I have a theory that in poet Tina Giannoukos’ latest collection Bull Days, nominated for the Premier’s Award, the poet is a modern twist on the Ifigeneia, spirited away to Tauris (hence the bull). Unlike the young, innocent Ifigeneia of myth, the poet who inhabits the Bull Days is neither unwitting, sacrificial, or a conduit to the gods. Instead, with the modern prophetess, nothing is certain and all is ambiguous. She is weary, in pain, disillusioned, violently passionate, yet dictatorial, egotistical and aggressive (“This is cowardice, not tenderness. This is unhelpful. You know I can gore you…” she says in poem XIV). At the same time, she is multi-voiced, restrained in expression and immensely dignified. Furthermore, unlike the archetypal Iphigeneia, the poet, despite her travail, real or imagined, appears to have no need of rescuing, as she tells us in no uncertain terms: “What if I were to tell you that we arrived too late for all that might be?” A prophetess who defies her own prophecies then? Or possibly self-defeats them, in order to merge once more with the original Iphigenic prototype: “I’m back where I vowed I’d not return, decision once made unmade as if time unfurled…”
On a second reading, I become convinced that the Bull Days is a parallel narrative to Solomon’s Song of Songs, itself considered an allegory of the love of God and his Church, through the voices of two lovers, who praise each other, yearn, or each other, proffering invitations to enjoy. Bull Days seems to be the inverse, and it is perhaps not coincidental that Psalm 52 reads: “Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.” The priestess of Bull Days, on the other hand, informs us that: “The gods are cruel. They have an ill humour.” In her Song of Songs, there is no dialogue between lovers, only a multitude of voices that seem to emanate from the same source. Instead, we suspect we are witnessing the unravelling of a relationship that we are not quite certain has ever quite begun a relationship in which the parties are unknown and could likely be, manifestations of the multifaceted nature of the poet herself.
Nonetheless, Bull Days is undoubtedly a love epic, one in which both the transiency but also constancy of love )”I trace my love for you back ten thousand years to days of honeycombed rooms and courtyards. My love for you makes me eternal”), its dominating (“Watch how I move, and move quietly into the ring to face me. I will lower my head for the kill”) and passive aspects (“A bride must serve papadums fried in sesame oil, if she’s to woo a lover”), its sublime desires, and deep loathings (compare the Song of Songs’ “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead,” with Tina Giannoukos’ brilliantly perceptive: “My lover is shitty eyed… He will not sit with my friends, whom he calls amoral, so he sits alone relishing his principles. Now he’s forlorn and a hypocrite, enjoying surreptitiously the wobbles of the waitress’s sallow breasts.”) are artfully explored, through poems that seem to break down upon each other like disoriented waves on a Daliesque beach, threatening to shipwreck the inattentive or unempathetic reader.
Thus in poem XX, we are placed in an arena, and told: “Sex is not easy, but it is natural. I am your bull charging you and you, a working matador, show your control, drive the steel into my heart,” only to be returned to the same arena in poem XXII, wherein: “Your moment has come. Aim correctly, plunge the sword between my shoulder-blades… I am a bull and must die. That is the point.” In this world, love is locked within a perilous game that could prove fatal. In ways intelligible and incomprehensible, the prophet both as lover and as an ambiguous sacrifice, not so bloodless: “Blood drenches my mouth.”
Where Bull Days reach the apogee of their emotive power is in the expert way in which the poet negotiates the subtle shifts of power between the lovers, lending real depth to the multiplicity or singularity of the relationships forming the corpus of the work. Thus, in subtle incremental shifts, we go from Song of Songs-like images in X, such as: “These breasts are honey to your eyes. …This is the fire you want, the tremble you seek,” to “Her breasts are honey to my eyes… This is the fire I want, the tremble I seek. It’s too late, the time is past for loving too loose to count as song or praise,” in XII. Perspectives and power plays shift as the relationship flows and eddies, perfectly portraying the hard, gritty substratum of the work’s world.
It is difficult not to admire the manner in which Tina Giannoukos refracts love through the cauterising prism of the Bull Days, splitting it into parts constituent and dysfunctional. She does so by articulating her own “mellifluous alphabet of ache,” in tightly structured, jewel-like interpretations of the sonnet form, a form in which she displays extreme mastery. Abjuring the self-indulgence of configuration or expression, Tina Giannoukos’ style is austere, tightly wrought and classicising. As a result, the emotions she evokes are stark, vivid and inescapable. They gore you in the shoulder.
An intensely learned poet, Tina Giannoukos has her Bull Days engage in intertextual dialogue with Shakespeare (of course, as master of the sonnet) but also, more than sparingly, with Sappho, incorporating her thus: (‘Fragments survive’, ‘Is this the Sapphic line? O sweet! O love!’) and definitively providing her own understanding of Sappho’s famed γλυκύπικρον stance on love, noting: “Bittersweet lips angle me in sharp relief.” As a highly functional bilingual, it would be easy to make much of Tina Giannoukos’ Greek background as facilitating such references, but to do so would be to obscure the art and an intertextuality that transcends both language and genre.
Bull Days labyrinthine manoeuvring of intricate levels of meaning and its meandering, serpentine treatment of metaphors and images, as an exploration of antithesis is absorbing as it is awe-inspiring. In producing a work that paradoxically demands so much from the reader, while taking so little, the highly acclaimed Tina Giannoukos creates a work that is an antipode of itself, fitting for an antipodean writer. Truly, she exhausts superlatives.