Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke was a poet with a lonely but boundless heart, who never knew time, only life. ‘I no longer write erotic poetry, because love is tied to youth,’ she said in a 2019 interview in Provocateur, ‘It ends with it, or if it has the right bases, turns into love.’
She fell in love with Rodney Rooke, a philologist from England. They got married within three weeks and stayed together until death — he in 2005, and she in 2020. There was nothing to separate them.
When she was still in high school and her poetic pen was screaming, Nikos Kazantzakis, who was her spiritual father, was dazzled by the beauty and truth in her writing. In 1956 he even sent a letter to the newspaper Καινούρια Εποχή (Kainourgia Epoche; ‘New Season’) whose exact words read ‘Please, publish this poem, it was written by a girl who has not yet graduated from high school. It’s the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read!’
The first line of her first book Λύκοι και Σύννεφα / Wolves and Clouds (1963) foreshadows the path that this poet will follow uninterruptedly until her death:
Το σώμα μου έγινε η αρχή ενός ταξιδιού
My body became the beginning of a voyage
(‘Πρώτη Μέρα’ / ‘First Day’)
In the sixteen collections she published, from 1963 to 2018, Anghelaki-Rooke does nothing more and nothing less than tell the story of her body. The flesh, the intestines, the heart, the legs, the eyes, the head, the abdomen, the armpits, the navel, the breasts, the pelvis, the sweat — all are named, described, mythologised, glorified and mourned. The body is the source of poetic inspiration, but also the driving force of thought, as well as its main object, the starting point of every emotion and every ascension:
Ο παράδεισος κερδίζεται
με το σώμα
κι είναι κι αυτός θνητός
Paradise is won
with the body
and he is also mortal
(‘My Feet’, Ο Θρίαμβος της Σταθερής Απώλειας / The Triumph of Constant Loss, 1978)
Such a bodily poetry can only be dominated by two themes: love, first of all, which is the glorification of the flesh, which is the miracle of daily immortality, which is ‘the only divine gaze / that will fall on us / the unbelievers’* and the other, death, the trauma of final disappearance, time and its impact:
Το θέμα είναι ένα
το προσωπικό σώμα
και ο απρόσωπος χαμός του
The issue is one
the personal body
and its faceless loss
(‘It Appeared in Other Poems Too’, Ωραία Έρημος η Σάρκα / The Beautiful Desert of the Flesh, 1996)
As the years go by, the poet with the same sincerity, expressive simplicity and verbal boldness, who for decades spoke and described lust and pleasure, erotic lack and loneliness, speaks more and more about the decay of the body and the perpetrator, Time. Even if it is difficult for the body to accept it without future definitions, even if it is difficult to imagine a poetry beyond the body. Anghelaki-Rooke tries to see reality: ‘Look,’ she says in the aforementioned Provocateur interview, ‘Now more naked than a whole life filled of love.’ The poet discovers that loneliness is now impersonal, has no specific form to fill, and is an absence where everyone and everything is missing. The new emptiness she experiences is truly and definitively empty:
Το άδειο που ήξερα
είχε σκιές καθισμένες στις καρέκλες του παρελθόντος
κατοικημένο ήταν από αποτυπώματα
ίσως και μυρωδιές
που είχαν αφήσει πίσω τους
τα σώματα κι οι κινήσεις τους
The emptiness I knew
it had shadows sitting on the chairs of the past
it was inhabited by footprints
maybe even smells
that they had left behind
their bodies and movements
(Με Άλλο Βλέμμα / With a Different Gaze, 2018)
Even the body is now lost, and instead of liberating the soul brings it to its knees, because it has nothing to offer but survival.
In her final years as a poet, Anghelaki-Rooke circles back to the world she lived in and wrote about. She does not regret or reconsider. She knows that she has changed, that her body has changed and, consequently, her outlook on things has also changed. She writes about concepts such as dignity, fame, the importance of detail, the true value of repetition, the love that ‘makes the world’** despite its fragility.
She also converses with her old poems, admits her delusions and failures. She once wrote, perhaps to console us for the passage of time, that ‘whatever loses in touch / gains in substance.’+ However, towards the end she capitulates – she knows ‘touch is the essence.’++ Earlier on, she took pride in translating the end of life into love and thereby turning death into her muse. But now, she says, ‘no muse visits’.t Inspiration, she notes, is elsewhere; once it was the future and what it can bring. Now her inspiration is what has been finally lost: ‘The only thing left is the present, the absolute ruler,’ she says.tt And in the present continuous, she wins with all the poems she has gifted us – poems that may well justify those who for years considered Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke one of the most important living poets in Greece of our times.
* Quoted in Charalambos Giannakopoulos, “ ,” Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών, 2014.
** Quoted in Kostas Papageorgiou, “ ,” Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών, 2020.
+ Quoted in Giannakopoulos, 2014.
t Quoted in Grigoris Tehlemetzis, “Η Αυτογνωσία και τα Συναισθηματικά Συμπεράσματα Ως Πηγές της Ποιήσεως στο Έργο της Κατερίνας Αγγελάκη Ρουκ,” tehlemetzis.blogspot.com, 2012.