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Fruit of lyrical melancholy

The poetry of Kiki Dimoula and the “trice blessed obstacle”


More than forty years have elapsed since Erebus was published, when Kiki Dimoula, gently self-critical about her second collection, at the time, characterised her verses as “puny” and “weak”. But we cannot presume to refer to them merely as verses anymore, whether puny or powerful. We cannot but refer to them as potent poems that amalgamate pleasure with perspicacity, holding great surprises even when they are presented as utterly familiar. We are talking of poetry that year by year, word by word, silence by silence, has acquired its own easily recognisable distinctiveness, its own lucid language style, and a fabulistic potency that is presentable and transmittable, in other words a type of poetry that is not consumed in self-comforting exercises, which is something that poetry one way or another must always do, when it is indeed poetry, meaning when it is costly rather than beneficial, when it spends rather than reimburses, burns rather than refreshes.

Seven collections of poems have intervened since then, creating a world whose vivid iconography and noble melancholy allow us to posit that they were all stages and steps of an oeuvre in progress, as it has also been said of other poets, such as Cavafy for instance. We are referring to poets who never received anything heaven-sent, ready-made or definite, but who were always attracted by the same core, even though it looked as if they were tracing varying orbits around it in their efforts to conquer it. In Dimoula’s work there is progress, as there is maturing and deepening; there has been fruit for a long time now, and not just pretty blossoms. One thing, however, that has never been there is any spectacular or dramatic shift in her thematic core or in her technique; nor have there been any rash exits from the territory she has claimed – from her well-defined, sedulously cultivated style.

A lot of fine poems have seen the light of day since then. But how many torn pages? How many poems came to an end at the mouth of a pair of scissors, were severed by a knife or cast violently in the bottomless waste-bin because they seemed incomplete and imperfect by the poet herself? This is not merely a tentative hypothesis, naively grounded on extra-poetic chit-chat. It comes from the mouth of Kiki Dimoula herself, in her collection My Last Body, published in 1981, where she epigrammatises her entire poetics in her poem “I’m tearing the twelfth”:

“I’m writing and tearing up / Writing and tearing up / No ragamuffin shoe-shiner around to polish / The ideas that staggered out of my mind onto the paper / I’m writing and tearing up / I am heavy / It seems I ate up my lunch / And now I am bulging / Like curiosity that is shouting / Who am I, who am I / But no answer deigns to retort / I am tearing twelfthes, I’m tearing clocks / Into tiny, so tiny shreds / And then I strangle them, too / On my elfish palm / Lest the torn up shreds that I wrote / Stealthily put themselves back together again / And read themselves and find out / That they were fit only for the waste-basket”.

The poet knows fully well, she has been saying so herself since then: “blessed is the Obstacle – trice blessed”. This is an idea that resurfaces in her latest collection, Together for a Minute, in which she affirms that “ the untrammelled path is so very short”. Poetry without obstacles, poetry that does not recognise and passionately love its obstacles, poetry that does not accept that its best and probably sole ally is the knot in the throat that stops words from having easy access to the voice, keeps them from lisping into flattering facileness, poetry that puts too much faith in its so-called inspiration and surrenders to it without a fight, perpetually and effortlessly producing copies of itself – that kind of poetry is far from being true to its name and essence.

Therefore, the art of poetic language needs to invent obstacles even where they don’t exist, or seem not to exist. It must not be flattered by its own abilities, not surrender to their beguiling glamour.

Poetry must not advertise its self-sufficiency and never put any trust in it, for, as Dimoula tells us, “only what is futile is self-sufficient”. In short, poetry must be sterner towards itself than any third party or reader; it must also be mistrustful of them, if it understands that they are approaching it not in order to be disturbed and moved by it but in order to adapt it to their own expectations (be they small or grandiose) and accordingly praise it or criticise it. In other words, if it is to be striking and active, poetry must be unpredictable, not to agree with the supposed or stated expectation of the public, to always sound, if possible, alien.

What I mean by this is that almost all accomplished poets who have managed with much toil and perseverance to conquer their own unmistakable uniqueness, their specific distinction, at some point run the danger of becoming entrapped and poetically immobilised in their individual manner of expression, if they do not decide to risk to change it and consequently perhaps lose the hoped-for praise of the public and the sophists. To my ears, the most Cavafian poetry of Cavafy, the most Elytian poetry of Elytis, the most Palamian poetry of Palamas, the most Ritsian poetry of Ritsos, the most Karouzian poetry of Karouzos, in other words, all the poems that seem to be dictated by a kind of craftsmanlike memory and not to surface through the darkness of artistic consciousness, all the poems that reproduce the rhetoric of thought but not thought itself, the vessel of emotion but not emotion itself, are exactly those that are the weakest – because they are the most predictable, the most awaited.

In Kiki Dimoula’s case, however, the risk that I see it may run stems from an attempt to forcibly (if not outright violently) nationalise her writing (or rather the image of her poetry) on the part of those who were late in discovering her and those who are content to visit her poetry as socialites, in order to “decorate their boredom”, so to speak, rather than as true readers. Therefore, the risk is that her poetry may be considered as self-evident, easy to grasp and tantamount to its outward appearances. We may thus naively believe that her work is limited to the euphoria that springs from her miraculous wordplays, her almost demonic capacity for miracles; that would lead us to try to limit her work to that form only.

© Pandelis Boucalas  
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