Poetry review - Jena Woodhouse
UQP 2007; 99pp. RRP $23.95
Helen of Troy and Other Poems, Dimitris Tsaloumas's seventh collection of poetry in English, presents a substantial offering of new work from a mercurial and masterly talent.
As always, this poet brings to his creative practice a distillation of experience, observation and perception enriched and filtered by several cultural and linguistic sources, animated by personal memory and a mythopoeic imagination that characteristically taps into memory's aquifers to elicit dramatisations and evocations unconstrained by time. It seems as if he is able to bring a sense akin to a divinatory instinct to bear on this process.
Although Dimitris Tsaloumas was born in Greece, on the island of Leros in the Dodecanese archipelago, his formal education was initially in Italian, as those islands were under Italian hegemony from 1912 to 1947. By the time Tsaloumas left Greece in 1951 to migrate to Australia, he had already published two collections of poetry in Greek, the first with the assistance of Lawrence Durrell, whom he had met on Rhodes.
For me, there is a Heraclitan quality to Tsaloumas's work. It flows from the same river, but from collection to collection the waters cannot remain the same, although ideally the works in English might be read as a stream, a continuum. However, the hidden undercurrents belie surface appearances.
The tensions inherent in collections by this poet may derive in part from the tectonic plates of cultural underpinnings chafing against each other; from analogous tensions intrinsic to the poet; or neither; or both. The fact remains that there appear to be two dominant modes in the present collection: the lyric-elegiac and the ironic-ascetic-acerbic, with many formal and tonal nuances and variations lending stylistic pleophony and polyphony to the range.
Rich textures of language and structures of thought are matched by thematic abundance, yet while the heart of the matter may sometimes prove elusive, luminous presences pervade the poems that deal with love and ideal beauty, loss and memory. Tsaloumas has commented that Helen of Troy is his symbol of beauty in general. In view of this, the title poem is unexpectedly pithy, its tone that of an aside, information offered in confidence, whose import is by way of correcting a likely misconstruing of myth:
It isn't quite true that the Greeks
she lived in great luxury, content
with her handsome Prince,
if somewhat bored with all the fuss
and death beneath the walls.
But it was she, Zeus's own daughter,
who bade the Poet summon kings
and muster heroes eager to die
for her sake, and gods to plot
the proud city's immolation
that beauty might be remembered sung
to the conclusion of time.
(Helen of Troy)
The themes and concerns of this collection (as I read it) cohere as a preoccupation with beauty, the ideal as sometimes glimpsed in the actual, but more often purged of worldly impurities by memory or art, as in the case of Helen, the poet's mnemonic for beauty. But the supreme muse is perhaps memory, not only personal, but also collective and cultural, whose role is pivotal to poetry. Without memory - and here it is memory in its Platonic form - beauty lacks awareness of its antecedents, as in the poem 'Encounter in the Park', where a girl on a park bench is affronted by an old poet's presence, unaware of what her beauty signifies for him.
The quest, the journey, the return, nostalgia in the Greek sense of the word (a yearning for the homeland); the hovering, luminous presences of seasons past; mutability and the idea of the immutable, which exists as memory: these motifs recur in the fabric and fibre of Tsaloumas's poems as guests and visitants of the cosmology from which he draws consolation and renewed inspiration. Persephone incarnate, 'partridge-breast proud': a local girl glimpsed gathering flowers in spring near the mouth of the Underworld at Cape Tenaron ('The Traveller and the Maiden'); Eurydice ('Orpheus's lament' in the sequence 'A Winter Journey'); the Lady of the Garden of Weeds ('Three Tankas...'), a daughter of Attica ('Restoration') and the mother ('Incubus') are among many personae who perform multiple roles, as couriers of memory and psychopomps plying between past and present, between dream archetype and the physical world of sensory impressions.
I know the place
summer's perennial there
though the light is dim with age
a pewter light and all the air
sifting through shutters
and leaves the beat of wings
Helen of Troy and Other Poems has a tripartite structure as a collection. Almost half the poems are grouped in the untitled first section, which opens with 'Nostalgia: A Diptych', an elegiac poem that interweaves the nostalgia of brothers in exile, both the living and the no longer living, for the homeland. The persona of the second poem, like many of Tsaloumas's horsemen, knights and pilgrims, travels through time via memory to return to a familiar site. He is both there and not there.
The haiku sequence, 'Notes Towards a Story of Love', reveals the poet in a different mode. He has published haiku before, and these embrace the classic themes of nature, the seasons, elliptical points of contact with human affairs and emotions.
I think of you now
coming last spring, the courtyard
fresh with Easter rain.
Dark wine fills my cup.
Night-borne, forlorn, the call
of cranes flying south.
I kindle the fire.
Pear-blossom white of last spring,
the snow fogs cold panes.
'Helen of Troy', 'The Traveller and the Maiden', and 'Encounter in the Park' also appear in this section, but the most substantial and accomplished work is the sequence, 'A Winter's Journey', which references Schubert's eponymous song cycle in its title, but also seems to contain allusions to Ovid, the poet in exile, in images of deprivation, wolves, the steppe. There appear to be hints and clues in the sequence that support a reading of it on one level as an encrypting of Ovid's experience, paralleled in part by that of Tsaloumas himself
[However, when I decided to put this hypothesis to the test, and asked the poet in a letter if this were the case, he replied as follows:
'It amazes me that the Ovid association never occurred to me before, during the writing or after. And yet your comment makes the connection so obvious that I can only wonder. However, this is only circumstantial.... My sequence has to do with the burden of memory in the desolation of old age and the return or revival of that mysterious sense of guilt that was 'buried' and forgotten in the vigour of youth. Memory, even the memory of beautiful moments, is now a source of pain. (This point is then illustrated by a quotation from 'Francesca da Rimini', Inferno , Canto V)....
'This collection, in spite of the sadness of its tone, was meant to constitute a celebration of beauty in all things in life, including death!']
Irrespective of how readers may see fit to interpret the fourteen-poem sequence, 'A Winter Journey', the calibre of the work places it among Tsaloumas's masterpieces, a poetic 'leap/ over the bounds of self'.
yet I know temptation
is in the weave of sainthood
the test by fire before the leap
over the bounds of self
(A Winter Journey 9. Temptation)
The second section of the triptych, titled 'A Divertissement', contains poems in the guise of parable ('The Parable of the Two Wise Angels') and acerbically subversive commentary ('Revolution'; 'On the Subject of Death in War'; 'Filling in the Entry Form'), revealing the poet as sceptic, a strand in his work familiar from earlier collections ( Falcon Drinking, The Barge, The Harbour). There are also touches of humour, as when a departed acquaintance and adversary reminds the poem's persona to bring a backgammon set when he arrives in the hereafter ('The Unrepentant Dead'). The dramatised scene of the latter poem is a device often favoured by Tsaloumas, who frequently 'stages' material from memory as dialogue, or as narrated scenes rendered dynamic by the inclusion of quoted speech.
The third and final section, 'Towards a Conclusion', revisits some of the themes of the opening section, but with a sense of darkening light, a projection of deepening shadows:
On this my last pilgrimage
I seek no evidence of fact
but firmer certainties, not hope
but truth of nobler substance
where, in secret folds, the mind
still dreams of wings.
(Old Man's Last Pilgrimage)
Despite the subdued note struck by some of the final poems, there are moments of sheer luminosity, as encountered in the poems 'Three Tankas for the Lady of the Garden of Weeds', and the lovely, brief lyric titled 'Restoration':
It's always evening
when you come to my far shores:
tall pencil cypress
under a pale quarter-moon.
The lonely ping of night birds.
I saw the absence in your eyes
and filled them with light;
I felt the stiffness in your sleep
and combed the marble from your hair,
restored to you the grace of gesture
and lightness of step. Tonight
I'll make a song for you to heal
While Tsaloumas's language of choice in the present collection is English, his poetics are illumined by 'the rich glow of an older tongue' ('Washing up'), and informed by structures of thought and emotion whose origins lie elsewhere. Tsaloumas's art is nourished by many sources, among them the context and continuity of cultures older than the one whose language he composes in. Perhaps it is this circumstance that imbues the content and language of the poems with a distinctive timbre and patina, resonances from a cultural milieu not alien to English, since Greek culture and thought is one of the antecedents of modern European cultures, but not innate to it either.
This symbiosis between cultures evokes sublimated relationships and nostalgias, as well as generating productive tensions, implicit rather than explicit, between different generic emotional landscapes and the syntactical shapes of ideas, the grammar of thought.
The faultlines sometimes surface, as in 'Encounter in the Park', where the protagonist is an old poet (addressing a beautiful young girl in internalised monologue):
who knows he can't bestow memory
on things he gifts with life.
Your random returns are not recorded
in the chronicles of your time.
Antitheses, dichotomies and contradictions abound in the art of Dimitris Tsaloumas, romantic idealist, sceptic, a poet of all life's seasons. Yet amplitude and kenosis, feast and frugality and fast, flow and ebb are surely also the rhythms of the natural world, and Tsaloumas, who migrates each year between homelands, Australia and the Aegean, is attuned to this language as well, the primal and maternal one, an awareness of origins and eternal cycles of renewal, and the blueprint for beauty that is nature's gift to art and memory.