Alan Morrison on
Two Greece-related Smokestacks
by Yiannis Ritsos
Translated by Bill Berg
First published by Pyxida, Athens 1954
(Smokestack, 61 pp)
30 Greek Poets on the Crisis
Edited by Dinos Siotis
(Smokestack, 2014, 99pp)
Greeks Bearing Rifts
Neither the twentieth nor twenty-first centuries have been at all kind to Greece, the world’s most ancient democracy, which is today the first de-democratised debt-yoked bondage state of the Troika post-global economic crisis (the vexed subject of the second book under review here). Greece had been under the imperialist control of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) on and off for centuries up until the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 (The Thirty Days’ War or the Black ’97), rupturing again during the First World War when Greece sided with the Allies against the Turks and Germans.
There were two periods of relative political and democratic stability under Eleftherios Venizelos (whose pro-democratic adherents, the Venizelists, would continue to jostle for power against the right-wing monarchists –equivalent to the Spanish Carlists–for decades to come), 1910-20 and 1928-32; later titled as “Ethnarch” and “the maker of modern Greece”, Venizelos was very much the modern day equivalent to the ancient founding fathers of Greek democracy, Solon, Athens first Lawgiver, and Kleisthenes, its first democratic reformer (“the father of Athenian democracy”).
Not as well known historically is that almost simultaneous to the vicissitude of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Greece was rocked by its own internecine upheavals, with a Far Right political coup led by War Minister Ioannis Metaxas, who announced a ‘state of emergency’ on 4 August 1936 (less than a month after Franco and the generals revolted against the democratic Republic in Spain, 17th and 18th July), assumed the title Arkhigos (leader), and installed himself as new autocratic ruler of Spain, basing his dictatorship on Mussolini’s in Fascist Italy, banning all parties bar his own, which was rooted in the Greek National Youth Organisation (whose symbol/banner, like that of the Spanish Falangists, depicted a form of the Roman fasces, a clump of sticks held together with axes, which were transported by the Roman lictors –a type of mobile retributive judicial rank who meted out ‘justice’ by carrying out sentences against alleged felons).
Mextaxas’ ‘4th August Regime’ lasted until his death in 1941, by which time Greece was under German-Italian occupation. Subsequent to the Second World War and Greece’s liberation from the Nazi yoke (Greek resistance being largely Communist-facilitated), the nation was then plunged into a bitter civil war (1945-47) between the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), the military branch of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) (backed by Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) and the ultimately victorious rightist forces (backed by Britain and America).
Over the following three decades Greece would hurtle from crisis to crisis, and before it returned to anything resembling a democratic Republic again, had to endure another seven years of right-wing dictatorship under another victor of a Franco-like coup, George Papadopoulos of the Sacred Bond of Greek Officers (1967-74). It is fortunate that, for now at least, the recently ascendant Greek fascist front Golden Dawn is in decline following latter successes in the European elections for the Greek socialist party Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left –very much a modern day DSE/KKE equivalent).
We now thrust into these political contexts the figure of Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990), the late Greek poet and nine times Nobel Prize for Literature nominee, whose prolific literary output very much serves as a socio-poetic chronicling of politically turbulent twentieth-century Greece. Ritsos was no mere witness of events, but was very much instrumental to many of them during his adulthood: a fugitive figure of the Metaxas regime (during which copies of his epic poem Epitaphios -soon to be released by Smokestack too- were burnt at the Acropolis in Athens); a member of the Greek resistance, the National Liberation Front, during the Axis-occupation of Greece (1941-45); a prisoner in the post-War Greece concentration camps; literarily verboten in Greece until 1954; and imprisoned again for three years under Papadopoulos’ dictatorship.
It was in 1954 that his epic poem –published in English for the first time in this Smokestack edition– Romiosini finally appeared in a collection of his work entitled Agrypnia (Vigilance). As the back cover blurb to this finely produced slim volume furnishes:
The word romiosini (ρομίωσίνί) or ‘Greekness’ derives from the Byzantine idea that the Greeks are the true Romioi, the heirs of the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years under the Turkish occupation the flame of romiosini was kept alive in codes of honour, loyalty, bravery, love of the land, religious devotion and patriotism. For Yiannis Ritsos, the Greek Partisans of EAM/ELAS in the Second World War were the heroic heirs to the romiosini of the mountain klephtes*, the medieval epic hero Digenis Akritas, and the revolutionaries who fought against the Turks in the 1820s. First published in 1954, Romiosini was later set to music by Mikis Theodorakis….
The prestigious pairing of Ritsos with Greece’s most acclaimed living classical composer emphasizes the cultural status of this poet as having been effectively Greece’s national poet, and certainly its poetic folkloric figurehead, equivalent to Garcia Lorca in Spain. It is interesting to note with regards to the Greek cultural meme of romiosini its historical circularity, since, according to Virgil’s Æneid, Aeneas, a survivor of the fall of Troy (the ancient city in Anatolia on the frontier between Greece (then Hellas) and Turkey (then Persia)), voyaged to Italy where he settled, and was ancestor to Romulus and Remus, who legend has it founded Rome.
Ritsos’ epic poem places itself almost effortlessly –by dint of both historical and cultural context and epic themes– in the ancient tradition of Homer’s Iliad, being a definitive mythopoeic epic of its period, ingeniously intermingling Greek mythology –his literary birthright– with the turbulent political history of nineteenth and twentieth century Greece, thus teleologically segueing both periods of the nation’s history together and emplacing modern day events in the mythological fabric. In essence then, this is a work which almost feels as if it was meant to be written, was waiting for the appropriate time and the appropriate poet to compose it.
[*The klephtes, or klephts, mentioned above, were a tribe of self-appointed militia who lived in the Greek mountains at the time of Ottoman rule, and are today represented by the strangely balletic-looking guards who slow-motion march outside the Greek Parliament. Interestingly, klepht is the Greek for ‘thief’, since the klephts were perceived as brigands; the terms kleptomania and kleptocracy derive from the Greek root, κλέπτειν (kleptein), “to steal”. It is ironic than today, at a time when Greece is in the grip of the Troika, which, in terms of its draconian fiscal impositions and evisceration of Greek democratic sovereignty, operates arguably as a form of kleptocracy, the Evzones or Tsoliades, derived from the klephts, should be the all-too-symbolic guards of the Greek Parliament, itself simply a puppet-administration of the Troika].
Romiosini’s American-based translator Bill Berg’s compendious Introduction furnishes much of the historical and cultural context surrounding this work, the most salient parts of which I will reproduce throughout this review by way of interpolative exposition in order to contextualise each Canto. The following excerpt from Berg is instructive before starting to review the poetry itself:
Romiosini is a poem of war, like the Iliad, and like Homer’s epic, it serves as a theater for the display of extraordinary virtues under extraordinary circumstances. Fresh in Ritsos’ mind… is his recent experience in the resistance movement against Nazism and, after the war, against all anti-democratic authority. …his stage is populated by the defenders of an anonymous besieged and burnt-out coastal village that could have been any of those destroyed in German reprisals, or in
paramilitary attacks on ELAS partisans after the war.
Ritsos, however, insists that we see this village in an historical context harking back to the Revolution par excellence that had cast off the Ottoman yoke.
Romiosini is a wonderfully figurative, lyrical and cadent long poem, composed in fairly short aphorismic sentences throughout, punctuated with frequent full stops, as opposed to being stitched with semi-colons. The first verse to catch my eye is the third, on page 1 of Canto I:
Trees, rivers, voices have turned to marble in the whitewash of
The root stumbles against marble. The dust-covered mastic
The mule, the crag. Gasping for breath. There’s no water.
Everyone thirsty. Years now. Everyone chewing a mouthful of
sky on top of their bitterness.
By way of cross-reference to other poetics, I was struck by an image in the fifth stanza:
The hand is glued to the rifle.
The rifle is the extension of the hand.
Their hand is the extension of their soul –
They have rage hovering high on their lips
This reminds me of Second World War Anglo-Welsh poet Alun Lewis’s similar imagery in his poem ‘odi et amo’ from Raiders’ Dawn (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1942):
My body does not seem my own
Now. These hands are not my own
That touch the hair-spring trigger, nor my eyes
Fixed on a human target, nor my cheek
Stroking the rifle butt; my loins
Are flat and closed like a child’s.
Both poets here seem to play on the necessary depersonalisation and dehumanisation of the soldier in order for him to fulfil his military function, which goes against inbuilt religious/‘Christian’ morals; in both imageries the humans are depicted, almost Vorticist-like, as symbiotically melded to their weapons. This also reminds us that the most effective way to fire a gun is to apparently shoot it as if pointing one’s own finger or arm; though the symbiosis is more marked in Ritsos’ poem, while Lewis’s seems more emphatically depersonalised, as if the marksmen is operating on autopilot, alienated from his own weapon and purpose, as if to somehow cushion his conscience by distancing himself from his actions.
In his Introduction, Berg deconstructs these passages of Ritsos’ thus:
The first and second Cantos prepare us for this insight, presenting first of all the barren, sun-bleached landscape of desperation that surrounds the nameless village: their fields consumed by heat, their houses soaked with brine… All those years besieged from land and sea, the villagers somehow find the energy and determination to fight back, to make their rifles the natural extensions of their wasted limbs – romiosini, already, in full force.
In Canto II, the ‘lip’ resurfaces again as an image –almost a leitmotif– in the following imagistic lines:
and the roofs ponder the golden fuzz on the upper lip of July
– yellow fuzz like the hair of the maize that’s smoked in the
sorrow of sundown.
Whether the rather staccato composition of much of this long poem (i.e. the short full-stopped sentences) is the authentic Ritsos or some elements of contemporary American-English poetics slipping in through Berg’s translation is open to conjecture:
Shade at the spigot: the barrel ice-cold.
The farrier’s daughter: her feet are soaked.
On the table: the bread, the oil.
But either way it matters little since the metaphors and language are so well-honed and the importance of the subject and purpose of the narrative so compelling that considerations of style seem almost disrespectful. But the sentences do occasionally vary in length –as with the following one, allowing its lyricism more space to spread its wings:
Ah, what stars of silk thread will still be needed
for the pine-needles to embroider This too shall pass on
summer’s charred corral?
If a poet is to be judged by aphorisms and striking images then Ritsos certainly acquits himself impressively: ‘A great night like the cake-pan at the tinsmith’s wall’, ‘to have the sun smash a pomegranate against your denim apron’ –and:
Look at them scrambling up and down the heights of Nauplia
filling their pipes with thick-cut leaves of darkness
sporting a mustache of Rumeliot thyme and stardust
Come, lady of the salty lashes and gilded bracelets,
come away from the worries of the poor and from all the years –
love awaits you amid the mastic shrubs!
Rumeliot refers to the inhabitants of the Rumeli region of Greece who resisted the Ottoman Turks during the Rumeliot Campaign of 1826-27. But Ritsos’ points of reference are by no means solely historical, they also take in Greek mythology, and folklore, as with the following verse which draws on Digenis Akritas, hero of the Aritic folksongs which celebrated frontier guards who defended the eastern borders of the Byzantine empire between the 7th to 12th centuries:
with raki in their granddad’s skull they toasted death,
met the hero Digenis on his old Threshing Floor, and settled
down to dine,
breaking their sadness in two as they broke their barley loaf on
We also get the striking image: ‘Come, lady, you who sit on the golden eggs of the thunderbolt!’ This image –as with many throughout the poem– is rooted in Greek mythology, as Berg elucidates in some detail in the Introduction:
Canto II introduces us to the venerable mystery of the revolutionary woman, of female romiosini, and does so through a series of allegorical images that Ritsos pulls up mostly from the classical past. All the women of Canto II, however, are reflections of the Greek Mother – or better, of Mother Greece – so the first image is that of the Panagia, the all-holy virgin mother of God, the primary object of worship throughout modern Greece.
Just as Theophilos, the greatest Greek painter of the twentieth century, had portrayed the earth-goddess Demeter as a simple peasant girl carrying her scythe and a sheaf of grain, so Ritsos brings us the Panagia lying in a field of myrtle, her worker’s skirt stained with the grape-harvest.
Later, from more ancient times, we have a flash of Leda (Come, lady, you who sit on the golden eggs of the thunderbolt!), impregnated by a swan (Zeus) with the egg of destiny, and of Niobe, bereft of her seven sons by the arrows of Apollo (How long yet will the mother torment her heart over her seven slaughtered heroes?).
And there’s Persephone as well, daughter of the earth-goddess, distributing her pomegranate seeds for you alone to share, seed by seed, with your twelve orphans. Canto II offers other archetypes indispensable to the meaning of the entire poem. In the first place, the landscape is firmly identified as Greek with the mention of Nauplia (captured from the Turks in 1822), the first capital of free Greece. Just as important is the mention, a few lines later, of Digenis Akritas, the medieval embodiment of romiosini, who, like the partisans of the poem, had his own duel with Death.
Canto III continues in high mythopoeia:
The people go forward ahead of their shadow, like dolphins
ahead of the skiffs of Skiathos.
Later, their shadow turns into an eagle that dips its wings in the
Later still, it perches on their heads and ponders the stars while
the people lie down on a terrace of blackcurrants.
Here I’m reminded of the faintly surreal, mythopoeic long poems of Joseph MacLeod (particularly Foray of Centaurs (1932) and The Men of the Rocks (1942)), as well as of Swedish poet and Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson’s epic space odyssey poem Aniara (1954). Frequently, Ritsos’ imageries verge on the sublime:
They sit and count the stars as if counting their ancestral silverware.
They make a late descent to nourish their grandchildren with
This is true too of Ritsos’ aphorisms:
He holds his Greekness tightly under his arm
the way the worker holds his cap in church.
There is also occasionally a Whitmanesque quality to Ritsos’ style, even with a hint of the Rimbaudian in its combinations of proclamation and intense imagism:
Ah! It will blow once to harrow away the orange trees of
Ah! It will blow twice to make the flint spark like a fuse.
Ah! It will blow thrice to derange the fir forests of Liakoura.
Everywhere mythological and historical images and allusions abound, as in the following lines:
…dance for us, amid the ramparts, the tsamikos,
and the moon will beat a tambourine to fill island balconies
with crowds of children half asleep, and the mothers of Souli.
These and the others of the third Canto are elucidated by Berg thus:
Canto III is full of allusions to the Greek places that had once kindled revolutionary fervor, either through acts of courage or through heroic sacrifices that became shining examples of romiosini during the early years of the nineteenth century. Skiathos, where the first revolutionaries met and devised the flag of Greek independence in 1807; Patras, ‘the High Threshing Floor’ where war was first declared on the Turks in 1821; Missolonghi, twice besieged by the Turks and finally evacuated under extreme duress; Souli, where the women threw themselves, singing and dancing, off a cliff rather than yield their freedom to the Turkish pasha; Lagkadia, a town that had produced whole families of heroes and martyrs for the Revolution – Ritsos alludes to all of these in Canto III, insisting that the partisan struggles of his modern epic are inspired and inflamed by the very same romiosini.
The story of the Souli women is particularly haunting, even if it is actually based in some sort of historical fact or record –though possibly embellished for resonance– it is in itself almost indistinguishable from a fairly typical symbolic mythological trope.
In the first verse of Canto IV, it is unclear whether the mix between singular and plural in the lines is deliberate or a mistake of translation:
They pushed on, all together, toward the dawn, with the disdain
of a hungry person.
In their unflinching eyes a star had formed.
They were bearing the wounded summer on their shoulders.
Whichever the case, we get an almost Cyclopic image, perhaps symbolic of how a group of people, or an army, form themselves into an unconscious gestalt or corporate entity –and one suspects this may have been Ritsos’ intention here, and thus not a mistake on Berg’s part. This mixing of singular with plural appears again in the following equally striking stanza:
The troop passed by here with the flags stuck to their bodies,
with hard-bitten obstinacy between their teeth like an unripe
An image similar to the earlier one of silverware appears in ‘ceilings trembled inside the houses and glassware tinkled on the/ shelves’; and another Whitmanesque/Rimbaudian proclamation: ‘Ah, what song shook the summits!’. Gustatory and visual images combine resonantly in the following questioning lines, presumably denoting some significant folkloric or mythological Greek symbolism:
Who now will bring you at night that warm loaf of bread to feed
Who will keep company with the cicada in the olive’s shade, and
not let the cicada be silent –
While olfactory sense-impressions accost us in these lines:
That ground with its sweet dawn fragrance,
the ground that was theirs and ours – their blood – ah, the scent
of that ground!
Canto IV draws to a close with plangent symbolism and what might be references to both Woodie Guthrie’s folksong anthem ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and also Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel For Whom The Bell Tolls (both 1940):
Never mind. The bells will sound their names.
This land is theirs, this land is ours.
Under the earth, between their crossed hands,
they hold the bell-rope.
Canto V starts off with a beautifully composed stanza setting the scene slightly ominously:
They sat under the olives in the afternoon
sifting the grey light with their thick fingers.
They took out their cartridge-belts and began to calculate how
much trouble the night path was worth,
how much bitterness in the knot of the wild mallow
There follows a little further down the page a striking if rather strange, macabre aphorism: ‘The light down on the beach was clear and clean, like the good housekeeping of a murdered woman’. One suspects at times Greek idioms weave their way in and out of the poem; either that or the images are entirely Ristos’s. One also senses this is the images and illusions of the arresting fifth stanza –either cultural or mythological idioms:
The old mothers throw salt on the fire, throw dirt on their hair.
They uprooted the Monemvasian grapevines lest the black grape
sweeten the enemy’s mouth.
They put their grandfathers’ bones in a sack together with the
and begin to wander out from their ancestral walls, seeking a
place to take root in the night.
This figurative mythological Greek stylistic reminds one, for example, of the poetry of Judith Kazantzis (whose latest volume, Sister Invention, was also recently published by Smokestack), particularly her Odysseus Poems (Waterloo); and one suspects that Kazantzis has drawn some influence from Ritsos.
Ritsos is indeed a master of aphorism, though the presentation of these in English clearly owes much also to Berg’s sensitive translations. I am again reminded of Alun Lewis with the trope: ‘it will be hard to ask those trigger-calloused hands for a daisy’, as well as the more abstracted Keith Douglas; both Douglas and Lewis were exceptionally well-honed poets when it came to contrasting images of natural beauty with those of the destructively artificial –one is reminded, for instance, of Douglas’s striking image of ‘gun barrels split like celery’ from his ‘Cairo Jag’. There’s certainly echoes of both British WWII poets, as well as the brilliantly figurative WWI poets Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg, with the following lines by Ritsos: ‘It will need time. And we will need to speak. Until they find bread and justice’. And especially Gurney with the almost slightly naïf sing-song rhythm of the lines ‘Ashes the olive, the grapevine, the house./ A miserly evening with its stars in a sock’.
Otherwise, at times, there is the definite rumble of contemporary British mainstream staccato phrasing, as with: ‘Dried bay leaf and oregano in the wall cupboard. The fire didn’t touch them’ and ‘The familiar footstep, the click of nails on the uphill stride’. The ghost of Gurney, again, in the following lyrical aphorisms:
So the light will find its trees; the tree, too, will someday find its
In the fallen comrade’s canteen there’s still water, and light.
Kalispera, my brother. Kalispera.
In her wooden hut old lady Sundown is selling spices and
Ritsos’s aphorisms spill out onto the page seemingly effortlessly, sometimes reminiscent of García Lorca, the folkloric Spanish poet whom the folkloric Greek poet Ritsos in many ways parallels. These three aphorisms in three successive verses, the latter one closing Canto IV:
The children made toys out of their matches that had lit their
cigarettes and the spines of the stars.
and a pomegranate sprout will break through, like an infant’s
on the sunbeam’s bosom.
Later still, we’ll sit on the rock and read their heart
as if reading, from the beginning, the history of the world.
Canto VI begins in customary figurative tone –another bravura scene-setting:
So with the sun on the breast of the sea that whitewashes the
opposite side of the day,
confinement and the torture of thirst are two times, three times
From the first, the old wound is considered,
and the heart is broiled in that heat like the onions of Vatika
outside the door.
Almost breathlessly Ritsos’s poetry rolls from one aphorism to another, the first excerpted below being to my mind the most arresting:
Empty is the mother’s courage, together with the clay pitcher
and the cistern.
The gums of solitude have the bitter taste of gunpowder.
Where now can we find more oil for Saint Barbara’s lamp?
Where can we find mint incense for the gilded icon of the afternoon?
Saint Barbara was a Christian martyr of 3rd century Nicomedia particularly venerated in the East Orthodox Church; she is the patron saint of artillerymen and all those who work with explosives, so presumably her ‘lamp’ alludes to bombs or explosive devices. Excerpted below is what for me is a particularly striking piece of poetic description:
Atop the island’s hill fort the prickly pears and daffodils are
on ground pitted with cannon rounds and graves.
The demolished army command post: patched with sky. There’s
no more place at all
for other dead. No place for grief to stand and braid her hair.
Burnt houses that survey with dug-out eyes the marble sea
and the bullets stuck in their walls
like knives in the ribs of the saint they tied to the cypress.
To my mind Canto VI contains some of the most luminous poetry in this work; Ritsos seems to be in an almost phantasmagorical flow of image and description, even if reined in somewhat by the staccato full stops:
You clasp the hand. It’s your own, damp with brine.
The sea is yours. As you tear hair from the head of silence
the fig tree’s milk drips bitter. The heavens see you, wherever
you may be.
The evening star rolls your soul in its fingers like a cigarette
so that, on your back, you may smoke your soul
dipping your left hand into the starry night
while, with your rifle – your betrothed – glued to your right
you remember that heaven never forgot you,
whenever you’ll take from that inside pocket its old letter
and, unfolding the moonbeam with burnt fingers, read of
heroism, and glory.
‘The evening star rolls your soul in its fingers like a cigarette’ is a wonderful image; while ‘with your rifle – your betrothed – glued to your right hand’ takes us back again to the Lewisian gun-symbiosis imagery of the ‘hand glued to the rifle’ in Canto I, wherefrom as well the line ‘Their hand is the extension of their soul’ is recapitulated nicely with the image of the ‘cigarette’ ‘soul’ here. But this time the rifle is depicted in a nuptial metaphor as a ‘betrothed’.
The line ‘The heavens see you, wherever/ you may be’ calls to mind imageries of the Olympus gods stirring their fingers in omniscient pool of human endeavours with celestial detachment.
Even in what with many poets would be more run-of-the-mill narrative or description, Ritsos manages to make what could have been a fairly nondescript detail somehow figuratively suggestive: ‘as if you were to find, years later, the doorlatch of your ancestral home’ –to my mind, the mark of a true poetic imagination.
The first stanza of the final Canto VII is an eruption of aphoristic lyricism, a kind of heaping recapitulation of the poetic leitmotifs and descriptions used previously:
The house, the road, the prickly pear cactus, peelings of the sun
in the courtyard for the hens to peck.
Those things we know, and they know us. Down here in the
the adder has left her pale mantle.
Down here is the ant’s hut and the wasp’s tower with its many
the shell of last year’s cicada and the voice of this year’s cicada on
the same olive tree.
Amid the rushes, your shadow that takes after you like a silent,
a faithful dog – afternoons it sits beside your earthen sleep and
sniffs the oleanders;
evenings it snuggles up to your feet and gazes at a star.
There then follows a little further on a wonderful description: ‘the country chapel of Saint John the Abstainer is drying up/ like white sparrow-droppings on a flat, parched mulberry leaf’. The imageries then grow evermore vivid, phantasmagorical, primal, surreal even:
The shepherd you see wrapped in his sheepskin
has in each hair on his body a dry river,
has an oak forest in each hole on his flute,
and his staff has the same knots as the oar that first struck
the Hellespont’s azure swell.
You don’t have to remember. The plane tree’s vein
has your blood. So does the island’s daffodil, so does the caper.
The full round voice of black glass and white wind,
full and round like the ancient jars – that same primeval voice.
And the sky washes the stones and our eyes with indigo.
The poem then appears to meditate much on the gulf between individual and collective consciousness, isolation and togetherness, travel and roots, the self and others:
But again, for now, those things are a bit too far off
– or a bit too close, as when you clasp a hand in the dark and say
good evening, kalispera,
with the bitter politeness of the expatriate when he returns to his
While ‘And he’s certain/ that the farthest path is the nearest to the heart of God’ resonantly symbolises the sense of distance between the human soul and its ultimate source and the salmonic tendency in us to forever move forward while simultaneously trying to get back to our origins. In these final verses there’s an almost primal feel of bicameral (two-chambered) human consciousness reconnecting to its purportedly unicameral authenticity (anthropology has it that the human mind might once have originally been more whole and integrated –rather than binary in the consciousness/ sub-consciousness sense– and that our senses were also more in-tune with the natural environment, our minds more integrated with one another –possibly to an almost telepathic degree, something possibly truncated through the development of language– and our psychical sense of otherness/the supernatural, more intuitively felt and accepted as near-tangible fact; William Golding explores some of these anthropological notions in his 1955 novel The Inheritors). But the more surface-emphasis is on a reconvening of Greek homology and identity –the ‘Greekness’ of the title; and we might broadly depict this ‘Greekness’ in one simple word: endurance.
All this near-hallucinogenic sense of universal inter-connectedness –a metaphor perhaps for tribal solidarity against a common enemy, or communism even– reaches a wonderful crescendo of breathless ekphrastic rapture in the final verse:
And there’s that moment when the moon, in a sort of anguish,
throws itself on his neck in a kiss,
and the dried seaweed, the flower-pot, the stool, the stone steps
tell him kalispera,
and the mountains and seas and countries and sky tell him
– that’s when, shaking the ash of his cigarette from the balcony
rail, he can weep from his certainty,
he can weep from certainty of the trees, and the stars, and his
[The Greek word kalispera, incidentally, is a common afternoon and evening greeting]. Hermeneutics are of course ultimately quite objective, apart from some commonly identifiable and objectifiable patterns, idioms and allusions. But obviously Bill Berg’s interpretations are the most closely informed:
Having prepared us in Cantos I-III for the scenes of struggle and joy, of carnage and desperation that follow in Cantos IV-VI, with the dream of triumphal homecoming confronting the grim reality late in Canto VII, the poet is finally left to his own resources, left alone on his balcony to take tearful courage from the elements themselves, inanimate beings whose permanence seems to hold a reliable promise, and to remind him of the unswerving devotion of comrades. That faith, too, is romiosini. Ritsos won’t let us overlook the fruits of romiosini – the joy taken, for example, in the meagre produce of the land in Canto VII, the joy shared by brothers-in-arms as they eat, dance, and carouse together in Canto IV, the joy of communal festivity and the taverna in Canto II. Those joys, along with sorrows, struggles, and devotion, are all facets of romiosini – the burdens and the rewards of being a true Greek.
Gearhart, Oregon, 2014
Yiannis Ritsos’s Romniosini is certainly an epic, not so much in the sense of length, but in terms of the scale and scope of its mythological, historical, cultural and socio-political mythopeia of the Greek race, through all its legion trials and tribulations of foreign Occupation, from the Byzantine through the Ottoman Empire to the Axis powers of the time at which it was written. Ritsos’s poetic vision shines a torchlight of collective strength and unity, the homologous glue of ‘Greekness’ which binds the historically invaded and occupied inhabitants of the world’s most ancient seat of democracy together throughout centuries of interpolation and oppression. One which it must be hoped will continue to keep the nation together in the face of the punishing fiscal vicissitudes inflicted on it today by the Troika.
Given such ambitious narrative scope (albeit brilliantly compacted), and such luscious prosody, it is no difficult nor hyperbolic thing to place Romniosini within the Greek epic poetry tradition –in so many ways Ristsos was something approaching a modern Homer, but with as much in common with Hesiod, particularly his didactic masterpiece Works and Days. For this is precisely what Ritsos puts across in Romniosini: the works and days of centuries of Greek people, specifically its agrarian proletariat, against the mightiest of odds. This long poem is one to procure and treasure, as is the book itself, adorned with a particularly resonant cover photo of Greek partisans, the one nearest to us gripping a cigarette between his lips, his eyes smiling with a sunny recalcitrance. Highly recommended.
From historical Greece and its Fascist Occupation of the Forties to the nation’s latest crisis of the modern day, with an anthology of anti-austerity protest verse from numerous contemporary Greek poets, Crisis – 30 Greek Poets on the Crisis, edited by Dinos Siotis. Having edited and selected the first British anti-austerity cuts anthology, Emergency Verse – Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State (2010; 2011) and The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity (2012; 2013), it is with both a sense of solidarity but also humbleness that I read this similarly polemical anthology from the Greek poets of protest, since of course Greece has been the most brutally hit of all European nations by the swingeing fiscal guillotine, to the point of now effectively being little more than a debt-bonded vassal-state of the Troika to which its very democratic sovereignty –the most ancient in the world– has been effectively mortgaged.
More than ever before Greece needs a new seisaktheia (σιεσάκθηα), a ‘shaking off of burdens’, or debt-wipe, as instigated by the ancient lawgiver Solon in order to free those communities of Greeks whose hardships and impecuniousness reduced them to debt-slaves (doule; δουλέ) under the definitively draconian era of Draco (from whom the word draconian derives). The ancient parallels to today’s era of draconian austerity are nothing if not uncanny.
The word crisis is of Greek derivation, from the root krisis (κρίσις) meaning, originally, a critical turning point. Dinos Siotis’ brief but insightful Introduction furnishes some fascinating context to the Greek poetic tradition and spirit, and is worth excerpting from:
The roots of poetry in Greece reach deep into Homeric times,
from the battles of the Iliad to the seashores of the Odyssey; from
C.P. Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ and George Seferis to Yiannis Ritsos and
Odysseus Elytis. Thousands of Greek poets have kept the Greek
language alive throughout the centuries. Geographically small
but occupying a vast plateau in history and culture, Greece has
been and stubbornly remains a land of poets. Today, of the hundreds
of Greek poets who are writing about the crisis – the current,
the personal, the social, the economic, the ecological, the
existential – thirty-three have been selected and are presented
Because planet Earth is not the best of all possible worlds,
every poet worth his or her title has to be in contradiction with
the universe. Therefore every poet lives their whole life in a kind
of crisis – real or imagined – and in dispute with the cosmos.
In this anthology, we find poets who are not trying to be ‘smart’
or ‘funny’ about the crisis. Bearing the light of Greece, where
poetry has thrived for three millennia, the poets in this book
discuss the current reality and what it truly means to be anthropos.
It is a light seen through a convex mirror, reflecting the
many faces of the crises which modern Greece has experienced
since its formation in 1823.
The Iliad would not have been written if there hadn’t been a
crisis – a crisis caused by the capture of Helen by Paris. The
same goes for the Odyssey – Odysseus was under the heavy spell
of a ten-year crisis trying to return to Ithaca. Poets thrive
through crises. In this context, the poetry in this volume is full
of social, political and ecological explosions. Like all good poets,
the poets here do not follow the news in despair; instead their
antennae catch everything that surrounds them and transforms
it into a mixture of volatile dimensions. The poets presented
here have the ability to see the invisible and shed light on what
is imperceptible with verses of rare beauty. Their poems are
news bulletins from an undeclared war against the human condition.
Between Nanos Valaoritis (born in 1921) and Thomas Tsalapatis
(born in 1983) there are thirty-two poets who brilliantly
describe the discovery of that ineffable contemporary Hellenic
Odyssey. This Odyssey has inspired poetic fantasy, rich in texture,
sweet and sour in taste, ironic and sarcastic, caustic and
smooth, real and surreal in form. …
Of particular interest is what Siotis describes as the hyper-empathic nature of Greek poetry (a stark contrast to the highly individualised character of much modern English poetry, so slow in responding to the miseries inflicted on others through austerity):
This anthology reflects the conviction of many critics that Greek poets,
even when they write about themselves, are expressing their concern
for the ‘other.’ In a world ridden by greed, Greek poets offer their
allegories as a substitute to depression. Besides comedy, Greeks love
drama and they cannot live without it. In a single day, Greeks live
many lives, simply because life in Greece is filled with complexities,
paradoxes and surprises.
For the poets in this anthology, poetry is a legal defense
against the dishonesties and miseries of life. The tragic elements
that describe Greece today – high unemployment, dwindling
salaries, the shrinking middle-class, political corruption, social
unrest – are a warning of what is going to happen in other European
And concludes on a meditation not unlike W.H. Auden’s legendary ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ dialectic from his ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’:
Poetry isn’t as useless as a lot of people say it is. Poetry is a
suspension of reality. This anthology is neither a protest movement
nor a lesson in disobedience. Poetic language alone does
not start revolutions. But, as Odysseus Elytis put it, people who
read poetry might be inspired to do just that.
It is never particularly easy to review anthologies of multiple poets, and one’s personal taste inevitably reduces the criticism to highlighting a selection of subjectively choicest contributions. All of the poems in this book are affecting and powerful in their own ways, but I will restrict my review to discussing those poems which particularly struck me.
The first poem in the anthology –which is incidentally compiled in alphabetical order of surname, an egalitarian arrangement which I also did for both of the protest anthologies I edited– Dimitris Angelis’ ‘My Town Today an Underage Girl’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, depicts a homeless girl, seemingly mentally afflicted, perhaps an inpatient of a shut down psychiatric hospital, or maybe her instability has been purely recession-induced. This is a short and punchy figurative piece with some immediately arresting images. The girl’s mental instability, or dislocation from an unbearable reality in the wake of extreme austerity, is suggested by her calling ‘pull-pull to pigeons’. There is the implication that perhaps this young girl has also been forced into prostitution:
My town today an underage girl
her dirty dress flag of a red stubbornness
she hugs her scraped knees, puckers her lips,
At least, such is implied by ‘underage’ –since, ‘underage’ for what?
Yiorgos Blanas’ ‘Homeless 2013’, translated by David Connolly, is a directly expressed monologue of one of countless post-austerity street-homeless Greeks:
Truth is this cold would kill
a bear and Stadiou Street is
bitter, but tonight will pass: the dogs
will come… I’ve scavenged
what’s left of two hamburgers
from the bin in Omirou Street,
they’ll eat them, they’ll curl up beside,
they’ll get warm, I’ll get warm.
Eh, no way I’ll die of their lousiness
before I die of the cold!
The homeless person then tries to console himself as to his newly itinerant lifestyle by reflecting on the more stultifying aspects to a conventional home life:
Let them go home, quarrel
with their wives over the kids
and with their kids over school,
let them see how they’re sworn at
on TV, let them stuff themselves,
let them turn down the heating
before going to bed and let them die
of stupidity before they die of the heat.
Kyriakos Charalambidis’ ‘Aphrodite on the New Economic Measures’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, has a more satirical take on Greek austerity, ending on a thought-provoking question –here it is in full:
The high subsidies for breasts
will be specifically taxed,
my own left hand, the right foot,
the alcoholic substance of my eyes and all
tobacco products of the hair.
As for my subsidiary concerns
and the real estate portfolio
those are included in the new package
that Fate already has submitted at Olympus:
Surcharge on all food items, on medicines, also
on income from the accrued interest of love affairs,
and finally application of the final stroke
on further measures, for austerity
and for energy savings.
As you can see, gentlemen,
I am about to be unemployed, I’ll become
Aphrodite of Burdens, of the Rocks,
of Rationalization and Conservatism.
What will remain finally of the memory
of a goddess that no longer rules the body?
The rubrics of ‘Rationalization’ and ‘Conservatism’ mark this poem out as one of the more openly polemical in the collection.
‘The Beggar’ by Dimitra Christodoulou (trans. Dinos Siotis) is a brilliantly compact lyrical depiction of the humiliating death of a homeless man, a fourteen-line pseudo-sonnet, also worth excerpting in full:
Look at him. With degrees and a moustache of stone.
He drags two three hungry babes
Feeling completely illiterate
Next to the Old of the Days. His Creditor.
He pushes a puppy in his belly.
He hates and is ashamed and afraid.
His mouth gapes from difficult breathing.
Does not expect clean air.
All his thoughts a stain with his finger
On the name, the origin, his kilos.
Sketched in a bill
He passes directly to Charon.
Not even there he’s welcome.
First he has to beg for the fare.
The trope ‘With degrees and a moustache of stone’ is particularly resonant and reminds us that austerity capitalism is no more a respecter of the educated than it is of the less well-educated working classes. The unpunctuated line ‘two three’ of the second line places the stylistic firmly in the breathless textspeak of the early 21st century; while the image ‘He pushes a puppy in his belly’ is either just ambiguously phrase (the ‘in’ actually meaning ‘into’), or a surreal metaphor. ‘The Beggar’ is for me one of the standout poems in the anthology.
Yiorgos Chouliaras’ ‘Grow Up’, translated by David Mason and Chouliaras himself, is the only piece presented in the form of poetic prose or prose poem in the anthology. Its second stanza/paragraph contains a pseudo-mythological image which faintly reminds me of the tale of Tantalus, and in this sense serves aptly as a metaphor for austerity:
…If the tree grows
fast, the sitting person with the noose will hang. If, however, the
sitting person grows faster, will he uproot the tree?
I love the alliterative effect of these lines from Yiorgos Chronas’ ‘Cafeteria Minion’, translated by Yiannis Goumas:
You light one cigarette after another
and see through sunglasses
bought cheaply in Patission Street.
This poem ends on a rather lurid onanistic image which packs a real punch in its depiction of the abject degradation of exposure through homelessness and its complete lack of privacy:
that you might come,
your sperm spurt out on the tiles
like a morning garland
in this, Chaos’ cafeteria.
Veroniki Dalakoura’s ‘Prayer’, translated by Dinos Siotis, works on repetitions:
The dead with the dead
The stone with the stone
The view with the view
The shame with the shame
The paid answer simply with the paid
And is thereby, for me personally, one of the more obviously formulaic poems in the anthology. However, amid such overripe repetitions, no doubt designed to read mantra-like, in-keeping with the poem’s title, there are some thought-provoking lines:
The illusion with the reality
The sweet children with the children
The sweetness with the leprosy
The infected with the symbol
– or with the infected –
The youth with the passion
The desire with the echo
The strength with the angels
Another standout poem, for me, is Yiannis Dhallas’ ‘Welcome’. This is one of the most directly polemical poems in the anthology, striking a blow for Greek homology against what is depicted as the second German Occupation in the nation’s history, this time an economic one, though not without civil unrest and occasional outbreaks of heavy-handed firepower. Here it is in full and glorious technicolour:
‘Welcome glorious German!...’
said an artisan who recognized you,
‘German of the Third Reich back then,
and now of the euro zone… Welcome
to this fiefdom of yours, of the South
In the year 2013, yes!... where the victim is obliged
to declare the victimizer as benefactor
With his body bleeding indebted and with his soul out resisting
As a serf who raised his head
Oh, the rage of the people, my soul, who holds you?
And at the gates of the presidential pavilion the police
with their thumb passing from the water stopcock to the teargas
and instantaneously in case of need to the trigger
The ceremony was held inside
the reception, the line-up of the contingent
and the playing of the anthems: elegiac
the one ‘From the sacred bones arisen…’
and unbowed and marching
the tone of the hegemonic of yours ‘…uber alles’
A fiesta with the streets all closed
You should come again, skilled, come again
and the carpet which would then be unwrapped,
said again the industrial who was present,
oh! the carpet will be a carpet of blood
of red colour deep red
tapisserie of a genius colourist
from the palette of an abattoir Bacon style’
Irini Papakyriacou’s translation seems to stumble at times, mixing singular and plural with ‘police/ with their thumb’, and slightly broken-up phrases as ‘said again the industrial’ –but in a sense these presumable mistakes are serendipitous in how they lend the poem a fractured, almost slightly concussed quality, while also part-resembling a kind of stream-of-consciousness, or depiction of the moment when the blood is up and the mind rambling. This image-rich poem reads very much like an adrenalin rush.
Kiki Dimoula’s ‘In Defense of Improvidence’ is another interesting piece, playing on Æsop’s fable of ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’; albeit again slightly confusing in terms of its translation by Cecile Inglesis Margelos: ‘Those little funnels are called moonflowers/ evenings they open their leaves wide in gardens’. The poem is rich in aphorisms:
Pinecone explosions grow scarcer
heat now takes great care not to throw
Providence is a handyman. Early on it harnessed ants –
pushing and pulling they’ve already hauled
a good deal of winter into their nest.
Storing up. A respectable, I must admit, sated
form of euthanasia.
In part the fable is right.
The grasshoppers should be reasonable
set aside half a song for the cold
of their life’s improvidence.
Easy for the fable to say.
What else can grasshoppers do.
Intensity can’t be stored.
Wouldn’t it too want to live longer?
But it can’t be stored.
Keep it just one day and it goes bad.
George Douatzis’ ‘Fatherland of the Times’, translated by Yiannis Kanakakis, is a brilliant depiction of the cuts-pelted Front of austerity capitalism as a war fought with silent but deadly pecuniary weapons, shown through the daily grind of Greek evictees and street-homeless:
You did not think this was war
for you couldn’t see the blood, the wounded,
but you saw those, the dead
bending over the garbage bins
high noon in the heart of the city
pleaders in the trash of shopping malls
the hungry, the dead tellers begging
you saw them
War I say, war
with no ammunition and gunfire
the grey suits and the white collars
new aged computers used as heavy guns
my refuge was sold
your hands were sold
dreams were sold
voice, mouth were sold
our existence was sold…
How can we look into our children’s eyes?
And please never forget
that there is not greater guilt
than our own tolerance
If you only knew with how
the world could change...
This poem as a justifiably accusatory tone, thought the accused, or the culprits of this misery, the markets, are ubiquitous but invisible, unable to be targeted. The second stanza has a distinctly Thirties take on the nature of economic Depression as a kind of dummy warfare, reminding me of Graham Greene’s polemical novel on the brutality of capitalist society, It’s A Battlefield (1934).
Mihalis Ganas’ ‘The Smoker’s Sleep’, translated by Minas Savvas, is a fine mood-piece, fairly casually phrased but still lyrically affecting, its depiction ambiguous, but, one senses, another portrait of street-homelessness, with an interestingly combustible metaphor for economic Depression and its devastation, almost like an invisible forest fire:
The duration is an obsession.
It’s a slow-burn obsession.
All in accord, without flames since it devours them.
But without fumes as well. With fewer ashes.
It doesn’t get red hot, you say. Nor does it cool down.
In contrast, it keeps the fire alive.
At least the spark. That, too, is something.
Its final figurative verse is particularly arresting:
Give me your hand to put it to sleep.
The night is an unbuttoned coat,
a hide of a slaughtered animal that is still breathing.
Sleep: my heart is lying awake.
Yiorgos Gotis’ ‘The King of the Market’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, is another directly polemical verse, one of the most blatant protest poems in the anthology, but none the least compelling fir its directness:
The king of the market is selling the desert
that grain by grain for so many years
he’s been hoarding inside him.
His kingdom a world of hypocrisy
He kowtows and answers to it daily.
By stylistic contrast, Ilias Gris’ ‘Lethargic World’, translated by Kerassia Karali, heaps its polemical point with some brilliantly figurative language and allusion, and is for me another standout of the book:
Patricians shoot at you
Under the sun’s mantle on the green mound
We are surrounded by thick-skinned serpents and the cats
Ah! Your cats, Mr. George S.
With dry eyes they have bade us farewell
Without a meow; our vineyards unharvested
And the carcasses of construction sites, in a single night
The scoundrels sold away our entire livelihood
Mr. George S.
We ruminate oblivion
Shoeless moons in Erebus-like heather land
The chubby Lady of Red Years has come back
Inviting us for coffee at the nip of noon
Unshapely as she hastily crosses the pavements
Her shoulders stooped from so many dead ones
From so much blood.
Yiannis Kakoulides’ ‘Crisis Management’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, focuses powerfully on the psychological effects of extreme economic austerity. Its final stanza is particularly chilling, hinting as it does at the intensification of suicidal ideation among countless Greek citizens as a direct repercussion of the bleakness and hopelessness of chronic poverty in an economic Depression apparently without any tangible end in sight (the suicide rate in Greece skyrocketed following the nation’s bankruptcy and debt-bondage to the Troika):
I must make you laugh more
write new poems for you
and tell you stories
with sunshine and great storehouses
I must wrap you in a lie and let you
believe that you have gained
one more day of happiness.
Afterwards I’ll bring the blacksmith
to block securely the balcony door.
That last trope packs a particular punch of suggestion.
Elias Kefálas’ ‘Jack’, translated by Yiannis Goumas, uses the template of the English fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk (originally written by one Benjamin Tabart in 1807, then embellished further by ‘Felix Summery’ (Henry Cole) in 1842, and then by Joseph Jacobs in 1890) as a metaphor for the effects of austerity. This poem is consciously composed in a kind of naïf nursery-rhyme style, albeit without the rhyme, which is reminiscent of the deceptively simplistic verse of Stevie Smith:
Jack, is it snowing up there?
Jack, is it raining?
Who has hung out his snow-white sheets
Which spread and flutter in the sky?
Like the waters of a white sea do they rise
When it foams with the wrecks of dreams
Alarming us with its roaring.
Our orchards have no fruit
Something invisible scares us and worries us.
Jack, Jack, Jack,
The dragon is here.
Where’s your bean stalk?
Cough, sneeze, laugh, and let me hear you, Jack.
Seeing as so many Greek children have been scandalously impoverished by Troika-inflicted austerity over the past few years to the point at which countless Greek parents have had to go without food in order to afford to prioritise their medical treatment, ever more expensive due to depleting supplies (a scenario which permatanned IMF-head Christine Lagarde shamelessly dismissed by highlighting Third World poverty as far more abject than anything the Greeks were enduring), Kefálas’ ‘Jack’ is a quite ingenious subversion of the popular fairy tale to fit the modern age of austerity, and could well be distributed throughout Greek schools as a figurative primer for the times for Greek children. (Significantly, too, the noun dragon derives from the Greek drakōn, the same root-source for draconian, itself derived from Draco, the name of the ruthless original legislator of ancient Athens; the word therefore dovetails over many associations, a chief one being the ubiquitous use of the word ‘draconian’ used by almost all contemporary critics of capitalist austerity).
In its pithy and stark lyricism and almost crucificial symbolism, Elsa Korneti’s ‘Bearing Humanity’s Pain’, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, is one of the resounding highlights of this anthology, and warrants excerpting in full:
I stand amazed
And look at myself
Turned into what I always dreamed of
Slow and steady of step
Faithful servant of law and order
Dogged follower of the straight and narrow
I freeze into my assigned position
Rusty of joint
I struggle to pick myself up when I fall
A key bores obstinately into my back
Never one to complain
I endure all without a word
Steely of sensibility
Dead of tongue
I throw myself on the mercy
Of those who scourge me, those who break me
Those who beat me, those who reject me
Just this, let it suffice me
To be remembered now and forever
For that which I always dreamed of
For that which I have become
A little Wind-up Man
The last quite stunning image, depicting what appears to be one of countless street-homeless Greeks as a kind of clockwork martyr, is truly compelling, emphasising the depersonalisation of abject poverty and exposure, its almost robotic auto-pilot of the personality, drawing disturbing but inescapable parallels with Christ on the cross almost rapturously accepting His tortured self-sacrifice; the trope ‘A key bores obstinately into my back’ could almost be replaced by splinter or nail; while ‘I throw myself on the mercy/ Of those who scourge me, those who break me/ Those who beat me, those who reject me’ has definite associations with the Passion and Crucifixion, and Christ’s mocking by the Romans with the crown of thorns.
In this figurative context, it is Greece, as a collective consciousness, sublimated into a martyr or Christ-figure sacrificed by the Troika (or Roman yoke) and taking on the perceived ‘sins’ of fiscal profligacy for the sake of redeeming the rest of the near-bankrupt European community from bankruptcy. But it is the Troika –or in this context perhaps, the new Germanic ‘Roman’ economic Empire– which is morally bankrupt, mistaking the Lutheran virtues of thrift and frugality as more important than those of basic compassion and human worth above the material.
Maria Kyrtzaki’s ‘Nude’, translated by David Connolly, projects her metaphors on Greece’s Troika-inflicted austerity cuts onto the truncated form of a Classical Greek sculpture –here are some excerpts:
the belly the limbs’ joints what weight
of bodies they supported what
metal sperm of pleasure was emptied
in your mould and you keep your knees joined
like a hidden wound…
but you/shielding your eyes
but you/hiding. Your life all cuts
and your body wood.
(As if for the first time someone were seeing
you naked. ‘Ask to see the passbooks’
comes the sound from sign stuck
to the wall. Knees joined
to hide the vulva and the feet the base
of the standing statue a horrid repetition)
Your life all cuts and your body
wood in a private collection
your mould a public menace
(Ever under some regime – superfluous for me the crisis)
Again, there is a sense of the translation going slightly awry grammatically, particularly in the stanza in parenthesis above –but this doesn’t significantly detract from the piece. There are some syntactical translation issues too in the following poem, Νektarios Lambropoulos’
‘Untitled’ (trans. Dinos Siotis), particularly in its first stanza:
Each class has its means of transportation
Few fly in the sky
Some are high in a limo
Many and lower in the bus
Most of them deep in the subway
Some and deeper go on foot
Few crawl at the bottom
and all of them tread on the poet
Not for the first time in this anthology there’s a Cyclopic image:
in times of crisis
never leave their country.
labor is free
and finally blind people seem to be more than them;
Lambropoulos plays on what this writer often terms the ‘trans-satirical’ nature of modern political rhetoric:
It is a fact.
Comedy in Greece is under crisis.
There aren’t any good actors anymore.
All talents have been absorbed by politics.
The fourth and final stanza is the most polemically direct, emphasizing the universal ‘Draconic codes’ of capitalism-in-crisis, certainly indistinguishable from our Tory-run austerity regime in the UK:
If you have no income
they will tax you because you ’re a thief
If you have small income
they will tax you because for sure you cheat.
If you ’re on salary
they will tax you because you can’t do otherwise
If you ’re a banker
the more they can do is to export
Again, the translation gets slightly muddled here (though really it’s no major thing in itself seeing as one finds similar types of grammatical errors in poetry collections written in their first language), and one suspects the ‘more’ of the penultimate line is meant to be ‘most’; although the line ‘they will tax you because you can’t do otherwise’ is a little sloppily phrased, but presumably just means ‘without your permission’ or ‘automatically’.
Lily Michaelides’ ‘Unexpectedly’, translated by David Connolly, is another striking polemical lyric, this time personifying ‘crisis’ as a perfumed prostitute or whore-goddess –pithy and thus best excerpted in full:
Crisis burst in everywhere.
Her hair wafts in our faces.
Her heady perfume a smell of brothel
she gazes smug and intense.
The downhill streets of crisis.
Balcony overlooking the valley of crisis.
The escutcheon at the entry of crisis.
Yet crisis, I reflect, is an abstract concept
How could it vanquish the air, the mountains
the sea, the sun?
How can all that expansive light around us
possibly belong to the crisis?
I disregard the warnings.
I wear time in reverse, pluck its white
temples, slap some red on its lips
and surrender myself to your judgement.
Equally pithy, and a little more casualised in phrasing, but no less powerful, is Pavlina Pampoudi’s ‘Colour Photo’, again translated by Connolly:
(The card players startled, red-eyed like rabbits. Trapola means
How did I come to be here?
On someone’s account.
Some common ancestor most likely.
I fancy I dint want to play. I don’t recall.
It seems a simple game of cards. But
It’s not always what it seems:
Often, at daybreak
Playing partners invisible amid the smoke
Gods, these too condemned in their power
Shuffle other cards.
In the word above they shuffle, cut and deal
My images and my mirrors
In poses and in motion.
Amid the smoke
They shuffle, cut and deal
They cheat me.
Me, an excusable mortal.
The card-playing images are apt for what has been an economic crisis caused by banking speculation, euphemistic for gambling, while the cutting of the cards obviously plays nicely on the austerity cuts; here the poet is powerfully and appropriately juxtaposing the omnipresent but invisible Markets with the Olympian gods, endlessly meddling in the affairs of ‘mere mortals’ from the impunity of their cloud-obscured mountain-top –this is an almost inescapable metaphor for the hedge-betters and speculators who have caused global economic meltdown but who continue unabated to speculate even on the catastrophic social repercussions of the austerity by which they are –the super rich apart– singularly unaffected. The translation slips a bit again here, the ‘I dint’ of the fourth line presumably an error, though possibly a serendipitous one, since it can be interpreted either as some sort of truncated textspeak patois with an inadvertent double-meaning.
Another of the standouts for me is Eftychia Panayiotou’s ‘The Sea that Binds’, translated by Philippos Philippou, which I think one of the most faultless poems in the anthology in terms of purpose and composition –another fairly short piece, it warrants excerpting in full:
First we love our dead.
First it’s those we’ll remember, if we have to remember,
as our childhood eyes remember an explosion.
Time; bomb disposal expert; hand that comes
and smudges the eyelids like a poem.
I talk to my mother, I write her ‘sea’.
Words on paper wash into a map.
Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt
– some unfulfilled dream –
but what bars our way to the Canal
is not black smoke;
There must be something that awakes a frightened man
from the slumber of the dead.
No one knows what really happened
except cold memory or naked revelation.
For now humanity is a sound,
call it an attempt for freedom.
Christos Papageorgiou’s ‘Spectator’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, is another short poem, but one which opts for a more stream-of-consciousness; contentiously, it appears to posit the question as to whether spectators of the Greek austerity riots were/are themselves vicariously instrumental in the acts of the riots themselves; but reading at another level, with the mention of ‘screen’, presumably meaning TV screen, and other references such as ‘markets of Albania’ (possibly referring to black markets?), the poet seems to be suggesting that all those who buy into the capitalist system are thus inculcated in the violent repercussions of its collapse. Papageorgiou deploys an almost stream-of-conscious style which ends abruptly, as if truncated, on a conjunction –‘and’– and a full stop:
You’ve read the screen, spectator, and
Dense pack of hooded ones and
You smashed shop windows and
You looted sensibilities
Anything that is sold in the markets of Albania
You ducked for the bullet to go by and
Held the wood beam in your two hands
What the construction workers left
In the enormous garbage bin
You destroyed the parked cars and
So that the Ambulance looks like a limousine
Spectator, you tossed Molotovs inside banks
You set on fire buildings dedicated to culture and
What few people desired as they went by
During the night/day and
In front of a million cameras and
On the edge of a razor
That speaks in the ghetto and
Before the rejection of
The social doctrine and.
Translation-wise, the first and second lines appear somewhat confused although since the poem ‘and’ seems to be of very deliberate emphasis on the part of the author.
Yiannis Patilis’ ‘Alcohol in Remission’, translated by Vassilis Manoussakis, is one of the more allusion-packed poems in the anthology. It begins with a quote: ‘and if I do not see // before Greece’s sanctum / tangled in a dance / Freedom and the Muses / it is death that I desire (Andreas Kalvos, ‘Hope of a Country’)’. Compositionally the poem uses sentence case lines but omits full stops, so that a first reading is rendered slightly stilted until one picks up on the grammatical pattern, realising that each clause ends where a capitalised first letter of a line appears next (I confess I’m not quite sure why, if one wishes not to use full stops, a simply em dash can’t do just as well, and thereby also make the reading a little easier; moreover, there’s also an occasional omission of commas too, which creates its own issues of arrested understanding). But all that apart, it’s another strong and interesting poem, albeit self-consciously stylistic, reminiscent of ee cummings:
I found you in the turmoil
with a borrowed coat, sleeping
on a bench with memories from the future
and it was London cold, toxic
I do not know if God speaks Greek
but surely the Greeks here
will soon speak it less and less
If they talk at all, that is
Sit up on your mattress a bit to see
the garbage it drags along
the wind of change
bottles, the brave
of the boodle emptied
And hold on as strongly as you can
because the alcohol is in remission
bringing the hypodermic shudder and torpor
the nightmares from the assault of the vacant
There’s a curious line, ‘en th twn nyn Ellhnwn dialektw’, which is asterisked to a not altogether completely clear elucidation: ‘In ‘greeklish’, ie the language of contemporary Greeks’. There’s also the presence of some slightly esoteric terms, as glimpsed in the following polemical verse:
Greece Hellas of the New Age
a neoteric fantasy you were
delivered as a test
by three flagships*
To be nourished by the unequalled corruption
The coinherence of the socialists
with the scum of the Earth
The compound of Family and Parliament
London one thousand eight hundred nineteen
The term ‘neoteric’ means ‘belonging to a new fashion or trend’, and is no doubt also meant here as an allusion to the Neotericoi (Greek νεωτερικοί "new poets") school of Greek poets in the Hellenistic period (323 BC onwards), which was essentially the first avant-garde literary movement. It is perhaps then fitting that there is very much a high modernistic flavour to this poem, as mentioned, to my mind, reminiscent of ee cummings, among others, but presumably echoing the Greek line of modernist poets, such as the Anglo-Greek C.P. Cavafy, for instance. I confess I’ve insufficient knowledge of Greek poetry to recognise the more implicit homage to:
Andreas Kalvos Ioannidis
HOPE OF A COUNTRY**
what a modern title, my god
and even if it was written two centuries ago
All I can glean from a quick glance at Wikipedia is information on one Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869), a Greek poet of the Romantic period. (That other curious word, ‘coinherence’, means inherent spiritual fellowship).
Titos Patrikios’ ‘The Lion’s Gate’, translated by Roula Konsolaki, is one of the shortest poems in the book, and one of the most ostensibly simply written, but neither of these aspects in any way detracting from its significance. Patrikios employs an effective use of repetition with the word ‘terrible’. Here it is in full:
The lions had already departed.
Not even one in all of Greece,
except for a rather solitary, evasive
lion hiding out somewhere on the Peloponnesus,
a threat to no one at all,
until it too was slaughtered by Hercules.
Still, our memories of lions
never stopped terrifying us:
their terrible images on coats of arms and shields,
their terrible figures on battle monuments,
that terrible relief carved
into a stone lintel over the gate.
Our past is forever full, terrible,
just as the story of what happened is terrible,
carved as it is now, written on the lintel
of the gate we pass through every day.
Angeliki Sidira’s ‘Unemployed’, translated by the curiously named Platon Memo, is one of my favourite poems in the anthology, both for its theme, simplicity and emotive use of symbolism. It occasionally incorporates syntactic inversions which seem rather peculiar in that this is a free verse lyric and thus needs no such contortions to wrestle out end-rhymes; further, such inversions are rendered slightly confusing when commas are omitted. However, it’s still a powerful lyric, which, again, I excerpt in full below:
It is not the alarm clock
that makes him jump
out of bed, sweating
It is his heart beating
accustomed to being rudely
woken by the loud ringing…
Lazy sips of coffee
petrify poison stalactites
in his guts.
In the dregs
In the wardrobe
a grey suit
scarecrow on the hanger
with its striped tie
ties his neck in a knot
and his shoes
shine grinning memories
of itineraries finally
empty sheets the newspaper
as if the letters
had jumped off the balcony.
He goes out,
Balconies seem to be something of a leitmotif through some of the poems in this book, hugely symbolic of course for a psychical sense of being out on a limb or precipitous edge, which taps into a recurring theme among some of the poets of suicidal ideation.
Yiannis Stroumbas’ ‘Ice Box’, translated by Dinos Siotis, is also just 16 lines long, as Titos Patrikios’ ‘The Lion’s Gate’, though both two lines longer than 14 line ‘The Beggar’ by Dimitra Christodoulou (which up to this point is the shortest poem in the anthology). ‘Ice Box’ is a slightly naïf lyric, almost like a compact fairy tale or strange vignette, but for me it seems to run out of steam by its close, ending somewhat abruptly and on what feels a rather throwaway and unedifying line which seems as if in place of a more purposeful ending. Here it is in full:
Mom, something strange happened while you were swimming.
As I was playing with the sand in front of our tent
A lady with a straw hat approached limping
She asked for water.
I opened the little faucet of the ice box
And offered her ice water.
‘Lady, why are you limping?’ I asked her.
‘Just came out of the plaster cast’, she explained.
She raised her cup and started drinking
And as she was sipping
To my surprise I saw her getting old
Like a bag lady, like a beggar homeless and jobless
As if forty years had fallen on her hunchback.
Water poured out of her denture.
‘From plaster to ice’, she whispered mysteriously,
Then she disappeared where she came from.
Thanasis Triaridis’ ‘Keyboard’, translated by Hara Syrou, is very much a protest poem without frills, but makes a very important point nonetheless in its haranguing arraignment of those citizens who choose to parrot right-wing tabloids by blaming many of the victims of austerity –immigrants, prisoners, the homeless, the unemployed etc.– for the nation’s economic woes, which of course distracts them and others from the true organ-grinders:
It’s really interesting to drag around our so-called guilt
but tarring everyone with the same brush
is a first-class alibi for the actual culprits
(industrialists, capitalists and other plutocrats).
This trick justifies Josef K.’s judges,
you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater –
and if everyone is guilty, then no one is…’
Thomas Tsalapatis’ macabre ‘The box’, translated by Lina Altiparmaki, is presented as a prose poem, and though I find this kind of block-text approach in much contemporary poetry almost instantly off-putting, its dark, chthonic metaphorical conceit is instantly arresting and deeply disturbing. It begins:
I have a box inside which someone is always being slaughtered.
A little bigger than a shoe box. A little more graceless than
a cigar box. I don’t know who, I don’t know whom, but someone
is being slaughtered….
Obvious echoes of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Arrival of the Bee Box’ aside, the metaphor of a box in which someone is ‘always being slaughtered’, which implies some hidden torment muffled by its containment and yet somehow detectable, the ‘always’ emphasizing a chronic condition of ‘someone’ or a continual state of affairs in which someone among many is always suffering, is a potent one for the topic of a social fabric being continually harmed and lastingly scarred by relentless austerity cuts. I’m almost reminded here of a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874): ‘That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence’.
‘The box’ closes on the interesting trope, ‘A friendship I maintain simply to give someone presents’, makes me think of a possible play on the ancient dialectic of Greek altruism, whereby it’s argued that giving is actually receiving, in that it gives pleasure to the average person at a moral level to be generous to or please another, and that therefore selfless giving is a sublimated form of self-gratification (not a line of philosophical argument I personally subscribe too however). But of course, given the very ominous innards of the ‘box’ in question, there is certainly no pretence of altruism in this particular context.
Christos Tsiamis imaginatively titled ‘Churches of the Enraged’, translated by Karen Emmerich, is to my mind another standout poem in this anthology –one of the very best of the crop; a brilliantly subversive, aphorismic poem which manages to combine bold polemical comment with a sharply poetic use of the figurative to get its point across:
Dogs bark at uniforms
and the entire country retreats.
Logic is disrupted. Winds and sacrificial smoke
blow here and there. The city squares
have become the churches of the enraged.
Punctual for once to their rendezvous, these tragic
doppelgangers of an ideal benefactor
speak as Tiresias might.
Words thick and dark as tar.
Not for the mind, these words, but for bottles
set to explode, against rhetoric and pre-packaged laws.
People drift amid reflections of mirrors
and the small bonfires from Molotov cocktails.
The mention of Tiersias, its mythological significance apart, immediately reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s ‘III. The Fire Sermon’ from The Waste Land (1922). There the simple but profound rhyming couplet: ‘In the chaos everyone wants to speak his mind,/ in a place where language is hard to find’. Then something of the distinct pathologisation of societal decline and economic meltdown typical of many writers and cultural commentators of the Depression-hit 1930s surfaces in the following verse:
A language that would pull us from this sickness,
that would call things by their names – a rotten fig is a rotten fig
in our yard, and the worms headed for the neighbour’s yard…
The use of the word ‘sickness’ to describe the austerity of Greece was common to the kind of diagnostic terminology often used to depict the social effects of the Great Depression, and so is well-suited in the context of today’s “Great Recession”.
It feels quite fitting to find the anthology close on a four line epigram, by far the shortest poem in the entire book, Yiannis Yfantis’ ‘Question and Answer at the Market Place’, translated by Ourania Yfanti:
‘Do you make money’ they ask me ‘from poetry?’
‘Money?’ I answer them, ‘money?
Does the lover ever make money?
Only the pimp makes money’.
Pithy but unaffectedly profound in its juxtaposition of the poet and the ‘lover’, both pursuers of pure and unprofitable impulses/pastimes with the ‘pimp’ –a parasite profiting from the prostitution of others– and the unnamed but implicit publisher, who profits (albeit nowadays very modestly) from the ‘poet’ who himself seldom receives any material returns for his output. In the context of the anthological theme, we might see the ‘pimp’ symbolising the parasitic speculators who profit not only from Boom but also from the subsequent Bust they themselves have created, their bonuses seemingly unstoppable no matter the economic health of the society from which they leach.
Crisis is an exceptional anthology, catholically selected and meticulously edited by Dinos Siotis, who is of course also one of its most prolific translational contributors. Since Greece has been the most socially devastated of all European nations post-Crash, rocked by seismic civil unrest, riots, political extremism and societal meltdown, and reduced to an effective bondage state of the democracy-eviscerating Troika, any anthology of anti-austerity protest poetry is a must-read for all conscientious objectors to today’s anarcho-capitalist asset-stripping and the kleptocratic machinations of the unaccountable markets; but the almost uniformly exceptional poetic quality of this particular Greek anti-cuts anthology makes it a truly invaluable piece of work –a poetic social document or testament in verse to the iniquities inflicted countless citizens who were unfortunate enough to be living at a time when its most ancient seat of democracy was declared bankrupt, and its democratic sovereignty subsequently auctioned off to the lowest bidder.
A vicissitude which is testament in itself to the fundamentally contra-democratic nature of capitalism, which puts money, property, capital before the rights and welfare of the people on whose wills democracy itself is supposed to be founded. But it’s not elected politicians who really call the shots in capitalist societies: it’s the markets which no one elects, nor can ever easily identify in terms of actual living entities or individuals. Capitalism puts a price to everything, including democracy, and our human rights; and when capitalism tips into crisis, it will manipulate the democratic framework to prop itself up, even if this means stripping the people (hoi demos), the embodiments of democracy, of all but the most basic means of survival. Crisis is a deeply affecting and resonant counterpoint in poetry to the continuing capitalist assault on the rights of the common people of Greece to decide their own future. With the present rise in support for the Far Left in Greece, we can only hope that in the coming years there will be less and less need for such collective verse-interventions as Crisis; but in the meantime, we can at least draw some significant consolation from such powerful and well-accomplished contemporary political poetry from the very eye of the economic storm. Highly recommended.
3 October 2014