But O the sudden blasts of earth that sweep my breasts
and shake me to the bone!
O Zeus, the seas are heavy, and my unloosened locks
sink me like a stone.
–Ángelos Sikelianós, from Anadyomene, (211) – Modern Greek Poetry, translation and introduction by Kimon Friar
It is a different experience to read a translator’s monograph, rather than a poet’s. Kimon Friar’s book, Modern Greek Poetry is comprised of the work of some thirty poets, but of course, the words come from one man: Friar. He begins his compilation with a very interesting history of Greek poetry and language, or languages- one written one spoken which began the split, but which has never been, Friar explains, so different from each other as the English of Beowulf would be to a modern English reader- despite twice the length of time which separates modern Greek from Classical compared to modern and Old English (13). He then gives a short history of the “schools” of modern Greek poetry and the major poets within.
No cleft can be widened without desire of widening
Sometimes we become hourglasses
And sponges throb to every single drop of ours
-Andréas Embirícos, from Moment of Porphyry (351)
Poetry is a language of darts meant to pierce one’s soul. There were many poems in this book which took my breath away, and many instances, as in the excerpt above where I marveled at the skill of Friar- his use of the word “cleft,” left me in awe. Of course it is entirely possibly that it’s just me, but that’s as it will be, I found the word to be the door into the entire poem, grounding it in the corporal, the consonants’ journey from back of the throat to teeth, sensual and powerful. I don’t read Greek, I have no way of knowing if it is simply a case of a perfect transposing, or if Friar had to truly translate, search his mind to find the word that would transport a reader such as I.
Sleep came and lay between us
like a rival. He took your eyes
and closed them; he took your lips
and swept away your smile and your kiss.
Your pale hair was combed by the tranquil
waters of Lethe that bore your beloved body
away to the world of stars and shadows.
Filters of silence are forcing your sealed lips,
sleep-living voices our ears, and in you veins
I hear the deep rumor of the voyage.
You have emerged from the depths of sleep
with stars and seashells in your hands
and in your eyes the dark coolness
When you open them, I want to be the first to receive
their glance, that I may capture before it fades
the meaning of that world which has kept you away
the night long.
It was through a conversation with fellow blogger and wonderful poet Tom Simard that I was pointed in the direction of this beautiful work of Friars, and I thank him for the recommendation. Of the poet’s represented, I was only familiar with Constantine Caváfis, but there again, I find the translators’s hand a fascinating thing. Friar’s choice of which of Caváfis poems to include was revealing of what pierces his own soul, and then there is Ithaca.
Last year while reading Caváfis I was working as a caregiver, and one of my oldest clients (over 100) loved the poem Ithaca. We bonded over our mutual sentimental attachment to Greece, the work of my father (who died when I was two) was much influenced by the Aegean and she and her late husband had taken a sublime trip to Greece early on (they met and befriended Mark Rothko on the ship over) to see some newly discovered temples…she had a sweet spot in her mind for the memory and with such a long life, the theme of Ithaca moved her deeply. But there were many poems in my book of Caváfis of more, shall we say- passionate verse…I lent her the book and she was a bit bemused by her nobel Platonic Caváfis writing so much about love, or even lust! That, of course, was what I most loved about him, but she wasn’t so much amused by her discomfiture as I was – oh I do miss her. But I digress…Modern Greek Poetry is an ambitious yet focused book….truly lovely lovely lovely. O my heart.
from DE RERUM NATURA
I move my body, and my soul moves,
I put it to sleep, it sleeps.
I love, and my soul loves,
It tastes my body and my blood.
I sniff the air, and my soul sniffs also.
It is I who hunger, it is I who thirsts
In my soul, it is I who suffer.
It is I who wound my fingers
We shall never have enough, O my soul. – George Thémelis (325)
No, we shan’t.
* Title from prologue of Nikos Kazanantzákis’ poem The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life” (164).