The poem 'home' begins this substantial collection with a
crucial question: whether to travel or be contemplative, act or scrutinise:
there was no permission needed. I
could have jumped ship, seen
all the continents.
Later poems reflect this dilemma: For my Daughter's tenderly jocular hesitancy about
her leap into the future, At Home voiced by an incarcerated geriatric, the Sussex
Lady trapped in her picturesque routines, The Neighbours in Florida, whose air-conditioned
ostracism suffocates us. But like her own Io the Wanderer, Kazantzis combines observation
with odyssey, compelling us through the realms of the psyche, sexual ambiguities,
myth and many regions of terra firma from the exotic to the squalid.
She is ruthless with complacency and short-sightedness, even
her own ( as in the disturbing 'And my son slept...' that divulges a mother's lasciviousness),
with ignorant public attitudes, anything that might dehumanise or demean. But she's
compassionate with victims and wittily convivial with eccentrics like The Earl of
Modern Ireland , Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. The most convincing work links
disparate and remote materials to reveal that explosive contradictions lurk under
every surface. Scorpions in a Tuscan Farmhouse probes a fraying relationship through
we are both of us devil, both sunk, both have lost,
we search intensely: neither can
bear to be cause; rid it,
spray it out of our tails backward
over our shoulders.....
Rather than 'developing' in style or subject matter, she experiments continually
with technique in a relentless search for the elusive. Aware of the grey areas between
knowing and perceiving, her lyrical utterance often breaks down to hover dissonantly
short of resolution; she tantalises us with agonisingly approximate words and phrases;
surprising references collide with the progress of a poem, threatening to disintegrate
it; sometimes we're not sure where pieces really begin or end. Such 'impressionism'
often coupled with the raw and repellent, is a means to an end defined retrospectively
in Seeing Everything, a struggle with conflicting images, and reminiscent of Yeats'
Among School Children. A butterfly's casualness, a resigned Indian woman and Rembrant's
'baggy eyes' and 'kind face' among the finished artefacts of a Gallery and Sculpture
Garden, oblige her to dismiss nothing but be open to the wholeness of experience.
Critics who grumble that too much poetry contemplates its own viscera should
evaluate Kazantzis' energetic responses to events lost to selective media coverage.
In the fine poem on Plath's grave, she says:
She governs me
with her still furious flowering.
But the fury and the flowering are not always synthesised in her 'committed' poems;
suggestion gives way to statement, or worse to vatic harangue. Less persuasive than
the later, more restrained lament for Nicaragua, the long 1988 Poem for Guatemala
digests appalling abuses and pillories ambiguous American policy in rhetoric I'd
sacrifice for the stark images of the struggling finca owner and the despairing monologue
of the woman whose baby has been 'clinically' removed. For Example Owen is a lament
over the senseless waste of young lives in war. The blunt narrative of Owen's death
carries a gruesome message but when later figures are introduced there's overt comment,
repeated imagery, even high-flown outrage of Blakean proportions in:
You golden fleecy flock, why run
before the brokers, the farmers of blood?
They buy and sell in tender carcases
on war's slab, and in between
in peace__ they speculate on futures.
Protest poetry assumes a like-minded following; but the legislation of poets on public
issues perhaps only takes root if it achieves the detached, choric intensity of,
say, Marvell's Horatian Ode. The poem for Hiroshima Day, 1983, 'The ending we are
projected', has something of this austere, muted quality:
It demeans all who are old
and break breath like stones
to keep breath till breath breaks.
Draw curtain or not,
it means the blackening of the room.
But the grotesqueness of the allegorical TV Preview of the Budget repells us into
forgetting what it represents. So, too, the image of the Kurdish child in Smart:
red on her mouth
as if she's been dipping into jam
and her hand will be smacked for it.
Sometimes tacked-on politicising dilutes engaging imagery: the indignity of
Dolphins as strategic employees in Flipper at Key West, anti-development perorations
that jar with the lyrical Florida Swamps or the colourful narrative of Louis Agassiz's
Amazonian expedition, where future rapacity already menaces in the dissecting attitudes.
The quieter satirical poems held together by related and contrasting images,
attack more subtly the sham that debilitates public action. Look Up, Look Out personifies
the perplexity of the Statue of Liberty. At the National Gallery regales us by playing
on double standards as the keeper molests a young woman for breast-feeding her baby
in front of the Madonna of the Cherry. In The Pope at Dublin Airport cant flavours
public and pietistic images to suggest how little our institutions serve the real
Poems about place tend to drown perspective with too much colour, like squeezing
the eyes after a day's travel. Alien cultural objects, even familiar urban landscapes
become feverish lists of impressions. Better descriptions derive from a persona's
'timbre' and bias: Vieux Carré that evokes New Orleans ennui, Slovakia's dark tensions
and uncertainties, Railroad Station where details blend into and enhance the demoralising
But when they are not flippant or obscurely fragmented, it's the mythical and
fairy story recreations ( now almost a 'genre')that convey most universally how people
are trapped in their own experience, sense ways out but cannot make the leap. Queen
Clytaemnestra balances an account of Agamemnon's murder with a monologue that shows
how the femme fatale of Greek tragedians felt about the absurd sacrifice of her daughter,
and was forced into political responsibility when men were souled on dubious heroics.
Eurydice develops the legend by suggesting that Orpheus is the dead one, raising
questions about 'death' as a state of mind. In Ruminations of Red Riding Hood the
imagery differentiates make-believe scenes and the actualities and meanings of the
wolf's violence that
filled granny's squeaky little bedroom
and the glass animals
fell flat on the bookcase and the Doulton ladies'
heads and fluted petticoats rolled here, there
making ' the matchless excruciating teeth / the appetite unhindered' an inevitable
part of human experience.
A reminder of Kazantzis' power to reveal how little we grasp until it's too
late, and the way she marries content and form in dramatic proportions.
Judith Kazantzis Swimming Through The Grand Hotel (Enitharmon)
(Publ. in Agenda vol.37 No.1 Summer 1999)
Judith Kazantzis' Selected Poems (1995) is an insufficiently acclaimed testimony
to the scope and individuality of more than two decades' work. This first collection
since 1992 distils and reassesses in new modes many preoccupations: the power of
plastic and graphic art, myth as insight into the human predicament, the elusiveness
of time, the joys and snares of passion, devotion, and hedonism, and the unlikely
redemption of the persecuted and dispossessed.
Her 'poetic' expresses a conviction that experience and its perception elude
rational boundaries. The persona often appears to be oracular, synthesising a multiplicity
of voices and images into what Rilke termed the 'Innerlichkeit der Dinge', the quintessence
of what or whom is scrutinised. Convincing in A Photograph seen when I was Twelve.
It enacts the hounding of naked Jewish women hounded by soldiers; she is an observer
cowering within the action that explodes her passive acceptance of 'history'. But
several poems that attempt this kind of fusion lose focus in a mass of fragments,
twists and turns and inappropriate lapses into colloquialism. So it is important
to grasp the book's pattern to avoid this kind of distraction and appreciate its
After isolated uprootedness generated yet transmuted by holidaying in a N.American
urbanised coastal landscape, we regress in time without putting the clock back, to
cross-currents of formative scenes and personal encounters from childhood to maturity.
The questioning purpose of this is indicated in the tactical contrast between two
sequences: the idyllic monthly associations of A Sussex Calendar with Questions on
Return where disparate areas of thought and emotion fused in the manner of Woolf's
To The Lighthouse suggest the traumas and ecstasies of growing up. Developments indispensible
yet inadequate for a view of the 'real' world as indicated in Bird Rapunzel that
plays upon a benevolent version of the witch/princess motif by means of well-observed
bird imagery to celebrate her daughter's pursuit of a legal career and their distinct
kinds of creativity.
Generous realism in her personal life is complemented by quasi-legendary and
contemporary portraits of suffering and deprivation, themes woven into poems on the
art of Jaqueline Morreau. The House in the Holy Land, though, presents a subtle interior
anguish, timelessly yet pointedly imagised in the architecture and barbed bougainvillaea,
ruminations of any mother who feels 'Prophecies gang up like wolves.' The socio-political
implications of this series are echoed and reinforced in New Fountains, pretty and
pointless gushings of water through which multilingual exclamations of the busy and
prosperous spern the vagabond refugees of forgotten conflicts. Most summary, though,
is The Named Land, a lyrical blend of threnody and adventism that burgeons from the
rocks, waters and blood of the beleaguered land of Israel-Palestine. The range of
technique and material compressed into this sequence surpasses previous, more expansive
depictions of civic tragedy, like the Poem For Guatemala (1988). Via the tyranny
of Herod we're pitched into a melting pot of ineradicable history. Voices and images
become the polarities and concessions of either side, revealing how we live by opposition
and how poetry 'substantiates' what the media and the conferences cannot 'fix' in
our hearts: the muddle of hope and despair instanced in the tale the Bedouin woman
incarcerated for humanity over a border incident.
Such writing arises from freedom of movement and expression unavailable to the
Albanian poetess, Natasha Lako of To the Island. She communicates in broken English
from no fixed address while the 'free' poet oscillates uncomfortably between withdrawal
into an intimate landscape and frustration over her plight. But to assert the importance
of artistic integrity there follows a cyclical return to N. America. A fog-enveloped
glimpse of Long Island beach-bronzed lotus eaters, shows angels that lounge 'in the
ripples', fossilised reminders of the four angels of the book's first poem, Freight
Song, where surreal embodiments of arc lamps in a dream of travelling pointed the
way to unlikely transcendence. No fanciful path to heaven but a comprehensive vision
achieved only by a closer identity with unbridled natural forces and uncompromising
terrains, the literal and metaphorical settings woven into the sequence Uncle Goes
West. He does so only in disapproval at her failure to be a parochial poet; but these
new horizons enable her to review and renew her emotional and artistic pilgrimage;
and the penultimate dreamlike Lovers' War set in afforested wilderness suggests a
parallel need to found relationships on personal integrity whatever the odds.
A letter to the editor of ORBIS magazine (now sadly defunct for some years) concerning
an unconstructive review of Judith Kazantzis’s Swimming Through the Grand Hotel
Dear Mike Shields,
Before reading the book but on grounds of critical integrity, my respect
for the reviewer and the quality of his comments on other poets, I was surprised
and disappointed by W. Oxley's treatment of Judith Kazantzis' Swimming Through The
Grand Hotel in ORBIS 108/9. (1999)
After worthless generalisations about the poet's entire output dating back
to 1977 (eccentric, precious, fey, whimsical...) the 'substance' of the review or
'notice' is a series of quotations that purport to verify each charge, but lack
any sense of the context or overall purpose of the poems or indeed the book. I know
there is little room for manoeuvre within your compressed format, but this is no
excuse for substituting whim and superficiality for what the readers might like to
know: what is the poet attempting to do and how far does he or she succeed ? Equally
unhelpful is the mannered facetiousness: parenthetic backchat like '( Really ?)'
after one excerpt and an out-of-context clip, 'dropped like a stone' used as a cheap
dismissal. Are reviewers in danger of becoming like teachers who lose the art of
hearing how they come across, or, more simply, of 'tone' ?
While Oxley is too acute to miss Kazantzis' often ungainly juxtaposition
of the fanciful with the colloquial and her creative surrealism, he dismisses the
latter with an obscure qualification and without the detail lavished on his prejudices.
Worse, he alludes twice to her success as a politically committed poet but does not
trouble to substantiate this from the collection. Which puzzles me even more now
I have read the book's disturbing sequence on Israel and several poems that unearth
with moving austerity issues like minority persecutions and refugee scandals that
the media and therefore most of us choose to leave buried beneath our very noses.
Less posturing might allow room for such positive features which the reader is entitled
to be told about.
The comparison may appear absurd but I was reminded uncomfortably of Leavis's
lofty dismissal of Shelley in Revaluation (1936) where thinly-disguised preconceptions
are exacerbated by pedantry, and the critic is, without compunction, so sure he's
hit the fleshy gaps between the dragon's scales. There are in fact critical problems
and rich rewards in common to Shelley and Kazantzis, who both risk 'enacting' a heartfelt
distrust of merely rational apprehension. Both, too, like the butterfly of the adage
will elude you visually and tonally if you attempt to break them on a wheel. Oxley's
aim, though, seems to be to swot rather than dissect.
Both you as editor and your team of reviewers will no doubt argue that
the piece has served its function in stirring me up or that I am overreacting. Yes
and no. Just as respectable questions like 'is History an art or a science ?' won't
go away, nor should the less often asked but equally important ones like 'is a Review
about the reviewer or the work under review ?'
With all good wishes and thanks for the stimulus ORBIS provides: