Farewell Katerina, my old friend

Farewell Katerina, my old friend

Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke was not only one of modern Greece’s greatest poets; she was a first-rate translator of French, English (including, of all things, a translation of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”) and Russian verse. I have to take that on trust because I don’t read Russian, but she told me she thought the best translation she had ever done was of “Eugene Onegin.”

Katerina was a woman of extraordinary intelligence, wit, charm and sensitivity, and she drank life to the brim, reveling in her friends, in travel, and the everyday pleasures of eating, drinking and talking. Not to mention sex. No Greek poet ever wrote more explicitly and volubly about the subject. Perhaps because she was left somewhat disfigured by a childhood disease, Katerina worshipped beauty in men, women, in the Greek landscape and the sea. She was also a sharp critic and intimidated me when I was first learning Greek, pouncing on my every error and laughing until she nearly fell off her chair. She was also my generous, vulnerable, ebullient, loving friend for 50 years.

Her laughter was something nobody who knew Katerina could forget. When she began to laugh heads turned around to see what the racket was about. Her laughter was deafening and she would rock on her chair as she indulged in it with her entire body. As her poems reveal, she was often sad and introspective, but when something or someone amused her, her reaction was visceral and it communicated itself to anyone within earshot. I remember her taking me to see Dionysis Savvopoulos’ “Acharnians” one night in 1979 (I had no idea then that I would later play in the show) and we were nearly ejected from the auditorium because she laughed so loudly.

I began translating Katerina’s poems into English in the 1980s. I was particularly fond of the sequence of poems and prose poems called “Contrary Love” (Enantios Erotas). The reason I liked the poems so much was that they seemed to represent the two sides of Katerina’s contradictory personality perfectly. On the left-hand pages were a series of erotic poems dedicated to her latest passion. In one she watches in the mirror as the barber cuts her lover’s hair. The poem begins in the full flush of love:

White rose,
the barber’s towel
around your face
that shines like a beetle
clinging to its petals.
Tuft by tuft on the floor
my days of loving you so much
while the chattering
head artist
went on snipping off
whatever time makes superfluous.

By the end of the poem, though, the poet steps back from her indulgent gaze to realize how transient is her pleasure:

I was overcome
because I had you and would lose you
like a life that has a classic ending
cut by a pair of scissors.
(“The Barber”)

On the facing pages of these poems were clear-eyed prose commentaries on the condition of the poet in love; she may melt in her lover’s arms, but she still sits at her desk afterwards and writes her poetry:

I bring my paper and my table to this new erotic landscape. I get down to writing. I set the machinery in motion. By the third line my new inspirer has totally conquered me. I understand how he lives and how he saps me. My imaginings begin to be more than my actions. My hands sweat. I put down my pen, wipe the three fingers holding it on my fat thighs. Creation is in full swing. (From “Writing”)

The determined transformation of her erotic indulgences into poetry was what made Katerina a great poet. She dove into the deep end of love, then skewered her own excesses with merciless observation. She was, some might say, a romantic poet, in that she wrote constantly of love and the erotic demands of the body. But she was always capable of looking over her own shoulder, observing her own dependency. In an early poem titled “Aegina,” Katerina writes of the duality of her own nature that manifested itself when she was a child, a quality her mother ascribed to the physical contrast of the family’s life in an apartment in Athens and in the large red house on the island of Aegina where they spent their summers:

Even then I had fashioned two selves, the one sitting peaceful
and snug and well-disposed to all around,
the other thrilled by the danger an unknown body hides.
I called the winter peace, the summer madness
and turned into an angel in winter, a devil in the heat.
(Translated by the poet with Jackie Wilcox.)

When I began translating Katerina’s poetry in the early 1980s, she was probably better known outside Greece than inside. Greek poets have always been partly dependent, for their reception, on translation, and some of them, at least, have cultivated their translators. Katerina, whose husband, Rodney, was British, loved the English language and was proud of her subtle knowledge of it. Nothing pleased her more than a good pun, in Greek, English or whatever language was being spoken around her. Among her translators into English she was fortunate to count Kimon Friar, Philip Ramp, Jackie Wilcox and Karen Van Dyck, who edited an anthology of her poems rendered into English by various translators.

The years after Rodney Rooke’s death were very difficult for Katerina. I would visit her in Athens and she always brought the conversation back to Rodney. Their marriage was not a conventional one, but he was, as she often said, her “rock.” Without him, I wondered if she would become quite unmoored. I might have known that the other Katerina would never desert her muse. Even before his death, in “Translating into Love Life’s End” (2002), the last volume he was able to assist her with, Katerina was withdrawing, rehearsing the end of life:

I withdraw; I want everything quiet
but not stifling, light colored
but not white
so that I can make out
what was boiling in the pan.
 (“I Withdraw,” translated by the poet.)

In another poem called “Countdown” from the same collection, she writes:

The joy of the imagination is now reversed
the old correlation between positive and negative
and the familiar divorce from the living.
The statuette of hope has broken into pieces
I dare to despair
I am not afraid of the consequences
and I receive from the poem
the pleasure of love
before it becomes a poem

Despite her threats of withdrawal and despair, Katerina continued to produce annual volumes of poetry as her reputation in Greece grew. When I first met her, Katerina would complain about the big men of Greek poetry. As a poet and a woman, she grew up in the shadow of the giants of modern Greek poetry – C.P. Cavafy, Yiannis Ritsos, Giorgos Seferis, Odysseas Elytis, and her own godfather, Nikos Kazantzakis. Born at the end of the 1930s, a decade in which those poets came of age, she doubted she would ever receive comparable recognition, so she was delighted, in 1985, when she won the Greek National Poetry Prize. The prize was followed by a series of awards. In 2002 she won the Greek Academy’s Poetry Prize. Documentaries were made about her; she began to appear on television and in the press.

In the last decade of life, Katerina’s memory of what happened yesterday faded, but her ability to write poetry and to translate never deserted her. In 2005 she presented me with a new volume titled “Into the Sky of Nothing with the Bare Minimum.” She inscribed it saying that the two of us had stayed together for so many happy years, and signing it “with boundless love from your sad friend.” When I began to read the poems I wondered if I would ever see her again. In the title poem she wrote:

I die in my mind without a trace of illness
I live without the need of any encouragement
I breathe even if I am
at a near far distance
from what’s touched by heat, catches fire.

I want to enter the sky of nothing
with the bare minimum.
(“Into the Sky of Nothing with the Bare Minimum”) (My translation)

Again, I underestimated what Katerina was capable of. For 15 more years she continued writing poems however sad she felt. Like her house, her life was often in disarray, and like her oversized, extravagant personality, there was always an orderly side to it. She recognized life was shrinking so she discarded whatever she didn’t need. She saw only a few friends and spent her days in her Athens apartment. The only necessity, in the end, was her muse; to her (or him) she was eternally faithful.

Gail Holst-Warhaft is adjunct professor in the Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Studies and director of the Mediterranean Studies Initiative at Cornell. She is also a poet, translator, musician and author.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.