Anghelaki-Rooke was awarded the National Prize for Poetry in 1985.
Her work includes: The Body Is the Victory and the Defeat of Dreams,
Beings and Things of Their Own, From Purple Into Night, Translating
Into Love Life’s End, In the Heaven of Nothing Was Less Than Nothing,
and The Scattered Papers of Penelope.Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke lives in Athens. ©
Silence is the language of Lipiu
As with love
poems are born
only that unfeeling silence
has a habit
of giving birth
and swallowing its young.
In Lipiu you study silence
as if it were a foreign language
if you practice enough
you can tell the dialect
of day from the heavy accent
You learn the birds by heart
and the light that alters
the meaning of nothing.
You will never be able
to express yourself freely in this language
but you will always be surprised by its truth.
You read the trees, the mountains in the
You ask: What do I have to say in this language?
The wounded animal deep inside you
It remains silent.
Today the rain broke out
in a flood of incomprehensible curses.
On the TV screen humans
move around without sound:
bodies, smiles, embraces,
handshakes, the tying of ties, punches ...
I couldn't hear the words
and the bureaucracy of existence
Why, why him,
the sweet, absent-minded one?
With what does passion agree?
It seems I have forgotten the syntax of youth.
In the taverna garden
it is spring and the blossoming
chestnut trees lean attentively
over the pensioners.
Beards, mustaches, all white,
a little laughter in their faded
blue eyes peeking out behind the beer froth
the slender waitress
like a doll just out of her box
with the divine department store tag
still around her neck.
The brown spots on the old men's hands
- maps of an unknown geography -
the flowers scattered by the wind
on the wooden table
and suddenly I understood silence:
it is the womb of all languages.
It is the language of the beginning,
of the question when you search for the phrase
of leaves and you ask yourself what's the use
of so many daybreaks, so many breaths
so many cries smothered in the grass
what is the life or, how will I open the door?
Will I be accepted? How do I take
the first step in the rain alone
toward the first meeting
with the savior-destroyer?
Even the most beautiful imagination is useless
in the face of a pile of days
a shapeless pile, with no scent and
no known meaning.
But silence is also
the mother tongue of the end
when you try to read the word EXIT
written in the darkness with tar
over a gate or maybe it's a burrow? A hole?
Are you going to emerge in pain
or will you have become a baby again,
carefree, sucking the
breast-clouds of the day?
In this languageless world
where I have come for mute studies
the exercises are deafening;
I know my silence
doesn't flow yet,
doesn't flow naturally.
©Edice Sv?toví básníci v Praze, Editor Michael March, Vlasta March
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke talks to Panos Stathoyannis
Panos Stathoyannis: Is someone born a poet or does he become one?
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke: I
don’t know. Why just a poet? Is someone born intelligent or does he
become intelligent? Is a good cobbler born or does he become one? This
is the mystery of existence. It is probably a question of where and how
you grow up. What you hear from your mother, your father, what is the
atmosphere around you. Hoping that this will not sound too rude I
present you with the following evidence: How many poets do you know
that originate from a village? I don’t mean now, when the differences
between town and village have almost disappeared and all have more or
less the same opportunities. I am talking about the past. What was
Palamas? A bourgeois. What was Seferis? A bourgeois. Elytis,
Empeirikos? Do you know anyone who started as a hard worker, or whose
mother was charring, that has become a poet? I, for example, don’t
remember when I heard the name of Shakespeare for the first time. My
father knew him by heart. My mother knew Mallarme by heart. And I was
blessed by Nikos Kazantzakis who was my godfather. One might be born
with a talent, yet circumstances might not allow him to express it.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that those born into families that
provide all means for education (good schools, private lessons, foreign
languages etc.) will necessarily become intellectuals. They may become
totally dry. There is certainly a predisposition. But I cannot explain
PS: When did you realize that you were a poetess?
KAR: I never recall myself
not writing. Even a s little child I used to dictate stories to my
mother. I have read recently some of my old diaries. I write somewhere:
“Today I am ten years old. You might say this is not much…” This
phrase “you might say” showed my need to address myself to an audience.
Ten years old… Who will read you, poor creature? I said I was a poetess
when at the age of seventeen my poem “Loneliness” was published in the
magazine “New Era”, along with a note of my godfather, Kazantzakis,
saying that it was the most beautiful poem he had ever read. I had,
though, even then, the maturity to say to those who were impressed that
it was a mere exaggeration. “To Kazantzakis,” I said, “everything is
either divine or a botch. And since this poem is not a botch, he
considered it divine…” I did not get on my high horse.
PS: What is language for you?
KAR: I used to say all my
life that I was serving poetry. Lately I see that all these years I
have done nothing but serve language. And poetry is the tool, the
medium. I have an almost religious attachment to language. I believe,
that is, that when I say a phrase in English, I live and receive
reality in a different way than if I say the same phrase in Greek. For
example, when you hurt yourself and you are in pain, you say in English
“ouch”, whereas in Greek you say “Ohh”. I go so far as to believe that
these are two different pains.
PS: Philosophically speaking, does life have a meaning? Or are we the ones who give it a meaning?
KAR: I don’t know.
Kazantzakis, my godfather, in his “Askitiki” considers that all this
course has no other meaning than the obstinacy (and pride) of man not
to accept this lack of meaning… Now how do I? We grow up, we think that
we learn things and at some point, when we die, we find out that we
don’t know anything. We will never know who it is (and whether there is
someone) behind all this fairytale.
PS: Maybe religions can give an answer to it. They talk about a divine plan that justifies us.
KAR: What happens, though,
when you don’t believe, as is the case with me? I have the absolute
conviction that as soon as we find ourselves under the ground, the
whole story is over. We will never know anything else.
PS: Does this make you feel a sort of “greed” towards life?
KAR: Yes! Nothing is
enough. This, of course, doesn’t mean that one does not enjoy life and
all the things it offers. The point is that no matter how much I am
offered, I will never get to know what is going on here. What is the
meaning of this game, called life? Unless, as I get older, I get scared
stiff and start to believe in the divine plan as well!
PS: Are you saying that the basis of faith and religion is fear?
KAR: It is to me.
PS: Is it possible that poetry constitutes an effort to get a kind of immortality? To exist beyond death?
KAR: I have sometimes
thought of this. I don’t know which of my poems, if any, will last
through time. Nor how long they will last. There are people who might
find some comfort in this possibility and this helps them live. But it
cannot help me. It doesn’t give me any joy. I’m not concerned with
eternity, not without existence.
PS: Physical existence that is, which is considered by critics as colouring and defining your poetry…
KAR: “The body is the
victory and defeat of dreams”. I do not distinguish the soul from the
body and from the whole mystery of existence. Besides, since I was very
young I have experienced physically many adventures. What I will
transform into poetry or despair has to come first through my body. I
mean how my body will react to the weather, age, illness, storms, love.
Whatever I try, whatever I manage to do and whatever I fail will be
nothing without this base, called the body. The highest ideas, the
highest concepts depend on the morning cough, on how the respiratory,
digestive and cardiac systems work…
PS: Where should we seek for the origins of your poetry? Who are the poets that have influenced you?
KAR: Critics believe that
there are no obvious influences in my poetry. I believe that the reason
for this is quite simple. I have always had a very bad memory, and
lately things are worse. I can remember almost nothing by heart. I
don’t have any live poetic discourse inside me, with the exception of
Cavafy, Rimbaud maybe, and Karouzos. In my childhood and adolescence I
used to read a lot and adored Porfyras and Malakasis. I adored this so
pure poetry that wanted to say nothing but “I am poetry”. No social, or
political, or theoretical issues. Nothing like that. I am not talking
about “pure poetry” as a School, but as a reality.
PS: Don’t you believe that poetry does not only observe, express, or register, but takes a stand on what’s going on around us?
KAR: You are talking about
committed poetry. There can be such poetry, but it is not mine. And to
be a little bit antifeminist – I don’t believe that any poetry written
by a woman can become a… National Anthem.
PS: Is there female and male poetry?
KAR: At first glance, no
there isn’t Yet if you dig into the body of poetry, you will
distinguish such layers. I don’t know what will happen in two hundred
years from now, but for now it is difficult and a lot of effort is
needed for women, to express what is going on in their gender. For men,
things are different – they have the leeway of time behind them. They
have solved other problems and they have the luxury to talk about their
state, their nation, and their ideas. On the contrary women, despite
their significant progress in matters of equality during the past
decades, have still a long way to go. In poetry, they have not yet
exhausted the theme of their gender. And since we are talking about
poetry and gender, in one of my poems I write – “you are a man and you
cannot be penetrated”…
PS: How would you like your position in the history of Greek Literature to be?
KAR: I don’t know which, if
any, of my poems will stand the test of time. Yet if something stands,
I would like my poetry to stay as a voice of naturalness. That is what
comes out of my poetry, whether it derives from my head, or lower, or
from the historical conditions I lived in, is characterized by
naturalness. I know that there have been great works of art that have a
certain artificiality, but they do not concern me.
PS: What does poetry, finally, give to the world? Is it “useful”?
KAR: Poetry does nothing
but sustain and raise the unanswered questions of existence. As for its
“usefulness”, this has concerned me often. People have stopped me in
the street and told me that my poetry has helped them a lot, and this
has made me feel uneasy. I swear I don’t understand what my life, my
personal experiences, translated well or badly into poetry, can give to
people. I may be serving some higher purpose than what I think. I don’t
have any answer.
PS: What has poetry given you personally?
KAR: Both the poetry of others and my own have helped me live. And it still does.
Café Filion, 2003