[MGSA-L] Inside a Greek Poet’s Work, a Reflection of Her Country’s Hard Times
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Sat Jan 12 09:45:51 PST 2013
Inside a Greek Poet’s Work, a Reflection of Her Country’s Hard Times
By RACHEL DONADIO
Published: January 11, 2013
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KIKI DIMOULA, Greece’s feisty, 81-year-old national poet, was holding
court on a recent afternoon, musing about her work and the fate of her
country. Asked to describe the mood in Greece today, she did not mince
words. “Darkness and chaos,” she said, drawing on a cigarette.
Ms. Dimoula may have a flair for the dramatic, but her words are
always chosen carefully. Her poetry — spare, profound, unsentimental,
effortlessly transforming the quotidian into the metaphysical, drawing
on the powerful themes of time, fate and destiny, yet making them
entirely her own — has earned her a near-cult following in Greece.
One of her Greek writer contemporaries, Nikos Dimou, has called Ms.
Dimoula “the best Greek woman poet since Sappho,” and she is the first
living female poet ever to be included in the prestigious French
publisher Gallimard’s poetry series. But her work has rarely been
translated into English.
Last fall, a new collection of her selected poems, “The Brazen
Plagiarist,” appeared from Yale University Press, translated by Cecile
I. Margellos and Rika Lesser, bringing her work into English for the
first time in nearly two decades.
Ms. Dimoula does not speak English. “I was lazy,” she said
apologetically, and is concerned that her Greek verbal acrobatics do
not translate well. In the introduction to the new collection, she
writes that she worries “whether the bridge from one language to
another is sound enough.”
The bridge, as it happens, is plenty strong. As is the writer.
“My homeland is my language,” Ms. Dimoula said. She was seated on a
dark velvet sofa in the elegant Athens sitting room of Ms. Margellos,
a translator and literary critic who with her husband, the Greek
investor Theodore Margellos, have endowed the Margellos Republic of
Letters imprint at Yale University Press.
“It is my identity, it reassures me,” Ms. Dimoula said of her
language. Around her, the walls were painted with neo-Ottoman motifs.
A vase of blood-red dahlias sat on the mirrored coffee table. Ms.
Dimoula leaned back on a silk turquoise throw pillow. Her gray hair
was cut stylishly short. The lines around her eyes revealed a legacy
of laughter and loss.
IN a literary tradition in which poets have been revered almost as
untouchable gods, Ms. Dimoula comes across as earthy and approachable.
Born and raised in Athens, Ms. Dimoula worked for years at a desk job
at the Bank of Greece — as had her father and her husband — before she
quit working in 1974. She raised two children and is a devoted
The desk job was no fun. “It was a prison,” she said. Every morning
during Greece’s military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, her
supervisor would have her take a metal phoenix, the symbol of the
colonels, out of a drawer and place it on his desk. “My bird, Dimoula,
my bird!” she said, laughing at the memory.
Those were dark times. Today, with Greece dismantling its social
protections amid a crushing debt crisis, she is concerned that things
might get even more terrible. “I believe they can get even worse than
the junta period,” she said. “The junta put under surveillance and
limited the freedom of the leftists; now the whole country is being
Like all Greek retirees, Ms. Dimoula has seen her pension cut.
“Because of 100 people that abused power, the whole country has been
asked to pay,” she said angrily, drawing on another cigarette,
referring to Greece’s many financial scandals.
SHE said she follows the news and listens to the political speeches,
especially those of the Socialist party leader, Evangelos Venizelos,
famous for his oratory. “He’s very careful; he’s a speaker by nature,”
she said. “I’m examining the quality, not the authenticity” of his
speeches, she added. Asked if she believed a word he said, she shook
her head vehemently. “No,” she said.
In a 2011 speech when she received Greece’s most prestigious literary
award, the Grand National Prize for lifetime achievement, Ms. Dimoula
talked about the role of culture during the crisis. “How society
perceives matters of art in general depends on how far its soul has
accepted the belief that art, poetry in this case, will not impose
cutbacks on the escape it provides,” she said then.
In 2001, when Ms. Dimoula became the first woman to receive an award
for lifetime work from the Academy of Athens, she began giving
interviews in the Greek news media, which quickly became almost as
well known as her poetry.
“Half of the mail we get is from people who say, ‘I want to meet Kiki
Dimoula,’ ” said Marilena Panourgia, a publisher at Ikaros, Ms.
Dimoula’s publishing house, where she is in the illustrious company of
Greece’s two Nobel laureates in literature, George Seferis and
Like so many small businesses in Greece, Ikaros is struggling to stay
afloat. “In the good times, we didn’t buy houses and boats; we
published more books that we knew no one would buy,” Katerina Karydi,
whose father founded Ikaros in 1943, said with a sad smile. She spoke
in the publisher’s in-house bookshop, amid shelves of elegant
paperbacks with pages that have to be sliced open with a paper cutter.
Ms. Dimoula said she hates to reread her own poems. Instead, she said,
she prefers to treat them coldly, like “a stepmother.” She has
professed an almost creative belief in pessimism. “Pessimism is an
inner love for life,” she said. “The pessimist is one who cannot enjoy
the joys of life and is very conscious that he has the passion of the
unsatisfied and of the unsatisfiable.”
ABOVE all, Ms. Dimoula mourns her first husband, Athos Dimoulas, a
poet who encouraged her to become one, too, and who died in 1985. She
honors his memory in her 1988 collection “Hail, Never.” In writing
that book, “all I was thinking was, how could you get back what has
“All my poetry is about that,” Ms. Dimoula said.
Photographs are a recurring theme, a way of capturing time. In other
poems, Ms. Dimoula uses the everyday as a gateway to the infinite. In
“Mother of the Floor Below,” dedicated to her children, she writes of
moving. “Cartons boxes bundles well-secured with the severed /
umbilical cord,” she writes. “The infant thermometer forgotten for
days / in history’s armpit, no longer feverish.”
“The main subject of Dimoula’s poetry is nothingness,” Nikos Dimou,
the writer, said in a telephone interview. “It is the fact that our
existence is not a real existence, it’s a precarious existence; it’s
always undermined by the thought of death, by time, by decay.” Like
Emily Dickinson or the great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, Ms.
Dimoula “has her own very single, very specific, very individual
voice,” Mr. Dimou added. “She cannot be mistaken for anything else.”
The poet said she was disappointed that her intricate prose was
accessible to so many. “I feel offended,” she said. “Am I as
understandable as that?”
She also plays down the fact that her poetry speaks to readers,
especially in such dark times. “People say to me, ‘It’s a
consolation,’ ” she said. “And I wonder how I can console them because
I myself am inconsolable.”
“I derive my themes from what’s happening in everyday life,” Ms.
Dimoula had said earlier. “I don’t have visions. I am not a visionary
poet.” The afternoon light poured in through high windows. Outside was
Athens, a city pushed to the brink. “I want to transform reality into
something less real,” she said.
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