A poem commemorating Greek Okhi Day

The History: Oxi Day Celebration | GreekReporter.com
Courtesy of GreekReporter.com

In Greece, 28 October commemorates the day in 1940 when the Greek government stood up against the invading Italian army. Mussolini had issued an ultimatum demanding his army be allowed to enter the country for strategic reason or Greece would face a war. Metaxas, the Greek Prime Minister, allegedly replied with the single word ‘Okhi!’ (No!) and that same day launched a counterattack against the invaders in the Pindus mountains on the border with Albania. This event, a symbol of Greece’s pride and ability to defend itself, is still a national holiday with parades by the military, students and schoolchildren.

Here’s my translation of a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos about the fighting in that harsh, mountainous environment:

A soldier mutters on the Albanian front

Who will bring a little sleep to us here where we are?
At least then we would be able
to see our mother, as if she were coming to see us
carrying a starched sheet under her arm
with a warm apron and marigolds from our garden.
A faded monogram on the edge of her shawl:
a lost world.

We wander around up here in the snow with stiffened greatcoats.
The sun never came out completely from behind the heights of the River Morava,
The sun never set unwounded by the jagged edges of Mt Trebeshinë.
I stagger in the wind without any other clothing,
Doubled over with my rifle, freezing and uncertain.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).

This recent infection under my arm would not concern me,
This rifle would not suit me, it if were not for you,
sweet earth that seems like a person,
if there were not cradles behind us and whispering tombs
if there were not people and if there were not mountains with majestic
faces, seemingly cut by the hand of God
to match the place, the light and its spirit.

The night pricks our bones in the bunkers;
in here
we have brought our friendly faces and embrace them
we have brought our home and our village church
the cage in the window, the girls’ eyes,
our garden fence, all our boundaries,
the Blessed Virgin with the carnation, a strapping girl,
who covers our feet before the snow does,
who enfolds us in her veil before death does.

But, whatever happens we will survive.
countless people live in the spirit of Freedom,
People beautiful in their sacrifice, People.
The meaning of virtue is a great encampment.
The fact that they have died does not mean that they have stopped being here,
with their sadnesses, their tears and their conversations.
Your sun will be bought at great cost.
If, by chance, I do not come back, may you be well.
Think a little about how much it cost me.

(When I was young, I used to see my reflection in the streams
of my native land
I was not cut out for war).