Our country is closed by Seferis

This poem was published in Seferis’s 1935 collection of poems, Mythistorima (Fiction). As with the Ritsos poem I translated here I find strong resonances with the political and social situation in our own country at the moment.

I was puzzled by what Seferis meant when he said that Greece was ‘closed’ and it was not until I understood the mythological reference in the penultimate verse that it became clear. He seems to be implying that Greece is closed off from the outside world by the Clashing Rocks, perhaps by the Metaxas dictatorship.

The rocks not only kill those who try to escape, but are also killing the people who still live in Greece because they are cutting it off from the rest of the world, causing rivers, springs and wells to dry up, and everything to become stagnant and hollow. Everything has closed in on the country, including the mountains and the sky, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. There is not even any spiritual support in this situation, as even religion has a hollow echo when people bow their heads in worship to the empty cisterns. It is as if people are becoming alienated from their past and any understanding of how they have come to be what they are.

This closing of the country also causes people to forget that they are alive and how they have in the past achieved the simplest of things, like building. This extends to people understanding how to relate to others (eg in marriage) and to have children. The evidence of what the Clashing Rocks are doing is provided by the images of the smashed wood and floating bodies from ships crushed by the rocks coming together.

In mythology the action of the rocks was destroyed by Jason, but in this pessimistic poem there is no sense of a hero who can bring the situation to an end. Nor is there any hero to rescue us in our situation either.

Our country is closed 

Our country is closed, day and night,
everything: mountains that have cover,
The low sky.

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

A stagnant, hollow echo,
like our solitude,
like our love,
like our bodies.

It seems strange to us
that once we could build our homes,
shacks and sheepfolds.

And our weddings, cool
wedding crowns and fingers
are becoming puzzles
inexplicable to our minds.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

Our country is closed.
Τwo black Clashing Rocks*
are closing it.

On the harbours on Sundays,
when we go down to take the air,
we see smashed wood lit up by the sunset,
from journeys that were not finished,
and bodies that no longer know
how to love.

*Note: the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks), also known as the Cyanean Rocks, were, according to Greek mythology, a pair of rocks at the Bosphorus that clashed together randomly. They were defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, who would have been lost and killed by the rocks except for Phineus‘ advice. Jason let a dove fly between the rocks and it lost only its tail feathers. The Argonauts rowed mightily to get through and lost only part of the stern ornament. After that, the Symplegades stopped moving permanently. (Wikipedia)  

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Our country by Giannis Ritsos

This poem is from a collection by Ritsos called The wall inside the mirror and it was written in the village of Partheni on the Dodecanese island of Leros where he was being held in an internment camp by the Greek Junta. The date of its composition, 13 December 1967, also happens to be a very significant one in the history of the Junta.

On that day King Constantine attempted to stage a counter coup against the Colonels’ regime. He and his family flew to Kavala, east of Thessaloniki to try to rally loyal troops against the regime and then to take Thessaloniki. But the attempt was foiled by officers and troops loyal to the Junta and Constantine was forced to leave Greece and take refuge in Rome. He never returned and the monarchy was eventually abolished in 1973.

Our country

We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes
we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days
take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
Beneath the poplars a straw hat is gleaming.
The cock on the gate. The cow on the yellow earth.
How did it happen that with a stone hand we dealt with
our home and our life? On the lintel
is the soot, year after year, from the Easter candles –
little black crosses that the dead traced
when they came back from the Easter Day service.
This place is much loved, with patience and pride.
Every night from the dry well the statues cautiously come out
and climb into the trees.

This poem haunts me a lot. It depicts an ordinary countryside scene, such as you could find all over Greece. A familiar and much loved land in all its ordinary detail. A land with a deep history and familiar, comforting traditions, like tracing the sign of the cross over the lintel at Easter. But at the same time there is all this unbelievable stuff going on: the poet is in exile, the country is in the vice-like grip of a dictatorship, the king has just tried to seize power back. How on earth did we get here?

I think this poem speaks to me so clearly because it expresses how I feel about the state of our own country at the moment. How the hell did we get here? It’s not a comfortable place to be, in the same way that being held in an internment camp wasn’t for Ritsos.

But strangely there is something comforting about the extraordinary image at the end of the poem. Though the source of life, the well, is dry at the moment, the country still has a deep connection with the past that the nightmare present cannot eradicate. Nothing can destroy that link with Greece’s history, culture and values. Even though the statues only come out at night and then ‘cautiously’, they are still there. We can only guess what they are thinking about Ritsos’s Greece and what our equivalents would think about our own situation. But at least those fundamental values haven’t been lost – and that’s worth hanging on to in these dark days.           

On the set of the film ‘Kazantzakis’ by Giannis Smaragdis

Wandering around the back streets of Irakleio at the end of a two week holiday in Crete back in 2016, we came across a strange sight. On the edge of a dusty square, dominated by a church a young man in black clothes was being lynched in a mulberry tree. Or rather he was standing on a step-ladder whilst a roadie fixed up the harness that would support him when he was eventually hanged. We had come across the shooting of a scene from a film or TV programme that looked as it was set in the nineteenth century when Crete was under Ottoman rule. Various other characters were waiting around in the square for their bit of the scene:


 We found seats at a local cafe to watch them shoot the scene, but they were still setting up when we left three-quarters of an hour later, without a clapboard being clapped.

About a year later, I found a You tube clip of a scene that featured the characters and setting we had seen in that square in Irakleio. It was from Giannis Smaragdis’s film Kazantzakis that was released in November 2017. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing when I can find a copy of it.

With so many leaves by Giannis Ritsos

Centuries old plane tree in the centre of the village of Helicarnasos, Crete

With so many leaves the sun waves ‘good morning’ to you
with so many pennons the sky shines on and on
for those amongst the weapons and those in the earth.

Keep quiet, the bells will ring in a while.

Under the earth, in their crucified hands,
they hold the bell rope,
they are waiting for the time, they are waiting to sound the resurrection
this earth is theirs and ours
no one can take it from us.

Keep quiet, the bells will ring in a while.