Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dreams of Clay, Drops of Dew: The life work of Dina Amanatides

"Tonight a candle came alight/ in my soul, burning for all of us./ Atonement for the actions of the powerful!/ For Peace, who mourns and wails!" Bitter Resurrection, Dina Amanatides
In a recent letter to me, Dina Amanatides, commented upon the importance of social activism and the necessity of campaigning for a better, more humane and harmonious world through poetry. As I read through her letter, executed in handwriting as intricate and beautiful as lacework, I was transported to a dreary and rainy Sunday afternoon of my youth. Seated in a crowded lecture theatre, half-listening to a writer from Greece ramble interminably about subjects I lacked the vocabulary to understand, I looked on disinterestedly as a lady with large glasses and even larger hair mounted the podium. With low, halting diction, she proceeded to recite a poem she had written about Northern Epirus so movingly, that it took my breath away. Her words: "Life without Freedom, is no life at all," echo within my memory to the present day and I would partly ascribe my abiding interest in Northern Epirus, to that Sunday afternoon.
Yet Dina Amanatides cannot be relegated only to the reciting of a poem of singular beauty some twenty-four years ago. She is one of the first post-war Greek-Australian women poets and writers in Melbourne, her work appearing in Greek newspapers and magazines in Australia as far back as 1958. A large corpus of her literary output deals with the problems of immigration - the pain of longing for a lost home country and way of life, juxtaposed against the optimism of settling in a new land, seizing opportunities and learning to deal with prevailing conditions in Australia. Due to the fact that her writings provided the migrant Greek community with a point of reference, consolation and encouragement, her work has been overwhelmingly well received by the Greek-Australian community. Without a doubt she is one of our community's most recognised and influential poets, a veritable voice of a generation, as can be evidenced by the poem "Hot Wind of Assimilation," where she writes: "My friend, here in the Antipodes/ the indolent summer comes late./ Cocooned in the memories of youth/ we have remained faithful to our nostalgia/ for our homeland," only to continue: "Memory is a knife that cuts."
Quite apart from expressing the innermost conflicts and emotions of an uprooted generation, Dina is also important historically. Hitherto, the passions, nostalgia and trauma of migration and the literature they have inspired have largely been the preserve and addressed to the first generation. Through Konstandina Dounis' recent excellent English translation of Dina Amanatides' "Dreams of Clay, Drops of Dew, her sensitivity, humanity and perspicacity have now become available to the latter generations as an important and accessible aspect of their heritage, granting them, a unique insight into the attitudes of their forebears. In many cases, her unique perspective is refreshing, as it transmutes the titanic pioneering figures who founded our community, into more intelligible, human figures, with faults and foibles, whose works and labours are not granted the permanency they expected of them in their youth. Thus, in "Dreams of Clay," she laments: "Our dreams are dust and tears,/ transformed into decaying clay/ by life's bitter knife-edge, tearing away at our existence.... The azure of the sea mocks us,/ for seeking relief/ travelling out of Greek waters... We created dreams of clay/ that dissolved at the first/ tremor of disappointment."
Candid and simultaneously iconoclastic, this poem shatters the myth that would see our adopted homeland as the Promised Land. The metoikesis here has been a difficult one, and those of the first generation that have the courage and introspection to do so, are able, along with the joys and successes, to also tally up their lost dreams and disappointments. Some of these, can be found within the second generation, though Dina Amanatides only hints at these in the most delicate of ways, for if anything, she is not preachy. Mostly, she views her generation as one that has been heinously hard done by, a generation for whom ideals and ideologies were mere obstacles in the gritty struggle for mere survival: "Don't talk to me about Paradise./ I drag Hell within me from my childhood days./ The reason? The Tyrant War that burnt our souls." This succinct thought is key to an understanding of the psychology of the first generation. Dina Amanatides does not try to overcome or justify the past. She merely serves to expose its unspoken effects upon an entire community: "The past has become petrified/ within my memory,/ so much so, that I've become a piteous fossil." Much of her work also concerns social problems such as isolation, drug abuse and serves as a cry of protest and despair against a world increasingly centered upon profit, rather than human warmth. In "Creation," which could be described as her poetic manifesto, she outlines how indignation at the state of society can inspire her: "The tears have stopped!/ Despair/ has now/ become poetry."
Certainly inspiration is not something that Dina Amanatides lacks, having published six poetry collections, six collections of scattered thoughts, five collections of short stories and a play. However, her literary talent has not been restricted solely to her own work. Along with her husband and inseparable sidekick Kyriakos, she has launched many books of poetry and prose in the Greek language, thus contributing to the flourishing and promotion of Greek-Australian literature in the Antipodes. Even when she is not presenting or launching books, her presence at such launches, coupled with her subversive and uproariously amusing comments and observations renders such events infinitely more enjoyable.
Further, given her legendary accessibility it is not uncommon that aspiring, and even established writers, seek her advice on the drafts of their work, before they submit them for publication. Dina Amanatides thus acts as a mentor to younger aspiring poets in both the Greek and English languages. I personally have been the recipient of her sage advice and I will never forget that the first time my own work was presented to the community was through her literary program, along with Kyriakos Amanatides, on 3XY Radio Hellas. Lately, she is encouraging me to delve into more traditional forms of poetry. Given that the injunction comes from a master of the art, resistance is futile.
Recently, Dina Amanatides has been awarded an Order of Australia, in recognition of her significance to this country and her literary work. While no awards can ever quantify the value of one so invaluable and intrinsic to the fabric of our community, it is well deserved and a singular honour for our community. I would venture to opine that two further awards must necessarily be given: One from the Greece, for as the poet herself states: "Greece is not just land,... it is the inextinguishable spark/ that the Greeks of the Diaspora carry with them.." and she is certainly proof of that. (Incidentally, the Greek government would have done well to heed a warning provided in one of her scattered thoughts,: "Without the drachma,/ Greece loses her cultural identity.../ She becomes a puppet/ in the hands of the powerful/ and the profiteers. In the end, it will be the Euro/ that will annihilate us."
The second award, the one she would undoubtedly enjoy the most, being that rare thing, a true poet of the people, is the love and undying gratitude of the first generation and the emergence of a second generation willing to study and understand her works for what they are - an uninhibited and honest confession of emotions. This reward, as expressed in a recent tribute to her work organized by the Greek Australian Cultural League, is one that she has already been reaping for a long time, and will no doubt continue to do so for decades hence. As the alpha and omega of community poetry herself points out: "Only in the Greek language does the verb 'to love'/ begin with the first letter of the alphabet/ and end with the last letter."


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 March 2012