Dimitris Tsaloumas: Helen of Troy

St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2007, 99pp.

In Falcon Drinking (1988) and The Barge (1993), Dimitris Tsaloumas produced two of the most remarkable books in Australian poetry. He had arrived in Australia in 1952 at the age of thirty-one and settled in Melbourne. After a career as a Greek-Australian poet writing in Australia in Greek and publishing in Athens, he switched languages and began to write in his second language, Australian. The full effect of these first two books is hard to detail but has at least two components. Firstly there is a sensibility that is simply not Australian (at least not in any normative sense: since Tsaloumas is an Australian how can his sensibility be anything but Australian?).

It is not merely a matter of cultural references, or of the density and allusiveness of the Greek literary tradition that stands behind Tsaloumas and is imported willy-nilly into the poems, it is also a certain personal stance towards the world that seems if not “unAustralian” at least very unusual in Australia. Prickly, aristocratic (in the looser, not “class” sense), exiled, inclined to nostalgia (though resistant to it), contemptuous of much of the present, often unremittingly bleak, sometimes lavish – especially when celebrating the erotic or the onset of creativity – hieratic, formal etc etc are all valid components of this stance and yet don’t describe it fully.

The second component relates to language. Tsaloumas’ English has the sensitivity and fluency that is needed before anyone can write in a second language. That goes without saying – his work is that of a major poet. But it is a slightly unusual English as is, I suppose, that of Conrad and Nabokov. Take, for example, the opening of the first poem in the final section of this new book, Helen of Troy:

In childhood’s long-drawn days
I conceived ambitious schemes
soon lost, meshed with the night’s
general dreaming.

I love this idiom, but it is the slight strangeness of it that gives it much of its magic. What are “long-drawn” days? Are they days which are “long drawn out” or days in which the child spent his time drawing rather than making boats or days that the poet has often returned to and hence “drawn” regularly in his art? It is probably the first of these, at least as the initial meaning, but “long-drawn-out” is a pretty grotesque phrase ending in an unsatisfactory preposition and I like the verbal adjustment that most English language poets would not make – not because they don’t dare but because it would never have occurred to them. And then there are the ordinary ho-hum dreams that fill much of the theatre of our heads at night. Who would have thought of referring to this as “the night’s / general dreaming” where the power is not in the expressiveness or vividness of a metaphor so much as the unexpected quality of simple words? Tsaloumas’ English poetry is full of such surprises. The effect is like seeing one’s language from a slight angle and the results – if you are open-minded enough – are exciting.

Helen of Troy is Tsaloumas’ seventh book in English. It has much of the character of the earlier books, though I don’t think it reaches their heights. Falcon Drinking and The Barge were animated by two quite separate modes: the celebratory (lush) and the bleak (stony). In the poems the latter probably worked best because it seemed to fit into English language idioms more easily. After all

Winter was late in coming this year
but now he’s here, for good.

He’s settled in the lounge and rocks
like a Talmud scholar in his chair

legs wrapped in a blanket, stern.

was easier for someone new to Tsaloumas’ poetry to assimilate than was

Swan-tough, like a ship’s bow-scroll
heaving through saga mists
she came this autumn morning.

These two modes (and it would take a lot of work to determine exactly how themes were divided between them) no longer seems the generative core by the time of Helen of Troy. In the earlier books the lush was generally used in moments of genuine celebration of everything enjoyed in God’s creation. It was also used in the important Tsaloumas trope of the entrance (as in the three lines quoted above) but though there are plenty of entrances in Helen of Troy they are rarely unequivocally joyous events. True “A Song of Welcome” celebrates a new season but it is significant that the season is not spring but autumn. “Hung-Over” is more typical. Here we have a typical Tsaloumas entrance complete with inverted syntax so that the simile precedes the announcement of the identity of the visitor:

Walking gingerly like a girl
barefoot along the stony path
of vaulting withies and rank weeds,
I saw from my kitchen window
Hope coming.

But, as the title suggests, there is no epiphany that will result from this visitation and the poem ends in bathos by returning to the dreary and corrupt world of the everyday:

Buttering toast, I scanned
the day’s black-banner news and spread
the purple plum jam.

In this book the entrances are often made by the dead. I suppose that when you have reached your mid-eighties it is the dead who, by their number and insistence, you are most likely to find talking to you. In “A Noonday Visit” the old man coming to sip coffee and seek advice from Tsaloumas’ father is, like the father himself, long dead. In “In the Well” a voice “like a father’s”, (perhaps, but probably not, that of Tsaloumas’ actual father) penetrates a siesta with interesting advice:

“There’s no point in reaching out
for a horizon that shifts with you.

Nor is it profitable to sit
under the vine in the cicada’s noon

and wait for the breeze to stir,
up from the sea below.

Go down and clean the well.
It’s cool down there and not so dark.”

The descent into the well in Tsaloumas is either a descent into the stored memories of the past or into the unconscious world of dreams (in this poetry the two are not so different and the complex idea of “nostalgia” could be seen as a way in which these two, usually very different activities of the mind, can become very close). In “Solicitude” the poet’s fair-weather friends continually advise him to “stop going down to the mine” and wells, like the spring of the title poem of Falcon Drinking, are also symbolic sources of inspiration. “In the Well”, however, ends in nothing but despair for irretrievable rhythms:

                                   The other day,
maybe long ago, I heard a lute there,

a tune sprung like a rose from fat soil -
the death fields of holy wars,

and a sob rises in my throat as I grope
seeking the plucking hand,

the old nostalgic tune sunk since
in the stormy dimness of the mind.

In “Incubus” it is the dead mother’s voice that oppresses the sleeper like the weight of a stone when it speaks from what she calls “this side of the dark river” and in “The Unrepentant Dead” (translated by the author from one of his much earlier Greek poems) a dead neighbour confronts the speaker, presumably in a dream.

The two most interesting visitation poems are “Watching the Rain” and “An April Night’s Progress”. The former begins with the distinctive Tsaloumas inversion:

Swaying drunkenly in water-haze
like stormy cypress shadows
over a country churchyard’s flags
on wintry full-moon nights, they came.

The “they” of course are the dead and the poet watches through a window as they sit in the rain, thus emphasizing that the living and the dead inhabit different, even if contiguous, worlds. We don’t know how specific the identity of these five dead are but, since one of them is “very young”, one suspects that the poet is thinking of family or close friends rather than a more generalized group of representative dead. This is significant as the poem concludes not on the bathetic note we have come to expect from the poems of Helen of Troy, but with a joyous transformation:

I tap again. But they rise
and go, not as they came, but shaped,
bodied in recognition.
And I see our lemon tree now shine
with golden fruit by the steps
as they go, the vine with grapes.

Playful screams and words
struggle to my ears from the shore
through a cicada noonday storm -
the hiss of rain on our terrace flags,
on the waterlogged garden.

Recognition (if I read the poem correctly) is a way we can speak to the dead through the impenetrable windows and it not only transforms them but us as well. The way the sound of rain transmutes into the sound of summer cicadas is a subtle and clever one because we are not exactly sure which one is reality and which is dream-metaphor. Did all this take place as a siesta dream by the seaside with the sound of the cicadas prompting a dream involving rain?

Finally, in this survey of “visitation-poems”, there is “An April Night’s Progress”. Here the full panoply of Tsaloumas’ “lush” effects are deployed to introduce Night herself. She walks

into the garden
where the Persian rose blooms
and nightingales wait polishing their song.

The ambience is Middle-Eastern because the poem goes on to arrive at the Gulf War in which

two ancient rivers, she lends majesty
to a righteous thunder of guns
and vast illuminations where pyres consume
a city of tale.

Here is a Tsaloumas poem which is about the contemporary political events that he is so scornful of but which is couched in the mode of one of his romantic visitation poems. The picture of Night, trapped between “latticed balconies by raging flames” is the poet’s contribution to the Thousand and One Nights. Technically it is an example of bathos, but is not a verbal or tonal bathos so much as a modal one.

The overwhelming tone of Helen of Troy is valedictory and the characteristic move is one of making final journeys. There is no doubt that we are to read “Old Man’s Last Pilgrimage” as, if not precisely point-to-point allegorical, at least a transposition of the poet’s own experience:

On this my last pilgrimage
I travel by what light and signs
the sky affords. I do no penance
seek no remission of sins.
. . . . .
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.

This movement forwards counteracts the way in which memory and its partner, nostalgia, move backwards. It is significant, though, that “Old Man’s Last Pilgrimage” is not the last but the second-last poem in the book. The final poem, “Objection”, is entirely one of summation and justification. Don’t advise me as to how I should live, it says, unless you have heard the boots of the occupying forces coming to your house to arrest you and don’t tell me how to die unless you are one of those

who knew no excess of happiness
when on the crest of fortune
nor bitter grief in its deep troughs;
who from the crow’s-nest
spied the last meridian and tacked about
lest he should rob of its dark fire
the truth of his living.

These final words are not entirely unequivocal but I read the description of tacking in the face of the last meridian as being a refusal to suicide in the deepest “troughs” of despair.

The most ambitious poem in Helen of Troy is the fourteen part narrative, “A Winter Journey”. It is an account of an allegorical pilgrimage, against the speaker’s will, summoned by “unknown spirits” to a place “beyond the range / of my tutelar gods”. Interestingly the sequence describes the wait for the kind of visitation that so many of the book’s other poems are structured around. In this wait for a message from the spirits, the speaker is visited instead by wolves (who wait for spring to reveal where the dead bodies are buried so that they can be eaten). He is also visited by his dead mother and others “from albums / of yellowing years” – an experience I take to be essentially nostalgic. In the thirteenth poem the spirits eventually speak to the solitary and their message is that “the wolves won’t have their dead / the spring shall fail for ever”. It is a very difficult, spare sequence which I might be guilty of misreading but I see the spring as the arrival of that poetic ability which enables the figures of the past to be buried properly, by being “dealt with” (an unpleasant metaphor) in poetry. In Tsaloumas’ earlier poetry the arrival of spring and creativity was celebrated in a lush and rather exotic poetic idiom. Here, in a much stonier poem, the protagonist learns that, eventually, such renewals will cease.