“Seferis, Seferis. Do we have him? Is he one of ours?” (eínai se mas) shouts the clerk to a colleague sipping a frappé at a desk across the room. Fani Papageorgiou and I are negotiating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of death at some lesser Ministry of the Underworld. “George Seferis?” We confirm he has the right Seferis, and he finally reads the coordinates off a faded Xerox taped to a metal closet behind his desk: 12/45.
We are not so lucky with the other Nobel Prize winner, Odysseus Elytis. (“Try Alepoudelis,” Fani suggests, “Elytis was his pen name.”) Yes, he’s in the family plot. Angelos Sikelianos?: 18/14.
For Kostis Palamas we are sent to the colleague, who opens a wooden desk drawer and draws out a folder with famous graves organized by profession (military, politics, literature, etc). The man’s face is disfigured with what look to be severe burns—perhaps he’d been transferred from a hotter area of hell. (“Everyone in Greece is scarred, one way or another,” Fani whispers, echoing Seferis’s famous line, “Everywhere I go, Greece wounds me.”) There is an old, dusty computer on his desk, but evidently it is there for decoration only: it looks like all the records are still held in crumbling, jaundiced manila folders. Civil servants shuffle listlessly through papers in the un-air-conditioned office, awaiting inane requests from the living. The dead file no complaints.
Success! Coordinates in hand, we leave the mysterious office and climb down the stairs (we dare not enter the ancient elevator, for fear that there might be a power outage and we’d get stuck—necessitating different paperwork from the Ministry of Death altogether), back across the square to the First Cemetery where the rest of the class is waiting. (It is the last day of a week-long poetry seminar. The students—mostly intrepid Americans who were not frightened off at the dire predictions of our recent election—and I have decided to take a field trip, withering heat notwithstanding.)
Along the square, the various businesses associated with death are thriving, in stark contrast to the moribund and defunct businesses in the rest of the city: florists, marble cutters, cafes that offer funeral receptions of bitter coffee, strong brandy, koliva (a Persephonic Chex mix of wheat grains, nuts, and pomegranate arils), and, for the family, fish soup. A spanking new undertakers’ office has opened, all polished stone and glass and tasteful plantings. Suicides and heart attacks are up all over the city. Austerity is good for death.
Not that the coordinates are that much help. We take a gander at the chart on the wall of the cemetery gates, but it is hard to tell if the sections are numbered according to any system or, as it appears, completely random. Once out in the heat among the tombs we lose our way, and to get our bearings we have to constantly stop gravediggers, marble cutters, or the cleaning ladies hired to sweep out family crypts.
It is poor Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951) we track down first, in a scandalously obscure and unkempt grave next to the cemetery wall. The traffic from Vouliagmenis provides a constant, dull roar that one doesn’t associate with eternal rest. He is puzzlingly unknown in the English-speaking world. (His first wife was the movie-star beautiful American heiress, Eva Palmer. Their great-granddaughter is the American poet Eleni Sikelianos, and he was a brother-in-law of sorts to Isadora Duncan.) Though always in the running for a Nobel, Sikelianos never won one. He died in Athens having survived the occupation and famine of WWII and the bitter ensuing civil war, only to accidentally drink disinfectant instead of his medication.
I read Sikelianos’s poem, “Yannis Keats,” which includes his visit to the English poet’s tomb at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It seems appropriate enough to the surroundings, but as we wend our way towards the coordinates of Palamas’s grave, it occurs to me that perhaps I should have read Sikelianos’s rousing “To Palamas.”
Palamas’s grave would also have been impossible to find without the coordinates—again low, narrow, barely legible, shaded by an ancient cypress tree and overgrown flowering shrubs. When Palamas (1859–1943) died in Athens under the German occupation, huge crowds gathered at his funeral. Sikelianos had composed some sonorous quatrains the night before (“Greece leans upon this tomb”)—all sounding trumpets and drums of war and terrible flags of freedom—rousing the mourners, perhaps one hundred thousand strong, to an angry demonstration against the occupiers.
Palamas would no doubt have relished this. He was a pivotal poet, known for vigorously promoting the demotic instead of the artificial “purified” language known as Katharevousa during the language wars—for which stance he was temporarily removed as registrar at the University of Athens. In some ways, he seems to have been inspired by the vernacular of Byron, whom he idealized. (He coined a word in Greek, Byronolatry) and for whom he had written an ode defending him from European detractors—in the fifteen-syllable meter of Greek folk songs. (Byron’s death was, of course, itself a major political event in the life of modern Greece, perhaps even the critical one.)
But the lines etched on Palamas’s grave appeared to be in iambic pentameter. Neither Fani nor I could make them out very well. The letters were faded—we could make out laós and zeí kai basileúei and chiliópsychos—the eternal or myriad-souled people live and reign?—and I answered the class’s query with a vague statement that the verses were somehow patriotic.
Seferis’s tomb was grander but still very simple, stark, even. There we read his poem “Stratis Thalassinos among the Agapanthi.” It is a poem of exile, as Seferis was a poet of exile, having been born near Smyrna in what is now modern Turkey, at the dawn of the twentieth century and the sunset of the Ottoman Empire. Stratis Thalassinos (Soldier the Seaman) is an Odyssean figure, tossed to the ends of the earth. When Seferis, who was openly critical of the Junta, died in 1971, his funeral too became an enormous, impromptu public protest, and the crowds began to sing his poem “Denial,” which had been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and had become a popular song played in Plaka jukeboxes before being banned. What began life as a hermetic love poem had become, with its Rilke-esque closing line, an anthem of defiance:
There in the secret cove,
When the noon sun seemed to halt,
I thirsted with my love,
But the water there was salt.
We wrote out her name
Upon the blinding sand,
Then—ah—the sea-breeze came
With its erasing hand.
So fiercely did we long
With spirit, heart, and strife,
To grasp at this life—wrong—
And so we changed our life.
Odysseus Elytis’s (1911–1996) family tomb was up on the higher level, in the grander neighborhood of Heinrich Schliemann’s mausoleum (designed by the German architect, Ernst Ziller). A simple plaque in bas relief had been added to the family tomb of the prosperous Alepoudelides to remind people of the Nobel laureate’s remains. He served in WWII on the Albanian front—one of his most important poems is “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania”—and then, under the Junta, lived in exile in Paris, as did many Greek intellectuals. (In Greece itself, many poets on the left were imprisoned in “detention centers” on the islands.)
Later, when I returned home, I tried to find the lines of Palamas to make better sense of them. It turned out not to be from a patriotic poem at all (though from a series called “Fatherlands”), but from a meditative sonnet on Athens:
Among the temples and groves of sacred olives,
And here among the crowds that slowly crawl
Like an inchworm on a flower, white and stark,
The everlasting throng of relics thrives
And reigns. The soul shines even through soil’s caul.
I feel it: Inside me, it grapples with the dark.
It’s a strange poem, a strange image: Athens ringed in light, the famous virginal whiteness of Pentelic marble gleaming even from under the ground, where implements of archeology unearth buried gods. The dark file of the living creep over the brightness like a caterpillar; it is the ruins that are most fully alive.
Here, the past refuses to stay buried. In the center of the cemetery, near one of the churches, a side building announces on its window: Office of Exhumation. Land is at a premium, and until very recently cremation was illegal (the Orthodox church frowns on it—even now, one must drive the corpse to Bulgaria to have it done), so unless one is possessed of a family crypt, bones must be dug up after three years. You can buy an ossuary in one of the nearby shops. Even the dead are subject to eviction.
For living poets, the economic crisis of the past few years is perhaps a reminder that even their relatively recent poetic forebears, as well as their genetic ones, have seen worse: occupation, famine, civil war, military dictatorship. Only poets under the age of forty were born into the present democracy, dysfunctional as it is. (And in the gerontocracy of modern Greece, forty means a young, not just a younger, poet—Kronos is still busy eating his children.)
“Crisis isn’t new to poetry; it’s only new to us,” Iana Boukova explains. Iana is a Bulgarian poet who works and publishes in Greece.
This is back in April, at a poetic taverna lunch arranged by my friend, the poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou. It is a bright blue afternoon and despite the crisis, or perhaps because of it, there is a need to sit outside under the sky and enjoy the time with friends. Though it is Lent, no one at the table is fasting, so our fare includes roasted feta cheese and village sausages.
Everyone agrees that there is an added sense of urgency. (“With the crisis,” someone utters wryly, quoting the newspapers, “Greece has reentered history.”) But the poets also agree that their calling is to speak to the human condition, to what is timeless rather than to current events. That is the job of journalists; it is the work of prose. Poetry needs distance.
Katerina Iliopoulou, who studied chemistry and makes jewelry for a living, adds her concern that during the crisis people want to make poetry answer questions, whereas poetry “is rather the field of the multiplication of questions.”
I say I have heard that the crisis has renewed people’s interest in the arts—that the arts are thriving. Does anyone have anecdotal evidence of this?
Stamatis Polenakis, who writes plays as well as poetry, agrees that the theatres are doing well. Someone points out that Athens has the most theatres per capita of any other European city.
No one is sanguine on the subject of publishing, however. Bookstores and publishing houses have been folding at an alarming rate. The line between “official” publication and vanity publishing is ambiguous, since poets are often expected to put up money or to purchase most of their volumes.
As with every aspect of Greek society, it is the young who suffer, with poetry being no more immune to the nepotistic patron-and-client system than the rest of society, and every bit as political. (Many cultural positions, some of them for all intents and purposes argomisthos—a uniquely Greek word with no English equivalent, meaning a salaried position without actual duties attached—have long been in the gift of the ruling party.) Off the record, some younger poets complain that poets in positions of power (almost exclusively male) work only to cement their own place in the firmament. The generation of the seventies (and eighties), as one younger scholar puts it, is obsessed with replicating the generation of the thirties (to which Seferis and Elytis belonged) and does little to champion the work of the next generation. This is in stark contrast to, for instance, Palamas, who tirelessly brought to public attention obscure older poets as well as younger contemporaries such as Cavafy, Seferis, and Ritsos.
Perhaps the crisis and the outer world’s focus on Greece are changing some of that, emboldening the younger generation to initiate their own readings, journals, prizes. Panayotis Ioannidis (born 1967) has started a popular reading series that juxtaposes older, established writers with young ones, alternating those readings with readings of a foreign poet in the original and in translation. He also started a campaign to “Write a Sonnet for Mavilis” in honor of the centenary of the poet’s death. (Lorentzos Mavilis, 1860–1912, was Greek’s preeminent sonneteer; his last sonnet was found in the pocket of his uniform when he was killed in the Balkan Wars. Now he is probably best known in Athens for his eponymous square near the American embassy.) Since modern Greek verse is almost exclusively free verse and often in the surreal tradition and postmodern vein, this challenge seems mischievously provocative.
Can charming sonnets answer the crisis? Stamatis Polenakis (b. 1970) suggests not:
Gentlemen, don’t let anything,
anyone, deceive you:
we were not bankrupted today,
we have been bankrupt for a long time now.
Today it’s easy enough
for anyone to walk on water:
the empty bottles bob on the surface
without carrying any secret messages.
The sirens don’t sing, nor are they silent,
they merely stay motionless,
dumbstruck by the privatization
of the waves and no
poetry doesn’t suffice since the sea filled up
with trash and condoms.
Let him write as many sonnets as he wants about Faliro,
that Lorentzos Mavilis.
—Poetry Does Not Suffice
(Faliro, now a seaside suburb near Piraeus, was the subject of a rather whimsical love poem by Mavilis involving an heiress with a new-fangled automobile.)
Frustrated in some ways by the generation directly above them, the younger poets seek out not their poetic fathers and mothers but their poetic grandparents and great-grandparents. Panayotis lists some of these poetic antecedents he thinks are particularly relevant:
Eleni Vakalo—a true modernist, a wonderful, pioneering poet, and an extremely important art critic and art historian.
Nikos Engonopoulos—the less discussed (but arguably the better poet) of our surrealist Dioskouroi (Andreas Empeirikos being the other one).
Kostas Karyotakis—who has been termed the “major of the minors,” and whose importance was buried under Seferis’s and Elytis’s personalities (though we should really say “masked” rather than “buried” in the case of Seferis, who arose partly from that same climate).
Takis Papatsonis—a scandalously neglected modernist giant, the first to use free verse in Greek. But he was a (devout) Catholic, and he wrote in a language that was not “pure” demotic.
With the crisis, Panayotis says, “It’s time to choose our ancestors.”
The older generations have their own frustrations. I meet with a poet I am translating. As with many Greeks, his forefathers hail from Asia Minor, tossed here on the waves of misfortune. He himself grew up in a village in Boeotia, for which he has little nostalgia (“freezing in winter, boiling in summer; unpleasant all year round”). As with many Greeks he is embroiled in a never-ending lawsuit—this one with his brother over some property in the village left to them by their father. The legal system is a mess, the judges are “bribe eaters.” His view of the current political situation is black: “It is bad,” he says, “to be an honest man where felons rule.” It’s no wonder crime is up, with youth unemployment close to 50%: “The idle man who lives on empty hope and has no way to earn his living turns his mind to crime.”
“We’re living in the age of iron,” he explains, over bitter coffee. “By day, men work and grieve unceasingly; by night, they waste away and die.”
A British ex-pat poet is concerned that the bailout is being jeopardized by the atmosphere of political uncertainty. He writes:
I must frankly confess, that unless union and order are established, all hopes of a loan will be vain; and all the assistance which the Greeks could expect from abroad—an assistance neither trifling nor worthless—will be suspended or destroyed; and, what is worse, the great powers of Europe...will be persuaded that the Greeks are unable to govern themselves.
I wish something was heard of the arrival of part of the loan, for there is a plentiful dearth of every thing at present.
The Greek poet I am translating should know an iron age when he sees one, being Hesiod, and writing from the eighth century before Christ. And the ex-pat poet is, of course, George Gordon Noel, AKA Lord Byron. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s certainly true of Greece, where the punitive terms of the bailout—the “austerity” (which, in Greek, is litotes, probably better known to you as a rhetorical device whereby two negatives connive to make a lukewarm positive)—eerily echo the crippling terms of the initial loan on which the country was founded (and nearly foundered), as well as the rhetoric about shiftless, spendthrift, shady Mediterraneans who cannot be trusted with self-governance.
Verse, if not necessarily poetry, is everywhere. Verses are scrawled on the sides of buildings: much graffiti rhymes and scans. The chants of protestors during general strikes tend to be in the driving fifteen-syllable meter of folk song—that is to say, ballad meter, with a feminine ending. Greek rap, too, tends to the decapentasyllabic. It is the pulse that comes up through the medieval Cretan romance, the Erotokritos, the poem that many Greek poets, Seferis in particular, have considered the essential document of modern Greek poetry.
Verse seems to be the natural public response to tragedy. On April 4 at 9:00 AM, as people poured out of the Metro station on their way to work, a seventy-seven-year-old Greek pensioner and retired pharmacist shot himself in the head in front of the Greek parliament. His widely-circulated suicide note declared:
The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival...And since I cannot find justice, I cannot find another means to react besides putting a decent end [to my life], before I start searching the garbage for food and become a burden for my child.
The rhetoric is incendiary. He conflates the current administration with the collaborationist government under Nazi occupation, easily read by people as a comment on the government’s cooperation with the demands of Merkel’s Germany. The suicide note concludes with a call for Greeks to pick up machine guns. The image, too, of a middle-class Greek who has lived through occupation, famine (during the unusually cold winter of 1941–42, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand people died of starvation in the greater Athens area alone), and the Junta years, picking through the garbage for food (something that was a few years ago unheard of, and is increasingly visible in the city), strikes a chord.
By the end of the day there are violent clashes with police in the Square. The ancient cypress tree (which has itself survived countless riots, clouds of tear gas, and street battles) becomes a makeshift shrine, surrounded by flower wreaths, banners, and letters. The banners make much of the fact that in Greek, suicide (autoktonía) rhymes with murder (dolophonía). Another asserts, “Austerity Kills.” Some have a sort of Greek Anthology elegant simplicity:
May the earth lie lightly
And your sacrifice not be in vain.
Some quote others. A snatch of prose from Nikos Kazantzakis:
There is in this world a secret law—if it did not exist, the world would have been lost thousands of years ago, cruel and inviolate; Evil always triumphs in the beginning, but in the end is defeated.
Another quotes a poem (in rhymed quatrains) of Alekos Panagoulis (1939–1976):
No more tears,
The graves have closed.
The first dead
Are the fertilizer of liberty.
(Fertilizer is accurate, but uglier in English than lipasma is in Greek—perhaps something like “enrich the soil of liberty” would have a better ring?)
Panagoulis is better known as a political figure than as a poet, particularly for his attempted assassination of the dictator Georgios Papadopoulos during the Junta, in 1968. He, too, lies somewhere in the labyrinth of the First Cemetery.
It occurs to me later that the suicide occurred shortly before my yoga class in the center of Athens—a class where we are exhorted as part of our practice to tune out police sirens, car alarms, megaphoned sloganeering, gloomy Communist anthems, the occasional stun grenade, the odd whiff of tear gas, and other evidence of strikes and protests. The cleanup of the body was probably going on while we were lying on our narrow mats in shavasana: corpse pose.
Poetry also enters the political rhetoric. After May’s fruitless elections, as a caretaker government was sworn in, the previous prime minister, Lucas Papademos, worried about an exit from the Euro, said in an open letter that the sacrifices of the Greeks were not “an empty shirt” (poukámiso adeianó). Crime writer Paul Johnston was quick to point out (via Facebook) that this was an allusion to Seferis’s poem “Helen.” In that poem, the Greeks learn after the Trojan war that Helen was never in Troy, only a phantom of her was. The real Helen was in Egypt all along. All that suffering, all that destruction “for an empty blouse—for a Helen.”
On the floor of parliament, Cavafy is evidently the weapon of choice. An exchange in July between Alexis Tsipras (the youthful rising star, or angry young Turk, of Greek politics, head of Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, whose recent success at the ballot box sent shudders through the financial world) and Antonis Samaras (current prime minister and head of the moderately right-wing New Democracy party) went as follows. Tsipras:
Now your job is not to deconstruct Syriza’s platform and to talk about its dangers. Now you are faced with harsh reality, not with Syriza. And now, what will become of us without barbarians? as the poet said.
After calling Tsipras out on his casual paraphrase, Samaras retorts with a carefully accurate quotation:
Since you like Cavafy, I will answer you with Cavafy: Tell Mr. Fotopoulos [head of the powerful workers’ union of the Public Power Corporation, DEI] whom you worthily represent: “Bid farewell to the Alexandria which you are losing.”
One of the things that seems to enrage the Northern Europeans about Greece is what is perceived as a lack of proper contrition or gratitude among the Greeks towards their rescuers. That the Greeks, for all the austerity that is squeezing the life out of the country, continue to enjoy what pleasures they can—for the price of a coffee you can still sit out all day under brilliant skies at a sidewalk cafe, and for next to nothing you can have a picnic at the beach—provokes the kind of fury diligent ants reserve for hedonic grasshoppers. (Never mind that the average Greek works very hard indeed and has no choice but to pay his taxes, which are deducted directly out of his salary. According to recent statistics from the OECD, in terms of actual hours, Greeks are one of the hardest working peoples out of the thirty largest economies, coming second only to the Koreans.) Even in suffering, the Greeks refuse to be miserable.
Is that why there is a counter-intuitive flourishing of the arts—an exuberance that seems to come out of the urgency of the economic crisis when art realizes that it cannot be starved like the economy? Even I find myself working at a feverish pace—not writing per se, but reading intensely, translating furiously. The translations start almost subconsciously. As I struggle with a poem that niggles in the mind in Greek, it starts to nacre itself into English, as with this poem by Katerina Iliopoulou (b. 1967):
In the beam of the headlights she appeared
Crossing the road,
A small brown fox.
And again the next night
Flitting behind a bush.
And another time only her tail
Brushed the darkness.
And from then on
Her footprints padded across your sight,
Her warm furry body
Skittering between us.
Always in passing, never staying still.
“But who are you,” we ask her.
“I am,” she said, “what abounds.”
Perhaps at first it was the elusive fox—distant Mediterranean cousin to Ted Hughes’s thought fox—that attracted. But it was the end that stumped me, that teased. The poem ends on the verb perisseúei—a verb formed from the Greek for “more.” What is left over? What is extra? What is too much? What surfeits? Is superfluous? Overflows?
The possibilities multiply and kaleidoscope. It reminds me that it is through poetry that I live life more abundantly. It is the opposite of austerity.
The one thing people will ask you here if you are, as I am, clearly a foreigner, is: Are you here permanently? Are you planning to go back? We have small children and people think us mad to stay. Our children’s future probably isn’t here. I can’t imagine them going to Greek university, for instance. Just a couple of years ago we were applying for jobs in the States in the face of what seemed the inevitable—that we would have to pull up stakes to make a living back in America. My husband had had to leave his job, and we were a one-income family to begin with. (News of the situation in Greece, however, seemed to have escaped American academia—I was asked in one job interview whether I would be able to give up my idyllic life of leisure on the Greek islands to “do battle” at the office. I was at a loss how to answer this, since my actual life in Athens involves negotiating a baby stroller through street protests while dodging billows of tear gas.)
A deus ex machina in the form of generous grants suddenly changed things. For the time being, at least, we can contemplate not leaving. While living among the fallout of the crisis, we are somewhat insulated. Insulated, but not unaffected. The visible reminders are everywhere: the shell of a fire-bombed government office gapes two streets over; graffiti for the neo-Nazi party “Golden Dawn” has started to deface the neighborhood, twisting the Greek meander into a fascist symbol; around the corner a young man evicted from his apartment lives on the sidewalk with all of his belongings under a tarp, subsisting on food brought to him by neighbors. A few days ago we turned on the television to hear a news item that some youths in Neos Kosmos had gotten into a skirmish with police, resulting in gunfire and the hurling of a grenade. This turns out to have happened a couple of blocks away on our own street.
Still, though, still...Athens seems extraordinarily safe to me, and there are many reasons to love our neighborhood—that it is a neighborhood, with a butcher, baker, and a candlemaker (in that order) around the corner—where everyone knows our kids’ names and to whom they belong, where the local square, for all its contentious graffiti, has a view of the Acropolis and fills on summer evenings with all the generations together: grandparents, adults, teenagers, children zooming around on bikes (naturally sans helmets).
When I go to pay the rent on my office—a luxury suddenly possible because of the aforementioned grants—to the man across the street who runs a driving school (like us, in his early forties and a parent of small children), he says to me, “I always look at your husband’s face carefully when he leaves the house.” My husband, John Psaropoulos, is a journalist—very busy, naturally, in recent months, reporting for Al Jazeera, NPR, the Daily Beast. “When your husband is smiling, I think it is all going to be OK,” he says. “But when he is frowning, I think, it’s time to head for the hills.” “Me too,” I laugh. But he shakes his head at my lame joke. “You, you can always leave. You can go to America. We Greeks are dying.”
For us, staying is a choice, as much as leaving would be a choice. It is strange that we haven’t thought of it in that way before. You come here thinking it will be just for a couple of years, and a decade passes. There is a Greek proverb: nothing is more permanent than the temporary. One day, you realize you may never move back after all. One day, you realize you are looking at the cemeteries, and at the graves of poets, in a different way. The way a young girl, perhaps, shyly glances at wedding dresses. You even have a nice little epitaph in mind, a gem out of Propertius. (Though would Latin look out of place in a Greek graveyard, you wonder?) Well, it’s where we’re all headed, one way or another, with or without the coordinates.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...