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Fugitive Train

"Poetry is that which is lost in translation, as Frost’s truism goes, but there is a corollary to be deduced from this – what comes across in translation is then the prose of the poem, the argument, the plot, the syntax perhaps, the thought if the thought is separate in some way from the sound. The prose of an ambitious poem is not negligible."
A Levant Journal, by George Seferis. Tr. by Roderick Beaton. Ibis Editions. $16.95.

To Greek readers, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis are the two modern poets. According to a poet friend, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Constantine P. Cavafy — her own favorite — is a much less discussed third. While Seferis clearly has his American fans — I was surprised to discover that Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot has some epigraphs from his work — my sense is that in the us he is not nearly as widely read as Cavafy. Certainly in my own case, having moved to Greece in 1999, I had read quite a bit of Cavafy, who no doubt appealed to my Classicist roots, but had only a peripheral impression of Seferis — the well-chosen handful of pieces from Keeley and Sherrard’s Voices of Modern Greece. Even so, they were harder for me to get any purchase on — I would often slip off their elusive modern surface. This has slowly changed. I kept going back to the poems, now wrestling with them in Greek, staking out more and more “discoveries” in what was still a difficult landscape. Perhaps if I had had a guide to his work in the context of his life and times, as offered by Roderick Beaton in A Levant  Journal, I might have come round sooner.

Poetry is that which is lost in translation, as Frost’s truism goes, but there is a corollary to be deduced from this — what comes across in translation is then the prose of the poem, the argument, the plot, the syntax perhaps, the thought if the thought is separate in some way from the sound. The prose of an ambitious poem is not negligible. The diction, the word-play, the “best words” are lost, but they are still in the “best order.” This is why Cavafy does so well in translation — the parallelisms, juxtapositions, repetitions, irony, situations, characters, and “historical sense” do travel. Cavafy’s artistry may be in the verse of his poems, but his original genius is in the prose of his poems, and that translates very well indeed.

The prose of Seferis’s poems is more problematic. Stripped of the music of Greek, the context of its Greekness, and its strata of registers, what remains in translation can seem a hermetic Modernism redolent of Eliot. (Lawrence Durrell writing to Seferis remarked, “We are having a hard time not making you sound like Eliot.”) I have a hunch he fares better in French.

It is perfectly possible, for instance, in Greek, to quote a phrase directly from Aeschylus (take “Last Stop,” with its “mnesipemon ponos,” beautifully rendered by Beaton as “the pain-perpetuating memory of pain”) in the ancient Greek without having to change font or language and have it be understandable on some level by the average reader. The language is archaic, but it is clearly the same language — words 2,500 years apart can be placed side by side to set off harmonic vibrations across the millennia. Greek myth will also have a different function for a Greek, an overlap and continuity, not symbol but reality. Odysseus, resembling the Skala fisherman of Seferis’s youth, speaks to Seferis in his own tongue. One of Seferis’s major early works goes by the title of Mythistorima — the regular term in Greek for novel, but, as one can hear, a combination of myth and history. Its twenty-four sections, “numbered” by the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet, evoke the twenty-four books of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Seferis’s historical sense also differs from Cavafy’s. (I am thinking of Eliot’s use of the term, though it is best distilled by Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) It is as though the character in any Cavafy poem could get up and walk into any other Cavafy poem — shabby, beautiful young men of modern Alexandria fraternizing with Hellenistic grammarians. But Seferis’s historical sense is shaped by a much more direct experience of — indeed sometimes direct involvement in — history’s violent vicissitudes. When Seferis says in an epitaph on Euripides the Athenian, “He grew old between the fires of Troy / and the quarries of Sicily,” he could almost be talking about himself, his life caught between the Smyrna of his birth in 1900 — in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire — and his death in Athens in 1971 under the oppressive rule of  the Colonels.

That Smyrna would be razed and burnt to the ground in what is known by Greeks as the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922 — the same year as the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem Seferis would later famously translate into Greek. Mr. Eugenides the Smyrna merchant would be stuck that year in London, it seems, with his pocketful of currents and his demotic French. (You can’t go back to Smyrna — it is now modern Izmir.)

After his family moved to Athens, Seferis studied law in Paris and embarked on a life as a diplomat for Greece, serving successive governments through world war and civil war, from dictatorship to government-in-exile during German occupation to socialist rule to military junta, and would be stationed in Albania, Turkey, Lebanon, South Africa, Jerusalem, and Egypt, eventually serving as ambassador in London during the Cyprus crisis. He was a civil servant firmly in the establishment who nevertheless became the popular voice of protest. His funeral was held in the Church of the Transformation in Plaka, the old neighborhood of Athens, after which crowds spilled into the thoroughfare, spontaneously breaking into Theodorakis’s setting of his poem “Denial.” With its last line, “And so we changed our life,” it became an anthem of protest.

Without this context, Seferis’s work can be difficult to approach. A Levant Journal should provide a welcoming entrance. Roderick Beaton, who translated, edited, introduced, and annotated this little jewel of a book, which has the look and feel of an actual journal you might tuck into a capacious overcoat pocket, selected excerpts from Seferis’s diaries written during his postings and travels in the Levantine region. Seferis was not just a poet, but a man of letters — a novelist, brilliant critic (see his essay on Cavafy and Eliot), translator, assiduous letter-writer, and diarist. These different modes of writing all illuminate one another. Beaton highlights this by including five poems, which in and of themselves make an excellent introduction.

The poems come either from the nautically-titled Logbook II or Logbook III, while the journal entries themselves are sometimes written aboard ship (or in hotels or on trains), with the leitmotif of removals, upheavals, and evacuations. As Beaton points out, though Seferis is steeped in travel writing, this is its opposite — not the willing adventures of the traveler, but the peripeteias of the exile, the displaced person tossed on waves of war, like the anonymous and reluctant companions of Odysseus whose day of return has, in the words of Homer, been “blotted out.” The Companions, characters who appear in one way or another throughout his opus, are clearly still with us.

Stratis Thalassianos (Beaton reminds us his name means something like, “Wayfarer the Seafarer”) is arguably one of them. An alter ego of Seferis, he is sometimes depicted as a companion of Odysseus (“I sailed for a year with Captain Odysseus”), sometimes Odysseus himself, though adrift off the coast of South Africa (“Stratis Thalassianos Among the Agapanthi”), sometimes just a Greek sailor far from home. This is from “Stratis Thalassianos at the Dead Sea,” one of the poems in A Levant Journal:

the dark train full of  fugitives, where infants
are fed on filth, and the sins of their parents
and the middle-aged can sense the chasm
opening out between the body
that remains behind like a wounded camel
and the soul whose courage knows no bounds, or so
they say.
It is also the ships that take them on voyages,
standing-room only like stuffed prelates
packed into the hold, to come to rest one evening
in the seaweed of  the deep, so very gently.

Compare the Jerusalem entry of  July 5, 1942:

The “evacuation” train was due to leave at 21:00. We were there by 19:45. There was a set of empty third-class carriages and a motley throng of people waiting for the signal to start pushing and shoving through the turnstiles. The signal duly came, and all the wave of humanity, dragging along suitcases, paper bags, infants, sprang up and started pouring into the carriages, like water into a sinking ship. So we found ourselves on wooden seats in the midst of a crowd speaking German and Italian (the “free” subjects of the enemy), all getting on each other’s nerves, quarrelling and shouting.

The two modes of writing are utterly different in the way they process the raw materials — but the poem is grounded by the reality, and the reality expanded by the metaphorical dimension of the poem. We see just how literal many symbols are, and how the straw of experience is spun into gold.

In Egypt in 1943 he writes:

On this I insist: why does a certain impression function poetically, more than a thousand other daily impressions?    ...    The last time it happened, I was coming down the stairs from the office: I saw a group of carpenters in a room knocking down a stage-set, which had been left over by the previous tenants. I had a feeling like when the camera lens clicks: the impression functioned: why that one and not another?

From this, “Mountebanks, Middle East” emerges, a poem both surreal and (depressingly) topical, charged with poetic and historical moment. It begins:

We set up theaters and knock them down
every time we come to town —
we set up theaters and stage-sets,
but stronger still are our fates

that sweep away both them and us
mountebanks and impresarios
both the prompter and the band
to every corner of  the land.

And concludes:

look into our hearts: a sponge
to hang about bazaars and plunge
down into the blood and grief
of  the tetrarch and the common thief.

(Note the sensitive rendering by Beaton of the rhyme and meter — one hopes he will try his hand at more verse translation.) In Greek, the title is “Theatrinoi” — “actors,” but “insincere people.” “Mountebanks” gets this across neatly, though it is perhaps more highly colored than the Greek. (There is also something to be said for the simplicity of Keeley and Sherrard’s “Actors, Middle East,” which also vibrates with political overtones. My own stray thoughts went to “Players” or even “Hypocrites,” though the latter is probably too arcane a pun.) A tetrarchy was a quarter of a region and the tetrarch its ruler — it specifically applied to areas such as Palestine — while the Tetrarch that springs to mind is Herod.

The journal entries also illuminate Seferis’s thinking on poetry and poets, and how that thinking is caught up in experience and landscape. In Egypt, Seferis tries to come to terms with the influence of Cavafy:

I think of Cavafy, as I inspect this low-lying land. His poetry is like that too; as prosaic as the endless plain before us. It has no rise and fall; it goes at a walking pace. I understand Cavafy better now and I respect him for what he did.

(Seferis’s literary circle had at one point been dismissive of Cavafy.) Presumably there is a pun here in the Greek, since the word for prose is the word for pedestrian.

Seferis has a diarist’s perfect pitch for dialogue and anecdote, which range from the humorous to the tragic. From a Greek writer living in Alexandria who nonetheless does not bother releasing his books in Greece, we hear:

“Do you send those [privately-printed books] to Greece?” I [G.S.] asked him.

“No. I allow nothing to distract me from the task at hand. Not even the pleasure of giving them to my friends. For me the work of art is like fucking. If it happens to result in children, that’s purely by the way.”

“Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,” Seferis says in perhaps his most famous line, and in the journals we see how true this is. For throughout the Levant — Egypt, Jerusalem, Iran, Cyprus, Lebanon, even Iraq — it is not only the pain of Greek exiles, or the sickening incompetence of local and colonial Greek politicians, but the decaying monuments of a once-extensive Greek-speaking empire — ancient theatres hollow as sea shells — since fallen into dust, that prick the heart. Having been born into one toppling empire, witnessing all that it takes down with it, he was forever wary of other empires in their decline, such as the British on Cyprus. But again for Seferis, this is overlaid by the historical sense — the palimpsests of ancient, Hellenistic, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern empires. It is a region where generations utter solemnly to one another across the millennia, even as the giant us Embassy compound is doing in Iraq today: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” amidst the leveling sands of time. The haunting question for Seferis is always, what shall we replace this with?

But above all, what comes across in these excerpts is that Seferis’s own brand of Modernism, deeply influenced as it was by Eliot, cannot be divided from current events, history, or politics. In 1944 he writes:

Timos wants me to return to literature and write a prologue and a study of the poet for a book that’s been commissioned by an Alexandrian publisher, with the title The Age of Eliot. My response, which is to send them to the devil is strong: The Age of Eliot, after everything that’s been done before our eyes these last few months?

Poetry is not an ornament of life, nor an escape from it, but deep engagement with it, integrated expression of  it. It is the high seriousness of Seferis (not to be confused with humorlessness, for humor too can play for mortal stakes) that feels so refreshing in this day and age, like a glass of water after elaborate cocktails. He writes in “An Old Man on the Riverbank,” (“Gerontas,” “old man” in Greek, cannot help here but evoke Eliot’s “Gerontion”):

I ask nothing else but to speak simply, to be granted
this grace.
Because our song has become overloaded with so
many kinds of music that slowly it is sinking
and our art has been overlaid so heavily that the
gold has eaten away its face
and it is time we spoke the few words we have
because tomorrow our souls set sail.

The overlay of gold on the image simultaneously brings to mind the gold death masks of pharaohs and Mycenean kings, and Byzantine icons with their precious metal revetments — revetments that often survive the painted wooden images themselves. When one looks at such an artifact, it is exactly as though the face has been “eaten away.” The image is pure Seferis — stubbornly local, mysterious, universal. Take away the layers of gilt, he seems to say. Let us look on the face, flawed, individual, human.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Poetry magazine


  • 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,...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Fugitive Train


  • 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,...

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