A Sprig of Basilbook cover

Poetry review by Jena Woodhouse

Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians

Edited by N. N. Trakakis
Arcadia: Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd
ISBN 978-1-9218751-2-0


Let’s take this sprig of basil with us
because later,
our souls will become ravenous.

- Peter Lyssiotis: ‘Leave Taking’ (Part I of Views from the Mountain)

Conceptualised by the compiling editor, Dr Nektarios Nikolaos (‘Nick’) Trakakis, as an anthology of a specific demographic -- second (and third) generation Greek-Australian poets -- Southern Sun, Aegean Light is – within its stated parameters -- a democratic and inclusive collection which offers generous selections of work by the thirty-five poets represented. While a common set of cultural referents may imply a degree of homogeneity, there is also a pleasing degree of diversity, sometimes unintentionally enhanced by the alphabetic arrangement of contributors: a structure that juxtaposes poets and their poems in unpredictable and often contrasting ways, thereby retaining the reader's interest and attention in anticipation of the unexpected.

As the editor notes in his Introduction, he ‘was not in search for a Greek-Australian poetry (whatever that is), but only for poems by Greek-Australians’ (of the second and third generations, which have been underrepresented as a group). Ample and expansive as the anthology may seem to the reader, the editor also informs us that this collection is ‘a small distillation of this body of literature that I discovered’. Since the poets are either Australian-born or arrived here as child immigrants or refugees, most of the poems are in English, with translations provided for those in Greek. While many regions of Greece are invoked or mentioned in the biographical notes as ancestral homelands, it is noticeable that a number of contributors are from families originally from the island of Kastellorizo (the former Megiste), or from Cyprus. This Antipodean clustering is attributable in part to the fact that both places were sites of significant exodus, resulting in considerable numbers of refugees and emigrants: Kastellorizo in the early 20th century; Cyprus as a result of the invasion by Turkish forces in 1974. That being said, there are many poems in Southern Sun, Aegean Light that make no reference to places and cultures of origin.

The opening selection of poems by George Alexander sets the scene with 'Orpheus through the Rear-Vision Mirror', a five-part sequence that conflates present and past, the living and the dead, Greek mythology, European cultural icons, and allusions to Australian Aboriginal cultures, in a dense concatenation of imagery that is nonetheless coherent and accessible. The forward volition of this poem, with the synchronicity of the retrospective view in the rear-vision mirror, lends it the fluidity of dreamscape.

My Helen of Troy,
Hedy Lamarr as a Giorgione boy.
Weaving her voice of black corn and kerosene...
Before birth infinite time.
After death inexhaustible time;
In between there is Now,
A flash of light like a rain of diamonds.

By my troth,
My head in your clothes,
I feel I have outlived us both.

Now breathe yourself away,
Come undone
Until nothing remains but wind and sun.
('Orpheus through the Rear-Vision Mirror')

Several of Katerina Cosgrove's poems address the plight of the Armenian people in 1915. Having travelled through the lands depopulated by the Armenian genocide of circa 1915-1919 and the subsequent diaspora of survivors; having stepped into the Euphrates and glimpsed Ararat, and visited the towns of Erzerum, Van, Trebizond and Kars referenced by Cosgrove, I am acquainted with some of the geographic locations associated with those events. At the time of my own journey I was also aware of the fate of the Armenian populace. However, prior knowledge is not a prerequisite to appreciating these poems.

Cosgrove probes the dark annals of ethnically-targeted atrocity and a diaspora that took place close to her maternal homeland, Greece, to which survivors of the Armenian expulsions, forced marches and massacres fled. Trauma is adroitly conveyed in precise language that is both confronting and restrained.

A woman threw herself into the Euphrates.
Was it your mother?
She was pregnant.
It never happened.
('How Long Have I Known You?
Sepia photograph, Armenian child, 1915')
What is your name?
I don't know.
Where are you from?
I can't remember.
Are you Armenian?
Do you think I am?
('I Haven't Been Here Since The War Began
Der Ez Zor, Syria, 1915')

The same strengths are evinced in Cosgrove’s treatment of present-day themes, as in an untitled poem positioned on a precarious fault line between public and private domains, survival and extinction:

Now I love
the bird’s-nest fragility
of life, its domestic detail, those late afternoon angles of light.
I have two scars now, and room for more.
One from mid to outer rib
the other
tender as a worm under my arm.
They took it out –
blue-black, shiny as
a Ligurian olive
and as small. Cut into
sacs of lymph, loose as autumn grapes.

The unflinching gaze of the poet trained on herself in extremis is paralleled in, for example, Melissa Petrakis’s ‘Soup of Words’, which describes a chemotherapy session, and Petr Malapanis’s ‘from Lover Lover Goodbye’. Painful subjects can become powerful poems, but it takes courage as well as skill to tackle such topics head on.

Angela Costi, of Greek-Cypriot parentage, is another vibrant presence in this collection. Like Katerina Cosgrove and many of the other contributors, she is well represented elsewhere, in her own poetry collections and plays.

In Costi’s poems are echoes of dispossession and the exodus from post-1974 Cyprus; fragments of transliterated Greek – a child’s everyday phrases; snatches of popular song from the early 1970s; reminiscences of survivors of the Cypriot conflict. However, as in the work of other younger poets in this collection, such as Cypriot compatriots Andrea Demetriou and Koraly Dimitriadis, there is an incisive contemporary edge and feel to the texts, as well as the underlying desire for reconnection with the homeland, whose ethos is embodied by grandparents and elder family members.

Costi’s synthesis of old and new has a gamine quality, a freshness of tone and intonation. Her iconic poem, ‘Making Lace’, is structured around metaphors drawn from the traditional Cypriot art of Lefkara embroidery, and simulates the lacemaker’s sequence of rhythmic, repetitive movements. The poem is an evocation of what it means to leave an old culture for a new one, and to interweave elements of both in a way that diminishes neither. Making lace is also a brilliantly reflexive metaphor for the making of a poem.

Costi’s shortest poem in this set is a less intricate example of her cool yet passionate technique:

Peloponnese Sunset
How can you be lonely, you make love to this
environment, the hills have slopes you can swoon on
they have views you can open your thighs to
they have Venetian structures ready for you to take
with one open gasp, they have seas
that melt your gaze, the colour of lilac
if it was blue and black crosses on white churches
reminders of sacred sensuousness
reminders of honey skinned almond eyes
the touch of madness and of chance.

Innovation and inventiveness on various levels are evident in the texts of a number of contributors, including Anna Couani, a Sydney-based social activist and experimental writer involved in small-press publishing from the 1970s onward. Vicky Tsaconas’s ‘Tama’ is a bilingual poem, a line-by-line alternation of two strands, one in Greek, the other in English. Luka Haralampou takes an iconoclastic stance, fuelled by rage, and his language reflects this. Tina Giannoukos invests the sonnet with contemporary possibilities, as does Tom Petsinis. Katina Michael, professor of informatics, produces some radical experimentation in form and content, challenging received thinking and the new status quo. Rather than scan her complex techno text, I’ve opted for the quieter subversiveness of one of her shorter poems.

The Anomaly
I consider that which is good
Yet is so unloved by the world
I consider that which nourishes the soul
And is rejected and discarded
I consider that which grants life
And is subjected to denial
I consider that which is merciful
And is hated for its patience
I consider that which is breath
And is persecuted because it is truth
I consider that which is compassionate
And is wounded for its warmth

And pray that the undercurrents of this time
Be revealed to this passing generation.

Wry humour is the keynote of Melissa Petrakis’s ‘At the Lingerie Shop, Kozani’, in which she narrates an episode that occurred during a visit to family in the Macedonian town of Kozani. Petrakis’s ‘Over the Rooftops’ is a subtle lyric in elegiac mode. Macedonian-born Tom Petsinis, a poet, playwright and novelist with numerous publications (and a lecturer in mathematics at Victoria University), contributes some variations on the sonnet form in a poignant synthesis of robustness, wry humour and pathos.

We had no floodlights in our park:
The globes on Alfred Crescent barely hummed
As unmarried girls walked round at dusk,
With sons kicking in their wombs.

Each year we hoped for a miracle:
The source to extend our seeing by an hour,
To sharpen winter-grass with defiance
And multiply our shadows.
Steaming in our adolescent sweat,
We’d play harder, thumping the heavy ball
Between goal-posts dissolving in mist,
Swearing at the undefeated dark.
(‘Before Floodlights’)

Rachael Petridis’s delicately sensuous texts include the sumptuous ‘Ode to the Quince’:

Hieroglyph of dessert,
love’s flesh apple, golden orb
savoured and sucked
at nuptial celebrations.
(‘Ode to the Quince’)

Cypriot-born Peter Lyssiotis is well known for his work across multiple art forms as ‘a photomonteur, film maker, writer, photographer and book artist’. The spare elegance of his poetic is epitomised in the following poem.

32 Davis St., East Burwood
The last word my mother spoke
left a small
black hole
in the air outside her kitchen window,
just above the lemon tree –

it’s still there.

Another (untitled) Lyssiotis text might stand as a microcosm or metonym for the mandate of this anthology, in its contemplation of the internalised gaps between thought and word, culture and language. The ripple effect of these implications travels far beyond the immediate context of the Greek language and culture.

A man fell in love with a word. But the word
didn’t care about him. The man looked for it in
the dictionary, the thesaurus, the encyclopaedia,
the newspapers, on signs. But the word couldn’t
be found anywhere. The man recalled the word
meant bird; it meant sky; no it meant homeland.
Perhaps it meant all these things at once. Maybe
it came from nowhere, and meant nothing. The
man doesn’t remember the word, and it won’t let
him rest.

Southern Sun, Aegean Light concludes with a rumbustious set by popular performance poet Komninos (Zervos), of Kastellorizan ancestry, who has his finger on the pulse of family and social pressure points, and who is able, through the witty irreverence and sharpness of his poems, to engage a wide audience on a range of contemporary issues. (Not to mention ‘Granny’s Big Pink Underpants’.)

The parameters of this anthology are reflected in the scope of the work presented, which ranges from the sophisticated to the simple, from the political and philosophical and pious to the intimate and domestic, from the nostalgic to the iconoclastic, from the traditional to the experimental, from the tragic to the lyrical to the ironic and the humorous -- sampling many aspects of two (and sometimes more) intensely experienced social and linguistic milieux.

The fact that the anthology’s agenda includes an extra-literary dimension is in no way incompatible with the exceptional calibre of the contents, which are illumined by the kinds of innovation, inventiveness and awareness facilitated by access to dual cultures, dual language systems, dual ways of perceiving the world. (Images of lenses, mirrors, windows are not infrequent.)

Having spent a total of ten years in Greece, and having passed through many of the places variously celebrated and mourned in this collection, I read these texts avidly, vicariously experiencing the events, real and imagined, that marked the genesis of individual poems. But this is not to give the impression that the field of view is dominated by images glimpsed in rear-vision mirrors, to revisit George Alexander's apt metaphor. There is a dynamic energy in this body of work that may derive in part from the tension, or sometimes friction, between dual cultural domains -- the fretting of tectonic plates that signals subliminal seismic activity.

While Southern Sun, Aegean Light will hold particular resonance for those with an interest in Greece and its cultural legacy, this highly engaging anthology has just as much to offer those who appreciate fine contemporary Australian poetry. Although one of the collection’s strengths lies in the cumulative effect achieved by the prioritising of works from within its chosen demographic, the reader will also discover in these pages a trove of singularly arresting and memorable individual poems, whose preoccupations are wide-ranging, stimulating and thought-provoking.

Any collection of writing, whether by one author or many, generates an internal discourse that will be sensed, consciously or otherwise, by the reader. This collection not only raises awareness of the poetry of second-generation Greek-Australians and pays tribute to their work, but also reinforces the strengths of that work through the medium of internal discourse – an unstated intertext and intratext that add other levels or dimensions to the writing as a whole.

Apart from their accomplishments in poetry and other literary genres, many of the contributors are high achievers in their chosen professional fields. Those poets not cited in the present review are no less noteworthy than those mentioned, and I hope they will forgive me for leaving some discoveries for other readers to make. Their readers will not be disappointed.
These texts celebrate the richness and abundance of life. The warmth and amplitude and openness of spirit that emanates from this collection is something I’ve rarely encountered in the same measure in other poetry anthologies; a sense of having connected with the poets as well as the poems. The reader feels included in the lives glimpsed in and through the writing. I would venture to suggest, too, that there are deep cultural resonances at work in this poetic corpus: resonances that travel through the literary arteries from the mythological time before Homer, gathering energy and impetus from the language and dramatic genius of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and continuing to evolve as a far-reaching, flexible, versatile tradition, and to exercise an intrinsic influence to this day. Perhaps it was an awareness of this subliminal legacy that prompted a first-generation Greek-Australian poet, Antigone Kefala, to comment, in an interview with Mark Mordue published in the Weekend Australian (9 April 2011):

‘There is a lack of intensity here [in Australia]. People are not fully engaged with what they are writing. ... But serious writing must have passion, must have a tenseness to it. ... I write about death – and many other things...’

Whether or not one endorses Kefala’s appraisal of the poetic macroclimate, there is no deficit of the qualities she values in the present collection. What I would like now is to deepen my acquaintance with the members of this vibrant Greek-Australian literary community by revisiting their poems and seeking out their other published writings. All thanks are due to N. N. Trakakis, poet, editor, philosopher and academic, for bringing to fruition a superb anthology. Reading is believing. Axios!