Christos Fifis and a place for a village
Dean Kalimniou explores Christos Fifis latest poetry anthology and it's influence on the Greek Australian community
“Australia of impatient departures and pleasant arrivals. Fifty years later, who are the dinky di Australians, and who are the migrants? Who are the New Australians? And what are the Aborigines who didn’t count, back then?”
Academic, man of Greek letters and radio programmer extraordinaire Christos Fifis’ second published collection of poems: “Where is the place for a village?” turns explorer and grazier John Batman’s statement of 1835, upon viewing the future site of Melbourne: “This will be the place for a village,” into a quest for soul-searching and an invitation to enter into a dialectical discourse about identity. Statements such as “The drums beat ceaselessly: The earthen men, belong to the soil on which they dance, for they will enter the soil, in their earth...” as well as “My Greece... has no borders, it is beyond the map ... Now that I am departing for Athens, I know I am going to another foreign land, but my old voice calls from deep inside me. I can no longer stay,” provide bittersweet truths about the migration experience. The paradigm shifts ancillary to relocating to another country and culture often remains imperceptible when one is concerned with the difficult task of acculturation and resettlement, only identified years or decades later, when the realisation comes that the basic values and underlying ideologies of the host country and the country of origin have changed. Then, a whole identity shift is made: “Our new country is our children, who we brought up during the war, privation and longing.”
I would have liked to have seen a good deal more of Christos Fifis’ countless students, those who have had the benefit of his knowledge and who have been the main recipients of his passion for Greek letters over the many years of his contribution to the Greek community, at the launch of his collection. For apart from, like many of his counterparts, expressing the heart-wrenching predicament of being torn between two countries, Christos Fifis’ poems do something infinitely more valuable. They transport us back in time, to a dim period in our community history, which has all but been forgotten. Our founding myths tend to grand Olympian status to the migrants of the 50s and 60s who arrived here by boat. Those migrants were only dimly aware of the doings of the Titans who arrived before them in the 20s and 30s, and whose history is even more fascinating. Through his poems describing the migrants of that forgotten era, and especially when he depicts them in their declining years, Christos Fifis not only brings them back to life but also provides a noteworthy parallel between them and their younger counterparts, who, it is suggested are undergoing the same decline, with the same concerns as their predecessors today. In the poem: “When affluence becomes a double-edged sword,” a denizen of one of the long gone city cafes, Barba Stathis muses: “I think of you youngsters, of whom we are so proud. The lawyers, the doctors, the successful business men. Our community often loses you, and is diminished. Always remember us, old Alfros added. With you, our community expands. Through you, we live.” This is a most poignant lament of the mass rejection of the organised Greek community by latter generations and especially those ‘professionals,’ who earlier generations believe are equipped with the skills to propel and further the interests of that community.
Christos Fifis’ poems reveal another aspect of the migrant experience that these days is also in danger of being forgotten: their progressive spirit and fight for social justice. As the poet reveals in: “Gathering for Peace,” the protagonists of such endeavours were always few but extremely influential and their ideals transcended the everyday humdrum existential quest for sustenance and material security. Those idealistic youths with the noble ideals are now hidden behind the creases in the care-worn faces and the grey hair of their older avatars. Nonetheless, these stalwarts of change still have much to say and contribute to any modern social debate - arguably much more than their progeny, nurtured in the stultifying materialism of the affluence that was a by-product of their forebears’ energy and exuberance. Fifis’ elephantine memory restores some of the more important social activists from the forgetfulness of the communal Lethe. In particular, in the “Southern Argonaut,” which describes the poet’s friendship with Nikos Ninolakis, an important Greek literary figure, Christos Fifis paints a picture of a politically aware generation, scarred by war, so anxious to avoid it, possessed of thought critical enough to see through unquestioning adherence to any cause presented by means of propaganda and engaging in debate on the topics of the day. All this Christos Fifis sets in the mythical Colchis of the Argonauts, a land now wrapped in the mists of time and lost to the consciousness of most Greeks. Presciently, Fifis wraps Ninolakis in that mist, stating that he only crosses from it into clarity when he is read by his ever diminishing (owing to the decline in Greek literacy) readers. It is also a condition he has predetermined for himself.
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