred by war, so anxious to avoid it, possessed of thought critical enough to see through unquestioning adherence to any cause presented by means of propaganda and engaging in informed debate on the topics of the day. All this Christos Fifis sets in the mythical Colchis of the Argonauts, a land now wrapped in the mists of time and lost to the consciousness of most Greeks. Presciently, Fifis wraps Ninolakis in that mist, stating that he only crosses from it into clarity when he is read by his ever diminishing (owing to the decline in Greek literacy) readers. It is also a condition he has predetermined for himself.
Christos Fifis approaches the loss of the Greek language in a novel way, interspersing his sorrow at its declining course, with reflections as to its inevitability and wonderment by older generations that should be so. Such reflections are not without humour, as when in the first poem of the collection, 'Little Johnny's' grandmother, incensed at her grandson's lack of fluency in Greek exclaims: "Learn some Greek my child so you can wish me "Gut Mornink." In "Barba Stathis' Lament," a grandfather's exhortation to his grandchildren to learn the language of Homer, Seferis, Ritsos and Elytis, a language that was not lost under centuries of repression, falls on deaf ears as the grandchildren retort: "You Greeks don't understand us. We are Australians, they tell me. And you grandfather, with fifty five years in Australia and lifed most of your life here. What are you? You should have been an Australian too, they tell me. What do you say to them now? What can you say?" The inference that to Barba Stathis or the poet, identity is not a matter of topography but of choice should not escape us.
Choice also features in those of his poems where he beatifies the pioneering members of the first generation. In "The oldies of Community legend," he asks the question: "Who, my dears, understands the saints, except for the faithful. And the faithful are always few." Whereas in "The Stylites had longing and passion," the poet brilliantly compares those solitary pioneers to the legendary Byzantine stylites of the Syrian desert: "Wrong! The stylites did not become saints because of their pillars. It was because they had longing, burning an passion." The juxtaposition of the qualities that underwrote their success against their loneliness and half-forgotten memory are a profound evocation of a possible future for the Greek community.
Christos Fifis' poetry is as simple and unaffected as the themes and motifs he employs are profound. Where he does lapse into lyricism, that lyricism is not gratuitous or contrived but an aid to the evocation of a wider Greek poetical tradition. The poet's masterful way of weaving parallel storylines through imaginary conversations between members of the community as a way of exploring themes give these greater immediacy and permit readers to identify with them readily. If ever there was a Greek- Australian book of poetry crying out for translation into English and further study, this would definitely be it. Though ten marks must be afforded to anyone can adequately translate the verse: «Η Δεκαοχτούρα στην Αυστραλία... δεν κράζει δεκαοχτώ...κλαίει «Εϊντίν..», for it is here that the heart of the poets' paradox resides.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 June 2012