Journal of Modern Greek Studies 19.2 (2001) 283-286
Review EssayTassos Denegris. Selected Poems. Nottingham: Shoestring Press. Translated by Philip Ramp. 2000. Pp. 77.
Dimitris Lyacos. Poena Damni: The First Death. Nottingham: Shoestring Press. Translated by Shorsha Sullivan. With six masks by Friedrich Unegg. 2000. Pp. vii + 37.
Dionysios Solomos. The Free Besieged and Other Poems. Translated by Peter Thompson, Roderick Beaton, Michael Green, Peter Colaclides, and David Ricks. Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Mackridge. Shoestring Press. 2000. Pp. xxxvi + 93.
Tassos Denegris is in his late sixties, which is to say a member of a generation scarred by war, civil war, and military dictatorship. He is best defined by his refusals -- of the buttress of myth and history, of the hope of revolutionary justice, of a lyricized, idealized landscape. In short, his is not the way of the great and daunting poets who circumvallated his time, of Seferis and Ritsos and Elytis. Individual yet oddly impersonal, densely particular yet allusive, astringently clear yet gnomic, he reminds one of a man on a dangerous perch, a poet with a highwire act for whom one rhetorical misstep will bring catastrophe.
This harshly winnowed Selected Poems--fifty-two poems culled from seven volumes spanning nearly half a century -- offers no summing up, no sense of biographical or narrative progression, but only sharply incised snapshots, as if the poet lived from poem to poem on a trestle of silence. Like Ritsos, whose later and amply disillusioned poems share some of his sense of a surreally heightened yet profoundly quotidian world, Denegris dates most of his poems by day, month, and year. However, whereas in Ritsos this practice becomes a Sisyphean sloughing-off of mortality, a stay against time, in Denegris it is as matter-of-fact as a reporter's dateline: I was here, I saw this. Even when, on the threshhold of old age, he peers back into the past (the last volume of the selection is entitled Childhood Years), the sense he conveys is of something directly observed rather than recalled. In Denegris, the only tense is the present, as if the real (or for that matter the imaginary) could be entrusted only to the moment, and memory, like history, was merely a fiction.
One way in which Denegris enacts presentness is in using child protagonists (sometimes himself, sometimes others), contained in a brief narrative or even a simple gesture, as in "Equilibrium is Maintained," which reads in its entirety:
Equilibrium is maintained thanks to the small child
Walking straight as a ramrod in his green cloak
Through the dark January afternoon.
Childhood is not so much a time of innocence for Denegris as of vulnerability, and the ability of children to subsist in a gesture is linked, often, to illness or death. The adult estate, however, is simply a fallen one, with no hope and indeed hardly the memory of resurrection. The landscape itself is conscripted in the service of violence ("The poplars present arms" ["Images from an Excursion"]), or a wasteland of human and geological detritus ("Basin cistern crucible / Crater of a volcano / The region a tangle of snakes" ["Cosmogony"]). The sterility of the landscape is linked to the suppression of memory ("The boring landscape / Dossiers and closed faces" ["Postwar"]), and that in turn to the degradation of the environment. In the ironically titled "The Evolution of a Landscape," Denegris describes the savagely desecrated area around Eleusis, where petrochemical refineries sit atop what were once sacred groves, and the sea protests the pollution of its "Organs, most intimate." The theme of poisoning and illness is further traced in a number of poems, in which the doctors who "cure" are indistinguishable from the forces of death and disease ("The Barons of the Hospital").
Denegris's tone in these poems of protest is by turns mocking, angry, and ironic. It is often blunted, however, by the recognition that he, too, is of his time, and that the evil he denounces is inscribed in himself as well. In "My Dead Leader," a poem written three weeks before the collapse of the Junta, the tyrant does not command but "insinuates," knowing that he will find his answering echo; in...