Ju­dith Kazantzis

Poet and writer who ex­am­ined the traps and se­duc­tions of power re­la­tion­ships

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - Michèle Roberts

Ju­dith Kazantzis, who has died aged 78, pro­duced tense, taut po­ems as del­i­cate and strong as spi­ders’ webs. Her life­long pas­sion for weav­ing words to­gether in play­ful and in­trigu­ing ways mir­rored her si­mul­ta­ne­ous com­mit­ment to mak­ing con­nec­tions in life and pol­i­tics, be­tween love and ac­tivism, and, as an artist, be­tween words and im­ages.

She pub­lished 12 col­lec­tions of po­etry, as well as es­says, and a novel, Of Love and Ter­ror (2002). Part of an im­pres­sive gen­er­a­tion of fe­male po­ets in­clud­ing Fleur Ad­cock, Gil­lian Clarke, Ali­son Fell and Pene­lope Shut­tle, she ex­am­ined the traps and se­duc­tions of power re­la­tion­ships – do­mes­tic, sex­ual, so­cial. She could be sav­agely witty; never di­dac­tic. New wine de­manded new bot­tles: be­gin­ning with Mine­field (1977) she com­posed spare, tightly con­trolled free verse un­afraid of gaps and jumps. She em­ployed a ver­nac­u­lar that could be tart, bawdy, lyri­cal, satir­i­cal by turns.

Some of th­ese pi­o­neer­ing early po­ems ex­plore the role of women in myths and fairy­tales, as pow­er­ful but vul­ner­a­ble god­desses, as an­gry drudges, as am­biva­lent moth­ers, as con­tra­dic­tory daugh­ters. An­gela Carter and Sara Mait­land, along with oth­ers, were do­ing this in prose; Ju­dith took on a western po­etic tra­di­tion that named women more as muses and mon­sters than as mak­ers. In the es­say she con­trib­uted to Miche­lene Wan­dor’s 1983 an­thol­ogy On Gen­der and Writ­ing, Ju­dith ex­plained how she re­drafted Clytemnes­tra “not as a crazy bitch, but as a hu­man be­ing with strong pas­sions and good rea­sons”.

In the 1980s Ju­dith broad­ened her def­i­ni­tion of power and of pol­i­tics and be­gan to pub­lish col­lec­tions, such as A Poem for Guatemala (1986) and Flame Tree (1988), that made strong po­lit­i­cal state­ments and em­bod­ied a com­mit­ted po­lit­i­cal stance. Her col­lec­tion Just Af­ter Mid­night (2004) re­veals how, if she was writ­ing ten­der ele­gies for the per­son­ally known dead, she was also cre­at­ing memo­ri­als to wit­ness those dy­ing in Tianan­men Square, or in the Jenin camp on the West Bank.

In Sis­ter In­ven­tion (2014), the po­ems sneak up on both the pow­er­ful and the weak, eaves­drop­ping, spy­ing, re­port­ing back to the reader in in­ti­mate, dead­pan tones, mix­ing slap­stick and sur­re­al­ism to con­vey the hor­rors of hi-tech war­fare.

Yet in this same vol­ume Ju­dith’s imag­i­na­tion also en­com­passes jour­neys around North Amer­i­can land­scapes, pil­grim­ages across the ter­rain of fam­ily and of love. A sin­gle poem, such as Who Loved Me, can com­bine a dream­ing English child’s love for ponies and for Je­sus with an im­age of the sea as “a thick red tongue / lap­ping from the ar­ter­ies of Iraq”.

De­spite their sub­ject mat­ter ap­pear­ing ex­plicit, de­spite their foren­sic ex­act­ness, of­ten her po­ems refuse easy read­ings, do not of­fer neatly tied-up end­ings. She could be a poet of what Keats termed “neg­a­tive ca­pa­bil­ity”, able to rest in not-know­ing, re­ly­ing on the reader to do the same.

Through­out her life Ju­dith also de­vel­oped her artist’s prac­tice, work­ing in wa­ter­colour, scrap­er­board and print­mak­ing, learn­ing from and col­lab­o­rat­ing with artists such as Carolyn

Trant, show­ing her work in lo­cal ex­hi­bi­tions or at home. De­spite chronic, de­bil­i­tat­ing back pain, she sup­ported and be­friended younger artists, and men­tored younger po­ets, shar­ing her ex­per­tise.

Born in Ox­ford, she was the fourth child of Frank Pak­en­ham, Lord Long­ford, the Labour politi­cian and so­cial re­former, and El­iz­a­beth (nee Har­man), Lady Long­ford, the his­to­rian. One of the last debu­tantes to be pre­sented at court as part of the sea­son, sub­se­quently she re­fused to use her ti­tle. She at­tended con­vent school and took a his­tory de­gree at Somerville Col­lege, Ox­ford, in 1961. Two years later she mar­ried Alec Kazantzis , and they had two chil­dren, Mi­randa and Arthur.

Dur­ing the 70s she worked for the first Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Work­shop in Lon­don, be­came a mem­ber of the Women’s Lit­er­a­ture Col­lec­tive, re­viewed po­etry for

Spare Rib and other jour­nals, and taught writ­ing via the In­ner Lon­don Ed­u­ca­tion Au­thor­ity.

Her mar­riage ended in di­vorce in 1982, and in 1998 she mar­ried the Amer­i­can writer Irv­ing Wein­man. They spent reg­u­lar time in Key

West, Florida, where Irv­ing taught, then made their base in Lewes, East Sus­sex, where both of them be­came ac­tively in­volved in pol­i­tics. Ju­dith cam­paigned against modern slav­ery, the arms trade, nu­clear weapons, il­le­gal oc­cu­pa­tions and against all abuses of power.

Irv­ing died in 2015. Ju­dith is sur­vived by Mi­randa and Arthur, two stepchil­dren and her sib­lings An­to­nia, Thomas, Rachel, Michael and Kevin.

Ju­dith El­iz­a­beth Kazantzis, poet, born 14 Au­gust 1940; died 18 Septem­ber 2018

She took on a western po­etic tra­di­tion that named women more as muses and mon­sters than as mak­ers

GETTY IM­AGES

Ju­dith Pak­en­ham with her fi­ance Alec Kazantzis in 1962. Af­ter her mar­riage, she pub­lished po­etry as Ju­dith Kazantzis. Her work could be tart, bawdy, lyri­cal and satir­i­cal

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