[Excerpts about Zoe Karelli's life and work from Kimon Friar's "Modern Greek Poetry", pp. 102-106]



In her poem "The Poet", Zoe Karelli, born in Thessaloniki in 1901, invokes "the precious body, material vessel, state of the spirit." The body is for her the beginning and end of existence in space and time; but in seeking to understand her own unique position there, she does not deny the flesh, as mystics do, but delves more deeply into the flesh that she may surpass it.

Unable, after her early years, to accept Christian dogma in relation to original sin, salvation, or a life after death, she felt her spirit stripped to a naked consciousness that struggled in anguish to relate the realm of eternal silence to the material world of speech, that tried to create and impose meaning on phenomena. Her themes became exclusively concerned with the split personality of the person of sensibility tormented to find his integrity and create ties of continuity in a world of spiritual disintegration.

Karelli's poetry, though often concerned with objects, is almost devoid of imagery, metaphores and tropes, and for its effect depends mostly on the passionate expression of thought, on emotion analyzed. She has taken little from the pure lyric or the folk song or the manner of either, but has turned to the more abstract language of Byzantine hymnology, to a period which tried to make eternity comprehensible by an almost abstract arrangement of stylized tones and compositions. Her words are stripped bare of decoration and sentimentality, and are so often those of philosophical speculation that they take on a rationalistic tone, much as in the poetry of Laura Riding. Yet Karelli loves individual words themselves, as though they were made of flesh, and caresses them with a feminine eroticism. She plays with their sounds almost hypnotically, although not with the full assonantal and consonantal orchestration of a Milton or a Hopkins but limits her orchestral arrangement to a manipulation of like-sounding words, a device taken from Byzantine troparia and the artificed rituals of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Karelli may say, with Kazantzakis' Odysseus, "Blessed be that hour that gave me birth between two eras!" The absurdity of a life not conscious of itself disgusts Karelli to a point of horror. In "the moment of man's terrible trial," she exalts doubt as the only means by which man may keep alive and intense not only the sense of his existence but also that of his creativity. "All help me," she has written, "when they torment me, that I may be a witness within myself of the eternal." She has felt the burdensome love for an existence as it is tried and tested by the knowledge of death.

[Excerpts about Zoe Karelli's life and work from Kimon Friar's "Modern Greek Poetry", pp. 102-106]