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The art of the fugue and loss a stepping-stone

 

 

From early on, with her juvenilia collection of Poems, published in 1952, but chiefly in her opening poem “Stock-taking” of her first true collection Erebus, Kiki Dimoula gives a foretaste of the position and co-ordinates of her future poetry. The last verse of that poem reads, “The day that just has sped away / don’t so foolishly forget / record it under the section of / crushing losses that life has dealt”.

This is the first reminder: let us not so foolishly forget the time that has gone by; the second reminder is to register it, to record it under the section of crushing losses. Time, Memory, Loss – these are the elements that appear again and again in various ways and forms in her poems, but chiefly in her latest collection Farewell Never”.

From the slightest event that is recorded to the infiniteness of time, her poetry is permeated by the whole gamut of factors governing our daily lives; these factors, sometimes aided by vagueness, sometimes by explicitness, imbue each poem with a different nuance.

Life in its entirety (“a few pages with scribbled verses”, as she says in her poem “Prologue” from the collection In Absentia) leans towards the unfeasible. Life is made up of imagination, boredom, embarrassment, surrendering to meaninglessness: “A porter of melancholy is what I’ve been assigned to be,” she declares in the aforementioned poem.

Inner states become personified and are uttered as situations happening in the outer world; thus we come across “a tumescence of futility” in the poem “In Absentia”; fury springing to the window in terror, screaming for help, help I’m being strangled – in the poem “Hysteria”. “Despair for sale / in perfect condition / including spacious stalemate”; “Time, totally unused” for sale, or being overwhelmed by “the deluge of unfeasibility” in the poem “Ti kai en”.

Emotion, the poet’s raw material, is transformed into an abstract notion and vice versa. It shifts states to become general through the choice of words and phrasing of meaning by the end of the verse and the poem. Thus we are led to a point where the specific situation is familiar and well-known, something we have experienced before. At other times, we are led to something unknown, but very likely to experience. By using this mechanism of loading the words in her poems – a mechanism that, we must stress, is not blatant – Dimoula manages to convey her thoughts and emotion to us.

A major role in this endeavour must be attributed to the supportive role of the use of language, particularly of adjectives and abstract nouns that she moulds into adjectives. Without this skill, several verses would risk being reduced to nothing but meaningless, verbal fireworks.

Just as life proceeds through daily mundane things, so does Dimoula’s poetry proceed – by recognising them, incorporating them and transfiguring them, more often than not by taking advantage of the element of surprise.

We come across this to an intense degree in the collections The Little of the World, and Farewell Never. Surprise is always expressed by the person who narrates or the one who begins the dialogue. Never by the listener-cum-interlocutor. In her collection, The Little of the World, the element of surprise is successfully combined with that of antithesis. Two different uses of this format crop up in the poems “A Dialogue Between You and Me” and “Plural Number” from the same collection.

Sometimes Dimoula intervenes in various situations that cause surprise within the poem itself, secondarily adding her own personal surprise, which is absolutely essential for the final effect. Let us bring to mind the poem “Breaking into an Illusion” from Farewell Never.

Dimoula converses in her poems. She speaks out loud all that she herself would like to believe. She stops the flow and assigns roles to the verses. She suffuses the mundane with the knowledge of what lies behind it, bringing it thus into the spotlight. She deliberately changes the words in order to make the verse sound more intense. She often resorts to repetition as a form, and in doing so she intensifies the dramatic effect of her poetry. For example, let us quote her poem “The Last Ground” from her collection My Last Body: “Me wear / nearsighted specs? / With specs to bring nearness / nearer. / My eyes and my broken pieces / never brought it near / Hell no, I won’t wear specs / my broken pieces to see.”

Escalating repetition forms are not solely found in consecutive verses but also within the same verse. Take, for instance, the excerpt from the poem “Signs of the Fruit” from the same collection, “Summer, harvest time / bales of light, eyes of bales”.

At other times, alliteration is called upon to play the same role, thus creating an audio and semantic game: “This poem / my poem / poem of mine / my very own poem / so very own / this poem is mine”, (excerpt from the poem “Timelessness” from the same collection).

At this point we should also recall the lines “I’m growing old, so old” from the poem “Inexpectations”, which bring to mind the verse by Cavafy from “The City”: “You'll wander still in the same streets [...] in these same houses you'll turn grey”.

Dimoula builds her poems without leaving any loose threads. Each verse underpins the next. There is nothing superfluous at all. Each and every verse helps us reach the top. As we exit the poem, we become aware of where these stairwells of words have taken us. Within the verse, the words do not create any centrifugal tensions. The explosion takes place wholly and exclusively within the poem itself. To corroborate this we could mention several of Dimoula’s poems, for instance “Wear and Tear” from the Erebus collection and particularly the verses: “A verse so strong and unsurpassed. / Pity it couldn’t be the last.”

The more Dimoula moves towards maturity, the more the poems begin by stating clearly their intentions and material. They are structured to reveal to us another facet, bit by bit. In the same poem there are obvious and implicit verses that act as frames and underpinnings by introducing the remaining concepts that are necessary for the poetic climax. This technique safeguards her poetry from the monotony that would ensue from the repeated use of the same words, from the meaninglessness or vagueness, since Dimoula dares create poetry out of abstract concepts.

If we look at Dimoula’s poetry in toto, we might say that it has the structure of a fugue. I am borrowing this music term because I believe that it is the only one capable of describing the variety and wealth of contrapuntal combinations that we come across in her work. Like in the fugue, here, too, we have, first the subject, which is stated at the start, as we have already explained; secondly, we have the answer, which is clearly what we might call the “dialectics” of her poetry. Thirdly, the contra-subject, which leads us somewhat astray by introducing different elements from one poem to the next in every collection, creating a balance in the process. And lastly, the stretto which, in a way, is the main gravitational force in her poetry in her more recent collections. We could, therefore, say that Dimoula’s poetry extends over various episodes. All the separate concepts reappear, either in connection to each other or to other elements. They are enlarged or diminished, reversed, or approached each time from different angles. It is through this wealth of combinations that the different intonations come through.

The poetic material, i.e. the words, is dealt with in a contrapuntal manner, in all kinds of impossible, arduous combinations. This is yet another element that sets Dimoula apart from other contemporary Greek poets in the way she uses language. Most revealing in this respect is her poem “Inexpetations” from the Farewell Never collection.

We can also observe that wherever there is a conjunction of an abstract concept to a specific one, they underpin one another, thus becoming stronger, depending on their position in the verse.

The landscape of Dimoula’s poetry is urban above all else; the houses that she describes are city houses, Athenian neo-classical buildings that record the passage of time. She takes us by the hand to roam Kallidromiou street, wander around Kypseli Square, the Filopappou Hill, Kolonaki, Koumoundourou Square, Lycabettus, Xenokratous Street, the Academy – all the characteristic places that allow Dimoula to be called a city poet.

She connects all these places with particular moments of her own life, and always with the anticipation of what is to come. The countryside or villages rarely crop up in her poems – but not so with holiday destinations or archaeological sites.

A dominant element is the female presence, particularly in the way it is connected with the surroundings. The absence of males is sometimes intensely insinuated through descriptions or, at other times, stated explicitly.

The poet is fascinated by the relationship that exists between outer reality and inner states, as well as by the passage from one world to the next. Her poem “Parafasada”, for example, from the collection The Little of the World, starts by describing the Attic landscape, as it flows effortlessly over the hilltops and washes up at her window. The components of the landscape – the pine-trees, the Blessed Virgin Mary Liberatrix Church, the church bell, the birds, Imittos mountain, the geraniums, the maiden poplar tree, the light-loving month of October (pinpointing the time of the description) are all at their apex.

The poem goes on to describe the poet’s predilection for the recurrent landscape of a curtain where everything remains static. Whereas earlier the window was the mouth where all the outer elements washed up, now it has become a frame where the curtain landscape unfolds and comes to a stop. Earlier it spread outwards but now it is drawing inwards. Earlier it moved further and further out of sight; now it reaches only as far as the limits of your mind. Naturally, the poet intimates what all this is about by saying that “it is like wrapping water around your little finger”, or “no matter how far you venture in this landscape you don’t get lost”.

This serene landscape made of fabric goes on to become a canvas on which a new landscape can be built – that of the poet’s emotional world – so that by the end of the poem it balances the two previous ones.

The poet’s obsession with rain is easy to notice. Rain is used in two ways: sometimes as a part of the material scenography of the poem, chiefly in the first collections, and sometimes as a living being. In the first way, Dimoula creates a setting in which the story of the poem can unfold; this setting is created in the first few verses. Consequently, depending on the director’s needs, we get a soft shower, a gentle or torrential rain. In the second way, the poet lends rain qualities and attributes, describing it as melancholic, corrosive, subject to passions, curious, catalytic. In these poems we come across interrelationships between rain and absence, rain and memory or oblivion, rain and loss – but mostly rain as affecting the end of the poem through its cleansing quality, rain washing away the dust of time.

Dimoula manages to turn time into raw material for poetry. This can be more intensely observed in the latest collections, particularly in Farewell Never. Before that, everything was defined through its acceptance or rejection. Time related mostly to the present time and less to the past or the future.

From the collection The Little of the World onwards, what might be termed a turning point in Dimoula’s poetry is that time has become a necessary means of defining existence, whilst also dictating the method of its recording. It is time that is transformed into memory and then into image.

From now on it is the past that becomes intense. The present time, particularly in Farewell Never, is used only during the moment of description and stops as soon as that is completed. The future carries on from the past and gives us the impression that it is not somewhere before us but behind us. And that because present time has turned into memory and description.

One last observation concerning the titles of the collections. Dimoula, by conscious choice, begins with the general Erebus, moves on to In Absentia, then to On the Trail, to reach The Little of the World. From here on, the more the spotlight withdraws from downstage, the more the backstage is lit up. Time is no longer an evolution. It is a memory. The real body becomes My Last Body, only to give way to Farewell Never.

© Yiorgos Yottis  
 
 
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