From Homer’s Table:
Contemporary Greek Poets On Ancient Greek Themes
Poems selected, edited and translated by David Connolly
It is quite remarkable that, for the foreign reader, the term ‘Greek Literature’ almost invariably calls to mind Homer, Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and a whole host of other Classical and Hellenistic Greek writers, as if Greece’s literary output had somehow come to an end in the ashes of the ancient library of Alexandria. The burden of Greek antiquity is such that we are obliged, today, to talk of ‘modern Greek literature’ and ‘modern Greek poets’ in order to avoid confusion, and it goes without saying that very few foreign readers would be able to name even one ‘modern’ Greek poet. Perhaps the one exception would be Constantine Cavafy, who, however, was born and lived most of his life in Alexandria and made only a few short visits to Greece. Even the award of two Nobel prizes to modern Greek poets–to George Seferis (1963) and Odysseus Elytis (1979)–has done little to create interest in modern Greek poetry in the English-speaking world.
So acknowledging the burden of Greek antiquity for the contemporary Greek poet but also its appeal for the foreign reader, I decided, when asked by Jon Thompson if I would like to provide translations of modern Greek poets for the current issue of Free Verse, to use themes taken from the writings attributed to Homer, the most celebrated of all ancient bards, in order to present a selection of poems by contemporary Greek poets based on these themes. For the purposes of this short anthology, I define contemporary Greek poets as poets born during or after the Second World War and who are still alive and writing today. Of course, this seventy-year period covers three different generations and I make no claims that the poets included here are representative of specific trends or share common modes of expression. The poems were chosen solely on thematic criteria.
The Homeric themes I selected as being those most commonly employed by contemporary Greek poets, who offer their own often ironic, iconoclastic and humorous treatment of them, are those connected with the Trojan War, the House of the Atreids, the wanderings and return of Odysseus, Oedipus and the Theban cycle and the Hymn to Demeter. Aeschylus reportedly said that he worked with the crumbs from Homer’s table, that his tragedies, in other words, were based on Homeric themes. It is noteworthy, if nothing else, that contemporary Greek poets are still feeding from Homer’s table…
1. THE TROJAN CYCLE
THE CAUSES OF THE TROJAN WAR
Much is said about the reasons that led
to the conflict between Trojans and Greeks
in the land of Ionia, in 1400 BC.
The most recent theories speak of the practice
of plundering that still exists today.
Gangs organized by states, companies, monarchs
besieged, burned and seized
flocks, treasures, women, slaves.
Yet I was always surprised
by those details such as
when the Greeks dragged their ships
black ships with huge eyes on their prows
when the Greeks dragged their ships
there on the sand in a long line. The first thing
they built after setting up their tents
were the baths, with the basins, the faucets
and then the stadium for contesting the games.
Naturally they needed flocks for food
cattle and sheep and goats. They needed
bread and wine and timber, they needed
women slaves who very often became
their tender companions
on sheepskins and weave from Aetolia,
Mycenae, Thessaly, Ithaca.
Naturally they sought, and forced or seized
but the war was not because of this.
When I gazed at you naked on your mattress
there in the stone house which has constellations
for guards. While I gazed at you
outside the mirror, alive, through time
while I gazed at you and enjoyed
again and once more and again and once more
your divine, your deadly beauty,
I realized only too well that this war
was simply for a woman.
in consolation’s cage.
She seeks wind in the sails.
A fair passage is all
for her clay,
to be malleable again.
She’s in urgent need
in urgent need
of Aeolus’s sacks.
And what in the world,
for a fundamental
You render your body a moon
and emerge from out of August,
dancing the sacred rhythm
you set off in the night
Helen, Helen, Helen
the bitterest Greek name,
a closed hope entire
and a sea firm like rock.
EXTRACT FROM A LETTER TO MENELAUS
The draught of nepenthe,
the one given to you
by Helen so you’d endure
the closed corridors
and the coming of spring,
is not for sharing out to right and left,
it may not suffice you after all,
and then the truth
will be clearer
than the light after
your term in the darkness.
(In the pandemonium that followed the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, Thersites was attacked by Odysseus and took refuge in his tent. Odysseus chased after him and after boasting that he would kill him straightaway if he ever set eyes on him again, he went away leaving the ugly warrior angrily muttering to himself.)
The scoundrel has disappeared. But
he’s watching me. I sense it, I can practically see him,
cowering in his mug’s dirty shell,
that spiteful eye nervily playing with vengeance
like an unearthed bone.
Ugly cur! I’d turn him into food
for the mongrels that with comic eagerness
ran to meet us we arrived in this slaughterhouse.
(Some campaign! For ten years now,
we’ve been offering the perfect regime
to a populace of drooling tetrapods:
freedom for them to foul on us,
equality in the rending of our guts,
fraternity with the tics that feast
on the shortfall of our blood.
Fine! Fine! With grunts filled with rotten teeth
and bubonic spasms generation upon generation
will laud the endurance of the Greeks:
that persistent honing of a name
that wasn’t even a rod.)
Drunkard! I’d drown him in the blood
that he so meticulously nurtures,
devouring others’ hopes and dreams and expectations,
if I didn’t know that his wolves would run wild
blinded by the smell of their brother’s death.
Blinded by the smell!
When have you ever felt something whole?
When have you ever recognized something pure?
When have you ever toiled for something your own?
“All this slaughter can be endured by a soul
only as individual stimuli,” Nestor says.
Where does the old man find such composure?
He assumes those unwashed failures of sound limb
have a soul.
That permanently good intention sickens me.
He nurtures it in his plinth gaze like a pet wound:
obese, arrogantly laconic, irritatingly slothful.
Some kind of immunity must be keeping it alive
after so many infectious denials.
A warrior has to know when he’s in danger of crying.
There are no eagles among people.
I can’t imagine prudence as a knife
that you leave on the dining table, when you go out to battle.
That image is one of the old man’s best,
though not the most popular in a herd unable to comprehend
the meaning of a sentence with more than three words.
I cannot conceive of a system of values that you wash
and hang out to dry when it gets soaked in wanton blood.
That image is mine.
Except that I am not willing in poetic verse
to play up to the hypocrisy of the assemblies.
They came here for plunder and parade
the wounded honor of their race
like an old whore among the carcasses.
(But only up to a point are the dead harmless).
I came here for plunder and I know I may end up
from one day to the next as plunder.
There’s nothing I can do about that.
(Nothing more by me).
“The ugliest man who came to Ilium.
Bandy-legged and lame in one foot.
His shoulders curved forward
meeting over his chest.
And above, an elongated head
with a little hair on its crown.”
Just so, my blind bard, just so!
The ugliest man, but not the only one,
though perhaps the most appropriate for supplying material
intended to stimulate words’ natural slothfulness.
Words are slothful, my dear friend, I can assure you.
They have a mania for sitting on what they want to say,
until it stinks.
Then, they fly to another… coop, let’s say.
What can you do during that short flight?
At any rate your winged words may be a decent idea.
I very much doubt if you know that.
As for me, I know what I know, what I must do, what I can hope.
I’ll go out even if it means a bloodbath.
I need to pee.
When he saw the abandoned boat
being burned by Trojan hands
Patroclus burst into tears. He wouldn’t have stopped
had his friend Achilles not given him
his Myrmidons and all his armor too.
It was for the evil befalling the Greeks
that Patroclus wept, and yet, deep down
– and known only to the poet –
he wept for his own end. Which was near.
And which came not with Hector, but Phoebus.
Then Euphorbus struck him from behind.
And it was there that Hector finished him.
And his soul, so the poet says, fled
to Hades weeping inconsolably
at being forced by Fate to part
from its manly body in the bloom of youth.
If you believe in the myth
(given its source is the one left behind –
the one who was abandoned)
he must have suffered greatly.
In his tent
alive he grieves now for the one killed;
yet the gods know
that he too is already dead,
betrayed by that part of the body
that could desire,
the part that’s mortal.
Half blossom, half fruit
the bitter-almond crowns the wall
like down the adolescent curve of purple.
Homeless wall; the plaster
fragments fragments on the earth
crumbling elsewhere; the stones almost bare.
Unable to avert fate… And then
the cavity from the grave-robber’s blows.
There, beyond the duration
in a hint of color
blooms a tiny blue flower.
Further still Luv you in color
and between the letters, the snail’s
silver had managed to imprint
jealousy’s hieroglyphics –
then it stuck and petrified.
And the sharp edges that grazed my knees
as I climbed to behold the Forbidden
Marvel that gushed forth and altered
the myrrh-bearing order amid the light.
Just as it was about to become a face
fear half opened too.
An untaught movement
led me to accept its advent.
Unripe bitterness with the bitter almond’s fragrance
shedding profuse tears*
that float on the fait accompli.
Unripe bitterness, forgetfulness
keeps your promise unseen
and memory as allegory narrates you.
Yet perhaps in the dismal afterwards
again through some mistake
the beauty will be recalled.
* Iliad VI, 496
2. THE RETURN OF ODYSSEUS
Because Odysseus didn’t want war
because he didn’t want to be conscripted
he took to plowing when he heard
Agamemnon’s envoys were nearing.
He plowed with this and with that
grabbed handfuls of salt and sowed it
to convince them he was mad.
Or perhaps without knowing it
in sowing salt he was party to a magic rite,
destined as he was for years and years
to reap the sea?
On Poseidon and Proteus
Wavy-haired God, you who hold the keys of the sea. And who with cylindrical wheels raise curving waves. You who shake our houses; for in caverns you keep winds captive; and raging equine waters. To you it was that primal nature entrusted all. And you it was who revealed all of nature’s secrets. Changing sacred matter into polymorphous aspects. Because you know the provenance of all things, you transform yourself as no other.
FORTUNES OF TELEMACHUS, SON OF ODYSSEUS
Come off it pal, just what are you saying
the once fastest, deadliest shot
at one go, sitting down, forty-odd suitors –
But to what end, my poor ol’ Lucky Luke?
Just as pages whiten in the light
so too the sun blanches hands and hair.
Spine of faded words and traces of meaning
in the eyes’ realm, white, vast dominion.
Drop it, you wretch; yes, reflect now
how, from being a child, you’ve always remembered death’s hour
not in non-existent white, but a blade that disemboweled
shedding colorful aromas
and seeds of future shoots.
White hair in the scorching heat, my Helen of Skiathos
for the child who tasted unbridled hope
a wild bird in his breast
and drank in the moon’s fount and then soaked
his thirsty gaze in the spring of its rock, and again
soaked his broken body in the light.
I wander aimlessly in the stone city. I’m tired of waiting. Carnivorous plants hang from the windows like tears, inundating the streets. The sun snows relentlessly and petrifies everything. There’s no one left. Only Argos, father’s dog, toothless and lame, accompanies me sniveling. I might fashion a raft, a skiff. Or shall I climb to the mountain top and, as I dreamt when a young boy, take a reed to touch the sky? If my father is dead, I’ll find an iron rod to dig him up.
As a young boy, when it rained, I’d go outside and get soaked and I’d think of the lightning and thunder as messages sent by my father. There’s no one left. I’ll go, broaden. Expectation is my home and my tree.
Odysseus, wind-sired and wolf-spawned, I leave you these words, etched on a pebble from the Shore. In case you return.
As a foster child I joined in the sky’s mourning and found peace.
Hapless and weak-willed slothful and passive
veritable Elpenors we’ll proceed in life
without giving without taking
without aimlessly and thoughtlessly spending ourselves
silently we’ll drag out our days
till our last breath
we’ll live idly.
Cold and sullen a few friends
will come to our funeral
as they lived they departed
ODYSSEY XI, 2
To Chronis Botsoglou
I saw my grandmother in her dream
that was fashioned of glass.
She wore her horn-rimmed spectacles,
her light tinged with ash and in her hand
she had a bunch of grapes.
“Grandma,” I said,
“Philoctetes wept when the time came
for him to leave his cave;
he had loved the gloom passionately,
like his light, but you
your eyes are not as before
nor do they see their tear. Why?”
“The nightingale, my boy, makes its nest
where it hears water and the stars come out
so close that if you take hold of the reed
you think you’ll touch them. Call me pleasure.
Once night falls I go out with bells
and ruminate slowly as I lie down.
Art, my boy, should affix
the truth to things.
For example the house’s cricket
beneath your mother’s basin,
the dog barking far off,
the owl with its song hidden
in wild carobs on the rough ground.”
“While you talked, grandma,
I was counting the clay masks
at your feet and was wondering if
you’re a member of an invisible troupe.”
I don’t know, friends, but my grandmother
was a figure who limping goes to find
her house snake.
“…And your light,
grandma, grew less; shall I come to help?”
“My boy, my precious, I can see; there’s a moon.”
I look and I, too, stare up above
and on the canvas were two moons.
A KIND OF DESCENT OR THE LABORS IN THE NETHERWORLD
In the middle of the way or even just before
you need the words of the dead as a prophecy
or, at least, as new material
so you’ll have something to tell us
to mince like a death experience.
But first hear the terms
before descending to the dead:
you have to suddenly occur for a moment
in some way that shows
that earlier you weren’t;
difficult, of course, and deafening
– I imagine, for you to occur
something will have to be heard –
difficult, of course,
for you not to have pre-existed.
So suddenly pretend to be a shade
and with a big bang ravage
the orange trees of the nether world.
It’s then that the first words will be heard.
So if they ask you to give the names of states
you’ll say in short
and if they tell you to say Amvrakikos
you’ll list numerous names
of coastal villages
and not just biographical data
from a simple memory.
And when, hopefully, you pass this ordeal,
illegible voices will come
for you to distinguish,
to say to whom each belongs,
who it is who still commands
If you find even one voice
the oranges will emerge in the darkness;
the place will become like life.
I don’t want a prophecy, you’ll tell them then,
– and here’s the secret –
despite the kind words of those dear to you;
the one wishing me a safe trip
and firing a dart of water at me,
the other sending me off with kisses
in secret from the third,
and the third giving me longing
as much as is needed for such a trip.
As the darkness burns boldly
so too the level of death
will rise in brightness.
As for you, proceed with the unburned water
and the kind words of those dear to you.
Here come the peltasts’ kisses again
(once they were given us by archers
who asked us to
solve the campaign completely),
for ten years we’ve been returning
from our supposed Troy,
the daybreak baffled us,
the eyes squinting,
the faces scarred
from war’s carvings
gaze at us in alarm,
we descend dawn’s stairs,
the blood fades on the walls,
we sink in the words we’ve lost.
There were no creatures in the world
more out of key than the Sirens.
But someone deaf must have passed
first through those parts
where the tale began
about their enchanting song.
All those who followed were lost
vainly trying to retain
what is lost however much you listen.
And so their reputation was verified
as in all similar cases.
Who would now dare
to doubt such a matter.
Odysseus didn’t know the Sirens
but he did know people.
The wax in his companions’ ears
sealed their mouths.
They would have nothing to say
whereas he would have proved
that even the most enchanting
song can’t easily escape
a tightly bound man
who doesn’t want to listen.
A siren out of the odyssey
with red dress and gold-embroidered symbol
releases her song, expressive, passionate
and full, in a haven-hell of pleasure and seduction
far from the wind.
A boat on the reef, a mine in the sand
and scattered bones with the music’s poison
that petrifies the will
and kills and kills and kills.
She had stood there unaffected;
the smell of camphor prevented
not only reverence from retreating
but love too
though we don’t know what might have happened
on a calm evening with light rain
when his mistress would have felt sweet anticipation
holding him by the hand
and even worse
kissing his heart like his lips.
Woe betide us then
if we carelessly come to the sad conclusion
that alone one has to light a fire with fallen leaves
since better, far better
the morning’s dubious stillness
and the bare branches that with a stroke of the brush
will reach the hall of Haïkosos.
DO YOU HEAR?
He collected all his sorrow
and stood before the sea;
Listen to me, you crazy girl, my name’s Odysseus,
do you hear?
Then he turned to the mountain and wept.
CONCEALED IN THE GLEAM
Odyssey XIX, 180-190
Current news’ grimy pages
stagnate on the mown grass.
On the mown grass, in Harvard Square
or in the field, beside the tricky harbor
above the cave of the goddess
with a sealstone playing the hare’s fright –
with the hare’s image he fills the void.
With a little cream on the left lobe
and the cut on the cheek
leading the line of the wine-dark sea
to fallow sentiments
where in the coming moment’s past
he’d exercise time in the clock’s rust
concealed in the gleam of Aethon.
PENELOPE’S “YES” OR “NO”
In retrospect historians
interpret the myth according
to the sources.
Though what escapes them
is the difficulty of the decision
(and Penelope’s dream).
The events border on nostalgia
and nature’s matchmaking with technology
they take place in the green suburbs’ glass buildings,
the solutions are contained in bright curricula vitae
yet no one knows what the problems are,
the suitors rise every day and go to work
because they have nothing better to do,
at night they leave her messages on the answer-phone
pleading for a kiss and a few hugs
though Penelope waits for them with hot coffee
in front of a PC on the doorstep of a multinational,
not at all like Odysseus’ Penelope
but like the one that left Serres as a child
and studied the geography of thought’s equations
at the universities of the South,
now the wind, four-cornered, lays heavy inside her just as
the barren landscapes lay heavy inside her suitors,
they all forge just what they want
confusing it with passion’s worms
that wriggle inside them struggling to escape from the boredom
of a life in every way comfortable, though miserable,
their beloved, Penelope, now mature
belongs to solitude’s mourning
her Odysseus, lost, separated, repentant,
searches elsewhere to find joys and pleasures,
a stack of old reminiscences
brings her previous life lightly before her
causing her to recall and say “What’s left“
Ithaca awaits the voyage to eventually end
so she too might find peace
so her suitors too might find quiet
and an argument as well
to justify how they got their lives in such a mess
ODYSSEUS AT HOME
With my now renowned guile
I left my shadow on the seas
and immediately returned to Ithaca.
No one believed that I’m here.
Which is why I too now spend my days
as another one of the suitors.
But secretly I weave.
Each morning Penelope is alarmed
to find a new garment on the loom:
she immediately gets us to unravel it
each suitor pulling at a thread.
Her body is a wedding garment
without any dress
the moment she’s completely naked
she’ll marry one of us
dispelling the others to foreign parts.
So it’s to our advantage
when the business gets delayed
and we’re all in the plot in her eyes.
And so time passes, waiting
for Odysseus’ arrival.
3. THE HOUSE OF THE ATREIDS
Empire of solitude
A man arrives at your gates
A double Tiresias
No one appears to notice him
As he passes on his bicycle
Through the lexical bipeds
The human bodies
With their piggish brains
They are eating pizza
And watching football with the lenses
They don’t perceive
The slipperiness of the roads
The permanent negligence
An elderly child he
Can hear the silence
Read the unwritten
And see the unseen
He gazes carefully at the names
On the doorbells
Tantaluses Atreids Pelopses
Owners of wheels
Serpents, women and dreams.
It’s not a tale,
not a movie,
a moment of pain
of almost visionary frenzy.
I’ll say nothing of the shadows
or the tone of your voice.
I see you simply guiding,
the color of day and night.
I don’t know if I wasted time
looking at you,
anyhow you should know,
even without the light of Apollo
there’s no change at all
(in the tone of your voice).
The excavations revealed your mornings
as inauspicious. The earth preserved the footprints.
At the count, five men it seemed. One,
the strongest, was wearing golden sandals.
He it was who broke down the door, and the servant girls
scattered. You’d only just put your foot
in the basin, for the day’s first bath.
Your cries and the steam
are still visible on the walls.
All the rest has vanished:
the curses, the attempts at explanation,
the nurse’s pleading,
the dove’s frightened flight.
They found the knives, the blood,
the hair in his grasp, your groans,
the roar and the rubble of the earthquake
that occurred at the murder hour.
Thousands of years later,
the classifications, the opaque glass, the conservation,
the museum, the people passing by.
(DREAMING AND WAKING)
To Kiki Dimoula
Clytaemnestra was woken by a mauve noise.
Her hands were smarting,
multiplied in her heart.
An Unknown Dream
(she just managed to catch a glimpse of it
leaving through the window)
shattered, she said, her face’s glass pane.
Ah fate! Or better, O ill-fated mother Hera,
the guardian scribe
commissioned to linearly inscribe
the events (in historical ledgers
that swallow up myths) on tablets
is engulfed in the beacon’s glow!
in the depths of my figure-eight body
sires and bears a great racket.
My rattling resounds, to hide the hell-fire
of my passionate love. And Aegisthus
Aegisthus is sleeping.
So neither the stars’ snoring
nor the roar of the sea that inundates
our bed two cubits deep can
raise him from his slumbering corpse –
unless he is murdered, by me or others.
You see, old man, that I have other things in mind
yet something else leads me elsewhere; to wander
naked and sallow, without my sandals,
without pyxis or make-up
making the rounds of the palace three times
and ten times uttering curses for the love
that dragged me to the glistening fish that tow
my coveted bath.
I only just manage
to tie my hair, to don the armor
of my silver despondency, to embody a bull,
ill-fashioned and borrowed,
that in its contusion fights to save
the idol of the goddess.
Again at the window stood the Unknown Dream
a sweet little bird with human voice.
Why be alarmed, lady? All is calm
as before; the children are asleep in their cradles,
early in the morning your master drives his cart
to sow trees and hills, to sow stars and heavens
and whatever the mind’s harvest and palace couldn’t hold.
Sleep well for I keep vigil to weave your sleep
with all the world’s blessings and the tears’ praise.
No sooner had it said this than she fell asleep.
A sweet apple in her heart and pomegranate on her breast.
Twelve cubits of sky hung above her;
at Thetis’ command Agamemnon had brought it
with him, that her voice might carry further
when the horrid and impious arch-sacrificer would slaughter her.
felt great anger inside,
and so, when she tried
to talk to him,
she’d never told him
that it would have been better
if she’d killed him.
A slaughtered ancestor
writhes inside me.
I grew up with him in secret
a passive smoker
I asked where he found the knife
and choked on the smoke.
The house smelled of burnt oil
father breathes with difficulty always
and mother: imagine an Electra
without any brother.
A light in ruins dripped dust
and I searched in the hay
searched looking for blood;
a veritable smoker
I asked again
where he’d found the knife.
cut out smoking.
THE VERB ORESTES
While the sister looks him in the eye
Searching for the rush of blood that
Rides rivers and the smell of childbirth
At the peak of the journey that he calls
Europe, he endeavors to escape from the eyes
And from the foreign land to slip into
Mercy, where the earth has no stone
To receive him, has no law
The soul a torment from the tar it bears
And a mist from the path, in the morning chill
Homecoming’s dust in the hair raving
Stranger from the south that brought him
Stumbling blindly on the shuddering wave
With the sister’s name and mother’s soul
A rider above the horse to embrace
The murder and the slender spear of dawn
To which the light clutches and ascends
Gives hurt to love, pain to the hands
To the snake a wound and names anew
The verb Orestes
FURIES vs. EUMENIDES
So fine, we cannot do it.
But nearing means distancing.
As an ardent supporter of a strange luxury
each time your split nature celebrates
you take care to line your secrets
with silk baseness.
All those microscopic venomous thoughts
that accumulate in your mind
like suspended particles
become suicidal scorpions
that sting their heads with their tails.
If you’re desperately trying to find
some button on me to press
so you can live a normal life with me
remember that my ignition point
Pending you have
that you had no time to mourn
and an abused relationship
Yet you’re still searching for bandages.
I don’t omit
all those gold wrappers you gave me.
But which were empty of candies.
You’ve got to understand
that you operate only as a receiver.
For years now the emitter
has been shouting to you
“Out of Order”.
Why must you torture yourself
in order to unload all that gravel
burdening your mind?
To sustain through artificial breathing
the corpse of the art you produce?
Do you know how it is to search
for someone like-minded to communicate?
And anyhow what do you have to share?
The fall of your disturbed thought?
Today you’ll become bolder.
Every morning you throw down
the gauntlet to fight a duel
with your own cowardice.
It never takes up the challenge
but remains ensconced
in the portrait of a well-planned deceit.
You are never content
with what you are
with what you have
with what you do.
Your soul’s loot continues
to pile up in your life’s chests.
And each evening you fit inside
the thimble’s cap.
I bow down low
before the emotional void
and the frowning inadequacy
that you gifted me.
At your magic touch
my pathological introversion
turned into writer’s incontinence.
As for you who every day inhales
the fumes of your chain neuroses,
be content with your personal confessions
to a male whore
and with your morality’s incoherence.
4. OEDIPUS & THE THEBAN CYCLE
Whoever has to solve the mystery
And to render the truth
The enigmatic smiles that blossom
With charms and shed leaves of falsehood
Is the one who will find the path
To have access to the sea
To her riddle he answers
With a suitable song
Whose music enchants her like glass
Its power a shroud of foam shatters
And enwraps her, its words
Break the spell and the gaze
At her feet, at her mysteries
And at her bowels that now blossom
With sea-anemones, that the shipwreck may sprout
Set sail as a fruit-bearing garden
The man bends his knee
For from there is born and falls silent
The work of his life and of his fate
The honeyed torment
HER LAST SWALLOWS
I dry in the roadsides’ fire
I study hermetic arithmetic
in the inner glow see I return
to the soul’s sleeping aspect.
I fell asleep. Melancholic and with a slight cold that rid him of the arrogance of youth, Chrysippus reached down to the dimmer. Playing with the light, he altered the brightness, concentrating on the profile of the innocent maiden, who in fear of her virginity wanted to transgress the law. He proceeded to her fingers as she covered the corpse with earth, and then suddenly lit the rocks, where they buried her alive. Smiling ironically, he increased the volume in the curses of the old man and at the same time pressed the other button and his own screams were heard, from the time when he refused to leave Pissa, and Laius lifted him forcefully into the chariot with his barbarian tenderness. The creaking of the chariot. Beneath the lemon trees reposed the body of the tender hanged man, and the tyrant in his darkness. The seer slumbering in the oleanders. Dimly lit, the old man proceeded into the distance with empty eyes. Then, with no sound, appeared the twin death, and farther still the earth, blossoming and tender, so that the two brothers in the ground seemed dear to one another.
He smiled at me tenderly, casting the light in my direction. I could see the blood on the vest of mother’s father, without her scream. As he put the tissue to his nose, the light deviated and fell on mother in the winepress, where enclosed for forty days, with the wonder of her virginity, she smelt the fustiness. The spotlight moved and fell upon the kerchief of her sister, who covered her face to avoid the paternal blood. Mother saw it first, before the Sunday service was over. Later they also heard about the gold coins that were missing from the house, and from that time her sister knew nothing other than how to weep and forgive.
And he who, though absent, guided the knife to her father’s throat was punished and became her husband. Who, ignorant as he was, grew sick of her from the very first night, and spent the gold coins on purchasing love. The mother’s marriage arranged, staged to look like an abduction, since her sister’s husband, after the despair of the first night, secretly chased after her, and his relatives, ever greedy for the murdered man’s wealth, wanted to marry her to one of their own. Both bride and groom left secretly, taking advantage of some other murder, following the murderer in the company of the squad so as to feel safe. She proved fertile for her supposed abductor, except that the birth pangs hardly had time to abate before the faucets of sorrow opened over children’s graves. She didn’t suckle any child of hers; when their mouths touched her nipple, she would hear her father’s death rattle. Chrysippus zoomed in on the dead infants.
Always, just before daybreak, it grows chillier. Chrysippus felt tired and his cold was getting worse. He pressed the buttons nervily and I only just managed to discern: that night in ’61 at the Evans Orphanage, the father’s sorrow as he left the director’s office the next day, the basement terror at Semele’s window, Methone’s closed mouth, mother lying on the cement in the yard and her cries arriving as whispers in my sleep. I asked him what Laius we were paying for and he stroked my hair.
STREET MUSICIAN AT COLONUS
‘Don’t delay,’ the voice said. ‘Time passes through You.’
Then the blind street musician stopped playing
after first compressing like a long protracted sigh his ageless accordion
which he himself had called ‘his musical lung’.
Next he got up on his aged legs and then
dumbfounded we all saw this Blind old man
leading us to an Exit, that previously
had not existed.
OEDIPUS AT LITTLE COLONUS
Much sought-after in psychoanalytical company
Well-known haunts that you discover blindly
He’s led by some little girls
His daughters, so he says
In the fame of a fall he maintains
In contrast with other celebrities
He was never heard to blaspheme
It remains uncorroborated if once
Evidently fuming within he murmured
I’m one mean mother-fucker
If not in the family
then where else
is the house of the dead?
If not without the state
then how otherwise
is the denial of authority?
If not in death
is the wedding gift of life?
EARTH ONCE AGAIN
Full moon amidst the thorns.
Everything was plain.
But the return nowhere Tiresias muttered turning his head and sensing the spores of his path disappearing.
At the level of his hair the snowy vineyards of Mount Taygetus, and between birds fluttered showing with their beaks pregnant tiger queens of azure fluids musing in the crimson of Ursa Major.
Everything slowly descended like water in the throat and steadily till the creatures of the air with their tails snipped all the bridges one by one.
And thus the covered precipice revealed a new law its height’s authority.
With slow movements Tiresias raised his hands sign of surrender, acceptance?
He sought to touch the winged messages or better to savor them since those two senses had remained.
But these rich landscapes in arrogance refused to become auguries and confined themselves to simply squawking
O E OE E OE O E O E
The old man who knew even from the shallow waters how to pare thought muttered to himself:
It’s the last month before the bugles
the red of three will prevail
Then he heard the creaking
The nape of the world he said and knelt.
Earth once again
And he set to walking in a haze of soil diving completely into his prayer.
Earth once again
The soil exceeded his height, humming as though thousands of sails were helping the wind to move from place to place by stepping on them.
The soil struck his robe, stabbed its seams, suckled the aged skin reaching into his lungs tender, compassionate leaning on his regal eyebrows.
Tiresias shrank in size only. Now he was under clay domes, walked opening the way with his chest that felt no burden from the huge waves of the lowland sea.
Darkness and only when he tasted a small brave clod the landscape was colored by a deep red that recalled in the old man’s memory his first prophecies.
Earth once again
It was now heard clearly from the female voice opposite that was uncontrollably emitting from her body this terrestrial storm.
Tiresias was unable to distinguish her face or even her shadow. All he sensed were two pomegranates hanging, signs of her breasts, northern refugees of the netherworld.
Earth once again
On this last occasion Tiresias bowed down smashing all the world’s crystals with his knees and anything else fragile withdrew into its lair to save itself.
All who courageously emerged to see in the seventh season returned with the amulet of the resolute.
Those who went up close say that the woman holding in her hand a thin white candle knelt on a sandy beach and extinguished his footsteps on the sea.
Shouting that the miracle is within us her hair immediately unwound into an endless expanse of emerald cloud that rose above the occupied territory of the body.
This is how the rain began and developed into such a deluge that the dolls in the shop windows put out the innards, old furniture in the sun.
That slow was rising.
5. HYMN TO DEMETER
Grief-stricken I’m talking to you from the besieged city. The young maiden buried her right foot in flowers and tears that moistened her dress. She is sleeping now and her black lover is holding her hand as a mark of unbridled submission. How you loved me how that swallow’s nest answering to the name of the aurora borealis loved me!
(I found her in the body now devoid of tears after I’d cursed the virtues and various skies).
LADY ALL GRIEF
Though of marble,
she tries to comprehend
the texture of green in cypresses,
her own far colder,
never touched by birds’ beaks
when they dive skin-close for crumbs
she is unmoving.
She gazes, infinity is all she has left.
Despite the poppies at her feet
blood love’s blood
she knows not.
For her destiny is lowered in constant shadow
like the eventide Attica where she’s buried.
Lady all grief.
From Hades one day bearing milk she’ll step into the light,
after moving the world’s sunset centuries before with her gaze.
From my husband’s shift I thicken in darkness.
As for then
with mother, I had, I can’t deny it,
a dowry of white, the only whiteness
I ever knew.
They’ve defiled spring with my name.
Throughout this endless spring
You’ll hear the hum of the grass,
That ever rolls on the slopes and unfolds
Heath, water, bleating.
Smooth and fresh it fits like a dress
On the body of a little girl,
At the moment the convict inflicts
The knife wound to her neck.
The blood flows till summer.
Its sulfur kills the weeds
And frayed ends from her garment are drawn
By an inconsolable sun.
But when the first rains
Start to sweep the leaves
When grapes and chestnuts set
And when, in shovelfuls, winter
Covers even the eagles’ nests,
Snuggled under the snow
The grass will again deeply sigh.
At passing with warm pain
Over her soft breasts,
At wrapping round her waist.
At luxury short-lived.
Would I might vanish
Just as all who gather flowers vanish
So he reflected as
He crossed at the lights in Omonia
So as to go down
Not to Hades (yet)
But Omonia’s unmoving staircase
Would I might become a grain of spring
Even Kerameikos’ dusty awnings
He said as from the young girl
He took a leaflet
Calling the textile workers
To yet another twenty-four-hour strike
Would I had twenty-four hours
Of absolute life
Caressing the firm breast
Of this day
That with heavenly force camped
In the eyes
He thought as stooping he passed
By the flute
That accompanied the cassette-player
Of a blind man decked with lottery tickets
If I had a little luck a light
Like the one that dwells in the other
Since now I’m taking the stairs
A virgin child again to vanish
As all those who gathered flowers vanished
And yet again to find myself
Upon the soil.
O Athena, let others chronicle your times.
The seas of Memnon
and rocks of Scythia
leave me cold.
Let Homer sing of Ilium
and of Ulysses’ epic feats.
The sigh of a dove
will always be superior
to the goose’s screeching.
I seek a crown to crush the body.
This is the glory I wish, no other.
My love is naked
and wants her beauty naked.
We arrive at midday and climb
toward the palaces of Agamemnon
the cistern and ancient enclosures. I pass
through the Lion Gate, always
for the last time.
Giant heroic stones. Though
their Eastern Gate shows that
the heroes were more or less my height. O Sun
my ancient gold mask, I take you out
and enter the enormous tomb here and proceed
and to the right discern a new even smaller gate and halt
and am mirrored
in the darkness: Darkness.
We seem like half-naked statues
Each devouring the other’s flesh
In the baked earth and fields
Without cry or horror
With primeval sorrow
We sometimes seem like kings
Despot rulers who barefoot emerge
From the palace in sacrificial
Procession and go to be slaughtered
And be given as food
To the hungry
We are winter poets
ever opening up caves
in our hunger for it to retreat.
An ascetic spring awaits us
and poems like locusts
in the bluegrass season.
As for summer don’t ask,
we will be thirst’s rayahs.
We’ve become rhapsodists of epic winters.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND BIBLIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
MARIGO ALEXOPOULOU (1976) was born in Athens. She studied Philosophy and Classics at the University of Athens and received her PhD from the University of Glasgow for a thesis on the Theme of Return in Ancient Greek Literature. She works in secondary and tertiary education and has published five books of poetry (2000-2012).
EXTRACT FROM A LETTER TO MENELAUS
PENELOPE’S “YES” OR “NO”
(From: Missing a Day, Athens: Kedros 2003).
YORGOS BLANAS (1959) was born in Athens. He trained as an electrician and librarian. He has translated, arranged and published anthologies of fairytales and is a prodigious translator from ancient Greek and from various European languages. He has published seven books of poetry (1987-2002).
WARRIOR (From: His Reply, Athens: Nefeli 2000).
KYRIAKOS CHARALAMBIDES (1940) was born in Achna, Cyprus and grew up in Famagusta. He studied History and Archaeology at the University of Athens and Broadcasting in Munich. He taught literature in secondary education and for thirty years worked for the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, acting for a time as director of Radio Programming. He has published eleven collections of poetry (1961-2012) for which he has received numerous awards, including the Cyprus State Prize for Poetry, the Athens Academy Prize, the Greek State Prize for Poetry, the International Cavafy Award and the Costas and Eleni Ouranis Prize for his entire poetic oeuvre.
ODYSSEY XI, 2
(From: Quince Apple, Athens: Agra 2006).
English translations originally published in Kyriakos Charalambides, Myths and History. Selected Poems. Translated by David Connolly, Minneapolis: Nostos Books 2010.
YIORGOS CHOULIARAS (1951) was born in Thessaloniki. He studied in Oregon and New York and lived for over thirty years in North America, working as a university lecturer, cultural consultant for various institutions and press attaché and counselor at Greek Embassies and Consulates in New York, Ottawa, Boston and Washington, DC. He has written numerous essays and articles on literature and has published six books of poetry (1972-2005).
OEDIPUS IN LITTLE COLONUS (From: Fast Food Classics, Athens: Ypsilon/Books 1992).
ODYSSEUS AT HOME (From: Fast Food Classics, Athens: Ypsilon/Books 1992).
ANTIGONE (From: Letter, Athens: Ypsilon/Books 1995).
THE SIRENS (From: Letter, Athens: Ypsilon/Books 1995).
DIMITRA H. CHRISTODOULOU (1953) was born in Athens. She studied Law and Literature and now works as a teacher in secondary education. She has published ten books of poetry (1974-2007).
PERSEPHONE (From: Cyprus Tree in the Workers’ District, Athens: Kastaniotis 1995).
DAVID CONNOLLY was born in Sheffield, England. A naturalized Greek, he has lived and worked in Greece since 1979 and is currently Professor of Translation Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has written extensively on the theory and practice of literary translation and on Greek Literature in general and has published over thirty books of translations featuring works by major Greek poets and novelists. His translations have received awards in Greece, the UK, and the USA.
VERONIKI DALAKOURA (1952) was born in Athens. She studied Law in Athens and Anthropology / Anthropogeography in Montpellier, France. She works as a teacher in secondary education. She has published six books of poetry (1972-2004), two books of short stories and numerous translations from French.
DEMETER (From: The Decline of Love, Athens: Diogenis 1976).
THANASSIS HATZOPOULOS (1961) was born in Athens. He studied Medicine at the University of Athens and works as a Child Psychiatrist-Psychoanalyst. He has published twelve books of poetry (1986-2004), Studies, Anthologies and numerous translations from French.
THE VERB ORESTES
(From: Under the Sun, Athens: Kastaniotis 1996).
English translation of SPHINX first published in Agenda 36 (3-4): 192-3.
DIMITRIS HOULIARAKIS (1957) was born in Athens. He studied Social Sciences, Journalism and Film Directing in Poland and has since worked as an editor for several newspapers in Athens. He has translated numerous literary works and has published five books of poetry (1983-2002). His collection Life Enclosed received the 2003 Diavazo Poetry Prize and the 2004 Athens Academy Prize.
ELPENORS (From: Superga Awaits, Athens: Kaveiros 1987).
DIONYSIS KARATZAS (1950) was born in Patras. He studied at the University of Athens and at Teacher Training College in Patras and works in secondary education. He has published fifteen books of poetry (1972-2002) and has written lyrics set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and other contemporary composers.
DO YOU HEAR?
(From: Poems (1972-1997), Athens: Diatton 1999).
YANNIS KONDOS (1943) was born in Egion in the Peloponnese. He settled in Athens at the age of seventeen and has worked for Athenian publishers for the last thirty years. He has published twelve books of poetry (1970-2006), three books of essays and a children’s book. He was awarded the 1998 Greek State Prize for Poetry.
BRONZE AGE (From: Absurd Athlete, Athens: Kedros 1997).
English translation first published in Yannis Kondos, Absurd Athlete, Translated by David Connolly, Todmorden: Arc Publications 2003, p.33.
ELSA KORNETI was born in Munich, Germany and was raised in Greece. She studied Economics at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki and Industrial and Organizational Psychology at the University of Trier in Germany and now lives and works as the Managing Director of a Firm in Thessaloniki. She has published four books of poetry (2007-2011).
FURIES VS EUMENIDES (From: Eternal Bird Droppings, Athens: Gavrielides 2007).
DIMITRIS KOSMOPOULOS (1964) was born in the village of Kontogoni in the Southern Peloponnese. He has published three books of poetry (2002-2005). SHELL (From: Quarry, Athens; Kedros 2002).
FORTUNES OF TELEMACHUS, SON OF ODYSSEUS (From: Of The Dead Brother, Athens: Kedros 2003).
MARIA LAINA (1947) was born in Patras. She studied Law at the University of Athens and has worked as a journalist, translator, editor, producer, script writer and Greek-language teacher. She has published eight books of poetry (1968-2005), several theatrical works and a novel. She was awarded the 1993 Greek State Prize for Poetry and the 1996 Cavafy Prize.
[NAFSIKA] (From: Rosy Fear, Athens: Stigmi 1992).
CHRISTOFOROS LIONTAKIS (1945) was born in Heraklion, Crete. He studied Law at the University of Athens and Philosophy of Law in Paris and worked in Athens as a lawyer. He has published seven books of poetry (1973-2010), a volume of essays and has edited anthologies of other writers’ work. He has also translated numerous works from French. His collection, With The Light, was awarded the 2000 Greek State Prize for Poetry and the 2000 Diavazo Prize for Poetry.
SMOKER’S ORIGINS (From: The Minotaur Moves HomeLight, Athens: Gnosi 1982).
HOMELESS WALL (From: With the LightLight, Athens: Kastaniotis 1999).
HER LAST SWALLOWS 10 (From: With the LightLight, Athens: Kastaniotis 1999).
CONCEALED IN THE GLEAM (From: With the LightLight, Athens: Kastaniotis 1999).
English translation of HOMELESS WALL first published in Peter Bien, Peter Constantine, Edmund Keeley, Karen Van Dyck (eds), A Century of Greek Poetry 1900-2000Light, New Jersey: Cosmos Publishing 2004, pp. 749-750.
ATHINA PAPADAKI (1945) was born in Athens. She studied at the Panteion University and at the University of Athens and worked as a journalist in the public sector. She has published nine books of poetry (1974 – 2010) and several children’s books. She received the 2011 Athens Academy Award for her collection With Lamp and Wolves.
PERSEPHONE (From: The Steam’s Ewe-Lamb, Athens: Kastaniotis 1983).
MAIDEN ALL GRIEF (From: Wakeful Woman of the Skies, Athens: Kastaniotis 1995).
EARTH ONCE AGAIN (From: Earth Once Again, Athens: Kastaniotis 1995).
STRATIS PASCALIS (1958) was born in Athens. He studied Political Science at the University of Athens. He has published eight books of poetry (1977-2002), numerous translations and has edited several anthologies. His work has received the Academy of Athens Ouranis Prize for Poetry (1994), the Diavazo Prize for Poetry (1999) and the Greek State Translation Prize (1998).
EPIGRAM (From: Verses of An Other. (Poems 1977-2002), Athens: Metaichmio 2003).
YANNIS PATILIS (1947) was born in Athens. He studied Law and Greek Literature at the University of Athens. He has worked as a lawyer and secondary-school teacher and is the publisher and editor of the literary magazine Planodion. He has published six books of poetry (1970-1990).
(From: Travels in the Same City, Poems 1970-1990, Athens: Ypsilon 1993).
LEFTERIS POULIOS (1944) was born in Athens. He has published twelve books of poetry (1969-2008). His Secret Collection was awarded the 2009 Greek State Prize for Poetry.
MYTHOLOGY (From: Poems. Selection 1969-1978, Athens: Kedros 1988).
MANOLIS PRATIKAKIS (1943) was born in the village of Myrtos in Crete. He studied Medicine at the University of Athens and practices as a psychiatrist. He is the author of sixteen books of poetry (1974-2007). He was awarded the 2003 Greek State Prize for Poetry for his collection The Water.
OF POSEIDON AND PROTEUS (From: The Water, Athens: Metaichmio, 2002).
STREET MUSICIAN IN COLONUS (From: Poems 1970-1984, Athens: Metaichmio 2004.)
DINOS SIOTIS (1944) was born on the Cycladic island of Tinos. He studied Law at the University of Athens and Comparative Literature at San Francisco State University. He lived for a total of twenty-five years in the United States and Canada, where he worked as a journalist in newspapers, journals and radio and as press attaché for the Greek Consulate in numerous American cities. He has published three prose works and eighteen books of poetry (1969-2010). His collection Autobiography of an Objective was awarded the 2007 Greek State Prize for Poetry.
PENELOPE’S SUITORS (From: Museum of Air, Athens: Kastaniotis 1999).
ODYSSEUS’ COMPANIONS (From: Don’t Know, Don’t Answer, Athens: Kedros 2004).
HARIS VLAVIANOS (1957) was born in Rome. He studied Economics and Philosophy at the University of Bristol and Political Theory and History at the University of Oxford. He teaches Political Theory and History at the American College of Greece and is editor of the journal Poiitiki (Poetics). He has published ten books of poetry (1983-2011), two books of essays and has translated numerous works by major American and European poets.
(From: Adieu, Athens: Nefeli 1996).
English translation of AMORES XI first published in Haris Vlavianos, Adieu, Translated by David Connolly, Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, The University of Birmingham 1998.
SPYROS VRETTOS (1960) was born on the island of Lefkada. He studied Law at the University of Athens and practices as a lawyer in Patras. He has published eight books of poetry (1985-2009).
THE RHAPSODISTS (From: Unmoving Eyes, Athens: Diatton 1992).
A KIND OF DESCENT OR THE LABORS IN THE NETHERWORLD (From: Simple Act, Athens: Gavrielides 2003).
YANNIS YFANTIS (1949) was born in Raina, Agrinio. He studied Law at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He has published fourteen books of poetry (1977-2009). In 1995 he was awarded the International Cavafy Prize.
THE CAUSES OF THE TROJAN WAR
From: Zero’s Metamorphoses, AX Publications 2009.