The Poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke by Hatto Fischer
The poems of Katerina Anghelaki Rooke grip and move one. They are not so much
outspoken as they articulate deep philosophical, indeed human thoughts. Insofar as she
addresses human experiences, she does so without any fear to be misunderstood.
Most amazing is that she never appears to be out of breath. No where can there be noted
in her poems something like a last minute panic. Yet they reveal constantly proof, if ever
that is needed, that life does not stand still. More so she admits that life is never easy but
one must try to stay true to what one loves. In her case it is poetry. Ever since she can
remember she did write poetry and this in view of what others have done already before
her. That positions her poetry amongst ‘us mortals’ while never stopping to be amazed by
those immortals like Elytis and Seferis.
And then there is the Greek language into which she was born. She has gained through a
long married life with an epistemologist a taste for exact meanings. Furthermore she
loves to use that language to seize upon moments of truth out of which is born a
metaphor. It is for her the most appropriate way to describe the phenomenon. It can be
observed throughout her poetry. A metaphor is like a truck; it can literally carry many
things. That means her poems convey something like a personal truth but which becomes
in due course of the poem a public truth. Name it subversion of the arts when the
imagination is empowered to address something directly, but it does matter how this
vibrates in the public spaces given to poetry. In Greece, she is fully appreciated for what
she does in her direct manner. She does so with human kindness and readiness to forgive
once she has made her criticism in a direct but never blunt manner. Often she weaves out
of difficult and delicate situations in a ‘nonchalance’ way. The way her poems end attests
that she prefers to leave it at that for the moment.
Wonderful is to see how her poem unfolds. She starts by deducing out of something
apparently self evident first of all an abstract meaning. She stresses that by being first
startled, but then moves on by relating the abstract meaning to something concrete e.g. in
her poem “matter all alone” she describes how a moved object begins to murmur as if it
complains to have been removed from its original place. This interplay between the
abstract and concrete is enriched by adding significant details such as the color of skin of
a stray dog. That reveals a life being observed close by all while meanings are examined
from a distance. Thus she writes her poems to reveal what the Greek language allows,
namely that one and the same word entails at different levels another meaning. For
example, the word 'cosmos' means both people and universe, something humane and
outer terrestrial at one and the same time.
Interestingly enough, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke has never tried to translate her own
poems into another language although she is a professional translator and fluent in
French, English and Russian (in the case of the latter her translation works include
Pushkin but also younger Russian poets about whom she never ceases to be amazed by
their use of language). Only in the case of her last book with the intriguing title
'translating life's end into love', did she dare to try her own translation. It comes close to
an attempt to rewrite practically her own poems in English, a language most familiar to
her since she shared it with her recently deceased husband Rodney Rooke. As Cambridge
scholar he was her encyclopedia and therefore capable to draw her attention to nuances in
meaning in both the English and Greek language. This she would have missed otherwise,
that is if not faced by his challenge to view language from all aspects, including the
His departure four years ago became a real challenge for her. Katerina Anghelaki Rooke
felt as if 'he had taken with him her poetry'. She seemed unable to write anymore poems.
Thus it has not been easy for her, this sudden absence of a companion who had shared
with her a Bohemian taste for life, and this for over forty years. She had thought that he
would live much longer than her for he was two month younger but she erred. Indeed, life
and more so death remains unpredictable. After his death she continued doing only
translations and this until recently very hard. It was her way of preventing that she would
become altogether silent. Only lately some new poems started to make their appearances.
All the more it is amazing how she has stayed not only alive, but has retained her vitality
and vigorous voice in poetry. To say it simply Katerina Anghelaki Rooke has character
and presence in life. Whenever she wishes to call someone, she does not hesitate.
Consequently her voice can boom across the entire tavern or cafe to let the friend know
where she is sitting or else that she wants another beer.
Young and old poets come to her because they cherish her advice and orientation. Most
recently even a business man sought her advice when wishing to publish the poems of his
late wife. Katerina Anghelaki Rooke rarely says 'no'. She does have time for others. Her
tremendous translation skills have made sure that many other voices can be heard within
the Greek world of literature and poetry.
She believes at the root of a good poem there is human pain. All her poems reflect that.
They are therefore a search for an explanation of such pain rather than claiming to have
found an answer.
Her thoughts do not linger when starting out a new poem. Rather they seem to pick up
strength as she continues to develop her thoughts throughout the following lines. It is like
a ship gathering speed by letting the sails be filled with wind. At the same time, many
side tunes can be heard. She plays with them like her fingers with the sun rays on the
table. Then she startles those words about to go silent with a hearty laugh. She loves a
good joke when journeying out into the world in her poems as if she is on an imaginary
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke knows that through poetry she can and does provoke others
with her philosophical thoughts. Since her first publication at the age of 16, she belonged
to the group of promising young Greek poets who looked up to Ritsos, Seferis and Elytis.
Amazing is that she has retained over the years the very freshness of ideas expressed
already in her first poem.
Stepping out of silence is an underlying theme in all of her poems. It says that there is no
point to cling to the past as if history is a mere summery of nostalgic feelings which wish
to create a frame for something permanently just the same. That is the fate of the
Romantics. Katerina Anghelaki Rooke has nothing to do with that. When she was staying
outside of Munich in a Baverian art center thanks to a scholarship, it was for her too
silent. In the end she was wondering if everyone else had died and only she had remained
alive. Such silence does not prevail in Greece. It may be too noisy for those who come as
tourists from those quiet places but such silence would bury hearing even your own
voice. Hence her art is to pose a cunning question amongst all other voices filling the
streets of Athens. It relates to her understanding of life. In the midst of such life she never
hesitates to asks bluntly: “what is in it for me? What do you get out of it?” She will
continue asking the same question until she gets a satisfactory answer. “Now you are
talking, now I finally understand what you want…” But by affirming this moment of
understanding, she lets life speak through her resounding voice and hearty laughter.
Now that she has become seventy, she can let times pass by. Finally she got a pension
giving her a much needed financial security. When in Athens, she enjoys sitting at her
favorite cafe Phileon in Kolonaki. There she loves to drink her beer, see friends and be
amongst fellow artists and writers. Phileon cafe is the place where they meet regularly
but apparently according to no plan whatsoever. They gather there to exchange the latest
news and raise their voices when something happens in society. It is a stock market like
reflection of artistic opinions based on mutual appreciation insofar as everyone knows
what the other has achieved in the meantime: another publication, a good public speech
and in-between everything else one of those wonderful human gestures was made when
someone else needs something and nothing less will do but a touch of another caring
human soul. The caring about the other matches a caring about staying free. Katerina
Anghelaki Rooke embodies this cultural milieu and contributes greatly to this sense of
freedom. She would say about herself never has she phoned someone to be invited. That
is not her style, taste or suits her character. She has stayed free throughout her life to be
spontaneous, forthcoming and yet critical. Indeed, she does not take any 'nonsense'.
Katerina is not only at home in Athens. She has also her enchanted house on the island of
Aegina. There stands leaning against the wall that most photographed bicycle which
appears on the cover of her book of poetry. It is her dream to transform this house into a
translation center for poetry.
If a real sense for her strong personality and intelligence can be conveyed, then she
appears as if constantly preparing herself for a life long voyage. Like her ancestors it
means she is getting ready to travel out to the islands. Along the way when passing those
rocks coming out of the blue Aegean, it is possible to experience again and again the
birth of the earth as Zbigniew Herbert would put it. To this is added a fibre of touch. It is
the wind who leaves the branches hanging over the water quivering in anticipation of the
coming boat. On the horizon can be seen the sea gulls following the fishing boats. The
tuckering motor resounds at the shore. There people stand until their bodies cast no
longer shadows. This is when the sun has climbed up to its steepest peak. Then it is time
to seek the shadows for a rest at high noon. Out of such a rhythm of life a sense of a
world filled with physical wonders becomes audible in her poems like the barking of a
dog or the scratching of the pen over the paper. It includes the steam kettle blowing off
steam in the kitchen or the dripping water tap while laughter resounds when friends come
around for a visit. That is life entailed in normal proportions. It is best described,
poetically speaking, when free from metaphysical assumptions. That is what the poetry of
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke is all about.
Poetry as dialogue
What is meant when it is said that her poems are expressions of natural philosophy born
out of dialogue? Certainly she evokes a lot of natural attitudes. They can take on different
meanings the moment people respond to what she writes in her poetry. She never ceases
to amaze people how direct she can be. That gives them comfort insofar her poetry
convinces them that something beautiful can be attained because it exists in this world. It
does let them forget some of the more ugly sides of life.
To say it more precisely, her poetry is in reality the expression of a true dialogue between
the one on the ground or earth and the Gods above. A typical situation for any man or
woman is when caught in-between and then remains stuck to a hierarchy in which one
has to serve the other. Here she wants to and does go further in order to contemplate. In
so doing she evokes the Ancient spirits while entering the next room of poetry in order to
show what feelings mean in reality. It is all about human beings not in awe of the Gods,
but prepared to enter a clever dialogue with them. They do enter out of the wish to see
who has more wit and can be really cunning without loosing sight of what the dialogue is
all about. As if she writes in memory of Alexander Pope’s poem “The Pulley”, Katerina
Anghelaki Rooke sees the dependency between human beings and their Gods. However,
this relationship is subject to what human beings can do once they have lost faith in
silence. That comes when love can no longer be held back but forms language and makes
out of whispers a laughter or zeal of life.
I have lost my faith in silence
I have lost my faith in silence;
It is not pure, it is not romantic, it doesn’t hide
Or the next musical phrase of a pastoral symphony.
Ferociously it stifles the sobs of impotence
It feeds an eternal threat.
I was well disposed
So was the day in the morning
We didn’t notice
The mute stubbornness that muzzles
The awareness of tomorrow
And prevents you from hearing
The noisy ectoplasms of fear…
Oh! Yes I am afraid as well!
But I still struggle not to go deaf
I want to hear all the sobbing
And carry on the monologue
With the voice of my soul.
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, from: Translating Into Life’s End
Naturally such a dialogue means her metaphors measure the distance to the Gods in a
way always akin to the Greeks. They do not things out of tradition but in need to survive.
Survival in Greece means since Odyssey a cunning way; in reality, it is honesty in
disguise. They know how to talk in order to avoid the furry of the Gods while still getting
something in return. Dialogue, in particular the personal one, seeks one thing from the
Gods: the possibility to live in the real world and even if only for one moment, then this
will come close to eternity. Everything else is an elongation of the imagination stretching
itself to bridge the 'here' with the 'there'. Wondering means then not really understanding
a world pretending to have an order when in fact a car can leave if only to return later to
stew “in its own juice.”
Departure point: some observation
Like a philosopher, she begins with an observation. Out of that develops the poem based
on experiences. It lets the senses speak. They are startled. Ideas begin to rebound. She
wonders in what world we live in. As she proceeds, her language gives her room to
experiment with what can be a search for identity through the poem with what is going
on. It is another way of describing how she attempts to understand what is going on.
Often, she would attest that she no longer understands. 'What is happening' means that
what is taking place in reality can drive anyone into despair. That is the response of the
poet to a world understood by the Greeks as 'cosmos' but which becomes in her poems
upon closer observation not the one to be associated at idealistic level with the Ancient
World, a very physical one. Her body responds. There is the scent or taste while
everything seems to be gone but the infatuation. She confronts this truth in order not to be
defeated although that is a possibility. She recognizes the burden but does not discard it
so easily. Most telling is therefore in her poem the question, if her person offers future
and vice versa what does life contain for her in order to have future? Such a balancing act
makes the reader wonder how she can sustain such a process of deep reflection. The
answer she gives to her own question is most telling about the tasks she foresees for
poetry. Poetry is meant among other things to show how important it is not to fall victim
to false promises while promising to oneself not too much. Life is about staying on a
realistic course. That is the path of poetry as described by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke in
her poem 'Present Eternity'.
From my window I observe the traffic -
Cars parked in the void
Or speed up in order
To catch themselves returning.
The world seems indefinable, dim
As if I were blinded by the steam
From some distant cauldron
Where the evil of creation
Is stewing in its own juice.
The infatuation bodies used to provoke -
Where has the infatuation gone?
How can a wounded memory
Has the content of life changed
Or does my person no longer offer
For life to contain me?
Never before have so many questions
Weighed down my poems
Never before has imagination
Omitted to give me
So many answers.
From now on you’ll find
Hardly any descriptions of nature
In my lines;
This is because
I’m concentrating totally
On trying to imagine the face
Of the one who will promise me
For just one moment.
Direct questions - poetic answers
She does not hesitate to ask direct questions: “what did you do to her?” Before the man
could answer, she forgives him with another teasing smile and then says almost to
herself: “come off it, we are all human beings.” Clear vision does not exclude human
understanding. Interestingly enough her poetry starts from such direct questions which
are linked to astute observations as if a scientist ready to start an experiment. Then she
enters the world of wonder. It allows for variations of the same question until everything
takes shape as a poetic answer. Once a linkage between question and answer has been
found, she stands aside.
Matter Alone (I Ili Moni)
I take hold of an object and change its place.
I don’t know why, maybe something bothers me.
The cloth, the paper
Produces a whisper, a cry
As matter changes position.
Does this imperceptible noise
Or relief for this new relation
Of the inanimate world with infinity?
Or maybe the object misses
Its place of origin?
A tiny movement,
A glance, a spark of light
And an inner self springs up:
Look how it moves freely
In an abstract now.
Something like a lover’s murmur
Is heard then
Or like a hungry dog crying…
“That is how matter behaves when it is alone” I say
before I am snatched by another silence,
A sense for proportions
One thing to be noticed is that she tries hard to imagine an answer. At the same time,
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke keeps saying that 'life is more than what we can imagine'. Out
of this she deduces in all modesty what can be known and anticipated. She does not see
poets so much as being visionaries. Rather she would describe her process of writing
poems as entering a room to look around what she can take with her before leaving again
the room. Each publication reflects what she has taken in the form of poems from such a
specific room. It suggests a lesson of proportions between constructed reality and what is
to be experienced once outside, in the physical world. But poetically it means something
more: the relationship between the momentary and the eternal. She does believe a good
poem contributes towards making the soul or at least the expression thereof 'immortal'.
No where better can this been seen then in her poem 'The blue of Vermeer'.
The blue of Vermeer
The blue of Vermeer
Cuts like a knife
And lifts one after the other
The layer of being
Till the depth
Where the lover
And the Believer
Are no longer divided
Into momentary and eternal,
But fall entirely in love
With the angels.
Oh! The blue of Vermeer,
How it affects the beast
And blesses it!
A blue as if coming from below
Yet crowning it all;
A companion of sadness
Yet decorating the seriousness
Of earthly things.
Poetry and prose
There are other proportions in life, war one of the them: difficult to understand, yet
something that crashes down on reality and leaves too much thereafter in silence. That
shows the limits of poetry as well. It is, therefore, to be noted that at the end of her 'war
diary' Katerina speaks about the need to return to prose. She does so when talking about
morality. She would claim most people do not really understand the language of the other
when reference is made to morality. The high and the low level is what begets them. It is
her conviction that above all the question of death does not go into their mind. 'I don’t
know myself', she would add, yet it is life that she prefers.
In "Beings and Things on Their Own" by Katerina Angelaki Rooke there can be found following text:
Darkness slowly eats the light, like a worm the fruit: from
within. First the presaging shadows fall, then the hen seeks out
yesterday's branch to roost. In her tiny brain she thinks her life
will go on forever. A rustling accompanies the visible world as
it leaves through the door of twilight and, invisible now, will
soon go back in through the same door which we will then call
night. On completion of the cycle, on the hidden side of the
moon, on the other side of "I know," perhaps the scarecrow
which petrifies me now will turn into a butterfly, and ugly
sticks into the limbs of Adonis. And will Death, with his hunting
cap and gun, start missing his target among the flowers?
I am politically minded. I mean, I think about death daily and
compare it with a vastly better system: life.
Copyright © 1986 by BOA Editions
It is to be noted that revisits of battle fields has a tradition in the land of Homer. It was
transformed during Second World War by both Elytis and Ritsos into heroic songs.
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke wishes not to continue that tradition. To her war cannot be
glorified. She views it more detached, equally freer from illusions about the reasons of
war. Equally she relates not only to war on the Greek soil, but to what is happening
around the world.
Her 'war diary' begins with an attest that death has returned to the land, the place of
origin. The prose character of the poem links the fact of being startled to a question
expressed more as a wonder: how did evil come to change direction! The question as
exclamation makes that, what happens on the land, into a new encounter with war. She
goes through the following days wondering and equally shaken. Steps through the days
are encounters with souls. All are marked by first the despair of others, but then as well
by the own anguish.
Reflections thereof at moral level, so it seems to Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, can only be
expressed in prose form. Here she follows a model developed already by Elytis. In his
famous poem 'Axion Esti - be praised', he describes how a German officer kills Manolis
for not stepping forth after having been commanded to do so but when the German
officer kills Manolis, Elytis steps in at that moment to say in prose form: 'little does this
officer know that here his life ends while that of Manolis has future'. Prose as the direct
voice of the poet means different voices are needed to tell the truth. Greece has been
shaken by many wars; Second World War was horrific but it was followed by an even
bloodier civil war:
13th Day or Now on land!
The heavenly battles descend on the soil
and death returns to earth:
its place of origin.
High flashes accompany it;
it is the only luxury left to the corpses.
Indeed, how did evil change direction!
The moral is always in prose
I re-read the War poems. I observe how the despair of the others
became my own myth. My inner life has just come back and its
suitcases are full of impressions. But why was I in such a hurry to
write down my reactions to all these frightful but so remote events
of the time?
It is because my hidden person has topped telling stories to my
visible one. Like bodiless heads all my stories float in a colourless
substance that is not even memory.
Who went where and fate was spoiled? Who unbuttoned his shirt?
Who locked the door? How is it possible that I cannot narrate all
The visits of death?
I got involved in foreign wars because in my heart the traces of my
last passionate campaign have disappeared.
Stepping out of the Hierarchy
There is an impulse in her to step out of poetry into prose. It is done out of the wish to
leave behind hierarchy, including the hierarchy where fear rules at the very top.
In her poem 'Invocation to Ariel' she addresses the master-slave model of Hegel with
neither side knowing who served the other and who was the master, so to speak. In the
subsequent confusion it becomes a matter to find out who served more and better than the
other. Here then devotion is no longer the question, but when does come the reward for
having done it so faithfully? Stepping out of hierarchy seems impossible if only such a
reward is expected. Her last line 'let us go' means not a complete rescue from hierarchy
but a kind of departure after having resigned to the fact that no true solution has been
found. Yet it appears that at the very least something can be tried on the basis of an
agreeable solution. If reached, then going on or rather getting on with your life becomes
conceivable. That is, human destiny as a negative fate can be transcended when people do
agree and therefore can at least go forward while trusting the very reason why they do so.
Needless to say such reason entails common sense.
Invocation to Ariel
Ariel, true spirit of love,
Come back just one moment!
See how I’ve set my mind
To reading the dust, I’m diligent
- You can’t complain - very few
Distractions, I mean the wild revelry
Of the imagination.
I fall into night and sink
Into a tasteless caramel.
I dream I’m in prison
Devising impossible combinations
Of steps to escape.
I’m dependable - you can’t complain -
I can be found where I was always meant to be
And not by the side of moribund love,
Just as you advised.
I enjoy nature and health,
I’m even open to statues,
Moved by the suffering of Hippodameia
And by the Isthmus, an illuminated Caesarian
Cutting the birth-pangs of the night.
And so I say come,
Appear for just one moment
To reward my good behaviour
And it will be as it was
When you were serving me - or
Maybe it was I who served you faithfully -
When all was ascendant and all around
The downy green wrappings
And the unexplained
Burst at last into revelation.
When you anointed bodies
With fragrant sorrow,
Sprinkling with glittery dust
The day’s smallest incident,
And a basket in the corner
Seemingly filled with meaning.
The way you move - flying here,
Flying there - creates a square
And a circle and an immensity
At the centre of love.
I miss this meaning-room
Even more than the eyes,
The kisses and the divine tremors
Of the belly.
Take me there again, Ariel,
To see things in their old magical place,
The way they are when the sunshine of your laughter
Falls on them and all phenomena
Give off the fragrance of the living body.
You owe me that, Ariel,
For you too did not behave honestly.
You said that alone
Or with shadows I’d always be able
To inhabit the interior we had decorated together.
But you flew away and,
Free of my insatiable demands,
You annihilated at a single stroke
The entire space, as though it had never been,
As though I had never existed.
So come, open once more
Your invisible wings which like a mystic fan
Hide the light of the world
And let us go…
The fact that Ariel is being challenged as not having been exactly honest, alters the
hierarchical relationship. It reflects the fact that truth cannot be revealed but still beauty
exists. Such is the sense for love that everything seems possible. In such a setting it is like
the naked woman standing there as sculpture till midnight comes and then she becomes
alive, steps down and disappears in the shadows of the night. Surrealists like Delvaux
understood this as the end of metaphysics even though de Chirico conveyed another
sense already touched upon by Piranesi, namely that the arts and therefore poetry does
not necessarily contribute towards making life possible, but something else, by making
culture for living together more robust. No wonder then that Katerina Anghelaki Rooke
invokes a dream of being in a prison.
Indeed, darkness in Greece is not a black-white, day-night contrast. Life continues
throughout the night and reaches out to touch the coming of the next day. It is like the
woman who finds her lover and vice versa he has found what he sought. They cunningly
surrender gladly to each other and give to each the imaginary illusion as to what love
means, namely to make sure to remain free through love.
Lypiou - or utopia
Lypiou - or utopia is to Katerina Anghelakik Rooke the land where tears can be shed and sadness be let out. No land can be utopia, maintained Thomas Moore, but for Katerina Anghelaki Rooke, it cannot be utopia if not free to let out one's sadness and to shed one's tears. There are people who do not cry for years and therefore become sick. The suppression of this part of the emotion can be explained by times and a society in which happiness has become a necessity. Whether the stewardess serving food on a flight or the receptionist of a hotel, all must follow the credo 'keep smiling'. Interestingly enough Katerina Anghelaki Rooke describes her land of utopia as the place to which she can go to let out her sadness.
It was in the case of Picasso the blue room. Katerina wrote this poem after a stay in Sibiu, Rumania which is interestingly enough a strong centre of poetry.
A time for world wide recognition
When saying it is time for Katerina's poetry to get world wide recognition, then it raises immediately the question about her chances of getting the Nobel Prize for Literature as did Elytis and Seferis to honour Greek poetry.
The poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke certainly deserves recognition. Her voice is unique. She has human strength in all her wisdom and wit. Her poems have been translated as well into Swedish so that does fulfill one important criterion, namely that the Swedish Nobel Prize committee members can read her poems in their own language.
Connected with her translation activities from French, English and Russian into Greek, it can be said good poetry can be recognized insofar as it looses the least in translation.
Writing in the land of Ritsos, Elytis and Seferis, it is time that the poetry of Katerina Anghelaki Rooke is recognized world wide. She conveys such a natural philosophy which is badly missed in many parts of the world. Above all she does not play with language. Rather things come natural to her, in a way that recognizes time as not fate but as a reason to live. In her poems the emphasis is upon reason. In her opinion that has to be recognized, if the humble existence of humanity is to remain a possibility.
Katerina Anghelaki Rooke at 'Myth of the City' Conference in Chania, Crete 1995
Photo: Hartmut Schulz, Berlin
Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke was born in 1939. Due to having been born just before Penicellin was invented and because of the war forcing the closure of the hospital were she was born, she suffered since birth from something similar to Polio. Later she went to Geneva to undergo operations on her legs and then on to London where her left hand was treated. Since then she has been handicapped, physically speaking, but that has never stopped her either in spirit and or in mind to plunge into life.
Her father was a good friend of Kazantzakis who became her god father and encouraged her to publish her first poem at the age of sixteen. Unfortunately Katerina never saw him again after she was forced to leave Greece for her operations. But they did correspond when she was abroad.
She studied in Geneva languages to become a professional translator from French, English and Russian into Greek.
In 1985 she was awarded the National Prize for Poetry.
She has taught as well at Harvard as a visiting scholar.
Her poems have been translated into many languages, including Swedish.
Momentarily she has started to work on the journals she has kept over the years. They shall reveal an amazing life path of a modern poetess.
She lives on the island of Aegina during the summer months and in Athens throughout the winter months.