Farewell to Robert
Vrasidas Karalis

Brandl & Schlesinger, $26.99

How does one bestow words upon sorrow? In which language can one speak to the dead? There are key questions raised by Vrasidas Karalis in his elegiac Farewell to Robert, an outpouring of grief at the loss of his partner of twenty-nine years, Robert Meader:

My lament is for my love, be near me, eternal void, I will call out of the depths, keep my heart warm, make my soul light. I am engulfed by waves of the netherworld, I am thrown into the depths of darkness, I want to fly, I want to see your face… and Robert, the man I love.

Few understand better than Karalis the dynamic of suffering by which the proper words are sought in order to reach across the void, to say the unsayable: “I struggle to orchestrate in words, what is beyond language.” Karalis illustrates his abiding plight, indeed that of all authors, through the fact the departed Robert was a noted musician, whereas he has devoted himself to the written word.

“My purpose,” he confesses, “for there is no other purpose anymore, is to deliver your existence to the sanctuary of language, erect your monument against futility.” He seeks to immortalise the ephemeral beloved not just in embodied text but a language outside abstraction, one which can speak them wholly into being.

Finding les mots juste, the correct words to address Robert is vital, if the author is to successfully undertake his νεκυία (nekyia) – the ancient Greek rite by which the dead could be called up and questioned about the future, for without them, Karalis admits: “I am lost, have no language, cannot announce things, and call them into existence.” If Carl Jung holds that “the Nekyia is no aimless or destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis . . . its object the restoration of the whole man,” then Karalis’ nekyia is “a redemption hymn” albeit in the form of a “threnody to appease the panic of mortality.”i

Significantly Karalis has little to say about the afterlife. If Shelley, while weeping for Keats in his pastoral elegy Adonais feels carried “darkly, fearfully, afar” to where the soul of Keats glows like a star, Robert’s metastasis to the resonant emptiness of the hereafter is viewed from the perspective of the topos he has left behind, as if the memory of that topos will ensure his continued existence. There is no rebirth or transformation. Spiritual metamorphosis is of no importance, nor are the remnants of his corporeal manifestation, with Karalis’ superseding his Pieta-like lament over Robert’s body with “Dust and fluff and dirt, which I can see time and again and care not to remove. I am afraid that anything I do could erase your presence from the world.” In the face of the greatest of changes, all that matters then is that nothing changes.

Whereas Marina Tsvetaeva, in writing her “Elegy for Rilke” insisted on seeing the dead poet continue his normal routine in the afterlife, for Karalis, what is of priority is that Robert’s routine remains unchanged in this life. Karalis hears Robert’s words as sybilline oracles: he reconstructs him in birds and wind and salt and in the flight of aeroplanes. Yet while this periphrasis grants us the illusory confidence to dare to yearn that his beloved is with him still, a constantly repeated, heart-rendering refrain brings us crashing down from the soaring heights of hope: “He has moved on… He has gone elsewhere… You have moved on. You are elsewhere. Yet you are here. You left all these birds behind.” Here Karalis, in Davidic psalmody, is subverting the traditional elegiac form: in order to achieve a metastasis of the deceased, they must first be acknowledged as being so. Only then are the dead capable of being transformed, as in Milton’s Lycidas, within the natural world, as “the ocean murmur” or as “fallen leaves.” Karalis at once acknowledges and denies the death of Robert. The undulations of his vacillation paralleling the undulations of a voice and of a chest wracked with sobs. Karalis’ Nekyia may require the correct words for its invocations, but it is above all else, a visceral process – as visceral as the Greek laments which call upon the dead to turn their nails into hoes and their feet into shovels and to dig themselves out of their graves.

Karalis in turn calls upon Robert not to abandon him, in a manner that evokes Psalm 38, for Robert is not only his love but also, his deity: “By you, with you and in you, I received my instruction and my creed.” David may be gone, but he is omnipresent, and it is Karalis who has been uprooted, lamenting his expulsion from a Promised Land of love, as if in Babylonian exile: “I sing in a foreign language in alien shores uprooted from the ancestral burials of my homeland. Who will deliver me from the wastelands of exile What clemency, what mercy, what pardon will release me from the mists of this perpetual purgatory?” Such a deliverance is necessary, for in Robert’s absence there shall be, for Karalis, no quietude or repose: “I will never be given rest now, my unconscious will take over my being, my iniquities will devour my face My body was deformed. My soul regained its fallen nature.”

Karalis’ Farewell is inextricable from the Laments of 16th century Polish poet, Jan Kochanowski, with which it is in constant dialogue. Kochanowski in his boundless grief pours scorn upon his previous writings, which advocated such values as stoicism, and presents himself at a moment of crisis when he is forced, through suffering and the stark confrontation of his ideals with reality, to re-evaluate his former humanistic philosophy of life, In contrast, Karalis, who presents Robert as a “true stoic” in the eyes of others, transcends the grief of Kochanowski by implying “you were more than a Stoic,” compelled as well to reassess his own philosophy of life. While, for Karalis, “the world of grace . . . is much more intriguing than the margins of the terrified or the abyss of the damned,” he nevertheless feels that “life itself is the enemy now.”

Ultimately, it is memory in connection with Robert that Karalis identifies as being potentially salvific. Yet it is not clear whether he means his own memory of Robert, Robert’s memories of him—“Only your memory, only if you remember me”—or indeed a confluence of both: “Hold on to our memories,” he entreats, “Do not throw me into the pit of oblivion.”

The grieving voice in Farewell cannot be contained by the conventions of elegy. Whereas in the traditional elegiac form follows a sequence whereby the dead are lamented over, due deference given to their daily life and habits, and an extensive enumeration of all of the causes of grief is undertaken, only for the dead to be relinquished or released, Karalis’ “song” is unable to resolve itself. This is not only because Karalis’ process of simultaneously relinquishing and retaining Robert is ambiguous, but also because Karalis negates the entirety of his undertaking:

Mourning is alien to my nature. Less than three months after you left, it has grown roots in me, it has become a poisonous weed which destroys my vision, my gaze, the smile that we both cherished so much on our face.

At a time when youth is fetishised and the public, communal rites of mourning are increasingly relegated to the private sphere, Karalis’ Farewell reminds us of the essentially public nature of the elegy. As we participate in his rites, something about us is revealed in the process, delineating the ties we have to each other and to the world which frames our perception in a reciprocal fashion. According to Saint Augustine of Hippo (Karalis’ favourite saint), who famously wrote in his Confessions “our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” human longing and desire find their true fulfilment in a loving relationship with God; they are, for him, reflections of a deeper longing for the divine. Karalis, in turn, reflects that what holds people together is the quest for completeness: “Love answers the only question worth pursuing: “What is it that us human beings really want from each other? Sometimes, unexpectedly and unconsciously, love offers us the answer.”

How then do we preserve the integrity of the self when those who have beheld us no longer do so? Herein lies the central abiding paradox of Karalis’ complex farewell to a beautiful man. “Love subdues us to the dominion of the unseen and the ineffable,” Karalis maintains, “Death is our atonement for aspiring to regain our wholeness…the last reconciliation with our own ephemerality.”

On the flyleaf of my copy of Farewell to Robert, Karalis inscribed these words: “Love is Strong as Death.” For more than an elegy, more than the μοιρολόι (moirologi), it becomes at times more than a threnody. Farewell to Robert is a love lyric, one’s soul set in motion, as the poet Joseph Brodsky writes in “To Urania,” the place where “Love crucifies time and makes space for our transfiguration.” And in that place, the very concept of Farewell is confounded.

NOTE: An earlier version of this essay was published in Neos Kosmos, 20 August, 2023.

i Carl G. Jung. Qtd in Stanley R. Hopper, “Once More: The Cavern Beneath the Cave.” Archetypal Process. Edited by D. R. Griffin. Northwestern University Press, 1990, p. 118.

Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne writer and solicitor.