Tasos Leivaditis (1922-88)

 

Translated by N.N. Trakakis

 

 

 

If You Want To Be Called A Human Being  

 

If you want to be called a human being  

you will not cease, not even for a moment, to fight for peace and justice.  

You will go out onto the streets, you will shout, your lips will bleed from shouting  

your face will bleed from the bullets – but don’t take a single step back.  

Each of your cries will be a stone thrown at the warmongers’ windows  

each of your gestures will tear down injustice.  

And beware: don’t lose track, not even for a moment.  

If you start thinking back to your childhood years  

you will let thousands of children be shattered into pieces as they play unsuspectingly in cities  

if you look for a moment at the sunset  

people tomorrow will be lost in the darkness of war  

if you stop for a moment to dream  

millions of people’s dreams will turn to ash beneath the bombshells.  

You have no time  

you have no time for yourself  

if you want to be called a human being.  

 

If you want to be called a human being  

you might have to leave behind your mother, your beloved, your child.  

You won’t hesitate.  

You will give up your lamp and your bread  

you will give up the relaxing evenings on the front porch  

for the rough road that leads to tomorrow.  

You won’t flinch from anything or be afraid.  

I know, it’s nice to listen to a harmonica in the evening,  

to gaze upon a star, to dream  

it’s nice to lean over your beloved’s red lips  

and hear her tell you her dreams for the future.  

But you must take leave of all these things and set out  

for you are responsible for all the harmonicas in the world,  

for all the stars and all the dreams  

if you want to be called a human being.  

 

If you want to be called a human being  

you might have to be locked up in jail for twenty years or more  

but even in jail you’ll always remember spring, your mother, the world.  

Even within the four walls of your cell  

you will continue your journey upon the earth.  

And when in the endless silence of the night  

you knock on the wall of the cell with your finger  

from the other side you’ll receive a reply from Spain.  

Even though you see your days go by and your hair turn grey  

you won’t grow old.  

In jail you will begin each day younger and anew  

as new battles keep arising in the world  

if you want to be called a human being.  

 

If you want to be called a human being  

you must be ready to die any morning.  

Overnight in isolation you will write a long and loving letter to your mother  

you will write on the wall the date, your initials and one word: Peace  

as though you were writing your entire life story.  

Ready to die any morning  

ready to stand before the six rifles  

as though you were standing before the entire future.  

Ready to hear, amidst the volley of shots killing you, the thousands of simple people singing while fighting for peace.  

If you want to be called a human being.  

 

 

Simple Words  

 

I would like to speak  

simply  

the way you unbutton your shirt  

and reveal an old scar  

the way you feel cold at the elbow  

and turn  

to find holes in what you’re wearing  

the way a comrade sits on a rock and mends his singlet.  

To speak of whether I might return someday  

carrying a filthy mess tin brimming with exile  

carrying in my pockets two clenched fists  

to speak  

simply –  

but for now let me lean my crutches somewhere.  

 

We once dreamed of becoming great poets  

we spoke of the sun.  

Now our heart pierces us  

like nails in our boots.  

In the past we’d say: sky, now we say: courage.  

We’re no longer poets  

but only  

comrades  

with big wounds and ever bigger dreams.  

 

The wind howls outside the tent  

the barbedwire embedded in the belly of the night  

the lamp broken  

and leaking oil  

Thomas’ face beneath the bandages  

must be red and swollen from the rifle butt blows  

the stench of smoke and feet  

Elias says: the weather will change  

Dimitris is silent  

and Nicholas struggles to plug the holes in the tent  

with a piece of boiled potato.  

Someone coughs. We are cold.  

The guards’ steps can be heard.  

 

Tonight, mother, we’re thinking of writing to you  

that we might hear the rain  

walking along with your worn out clogs  

that we might see your smile  

hanging like a flask over our thirst.  

They feed us rotten potatoes: don’t worry about us  

they curse us and hit us: give us your love  

maybe we won’t return – light the lamp, mother,  

others will come.  

 

Now you’d be gathering from the clothesline the white clothes of exile  

you’d be sewing our socks with patches of your care  

but the gloves you knitted for us, mother, we won’t wear them  

we gave them to a comrade who was court-martialled  

we also gave him some tinned food and a piece of our palm  

he tied the top of the sack with a cord  

tossed the sack over his shoulder  

and we saw him going up  

snipping with his scraggy legs  

pieces of the facing sky.  

 

Every morning they count us  

every night we count the excess plates  

there’s excess bitterness in our eyes  

when the rain plays dice with the gendarmes  

and night falls and the whistles growl.  

 

Now we’re thinking of tucking our hands under our armpits  

to see if there are any stars in the sky  

to remember that face  

leaning in the doorway  

but we can’t remember  

we have no time to remember  

we have no time but to stand upright  

and die.  

 

Beloved  

even if I feel cold when it rains  

even if I fondle the crumbs of memory in my pockets  

and my palms are still on fire from the time I held you  

I can’t come back.  

 

How can I deny the crust of bread that twenty of us shared  

how can I deny my mother who waits for a cup of sage tea  

how can I deny our child whom we promised a cornet of sky  

how can I deny Nicholas –  

we found out he was singing as the firing squad took aim.  

 

If I were to come back  

we wouldn’t have a lamp, we wouldn’t have  

anywhere to lay our dream.  

We would sit in silence.  

And when I’d want to look at you  

the tattered boots of the comrade I denied  

would cover my eyes like a cloud.  

Give me your love.  

And when I return someday  

carrying my heart like a large parcel  

we’ll sit on the rundown steps.  

I’ll say: You no longer like my calloused hands.  

You’ll smile and clasp my hands.  

A star will tinkle in the soaked sky.  

I might even  

cry.  

 

Today we opened our day  

like a sack forgotten over the years.  

We searched for the socks you used to wear, comrade  

your hands  

your life that came to a stop.  

Bitterness threw into our eyes  

a handful of nails.  

We then cleaned the cookhouse  

lit a fire  

and shared a smoke between us  

beneath the ragged clouds.  

 

Here where our lives are eggshells under their feet  

with death closer still  

and an elbow patch on your torn jacket  

where the name of a dead comrade  

is like a fork fixed to your tongue:  

how can you sing?  

 

It is enough for us to speak  

simply  

the way one hungers simply  

the way one loves  

the way we die  

simply.  

 

 

 

Tasos Leivaditis © 2021

 

N.N. Trakakis © 2021