Saturday, December 15, 2018


When I met Ari, in a tavern in Plaka that evening, it was as a kindred spirit. At least, that is what my Grecian hosts told me. “Come and meet an Αυστραλό like yourself.” And there was Ari, blonde, blue eyed, with the bronzed complexion of a Wanda Beach surfer, even though he hailed from western Sydney, resplendent in jean cut-off shorts and tight t-shirt, clutching at a plastic souvenir bag, emblazoned with a blue representation of a hyper-muscular Hercules in the process of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon an endangered member of the feline species.
“Whataya got there mate?” I asked him.
“Oh, just some books and shit,” he remarked laconically. “History and philosophy mainly. My aim is to travel around, rediscover my roots. Brush up on my language skills. Dad was Greek but mum is Aussie so I never really learnt the language. Love it here though. It’s as if I’ve come home.”
 “Isn’t he gorgeous?” one of my hosts gushed. “What a pity he is Greek. I’ve always wanted to date an authentic Αυστραλό.”
 “What do you mean Greek?” a corpulent, balding male host interjected, visibly enraged. “He isn’t Greek. He IS an authentic Αυστραλό. He looks, acts and speaks nothing like us. He doesn’t live here. He has no idea what it is like to be a Greek.”
 “You getting any of this?” I turned aside to Ari as the group descended into a heated discussion as to Ari’s ethno-cultural affiliation.
“Some,” Ari admitted. “What’s going on?”
 “She is saying she wants to date a real Australian but you are Greek and he is saying you are a real Australian.”
 “He wants to shag her doesn’t he?”
 “So if she is saying that the reason why she doesn’t want to date me is because I’m Greek, why on earth is he maintaining that I’m Aussie? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?”
 “I don’t think he’s picked up on that, yet,” I replied.
 Ari crossed his thong-shod foot over his leg and leaned back nonchalantly.
“Two bob short of a pound. Well, I’ll be whatever she wants me to be, as long as I can take her out,” he finally opined. “She’s a good sort, isn’t she?”
 “Taste is as taste does,” I riposted by way of obfuscation.
“You bet it is,” he remarked, reaching for his wine.
 As I reached for my own glass, I watched Ari, sitting now with his legs wide open, his countenance adorned with an expansive grin, soaking up the musky nocturnal air. Though he followed the conversation, he did not participate and we both sat, listening attentively, as our hosts meandered in their discussion from Ari’s identity, to whether Australia is a British colony, whether Greece is a European colony, and the quaintness of Greek-Australian tourists arriving in Greece and seeking an affiliation with their Helladic cousins. Not once were we asked to proffer an opinion, or to verify any of the facts that were being disputed.

Ari yawned and I was immediately reminded of Constantine Cavafy’s poem “The Prince of Western Libya”:

“Aristomenis, son of Menelaos,
 the Prince from Western Libya,
 was generally liked in Alexandria
 during the ten days he spent there.
 As his name, his dress, modest, was also Greek.
 He received honors gladly,
 but he did not solicit them; he was unassuming.
 He bought Greek books,
 especially history and philosophy.
 Above all he was a man of few words.
 It got around that he must be a profound thinker,
 and men like that naturally don’t speak very much.”

“You Aussies don’t talk very much,” the fleshy man who questioned Ari’s identity, now more relaxed after the fifth glass of wine, observed.

“Hang on, I thought we were Greek,” I replied slowly and carefully, weighing each word as I spoke it. I was in Athens, a place where the dialect of my Anatolian ancestors and my own mother tongue was neither spoke, nor socially accepted. Consequently, whenever in Athens, the speed of my conversation would automatically be halved, as I sought, simultaneous to carrying on a conversation, to: a) find urban equivalents for the rural idiomatic expressions used in my own idiolect, b) eradicate the elision of vowels and undulating intonation that is evidence of rural and thus extraneous provenance. More often than not the mental and linguistic strain would prove too great and I would either choose the wrong words, or stumble over them, as they forced themselves out of my mouth, hence my reticence at conversing. After all, I was “home,” and did not want to do anything or say anything that would call my belonging to that home, into question.

Lovingly rubbing his stomach, he looked me up and down: “Well you could pass as a Greek,” he offered. “I mean, except for the funny way you speak. But your friend, absolutely not. And forgive me for saying so but what is it about Australia that makes you all so socially inept? None of you know how to behave, or to carry on a proper conversation. You are not so bad. Your friend, however, is a prime example. We all speak English. Why can’t he learn Greek? And then he calls himself a Greek. Everything about him is ersatz.”
Again, Cavafy’s words pervaded my thoughts:
“He was neither a profound thinker nor anything else—
just a piddling, laughable man.
 He assumed a Greek name, dressed like the Greeks,
 learned to behave more or less like a Greek;
 and all the time he was terrified he would spoil
 his reasonably good image
 by coming out with barbaric howlers in Greek
 and the Alexandrians, in their usual way,
 would make fun of him, vile people that they are.”

Ari observed us, leaning back on his chair, his arm now draped around that of his effusive admirer with the majesty and self-assuredness of a western Libyan prince of old. It was not Ari, the archetypical Libyan prince that Cavafy was lampooning in his poem. Was he instead, drawing my attention to the disconnect between the way the Alexandrians thought of themselves and how they related to the Prince? After all, is it ever possible for a person who is foreign to deceive those who already belong to the cultural discourse in which he seeks entry and validation? How can the Alexandrians, on the one hand, consider the foreign prince who is making an effort to be a “Greek,” “a profound thinker,” and on the other “just a piddling, laughable man…coming out with barbaric howlers in Greek,” for their derision?

«Έχς ζήσ’ αβδά συ πουτές;» I asked the belly-stroker, without thinking.
What?” he winced.
«Έχεις ζήσει εκεί ποτέ σου;» I rephrased the question in modern Greek, incensed that despite being on my guard, I had allowed myself to bring forth such an idiomatic howler.
“No, and why should I? I am Greek and my country is Greece. I won’t abandon her in her time of need, like so many others who now want to return and call themselves Greek..”

“This was why he limited himself to a few words,
 terribly careful of his syntax and pronunciation;
 and he was driven almost out of his mind, having
 so much talk bottled up inside him.”

Cavafy’s last lines juxtapose the way the Alexandrians viewed the prince of Libya with the viewpoint of the poem’s narrator. In the stanzas before, it became evident that more than exposing the irony of employing pretence to belong to a group that won’t have you as a member, and as a result, deprive you of your voice, the poem serves to highlight the arrogance of a cultural group that holds itself out to be superior. Now, in his final stanza, the agitation is completely internal, focusing on the tensions within the narrator’s own narrative. His own understanding of the Prince’s motives is filled with self-doubt and unconsciously and he begins to emulate the arrogance of the Alexandrians he so derides. In phase such as “he was driven almost out of his mind,” and “and all the time he was terrified,” we come to understand that he is not objective and that these phrases, rather than merely providing insight into the Prince’s pretentiousness at the hypocrisy involved in cultural appropriation, mirror instead, the narrator’s anxiety and empathy at his own need to respond in an appropriate way to his own cultural paradigm. It was not Ari who was the Prince. It was Constantine.

Ari and the object of his affection stood up. “We’re gonna call it a night, mate,” he slurred, his arm coiled around her waist. Catch up tomorrow? Late?”

The Belly-Rubber shot me a look of horror and also rose: «Λέω να την κάνω κι εγώ.» Pointing to the food on the table, he asked: «Όλα αυτά πληρωμένα έτσι;»
I replied in the affirmative.
«Τα λέμε. Όλα τα καλά,» he propelled his considerable bulk onto the street.
«Κι πάντα πλήθια,» I called back, employing the old ancestral wishes for abundance my people use in Australia.
“What?” he called back.
“You’re Greek, look it up,” I responded. Flexing my shoulders, I draped my jacket around them like a royal cloak, and strode off into the night, every bit a prince of western Libya, my imaginary linguistic retinue, clearing the road before me.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 December 2018

Saturday, December 08, 2018


“how impossible the perfect finality of immolating you in wine – a bottle already emptied.” George Mouratidis.
Central to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the exploration of unfulfilled longing, or rather the lifetime pursuit of completeness. That this torment is eternal, is illustrated by the fact that her work is subtitled the modern Prometheus. The archetypal mythological figure of Prometheus, in his quest to push the boundaries, defy heavenly imposed limits and provide mankind with knowledge and enlightenment, roused the fury of the Olympians, through his industrial espionage, stealing the secret of fire. By way of punishment, he was condemned to be chained to a rock to have his liver eaten out every day by an eagle. Every night his liver would grow back and the torment was to continue for eternity.
There is pain and latent subversion in incompleteness. Plato, in The Symposium parallels the Promethean archetype and the torment of loss:
“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
The human condition therefore, whether by design or accident, whether via Prometheus, Frankenstein or the archetypal Platonic man, arises from a sense of consequence resulting from seeking enlightenment and power. Victor Frankenstein is the Shelleyan incarnation of Prometheus. He as Prometheus was, is fascinated by the power of electricity/lightning and obsessed with regeneration.
So too is local poet George Mouratidis in his recently published collection: “Angel Frankenstein.”  “I sing her beauty from the roofs and fences of this neighbourhood this town where god is killed and resurrected every day in this world,” he writes. 
The entire narrative is one of dysfunctional resurrection.  The poet, in a series of Proustian madeleine moments, experiences a series of ecstasies of remembrance that flow from and cluster around each other in an effort to conquer time itself.
Time and Loss itself are the Poet’s Frankenstein. Embedded within the memories that comprise the narrative is a lament for the existence and loss of growing up in the eighties in Thomastown, with all of its vibrancy, bleak contradictions, unfulfilled longings and sterility of horizon. The front cover of the collection, a typical Melbournian security door is a stark evocation of that time. A small red carnation laced through the wire mesh evokes the almost extinct Greek Australian custom of leaving a flower at someone’s front door when they are not home in order to draw attention to the thwarted visit. Mouratidis’ collection plays exactly the same role: An attempt to revisit a past that is no longer there, highlighting the pain and sweet sorrow at trying to make one’s mark upon that past and connect with it, knowing that the means to do so are as impermanent and as perishable as a flower upon a security door. Further, the very gesture of marking one’s presence with the flower, real or poetic has more to do with one’s relationship to the door that bars entry that the realm it grants access to. How that realm will interpret our gesture is a question that the poet also raises.

Throughout the collection, insight is displayed as to the futility of the poets undertaking. As galvanic as his poetry is, can we really hope to animate the corpse of our own history and what truly is the point of jump-starting an agglomeration of defunct body parts? Is it not narcissistic to even presume to do so? “How selfish the worm of my own thinking/ when all your thought/ is wiped/ like a smudged fingerprint/ from a smashed cup/ by some thing I can never know. I think/ how deep that black worm has burrowed,/ how much of your life and mine it has eaten and/how much can be saved…./YESTERDAY…./THIS morning….” the poet writes.
The pages upon which his muscular but melodious words cascade themselves, are palimpsests, underwritten by the existential scrawls of all those who have come before and populated his world: Drug addicts, suicides, Ljubce the neighbourhood wife-beater, self-righteous “uncles and aunts” posing  relating to and discoursing each other in passive-aggressive emergent bourgeois patois, all partaking of a long lost liturgy whose cadences still reverberate within the poet’s chest and torment him as he attempts to articulate them, in a world in which they are decontextualized to the point of being unintelligible: “how the worm twists hungrily/ in your wake,/ how much of my life it has eaten/ already, over-/ gorged and/ shivering in/ my perishable chest.”

It is from this power, the power to evoke , recall and purport to reconstruct the vivacity of life (“neither rhyme or reason holds a thousand fields of beacons to this presence of your loving heart that keeps the beat the beat of pulsing life that passes day and night”) that he has equipped himself with, that the inner torture he will suffer from the use of it stems. Lost Greek-Australia bears scant relation to its contemporary incarnation. It also bears scant relation to the way it is portrayed in history and the memories of others who have partaken of it. It is a “kaleidoscope of crazy is a καρναβάλι down my dimwit street.” His torture mirrors that of Prometheus’ undying , eternal  and also impossible to relate to unless one “hangs discarded in my/ dreams, where you still/ hold that black worm in your/ heart for me to extract – a devouring/ ghost frozen – your ghost flesh/ clenched in chipped stone teeth,/ the star in your laugher..”
“How trite/ your death/is /my death too..” the poet observes seemingly flippantly, about the starting point of his pursuit. His is a nonchalance that stems from discipline and rigour. The apparently effortless movement of the text is far more than a mere contrivance of recollection. The poet puts on a bravura display of differing voices and opposing tonalities, conflicting verse forms and metric schemes, a deliberate compendium of the diverse manifestations of memory which veers from coyness to savagery. This is the counterpoint of light reverie or the melancholy of mellifluous apodemic nostalgia; the hammering contempt for hypocrisy and the vanity of affectation, spoken with the authority of one invested in its passage, with the unyielding force of his moral compass allowing no compromise in language or grammar. Truth telling of this kind can largely dispense with the strictures of verb and adjective. In his expert hands, Mouratidis’ words become the cloth of the Fates, intricately woven, only to be sundered at the loom, keening in vain at the impossibility of its re-attachment to anything but our own memory. Thus, for all their materiality, the poems are counterpoised within a tension of belonging, escaping, but enduring, even when purportedly lost within the material world. There is a bewitching fluency in the poet’s design, a sense that the dross of contemporary existence can be left behind for a floating of tortured evanescence, before we realise that our flotation devices anchor us, directly into the chthonic paradigm that informs the entire work. Past, present and future, here conflate.
Mouratidis’ use of the Greek throughout the collection is significant. There is none of the tokenistic or fetishizing sprinkling of Greek words to add an exotic ethnic flavour for the benefit of the orientalising mainstream palette, as blights the work of lesser Greek-Australian poets. Instead, Mouratidis renders the Greek language it its proper linguistic context within Australia, wherein both the English and Greek languages are intermixed indiscriminately and unconsciously. The spelling used is often deliberately archaic or incorrect, faithfully recording the writings of first generation migrants who were not afforded an opportunity to complete their education. The misspelling of words such as «σαςαφείνω» is a telling symbol of a world misremembered, misrepresented, misforgotten and possibly, through the poet’s own efforts, mis-resurrected. It also artfully conveys a sense of contrived affinity as the poet, of another generation and social class, points to linguistic and narrative approximates in order to justify his place, beyond the wire mesh door: “I arrived here on a Qantas flight in 1978/ not a packed deck of men and women, kids against the rail, waving/ to the waiting clouds below on Station Pier,/ but I did…. Their stories are my stories too..”
In Canto 5 of Songs of the Last Chinese Poet, Ouyang Yu reflects: “your lost identity will forever pull you back/ towards the centre of chaos/ its’ better to stay there/for it’s a way of life you have been used to/ like if you are used to death/ life will be a kind of torture to you.”
It is this salvific knowledge of the lingering mouldering suffering of Frankenstein’s reanimation at the hands of the wordsmith that is our course but ultimately, our salvation. George Mouratidis’ “Angel Frankenstein” is perhaps the most profound poetic treatment of the way we view, contextualize and efface our antipodean existence within its history while simultaneously constituting a dirge for a time and place, forever lost, yet omnipresent, placed within the ultimate dirge for the times and places lost prior to that within the mother country. As the poet urges: 
“Stay close to me my love,/ my heart/ until we both get dug/ in sixty thousand years.
Angel Frankenstein is published by Soul Bay Press.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 December 2018