Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno – Joseph Wright of Derby (1774)
In my explorations of modern Greek literature, I was reading a novel called Drifting Cities by Stratis Tsirkas that is about exiled Greeks in Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria during the Second World War. It interweaves the personal story of the protagonist, Manos Simonidis, the group of Communist activists with which he’s involved and the political machinations of the factions in the Greek government in exile. To be honest, it’s a hard read. The detailed twists and turns of the political events are difficult to follow and not that interesting, and Simonidis is not an engaging or sympathetic character. His relationships with the various women he meets also strikes me as wish fulfilment on the part of the author and the women come across as rather characterless.
One the of the final sections of the novel sequence (it’s really a trilogy of novels) has an epigraph from a poem by Seferis, called The Last Stop. Like many Seferis poems this has a really striking image in it that made me want to hunt down the original. It’s not an easy poem to understand or translate, but I wanted to have a shot at it, as it has stayed with me for while.
It helps to understand a bit of the background to the poem before reading it. Seferis was a diplomat and indeed in later life he served as the Greek Ambassador to the UK in the late 50s / early 60s). During the Second World War he went into exile with the Greek Government and served in Cairo and South Africa. As the Germans retreated from Greece in 1944, the Greek government in exile made plans for its return to Greece and moved to Salerno in northern Italy (this is the last stop referred to in the title of the poem). Seferis wrote the poem on 5 October 1944 and a week later the Germans left Athens.
In the poem he seems to be attacking those Greek politicians and wealthy individuals who enjoyed the comforts of exile, leaving the rest of the population to suffer under the Nazi occupation. In particular he singles out the profiteers who have been making money any way they can and who plan to profit from the situation in the country when they return to Greece. He contrasts them with the people left behind to struggle for survival and the Greek soldiers fighting to free the country from the Nazis. It was clearly painful to write about – and for his compatriots to hear – and partly explains the oblique language and obscure imagery, as he tries to soften the blow. But, my God, the power of that line: ‘our mind is a virgin forest of murdered friends’!
The Last Stop
Few are the moonlit nights that I have enjoyed.
From the guide to the stars that you make out with difficulty,
as the weariness of the departing day brings it to you,
you take out of it other meanings and hopes,
and can read it more clearly.
Now that I am sitting idle and can take stock
A few moonlit nights have stayed in my memory:
islands, the colour of the sorrowing Virgin, under the late waning moon
or moonlight in northern countries sometimes casting
a heavy torpor
on rough roads, rivers and people’s limbs.
And yet, yesterday evening here, on this our last step
where we wait for the hour of our return to dawn
like an old debt, like money that has stayed for years
in a miser’s strongbox, and finally
the moment has come to pay it back and the coins
can be heard falling on the table:
in this Tyrrhenian village, inland from the sea at Salerno
behind the harbours from which we’ll set out, at the end
of an autumn shower, the moon broke through the clouds,
and the houses on the far side seemed as if made of enamel.
The beloved silences of the moon.
Even this is a way of thinking, a way
of beginning to speak about things that you confess
are difficult, at times when you don’t hold back to a friend
who has secretly escaped and carries
news from home and from comrades,
and you hurry to open your heart
before being abroad has time to change him.
We come from Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Syria:
the tiny state
of Commagini, that was snuffed out like a little oil lamp
comes back into our minds time and time again,
and great nations that existed for thousands of years
and then were left as pasture land for buffalo
fields for sugar cane and maize.
We come from the sands of the desert and from the seas of Proteas,
Souls shrivelled by state sins,
each one with an official rank like a bird in its cage.
The rainy autumn in this hollow
makes the wound of each one of us fester
or as you would say differently, divine retribution,
or merely foul habits, deception and deceit,
or selfishness in profiting from the blood of others.
Man is easily consoled in the midst of wars;
he is pliable, a sheaf of grass;
lips and fingers that ache for a white breast
eyes that half-close in the shimmering of the daylight
and legs that would run, however tired they may be
at the merest hint of profit.
Man is pliable and parched like grass,
insatiable like grass, his nerves like roots spread out;
when summer comes
they prefer to swing their scythes in another field;
when summer comes
some cry out to exorcise the evil spirit
others get enmeshed in their possessions, others make bar room speeches.
But it is as if the real incantations, possessions and speeches
are far away. What will you do?
Perhaps man is something else?
Maybe not that which transmits life?
A time to sow, a time to reap.
Again you will say the same old things, my friend.
But the thinking of the refugee, the thinking of the prisoner, the thinking
of man has degenerated into a commodity.
Even if you tried to change it, you wouldn’t succeed
It is as if he wanted to remain king of the cannibals
expending energy that no one buys,
strolling among the plains of agapanthus
listening to the drums under the bamboo tree,
while courtiers dance wearing monstrous masks.
But the country they are destroying and burning
like the pine tree, you can see it
either in the dark carriage, without water, with broken windows,
night after night,
or in the burning ship that will sink as statistics show,
these things took root in the mind and don’t change
these things planted pictures similar to those trees
that throw out their shoots in virgin forests
and these take root in the soil and spring up again;
they throw out their shoots and sprout again, spreading
for league upon league:
our mind is a virgin forest of murdered friends.
And if I speak to you in fairy tales and parables
it’s because it’s easier for you to listen, and the horror
is not discussed because it is too vivid
because it is silent and transient:
The pain of those who remember
drips day by day into sleep.
Let me speak about heroes, let me speak about heroes: Mikhalis
who left hospital with open wounds
was perhaps talking about heroes, on that night
when he dragged his foot into the blacked-out country,
and howled, feeling our pain: “We’re going into
the darkness, we’re advancing into the darkness…”
The heroes are advancing into the darkness.
Few are the moonlit nights that I enjoy.
Cava dei Tirreni, 5 October ‘44