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1921-2006

Dimitri Hadzi

By Seamus Heaney

Robert Pinsky:

Before I read Seamus Heaney’s tribute to Dimitri Hadzi, I’d like to say a few sentences of my own. Dimitri was in that rare category of classical-modernists—a modern artist, in the 20th-century sense of modernist, who was also a classicist, partly in subject matter. This feat of being a classicist and a modernist made Dimitri one of the aristocrats, one of the nobility, of art. He was also a working-class American from Brooklyn. I think that combination of being a working-class American and an aristocrat was part of Dimitri’s charm. The charm was manifested to me partly in how much pleasure he took in making fun of his own work at times. His work has great appeal to ordinary people—I see it everyday at the subway station near where I live. It is work that communicates very well to people, but Dimitri took great delight in telling stories about people not getting it. He told me about a rather large metal work in his studio in Rome. Some working guys come with a truck to load this big thing up on the truck with various pulleys and things. Dimitri is wearing his work clothes so they assume he’s one of them. They’re loading this big thing on to the truck and at some point one of the guys says to Dimitri, sort of person to person, “Ch’è questo?” —”what the hell is that?” Dimitri says, “Lo Spirito della Musica“—”the spirit of music.” And then Dimitri—and you have to picture his eyebrows—imitates the guy saying, “Lo Spirito della Musica? Bahhhhhhh!” The other similar anecdote is Dimitri and Cynthia are trying to get their passports expedited and they’re dealing with an extremely recalcitrant official who works at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston. She’s being extremely priggish and dilatory about this and Dimitri, as he tells it, tries to warm her up by saying that his great work Thermopylae is out in front of the building. He says, “You know that sculpture out in front of the building here?” She says, “Yes.” He says, “That’s mine, I made that.” And she says, “I don’t like it.” For me that is partly the spirit of Dimitri and of course those anecdotes reveal a tremendous confidence as well as tremendous humanity.

Seamus Heaney:

Once in the city of Thebes, the city of King Oedipus, the city of his daughter Antigone, my wife and I were in a car with Dimitri Hadzi. Dimitri’s wife Cynthia was driving and on that day she had taken us from Apollo’s shrine at Delphi out past the home of the Muses on Mount Helikon, past the crossroads a bit farther along where Oedipus is said to have killed his father, and now we were in the drab and dusty streets of Thebes, on the look-out for a parking spot. And all of a sudden, there it was. And as we walked away in search of a taverna we saw that the street where we had parked the car was actually called Antigone Street.

The rest of us ooh’d and aah’d at this, but Dimitri took it more or less for granted. For him, after all, Greece wasn’t a tourist destination. It was at once home from home and part of his phantasmagoria. Whether he was roaming the art galleries of New York or haunting the ancient sites of the Peloponnese, he could have misquoted Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and declared, “Thus I confound home and Elysium.” Or perhaps better said, home and Hellas. His Pillars of Hercules, after all, stood in Harvard Square. His Omphalos stood outside the John F. Kennedy federal office building in Boston. His own Thebes stood in a gallery in Houston, Texas. This was a sculptor at his ancestral ease in the citadel of Mycenae, but equally at his artistic ease in the world of international modernism. And this was the sculptor I wrote about a few years ago in the introduction to a book that celebrated his life and work, where I quoted some light verse I’d done as a birthday greeting, praising:

[His] mastery of the chiseled line
[His] impulse and [his] discipline—
Half lost in work and half ecstatic,
Both down-to-earth and Graeco-vatic!

In another poem I once compared Dimitri to a centaur, thinking of his own use of the centaur in his work of the 1950s, but thinking also of W. B. Yeats’s likening of the nature of art to the centaur’s nature, each of them with strong haunches in the physical world, but also with strong human pride and spiritual prospect. All of which seemed to fit the man we knew—his physical strength, emotional susceptibility, classical knowledge, sculptural know-how.

For most of us here, just saying the name “Hadzi” will conjure up all those qualities. They are now part of his artistic signature, evidence that Dimitri has made his creative presence felt. But if instead of saying “Hadzi,” you just say “Dimitri,” you conjure up not only the maker of forms, but the friend who was your friend indeed—his natural kindness, his smile, his eyebrows, his love of dancing, his enthusiasm for the great archaeological sites, his capacity to gaze and remember and absorb.

In fact, some of my most abiding memories of Dimitri are memories of standing still. And keeping standing still. In a small farmyard in Desfina gazing up at Mount Parnassus. On the balcony of our hotel on my first night in Athens, gazing across at the Parthenon. On the balcony of our hotel in Delphi, gazing across the Olive Plain. On the shore at Doolin in County Clare, gazing west across the Atlantic Ocean. On all of those occasions there was communion, communion between four people assembled in friendship, communion with the spirit of the different places, with the potency of the past and the vast expansive reality of the present. Because Dimitri was with us, we stayed quieter, took in more, carried more away, belonged more to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Now that he himself has been carried away, however, I would like to be granted three wishes and be allowed back into that magic circle, to stand again with Dimitri, shoulder to shoulder, three final times. First of all I’d want to return to the megaron of the Mycenae fortress, a spot to which we had climbed together on October 3, 1995. Standing there, taking in that breathtaking view of the Plain of Argos and the Aegean Sea, I read from a poem sequence entitled “Mycenae Lookout,” a set of monologues written from the point of view of the watchman who appears at the beginning of Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. For all of us, it was an unforgettable experience. Up there in the stillness of that October afternoon, we were on the heights, in more senses than one, living through a moment of time that felt more like the once upon a time. A couple of days later, however, things changed dramatically when I contacted my home in Dublin and discovered that the Swedish Academy needed to hear from me. That phone call did have many fortunate consequences but it also meant unfortunately that our tour of the Peloponnese had to end there and then, promptly and abruptly.

Two years later, however, in 1997, we were back, and my second wish would be to return as we did then to that same vantage point and relive the pleasures of the day we had on May 18th. I know the date because for once I kept a notebook, kept it indeed because of Dimitri’s urgings and example. It tells how one by one we came struggling up the hillside, up to the very point where Agamemnon’s watchman had been stationed:

5 o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Dogbark and birdsong.
Sound of cars in the valley… A breeze
Cynthia arrives.

Then Dimitri arrives. Overcome. Tears and embraces all
round. Megaron is ours and silent… Just sitting now, killing time.

Plain of Argos out behind. Tomb of Agamemnon visible down at foot of hill.

Agamemnon’s Tomb is one of the names given to a great stone burial chamber built in the shadow of the Mycenae fortress. When we went down to it that afternoon, we stood still all over again, and my third wish would be to go back into the deep walled entry passage where we waited in front of the stone door. All, to begin with, was silent, but gradually we became aware of the cheeping birds, and the whish of hundreds of thousands of wings sweeping in and out of the burial chamber. So next, we advanced across the threshold, and there inside the tomb we waited again and listened to that constant piercing cheep, cheep, cheep.

In the circumstances it was impossible not to think of Homer’s description of the god Hermes leading the souls of the dead down to Hades, down through galleries full of bats and the squeaking of bats. And that is why it seems right to conclude by letting you hear a little bit of that beautiful passage from the Odyssey. Homer tells how the newly arrived souls encounter the shades of great heroes who had fought in the Trojan War, and it’s easy enough to imagine the shade of Dimitri Hadzi entering into that assembly of mythic warriors and feeling at his ease among them. So let Homer be his guide now and lead him into the realm where Achilles and Ajax and Agamemnon will be waiting because down there, and deep down in our own dream life, Greek can once again meet Greek in joyful recognition, just as Homer tells it:

Hermes,
The Deliverer led [him] on along the dank ways,
They went past the streams of Oceanos, past the White Rock;
Past the gates of the Sun also, and past the district of dreams
Did they go. And at once they reached the asphodel meadow
Where the souls dwell, phantoms of those who are worn out….
And so they thronged around that man.

Read by Robert Pinsky at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9. 2006.

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