Saturday, June 24, 2017


"Mitrides," or Motherlands is the latest and perhaps most complex of Dean Kalimniou's collections of poetry. Like all his work, the Mitrides are polyvalent, ambiguous and often-self contradictory. As a result they frame a narrative, continuing on from his earlier collections, drawn largely from the ruptures and fissures in historical temporality and the forced yet seamless looking co-existence of eras. It is this kaleidoscope that he postulates, forms a section of reality. 
The title of the collection itself is problematic. In real terms, one can have no more than one motherland, just as one can have no more than one mother. Almost all the poems in the collection refer to places within Epirus, the place of origin of the poet's mother, yet neither his mother, nor the poet has any tangible connection with most of the places referred to, with a few notable exceptions. Significantly, the poet's native language is the Samian dialect of Greek, which renders his use of idiomatic Epirotic in the first poem of the collection "Ενθύμιον," (Collection) and in the last "Θαυμαστά Φύλα" (Amazing Tribes), noteworthy.  Furthermore, the term "Mitrides" is an obsolete one, referred to in Plato's Republic and Herodotus' Histories but has now fallen out of use. The resuscitation of the term, is in keeping with Kalimniou's diachronic perception of the Greek language, which gives the entire gamut of a 3,000 year old vocabulary a remarkable synchronicity, analogous to Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio's appropriation of medieval Italian terms for his own modern Italian work. Is Kalimniou therefore constructing his own language with which to articulate a Greek-Australian reality? 
It is worthwhile to examine other connotations of the term, notably that it is derives from the word "μήτρα" which means womb. Rather than a collection of motherlands, is what we are compelled to look at in this collection, rather, a collection of wombs as the ultimate truth? In the poem: "Μητρικό," which could be translated as "Maternal" but also as "pertaining to the womb," Kalimniou views the womb as the place where words lose their power: "Just before your door/ perish the unsaid words/ that are absent/ from the great dictionaries." Is Kalimniou therefore seeking to deconstruct his own poetics into an elemental form, within a crucible not of his own making but rather, originally utilised to create his own sense of self? 
Kalimniou returns to the womb motif again and again in his poetry, especially in those of his many poems that have to do with Lake Pamvotis in Ioannina, a place that seems to exert a strange fascination upon him and assumes in his work, the archetype of the universal womb. In "Λίμνη" (Lake) he merges local legend with the biblical tradition, speaking of Kyra Frosyni, the hapless concubine of Ali Pasha who was drowned in that same lake, as walking on its surface, supported by the marbled palms of drowned martyrs. However, this menacing mother figure straps nielloed ice to her back (a reference to the traditional art of silver smithing for which Ioannina is famous), in the place where she would carry a child. Furthermore, it is our mobile phones that this Ur-mother is swaddling, and not us, as she ominously calls us to her. In "Παμβώτις Δ'" (Pamvotis IV), Kalimniou describes Lake Pamvotis as a tablecloth laden with geometrical symbols symbolic of the womb, such as an isosceles triangle, equating these "narrow/ like oblivion/ ruthless volcano[s]/ with the stature 
of death." In "Κατακάθια" ("Dregs") he positions himself and the reader, squarely in that womb: "Amidst/ the dregs/ of the Lake/ we also hide..." Here then, amniotic fluid is dark and deadly. 
Other bodies of water also significantly make themselves present in the work. Sagiada, positioned on the westernmost point of mainland Greece, whether the river Thyamis flows into Ionian sea, is not only a place of extremity, but also a "motherland" since the river Thyamis gives its name to the Tsamiko dance, a dance that defines Epirotic and Greek traditional identity in general, but also, its narrow channel is also a place of still-birth. Thus, in Σαγιάδα, all forms of consolation are removed and the reader is offered: "rudimentary and self-serving justifications/ that this is demanded/ by the drowned fairies/ of the marsh." 
On the other hand, the land and seascape at Sorrento, in the homonymous poem, far from being laden with perils, renders any attempt to rationalise the world around us frivolous and hedonistic, regardless as to whether we reference our traditions, or place of ancestry while doing so. Is the poet mocking us, himself and his entire world? The notable absence of any maternal imagery perhaps provides a clue.    
The Freudian aspects of Kalimniou's poetry, which are generally subliminal, and while intrinsic to an understanding of his poetics, have not been considered by scholars in any depth, are in this collection, afforded greater prominence and deserve further scrutiny for these offer a fresh and important perspective into any debate about the modern Greek-Australian identity and its construction. It is in its unique tackling the Freudian aspects of our individual grappling with our  sense of self and making sense of the accretions and centuries of cultural and other baggage bequeathed to us by those who gave us life, that the true value and uniqueness of "Mitrides" lies. 
In keeping with the central motif, the world of Mitrides is a feminist one. Apart from a few references to some historical figures that have to do with Epirus, Kalimniou's "Motherlands" are almost entirely peopled by women, from strong women such as Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great (he writes in "Olympias:" "Your shadow/ and the Molossian/ hound,/ are my most tragic companions.../ your wounds vanish/ along with the canine teeth/ rendering phosphorescent/ the caves of slumber,"), the queen of the medieval Despotate of Epirus Theodora Komnena, who, in the poem "Θεοδώρα Κομνηνή" "humbly and unassumingly/ serves out her time/ on the capital of the holy," the poet's own great-grandmother Panagio of whom: "The unity of the circles/ which bear witness/ to the age of destiny/ whisper/ her conjoined orphanhood,/ to terra-cotta sarcophagi," to more archetypal figures such as the tellingly Epirotic Mother Goddess Dione, whose "most secret and vanquished pleasures" are whitewashed  by male priests, in "extracts of domes," in the poem "Bizani", mythological characters such as Circe, the dimensions of whose pelvis we are called upon to time in the poem "Zavali," the hapless Io who awaits: "in the hem of a burial shroud,/the negation of the privations/ of a foustanella-wearing neomatur St George," in the poem: "Τελευταίος Ασπασμός" and, in a clever interpolation of rival matriarchies, the Levantine goddess Astarte, whose "superseded paeans cannot be discerned/ in the car park's road signs," in the poem "Κυρά Βασιλική." That this is an ersatz matriarchy we should steer clear of, is evidenced in 
the fact that the poet places as her chief worshipper, an unfeminised Delilah, replete with a wig, presumably of Samson's hair. Instead, in the poem "Πωγωνιανή," femininity and motherhood, as they apply to the reader, are placed in what appears to be their proper perspective: "On the fluff/ of moth-eaten sengounia/ weigh up these words:/ daughter, sister, woman./ The heaviest: Mother." This is because it is often through the medium of matriarchy that the traditions, memories and cultural norms that the poet is attempting to contextualise, are passed down. 
Mitrides is a complex, labyrinthine work that envelops the reader gently and suggestively at first, only to develop into a roller-coaster ride of emotion, almost Kafka-esque fear and uncertainty that threatens to derail both the reader and the poet, each time the work inverts or alludes to turning upon itself. Except that it doesn't. Whether the reader has chosen to decode the significance of the vast numbers of intertextual references to Epirotic mythology, history and literature, discover in the meter of the poems homage to demotic folk-song and the Byzantine musical tradition or lose themselves in the irony of his word-play the clever way in which each poem is built and also threaded onto the one before it, allows the reader to pace themselves, while considering the larger questions of identity posed in this highly personal work. 
Ultimately, in the final poem, resolution, of a sort is achieved by means of the poet arresting our fears of fluidity by intimating that the corpus of our ancestors' inheritance can be set in stone by their descendants. Maybe. Because as he states, we don't really know where that stone may be. 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 June 2017