Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Understanding Youth - a poem by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke

Something comes immediately to mind when referring to the Greek poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke and what would be most relevant to this topic of 'Nation and Identity'. For she would say it is difficult to be Greek and not to be misunderstood as being a Nationalist. What difference does she mean by this?

First of all, every poet or poetess writes in his or her language. The Arabic philosopher al Gahiz would go so far that in every language there exists the word 'love', but the meaning thereof would be untranslatable from the one to another language.

Secondly, there is the reference to mother tongue, but 'fatherland' so as to link the materal and the paternal as being complementary to nation and state. Here again an interlude would be before the creation of the nation state something expressed by Lord Byron joining the independence fight of the Greek people against 400 years of oppression by the Ottoman empire and which indicates this strong poetic link between Romanticism and Nationhood as a free and independent people protected by their own state. In the case of Katerina she grew up in a household where she had a Russian nanny and thus from childhood on she learned to speak and to love that language since it speaks to the soul, whereas French is much more one of the intellect and English a domain of international communication.

Katerina Anghelaki Rooke becomes philosophical in her poetry. She describe things as she would see them but not in a nominal manner. Rather it is a recollection of something she had seen and experienced previously. Before writing she would enter a specific room of pain, look around to see what could be found, and then depart with a collection of poems which she would write down once outside that room. To understand her poem this room needs to be imagined. When writing about the youth, it meant comparing the sense of time in that room designed to recollect what she had perhaps gone through herself and then to compare it with what the youth of today would represent to her.


Understanding Youth

When you’re distracted

And unwitting time

Lies on your forehead,

I am overcome by sadness

For your full-blooded youth –

The dross of time.

Your smiles the flowers of sorrow,

As you stare at the white wall

You gradually become erect,

An exquisite tower rising

Empty in the emptiness.

The explosions set off

Inside the cage of my chest,

Split me apart and my flesh

Tumbles off in pieces

For you to feed on.

Inside your hole of frustration

You’ll be gnawing slowly,

An ill-starred rodent

Whose useless energy

Is turned into crime,

Sperm shining into poison.

You’ll chew at me and spit out

The age-old seeds of my womb,

Your eye  fixes

On the window or

On Magritte’s giant comb.

I am beside myself and scorn my days,

I am voluptuously swallowed

And loathe my survival

Like a disease.

I examine my eyes in the mirror,

Paling pools of darkness,

One by one my crumbling teeth

Still fencing off

The cavern of breath.

Oh how much longer

Will I be proffering love

In my time-worn vessel,

So miserable an of f erring,

When the insidious silence

Of the world besets you

Like the caterpillar attacks the pine.

Only by dying will I reach

The summit of my love,

Only by losing my body

Will I receive you entirely

And, as your sole reward,

I will show you

How love pours out into nature,

How passion dissolves in death.


Taken from her book 'Being and Things on their Own'. New York, 1986


Katerina Anghelaki Rooke


A first turning point in the poem when she derides the youth for erecting something but in reality gaining only emptiness. The cage in the chest reminds of the a Surrealist painting which exists in the National Gallery of Athens: the figure of a wanderer has this cage in his chest and inside is the bird unable to fly away, into freedom. At that time, and ever since Schubert composed his melodies, the wanderer was a figure yearning for the freedom. By stepping outside the narrow confines of the village or of the society back home, this freedom was sought but to no avail as indicated by this cage in the chest. The lack of freedom is not the surrounding so much as it is rather a matter of feeling inside to be imprisoned or not.

Often this mistake is made to think by changing country and situation, another opening would give another chance to oneself, a chance not to be found or given back home. It has marked many and prompted not a few Europeans to immigrate to North America or Australia where they started another kind of society based on another mixture of backgrounds but united by this urge to be free. The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood would say it was a negative freedom for it was merely a yearning not be determined by anything. In that sense a retrospect would identify a nation state as being more or less a negative tutelage to the institutions such a state had created to control and to regulate life, but at the cost of stifling individual freedom and development. What was said above about the difference between lyrics sung in English and other forms of protest songs expressed in European songs, the universal appeal of the former can be explained by being closer to this sense of freedom from institutional tutelage. The interesting question which can be added to this historical observation is what the feedback of the immigrants to their counter parts back in Europe could have provoked? There is the possibility to have contributed to the unification of Europe as a reflection of what was already to be experienced in a class room in Canada or United States with many immigrant groups from both Western and Eastern Europe being joined together in one class.

By comparison, when seventeen, she wrote a poem which her godfather Katzanzakis acclaimed immediately and urged her to publish it.

The Solitary

United your tears with rain,
Your laughter with sun and wind,
Tornado and rising tide
Of indignation;
Cry for children, barefoot and open-handed
Whose approaching faces glow
In the late afternoon;
And you will find yourself
All alone.

Turn to your fellow men
And in their indifferent eyes
You will find yourself reflected
Desperate but complete
And all alone.

Point out the noblest way,
Implore them to believe
Only in themselves
And their misery will increase
As the task overwhelms them
And you will again
Find yourself alone

Cry out your love
And your hollow call will return empty,
Lacking courage to try the dirty streets,
Tired steps and shut doors.
The trembling voice that you sent out
Will return with words newly discovered
That reveal you are all alone.

O God, what will become of us?
How are we to continue,
To believe, to decide ourselves
When right beside us
Souls sharply expire?

One path only, one means, one victory
Result when we believe,
…all alone.

Katherina Anghelaki-Rooke, Fall 1956
Translated by Karen Van Dyck and Martin Turner

At the age of seventeen many things can happen, such as Picasso having already his first major exhibition after having shamed his father to give up his ill attempts at drawing when seeing how his son was drawing.

But to return to the poem, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke does enter this contrast between a youthful and ageing body with the latter underlined by things crumbling. The link to former empires which vanished or simply crumbled can be drawn as it may be interpreted as a metaphor for what can happen to lofty dreams and ideals the youth still has and before the teeth bite into dust of reality. Here one needs to think as much of the fate of Antigone as of the lecture given by Klaus Heinrich about 'dust and thinking'.

Given this contrast, the poem towards the end strives towards reconciliation, alas one of contradictory movements: love pours into nature while passion into death with the body dissolving to leave but the spirit remaining like a stain on the table clothe where before there stood a tea pot which had been spilled a bit. Naturally it comes close to what can be assumed is left behind once one has died: some stains. Yet here is made apparent the real difference between youth and an adult already ageing. The youth is never reconciled with this fact of life ending with death, an elderly person knows the time is approaching to be reconciled with this fact that it cannot be changed. It is inevitable. The impact of that terrible truth can only be swallowed by looking at the youth about to take off – wings to fly are reinforced as image by calling the youth that 'dross of time'.

Since Katerina Anghelaki Rooke started to write poetry at the age of seventeen, and such a poem that her godfather Katzanzakis recognized immediately here is a poetic talent so that he urged her to publish it immediately, there is possible to compare the looking back with her experience when seventeen and looking if not ahead, then into the world surrounding her. What becomes evident in her poem is another need to reconcile herself with the kind of world surrounding her.

Indeed, youth is linked to being indignant due to all the injustices in the world. Habermas gives recognition to this fact that the claim of human rights and human dignity is linked to this suffrage when injustice, not justice prevails in the world. And Katerina Anghelaki Rooke underlines the real sorrow for it appears to her as a seventeen year old that only she sees these indifference while the grown up men around her literally shock her due to their 'indifferent eyes'. What remains is the feeling of being 'all alone'. It is repeated through the poem to strike home that message. And precisely that makes her not to be a nationalist. For to be alone is the realization human justice prevails in seeing really what is happening around one regardless of colour, gender or religion.

The philosophical question she poses is what can be done when the legal system does not ensure justice? Injustice is inflicted not merely by a system but by this death which lets soulds right beside oneself expire without any explanation. Why him, not me, may be only a weak compensatory question to follow such an experience. There is really no explanation. Also the way this question is posed means death is not seen as salvation as implied by nationalist ideology which urges the soldier to sacrifice his life for the sake of the nation. That trade off between sacrifice and freedom of not the others but of the nation means another way to rule over the land. Not the freedom of the other to be oneself free is then needed, but the sovereignty of the nation. To make sure this message comes through, poets are pushed aside and Patriotism is advocated. Suddenly freedom depends then upon military strength and not what the other thinks or how free he or she is from all these injustices being constantly inflicted.

Given the rule of a nation state over one land, only one way, one victory seems the only possible way to proceed. Interestingly enough Michel Foucault would state as long as this victory is necessary, there will be no speaking with the other. Language is then one-sided and the seventeen year old realizes that she stands because of this all alone. Why is this evoked? When Gadamer explained that he learned a lot from Heidegger when a student, and mainly on how to defeat his father in any debate about things at home, then part of the growing up process is how to resist the blow the father may want to give, but not to make the revolt into a full scale break. Staying in dialogue with the father and mother is like the student who created two instruments, one for his father, the other for himself, in order to enter with him a musical dialogue. If something does not go directly, then there is always an indirect route to find some mutual understanding about some of the most important values. This includes fore mostly honesty and does not end with honoring friendship.


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