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The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems, edited by Karen Van Dyck

The Scattered Papers of Penelope: New and Selected Poems, edited by Karen Van Dyck

By Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke

Anvil Press Poetry, 128pp, paperback, £ 9.95, ISBN: 978-0-85646-401-0
Series 3 No.12 - Freed Speech

If poetry, poems and language increasingly become central characters, parts of the examined life, or inform imagery and metaphors, it is translation which most poignantly allows passion and literature to define each other

Review by Paschalis Nikolaou

Godchild of none other than Nikos Kazantzakis, already an established poet in her early twenties and producing fourteen collections over the course of four decades, which saw her win most major poetry prizes in Greece, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke has also been fortunate when it comes to translation. As Karen Van Dyck explains at one point in her engaging and thoroughly researched Introduction, some of the best translators of Greek poetry - among them, Kimon Friar and Rae Dalven - have been involved with her work, even though many of these translations have until now indeed been scattered, existing in old literary journals and small press publications. The poet is also fortunate to have Van Dyck, a Modern Greek Literature Professor at Columbia, sift through and select, with her help, the best translations (in many cases, assisted self-translations) of her poems. 

The resulting volume, including new renderings by Van Dyck, is published by Anvil, home to Greek poets of the calibre of Seferis, Elytis and Gatsos. 

The title here, borrowed from that of an early collection, also serves as a first marker of Anghelaki-Rooke’s thematic preoccupations. In their monologues and narratives, her Penelopes and Helens relate the female side of myth, truths of women’s experience in an urgent present tense:

And Penelope who now hears
the evocative music of fear
the cymbals of resignation
the sweet song of a quiet day
without sudden changes of weather and tone
the complex chords
of an infinite gratitude
for what did not happen, was not said, cannot be uttered
now signals no, no, no more loving
no more words and whispers
caresses and bites
small cries in the darkness
scent of flesh that burns in the light.
Pain was the most exquisite suitor
and she slammed the door on him.

(‘The Other Penelope’, trans. Edmund and Mary Keeley)

Anghelaki-Rooke is a superb anatomist of psychologies of passion: her stories of all-consuming desire trace every shade of feeling, the poet’s conversational style assembling the minutes of consciousness and memory, either in prose poems or in a fluid free verse where stanza breaks are often unnecessary. Her language is always direct and accessible, yet tinged with sadness and populated by contemplated wounds, pausing for potent images that often perfectly capture alternating moods or stirrings of the mind. In ‘The Red Moon’ the poet sees ‘blond women smile and disappear under the broken/ plaster’ of her house, while the dog ‘with his stomach heavy from all the tenderness / of my barren heart, empties his guts on the black earth’. Various cultural and religious signifiers – cicadas, angels, monks – also feature; but together with everyday objects and anchors of the Greek landscape, they serve mostly as points of entry and return to the poet’s interiors – or those of inhabited, surrogate selves. 

Though this poetry can seem intensely personal and autobiographical, it is too interested in the world, in meaning-making, in the consequences of choices made, to merit the negative connotations of ‘confessional’. Rather, its significance lies in how it consistently finds the natural world and inner life, soul and body in peculiar unison or interdependence. In Anghelaki-Rooke’s art, it is indeed the body, with its manifold needs and sensations, wounds and imperatives that, as Van Dyck and others before her have observed, negotiates thought, memory, and ultimately, acts of writing. 

If poetry, poems and language increasingly become central characters, parts of the examined life, or inform imagery and metaphors, it is translation which most poignantly allows passion and literature to define each other:

Because I cannot touch you
with my tongue
I transliterate my passion.
[…]
Because I cannot undress you
I imagine you in the clothes
of a foreign language.
Because I cannot nestle
under your wing
I fly around you
turning the pages of your dictionary.
I want to learn how you bare yourself
how you open yourself up.
That’s why I search
between the lines
[…]

(‘Translating Life’s End into Love’, trans. Karen Van Dyck)

It is perhaps not surprising for a poet who has produced exquisite Greek versions of, among others, Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas and Joseph Brodsky (as well as English renderings of her own work) and who once stated that ‘poetry is a free translation of reality’, to articulate translation as part of literary endeavour, and as a potent metaphor for desire and possession. 

Despite such self-observation, and even though Anghelaki-Rooke’s work carries its fair share of linguistic play and intertextual allusion (together with the layers of a tongue evolving relatively uninterrupted for millennia), it avoids the dead ends of language-oriented experiment. Her keen exploration of what one of her sequences names ‘The Narrative of the Self’ rarely deflects the lyricism and immediacy of her expression, the poet always seeking to phrase living tissue, make every emotion tactile. It is what allows her voice to retain so much of its vitality and clarity in English, and through the prism of the many capable hands at work here, including her own.

Paschalis Nikolaou

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