Nikos Kavvadias in Melbourne
Dean Kalimniou looks at the migrant arrival experience in Melbourne
There is a notation in my father's year six Australian history book of 1961, in which it is proposed that the Yarra River got its name due to a sorry concatenation of circumstances. These were that when the white colonialists sailed from the bay into the river, sundry members of the Wurundjeri people stood at its banks brandishing spears and yelling Warra Warra - which means go away.
Upon hearing this, the linguistically challenged white imperialists concluded that the said Wurundjeri were a welcoming party and were, out of the kindness of their hearts, advising the explorers about to wrest possession of their land from them, as to the name of this principal landmark, which they misheard as Yarra Yarra. Thankfully, this story is not true. The truth of the matter is that the river was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people prior to European settlement. It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning "ever flowing". The reason for this little historical foray is to outline our ambiguous relationship with the Yarra River. To conceive of Melbourne without it is impossible and yet it is not exactly beloved by Melburnians either.
It is a gritty, functional river, with none of the romance or poetics of the Rhine, the Danube or the mystery of the Nile. This, then, is the river that the peripatetic poet Nikos Kavvadias arrived at in 1951, when he penned his bleak poem 'Yarra Yarra', after making his way down to the land of the southern cross, having been warned, in his poem, also entitled 'Southern Cross', that he should fear the Stars of the South.
However, his Melbourne connection did not end with that poem. A few years later, a young bright eyed youth from Alexandria, also called Nikos, obtained his first job as a wireless operator on a ship. Seated at his desk one day and scribbling some verses, the captain asked him: "What are you doing?" "I'm writing poetry," the boy answered. "How funny," the captain mused. "Your predecessor and namesake, used to sit in that exact same chair and write poetry."
The predecessor was, of course, Nikos Kavvadias, and the youth, Nikos Nomikos, would years later find his way up the Yarra to settle in Melbourne and become a celebrated Greek poet and artist. It is funny how rivers make things flow together. So who was this Nikos Kavvadias who visited our shores and why did a group of local poets pay tribute to him on 5 June 2011, in a tribute concert at the Melba Hall, Melbourne University, entitled "Amphibian Fate?" The short answer is because he is cool and because they could. Furthermore, we are all pretty chuffed that one of the premier poets of Greece has an Australian connection.
The only other Greek literary figure of note to enjoy such a connection is Stratis Tsirkas, who lived in Sydney for five years in the 1950s. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the visit to the Yarra River by Kavvadias, a poet who confided in our major riparian artery: "I want a boat, oh river, made of cardboard, like those with which students play by the banks of rivers. Tell me, does separation kill? It wounds, it does not kill. Who said we are going to crash? We never even arrived." Profound and totally in keeping with the title of the local poet's event: "Amphibian fate." Amphibian is a compound word, Amphi- meaning "on both sides" and -bios meaning "life" in Greek. A two sided, torn life is what we celebrate in Nikos Kavvadias, a man who could not bear the land and wanted to be constantly at sea. You don't have to be Greek to appreciate the genius of Nikos Kavvadias. He did not consider himself a poet, but rather a traveller, and this comes not only from his style of writing based on personal experiences and emotions reflected on the sea, the weather, the lost cities with their dirty ports, but also by the very limited amount of work he produced, heavily invested with experience.
He used his travels around the world as a sailor, and life at sea and its adventures, as powerful metaphors for the escape of ordinary people outside the boundaries of reality. Unlike many of his contemporary Greek poets who focused on folklore writing of at times nationalist sentiment, Kavvadias wrote both about modern Greece and about the world. He did not seem to distinguish between the two.
For him, Greece was never home, because although he was Greek, he was not born there. His writings are characterised by a strong sentiment of universal humanism, a sense of a world united in cosmopolitan places, such as the dirty ports of multinational cities, which became his true home.
The poet traveller drew huge inspiration and admiration for Constantine Cavafy, the writer of the masterful pseudo-historical poem Ithaca, who was born in Alexandria to Greek parents but spent most of his life travelling from Egypt to England, and who was the advocate of a universal Hellenistic spirit surpassing beyond the borders of the nation state. The Greek community of Melbourne, at least its first generation lived through a similar experiences and share a similar spirit, being uprooted from the boundaries of their reality and being compelled to cross the same seas as Kavvadias, in search of a better life. Kavvadias' stark evocation of arriving in Melbourne, mirrors that which would have been experienced by all new migrants: The lights of Melbourne. The Yarra Yarra flows disinterestedly Between cargo ships huge and mute, Towards the bay, without giving two bob, For the girls kiss, which cost you dear.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK...
Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer.
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