If poetry is a way of thinking — think about — Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke who “filters her passion through a delicate irony and a calm humanism”.
Born in 1939 in Athens, she is easily recycled as Aphrodite, as her poems glide over the campfires of unreason, fleshing out uncertainty, “the endless black longitude of pain”, cleansing human love through song.
“What is saved is only
the silence of a leaf,
the body grows dark
together with the day”
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. Prague Writer's Festival 2000, 2004, 2008
Lipiu Once Again
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 Světoví 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 it.
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.
©Michael March Café Filion, 2003