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 Desperate Vitality  

Now Let’s See What You’re Gonna Do: Poems 1978-2002

Katerina Gogou

Translated by A.S. Introduction by Jack Hirschman.

FMSBW – Divers Collection, 2021   ISBN-13:978-1-736264-5-0 

reviewed by Howard Slater

Poet and actress Katerina Gogou is a figure better known in anarchist circles than in the literary world. This collection of her poems (almost her entire poetic output) is the first in English to appear since Jack Hirschman translated and published her first collection back in 1983. The title of this initial collection ‘Three Clicks Left’, referencing the technique of aiming a machine gun, gives some indication as to the milieu that Gogou belonged to. Born into Nazi occupation and living under the Greek Junta she began writing poetry in the late 70s, a time that saw an upsurge in university and factory occupations spurred on by the Athens Polytechnic uprising of 1973. Yet, as many know, anarchism is not just a matter of politics pure and simple, of insidious party machinations and soppy paeons to an heroic working class. It is not about didactic propaganda and objective conditions, it is about a way of being, a way of life. And so, Gogou, on the suspect list of the Greek Ministry of Public Order, was a prime mover in the Greek counter-culture of squats and communal living that centred on the Exarchia area of Athens. She frequented the “hard luck dives”, hung out with the “damned of the metropolis” and participated in a musical culture that included the underworld soundtrack of rembetika (‘passion-drugs-jail-death’), the ‘concert riots’ of the 70s and benefit gigs for arrested anarchist and transexual militants who had been exiled to island-gaols. 

Indeed, as an actress, starting out in the comedy genre and often being cast as the ‘rascal pupil’, Gogou had a leading role in a film with a strong musical theme. Parangelia, a Greek cult classic, casts Gogou as a night club singer (more Nico than Cleo Laine) who not so much transcendently narrates as poeticises-over the unfolding of an underdog tragedy (the last night of the outlaw Koemtzi brothers). Gogou’s role in the film is that of a one-woman Greek chorus. Poems from her first collection are impactfully recited direct to camera throughout the film. Her opening lines are as follows: 

“I want to talk with you in a café where the door would be wide open and there’d be no sea
 
Only jobless men
 
Dust with sun and silence
 
And the sun getting into our cognac
 
And the dust with cigarette smoke in our lungs
 
Hey brother, let’s not worry
 
About our health today […]
 
Just quietly let my face run
 
With the make-up, the snot and the tears” (p.14)  

These latter lines reference the opening sequence of the film. As the credits roll, Gogou applies her make-up and we witness her preparing herself for the glamour of the dressed-up night life. However, there soon flickers across her face subtle looks of a rising despair and an implosive self-loathing before she angrily smears-off her lipstick and rubs at her mascara eyes as her tears begin to fall. In her acting of this sequence, as with her poems, we are witness to what Pasolini has called a “desperate vitality.” At times in the film Gogou’s recitation raises to a crescendo of an un-affected, almost unacted, cry of anger that brings to mind the punk vocalist style of the day as well as the infamous recording of Artaud’s ‘To have done with the Judgement of God’. Safe to say in Gogou’s poetic world there is no God, apparatchiks or idealised revolutionary subjects. Maybe we could venture to say there is no poetry here either!   

Just as musicians from Charlie Mingus to Cecil Taylor remarked: ‘What the fuck is jazz?’ We could similarly ask, when confronted with these journal-like and at times utterly candid pieces of writings: ‘What the shitting-hell is poetry?’ There is thus an anti-literary tenor to much of her writing which she directly refers to as “scribbling on papers.” (p.66): 

“Rotten / Rotten themes/ mouldy volumes devious libraries
 
Bootlicking word slave words/ frame-up jobs
 
Fraudulent words
 
Our life here is bull […]
And you go on painting still-lifes
 
And past prime book editions making money
 
For the tourist office.” (p.44) 

Words and the various motivations in yielding them are placed under a painful suspicion that only the sincerity of affectable bodies can alleviate. Gogou, as a writer informed by acting, is the non-discoursing body that Pasolini honours; a revolting body mutating under the dictates of a consumer inducing narcissism that, as in the opening sequence of Parangelia, she both embodies and expels: “how harassed we’ve become by guilt, shop windows and bald manikins/ but no longer with bowed heads” (p.61). These links to the much-indicted Pasolini are not fortuitous as Gogou, who rarely gives titles to her writings, does title one piece, “Autopsy Report 2.11.75”. This is a reference to the assassination of Pasolini and the multiple injuries he received in the wastelands of the Ostia Basin. Here the foretold mutilated body takes centre stage but Gogou is not rendered speechless. She does not theorise but pens a sequence of barbs that reveal that there is strength in her disenchantment, a strength to call-out the endless historical compromises: 

“… the body lay face down in parallel connection to the Vatican
 
One of his hands full of blood gestured an open palm as insult to [the] CPI [...]
 
His face disfigured by the framework of the class he denied
 
A black and blue volunteer of the ragtag proletariat.” (p.75) 

Another factor that sees Gogou linked to Pasolini has been encapsulated by one commentor on the Blackout website (see references below) who describes her writings as a “cinematic record of reality”. This is akin to what Pasolini pursued across his poems, novels, films and journalism as the “written language of reality.”  Not only does this shed light on Gogou’s almost diarist style, it places her in the realm of a new hybrid form that Pasolini was outlining. The screenplay not simply needing completion by being filmed but the screenplay as a written and embellished form in its own right (Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems spring to mind in this connection). One could say Gogou, an actress familiar with a cinematic means of production, is under the influence of a filmic aesthetic and rather than embroider screenplays she embellishes the private ‘note-to-self’ form (an object of ridicule in poetry circles) in which a deliberate unfinishedness articulates a processual rather than reified approach to living. Above all else it seems Gogou was not identifying herself as a poet: 

“What I’m afraid of most of all is lest I become a ‘poet’ […]
 
Lest I learn meter and technique and get trapped in them […]
Lest clerics and academics
Catch me when I’m exhausted and make me prostitute myself.” (p.66) 

Form can be mediational, it can defuse the offer of direct communication, leave unsaid what Pasolini calls the “profound intimacy of the individual”. There is a ‘beyond’ of poetry just as there is a cinema that can be inflected with the poetic impulse. So, Gogou seems to owe a lot to a cinematic revisioning of poetry; cinema as a refreshing means to approach language anew: her extended lines are akin to long shots, her short two-to-three line poems are like celluloid scraps gathered from the cutting-room floor, her stuttering fracturing of images are akin to rapid jump-cuts … a kind of holistic concatenation: 

 “abortions bottles mirrors movie programs my friends’ personal lives.” (p.63)
 “clubs switchblades taxis kiosks everything wide open all night
   
loneliness getting thicker.” (p.67)
 
“the doctors at the Vice Squad impotent peeping-toms crab lice strolling in your brain
    
in daytime.” (p.79) 

So, montaged flows. Long shots telescoping history and at the same time closing-in on memories of the nights before. Revolutionary regret spliced with confessional soliloquies. A redemptive abjection: “poetry has ceased madness slips out” (p.84) A hatred of the system as virulent and deadly as that which the Greek post-dictatorial democracy reserves for the conveniently unrepresentable wretched of the earth: no party’s canvassing object. Words all tangled-up (p.89)  

In writing of Pasolini as he could have been writing of Gogou, René Schérer offered that “to become revolutionary is to enter life. By flashes. To have an intuition, beyond all political logic and reason.” One could add that, as an anarchist to the end, harassed by the police for her friendship with Athenian extra-parliamentarians and ex-cons, Gogou, who suicided in 1993, was one who knew that there would be a recomposition of class beyond the “threadbare ideologies” (p.76) of anarchism and communism; a recomposition that would entail the coming-into-being of what Walter Benjamin, referencing Charles Fourier, named an ‘affective class’. Above all, the recomposition of subjectivities not as individuals but as singularities for whom poetry is not so much a con-trick craft as a means of everyday intensification: “I am dreaming freedom/ Through everyone’s/ all-beautiful uniqueness.” 

(Coda) The time of the oeuvre has long-gone and, in order to not acknowledge this, to continue-on deluded, countless prizes are dutifully handed out to those poets who maintain the myth of a bygone tradition.  

Howard Slater 

References 

The Blackout ((Poetry and Politics)) blog features a sample of poems by Katerina Gogou and biographical details.

https://my-blackout.com/2018/01/21/katerina-gogou-autopsy-report/ 

Pier Paolo Pasolini: Heretical Empiricism, New Academia Publishing, 2005. 

René Schérer: Des modalités du ressentiment dans les devenirs révolutionnaires, in Chimeres No.83, 2014

https://www.cairn.info/revue-chimeres-2014-2-page-71.htm  

Taxikipali: Katerina Gogou Athens’ Anarchist poetess, 1949-1993. This article mentions a biography of Katerina Gogou by Agapi Virginia Spyratou entitled Katerina Gogou: Death’s Love [Erotas Thanatou], Vivliopelagos, 2007.

See:  https://libcom.org/article/gogou-katerina-athens-anarchist-poetess-1940-1993