GEORGE SEFERIS-Collected Poems//REVIEW

George Seferis’ Collected Poems

Sep 26, 2013

Christopher Doda

George Seferis, Collected Poems
Surrey: Libros Libertad, 2012.

For a poet of his stature, there are remark­ably few Eng­lish trans­la­tions of George Seferis’s work. A giant of Greek poetry and 20th Cen­tury Euro­pean poetry in gen­eral, Seferis (1900–1971) inherited the old­est sur­viv­ing lan­guage of the West and brought its poetry into the mod­ern world. He wrote dur­ing a long career as a diplo­mat with post­ings in Turkey, Alba­nia, around the Mid­dle East, Iraq, and the United King­dom, and picked up numer­ous acco­lades, along with the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1963. Since his death, his fame has grown to the point where lines from his “Mythi­s­torema” were used in the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. In spite of this, there has been only one (that I know of) selected, pre­pared with the poet’s assis­tance, by Rex Warner in 1960 and then a com­plete poems by Edmund Kee­ley and Philip Sher­rard released in var­i­ous edi­tions between 1967 and 1995. Throw­ing his hat into the ring is British Columbia’s Mano­lis with Col­lected Poems, which includes a crit­i­cal intro­duc­tion, a gen­er­ous amount of the verse, a par­tial bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, and the text of Seferis’s Nobel speech. One of Seferis’s most strik­ing lines is from “In the Man­ner of George Seferis”: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,” mean­ing both the nation and its long his­tory. Not sur­pris­ingly, places and fig­ures from ancient Greece pop­u­late his work: Agamem­non, Helen, Astyanax, Androm­eda, and Orestes all make appear­ances, but he also wrote often from the point of view of ordi­nary sol­diers, cit­i­zens and refugees caught in the hor­ror of cir­cum­stance, wit­nesses to his­tory but with­out any con­trol over their des­tiny, those who “knew that the islands were beau­ti­ful / some­where, per­haps around here, where we grope / a bit lower or slightly higher / a very tiny space.” I don’t know the Greek lan­guage and won’t pre­tend that I do but I can say that Manolis’s ren­der­ings are more col­lo­quial and less for­mal com­pared to ear­lier trans­la­tions. Con­sider his ver­sion of this stanza from “The Sen­tence to Obliv­ion”:

And what­ever hap­pened had the seren­ity of what you see before you
they had the same seren­ity because there wasn’t any soul left in us to con­tem­plate
other than the crav­ing to incise some marks on the stones
that have now touched the bot­tom below mem­ory.

And com­pare it with Kee­ley and Sher­rard:

And what then hap­pened had the same tran­quil­lity as what you see before you
the same tran­quil­lity because there wasn’t a soul left for us to con­sider
except the power for carv­ing a few signs on the stones
which now have reached the depths below mem­ory.

Not rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, but Manolis’s ver­sion is less rhyth­mic and, one might argue, less poetic than the other. Over the years, Kee­ley and Sherrard’s trans­la­tions have emerged as defin­i­tive, par­tially due to lack of com­pe­ti­tion. This vol­ume is unlikely to chal­lenge them for top spot but vari­ety is nec­es­sary for the longevity of the poetry. (As an aside, I rarely men­tion this in reviews but the num­ber of typos, mis­placed punc­tu­a­tion, and con­fu­sion between Cana­dian and US spelling in this book is truly irk­some. And the low-res­o­lu­tion image of a sun­rise over water through ruined ancient columns on the cover would be bet­ter suited to an issue of The Watch­tower.) Hav­ing already released vol­umes of Con­stan­tine Cavafy and Yan­nis Rit­sos, Mano­lis seems to be work­ing his way through the 20th Cen­tury Greek canon. I won­der if there might be an Odysseus Elytis or Angelos Sike­lianos in the near future.
~ Christo­pher Doda is the author of two poetry col­lec­tions, Among Ruins and Aes­thet­ics Lesson. He is cur­rently work­ing on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.

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Yannis Ritsos-A Review

rits

Yannis Ritsos Poems–Selected Books

Translated by Manolis

Edited by Apryl Leaf

LibrosLibertad, Surrey BC

 

Review by Amy Henry

A careful hand is needed to translate the poems of Yannis Ritsos, and Manolis is the ideal poet to undertake such an enormous task.  Born in Crete, Manolis’s youth was intermingled with the poetry of Ritsos.   Once a young man moved by the Theodorakis version of Epitaphios, he’s now a successful poet in his own right who is still moved to tears hearing the refrains of those notes from half a century ago.  His Greek heritage, with its knowledge of the terrain, people, history and cultural themes, makes his translation all the more true to what Ritsos intended.  Having visited the very places of which Ritsos wrote, he knows how the light and sea shift, and how Ritsos imagined those changes as being a temperament and personality of the Greece itself.

The parallels in their lives are uncanny: when Ritsos was imprisoned, Manolis’ father also was imprisoned on false charges.  Both men dealt with the forces of dictators and censorship, and experienced the cruel and unreasoning forces of those times.  In fact, they even lived for a time in the same neighborhood.  In his foreword to Poems, Manolis relates that he viewed him as a comrade, one whose “work resonated with our intense passion for our motherland and also in our veracity and strong-willed quest to find justice for all Greeks.”

In Poems, Manolis chose to honor Ritsos first by not just picking and choosing a few titles to translate, although that might have been far easier.  Instead, he undertook the complex task of translating fifteen entire books of Ritsos work-an endeavor that took years of meticulous research and patience.  It should be noted that along with the translation, edited by Apryl Leaf, that he also includes a significant Introduction that gives a reader unfamiliar with Ritsos an excellent background on the poet from his own perspective.

Dated according to when Ritsos composed them, it’s fascinating to see how some days were especially productive for him.  These small details are helpful in understanding the context and meaning.  For example, in Notes on the Margins of Time, written from 1938-1941, Ritsos explores the forces of war that are trickling into even the smallest villages.  Without direct commentary, he alludes to trains, blood, and the sea that takes soldiers away, seldom to return.  Playing an active role in these violent times, the moon observes all, and even appears as a thief ready to steal life from whom it is still new. From “In the Barracks”:

The moon entered the barracks

It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets

Touched an undressed arm  Sleep

Someone talks in his sleep   Someone snores

A shadow gesture on the long wall

The last trolley bus went by  Quietness

 

Can all these be dead tomorrow?

Can they be dead from right now?

 

A soldier wakes up

He looks around with glassy eyes

A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips

 

In Romiosini, the postwar years are a focus (1945-1947), and they have not been kind.  The seven parts to this piece each reflect a soldier’s journey home.

 

These trees don’t take comfort in less sky

These rocks don’t take comfort under foreigners’

                Footsteps

These faces don’t’ take comfort but only

                In the sun

These hearts don’t take comfort except in justice.

 

The return to his country is marked by bullet-ridden walls, burnt-out homes, decay, and the predominantly female populace, one that still hears the bombs falling and the screams of the dead as they dully gaze about, looking for fathers, husbands, and sons.  The traveler’s journey is marked by introspection and grim memories reflected on to the surfaces of places and things he thought he knew.
“And now is the time when the moon kisses him sorrowfully

                Close to his ear

The seaweed the flowerpot the stool and the stone ladder

                Say good evening to him

And the mountains the seas and cities and the sky

                Say good evening to him

And then finally shaking the ash off his cigarette

                Over the iron railing

He may cry because of his assurance

He may cry because of the assurance of the trees and

                The stars and his brothers”

 

An entirely different feeling is found in Parentheses, composed 1946-1947.  In it, healing is observed and a generosity of spirit exerts itself among those whose hearts had been previously crushed.  In “Understanding”:

 

A woman said good morning to someone –so simple and natural

                Good morning…

Neither division nor subtraction  To be able to look outside

Yourself-warmth and serenity  Not to be

‘just yourself’ but ‘you too’  A small addition

A small act of practical arithmetic easily understood…

 

On the surface, it may appear simple, a return to familiarity that may have been difficulty in times of war.  Yet on another level, he appears to be referring to the unity among the Greek people-the  ‘practical arithmetic’ that kept them united though their political state was volatile.  Essentially timeless, his counsel goes far beyond nationalism.

 

Moonlight Sonata, written in 1956, is an impossibly romantic and poignant lyric poem that feels more like a short story.  In it, a middle-aged woman talks to a young man in her rustic home.  As he prepares to leave, she asks to walk with him a bit in the moonlight.  “The moon is good –it doesn’t show my gray hair.  The moon will turn my hair gold again.  You won’t see the difference.  Let me come with you”

 

Her refrain is repeated over and over as they walk, with him silent and her practically begging him to take her away from the house and its memories:

 

“I know that everyone marches to love alone

Alone to glory and to death

I know it  I tried it  It’s of no use

Let me come with you”

 

The poem reveals her memories as well as his awkward silence, yet at the end of their journey, she doesn’t leave.  Ritsos leaves the ending open:  was it a dream?  If not, why did she not go?  What hold did the house have over her?  Was it just the moonlight or a song on the radio that emboldened her?

 

In 1971, Ritsos wrote The Caretaker’s Desk in Athens, where he was under surveillance but essentially free.  At this time he seems to be translating himself-that of how he was processing his own personal history.  Already acclaimed for his work, perhaps he was uncertain of his own identity.

 

From “The Unknown”,

 

He knew what his successive disguises stood for

(even with them often out of time and always vague)

A fencer  a herald  a priest  a ropewalker

A hero  a victim   a dead Iphigenia  He didn’t know

The one he disguised himself as  His colorful costumes

Pile on the floor covering the hole of the floor

And on top of the pile the carved golden mask

And in the cavity of the mask   the unfired pistol

 

If he is indeed discussing his identity, it’s with incredible honesty as to both his public persona and his private character.  After all, he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 (and eight more times) and he was likely weighing, in his later years, all that he’d endured.

 

The beauty of this particular translation is that, while subjects and emotions change over time, they still feel united by the underlying character of Ritsos.  Some translators leave their own imprint or influence, yet this feels free of such adjustment.  It’s as if Ritsos’ voice itself has been translated, with the pauses, humor, and pace that identify the subtle characteristics of an individual.

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