Sunday, 8 September 2013

A Modern Sibyl

A. E. Stallings introduces English readers to the work of Kiki Dimoula, an eighty-two-year-old Greek poet revered in her country:
Dimoula’s poetry reflects the humdrum, rather claustrophobic circumstances of her life. Her unpretentious, flatly unpoetical voice is grounded in the quotidian and the domestic. The floors of her poems are scattered with the detritus of motherhood: Playmobil toys, Superman costumes, Barbie dolls. Her settings include all-night pharmacies, farmers’ markets, a daily bus ride to a soul-withering job. A wreath of cemetery flowers is made of plastic; leftovers linger in Tupperware; pizzas are delivered on motorbikes. She is urban rather than pastoral: The birds in her poems sing in the iron trees of television antennae, neighbors hear each other through thin walls. Titles of her poems include “Mother of the Floor Below,” “Shake Well Before Using,” “Exercises for Weight Loss in No Time at All,” and “Repair Loans.” And the title of one of her books is, tellingly, We’ve Moved Next Door.
But for all their focus on the humdrum, the poems, according to Stallings, are fiendishly hard to translate:
The most idiosyncratic and essential quality of her verse is its collage of linguistic registers. Dimoula constantly shifts between, on the one hand, a jaunty contemporary vernacular peppered with slang and advertising jingles, and, on the other, katharevousa, the pseudo-archaic “purified” tongue that was, as late as the 1970s, the language of Greek bureaucracy, formal education, and newspapers. She also avails herself of Ancient Greek phrases, and of Koine and liturgical quotations. For her, all strata of the language coexist, just as classical ruins, neoclassical buildings, and ugly apartment blocks from the 1970s jostle for breathing space in modern Athens.

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