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)  


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.

Two beautiful churches in Crete


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.


Journey to Delphoi

By the dry pool where kings and ambassadors come
to purify and prepare themselves for the god,
looking for guidance, hoping for confirmation
of a decision already made in the depths of the heart;
I dip my hand in the cool water of the nearby spring
honing my own question for the priestess-seer.

The climb up the Sacred Way zigzags through an empty museum,
looted of its treasures long ago and dozing in the sun:
a journey to prepare the seeker in mind and body
for that brief encounter with the divine
in a remote valley at the middle of the world.

In this fierce light and relentless heat Apollo
tests our resolve, step by shadeless step,
until at last we come to the huge altar
drenched in the blood of vain sacrifices,
the smoke of burning animal fat and bones
rising in a sightless sky to the ritual cries of the women.

Six columns of the temple still stand, looking over the sacred valley.
How did they feel as they stood here looking at this scene,
awaiting their turn? What fears? What hopes? What expectations?
The priest leads me inside in my turn
to the dark rock cleft where an old woman sits
on a gold tripod, wreathed in sacred juniper fumes.

I ask my question to the midday silence. Apollo,
voiceless now without his Pythian interpreter,
stares intensely with his single eye
as if to burn an answer in my brain.
Serene and calm, he gazes beyond the world.
The silence is not broken: the search never ceases.



The Charioteer of Delphoi

The Iniokhos (Rein-holder) or Charioteer with a whole room to itself, is one of the main highlights of the superb museum at the archaeological site in Delphoi. The statue was buried in an earthquake in 330 BC and was only discovered in 1896. It is estimated that this statue was made during the 470s BC, possibly by Pythagoras of Samos (yes, that one) and is one of the few bronzes to survive from Ancient Greece.

The statue as it stands now looks too tall, but originally it was on a chariot (now lost) and probably in that context the perspective would then have corrected this impression. Several things struck me as I walked round it. The most immediate is the hypnotic, onyx eyes that draw your attention to the face.

Then there are the delicate folds on the upper arms of his tunic, followed by the delicate rendering of the right hand holding the reins.Finally, almost in contrast to the idealisation of the rest of the figure, there are those feet, veined, a bit gnarled, bigger than expected. Sometimes statues were made to be seen only from the front and the back of them can be rough and unfinished. But this is not the case here: the sculptor has taken as much care with the detail of the Charioteer’s back and tunic as with the front.

This statue features in a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos that I read before visiting Greece last summer. I have just been trying to translate it, but it is rather flowery and a bit too difficult to get into reasonable English, so I’ll have to work on it a bit more before I can post it.

I’m conscious that this year I have been posting a lot of translations of poems and songs which I really enjoy. I hope that in 2018 I will get back to posting on some more of my travels in Greece, France and Sicily.

Happy New Year and enjoy your own journeys in 2018!








Good morning, sadness by Odysseas Elytis

Black Square – Kasimir Malevich (1915)

In this darkest time of the year, missing the sun and long, light evenings, my mood dips and I feel like hibernating. The classic symptoms of SAD which I have had since childhood. These light deprived days and our frequent leaden skies, remind me of that couplet from one of Baudelaire’s Spleen poems:
Quand le ciel, bas et lourd, pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant, en proie aux longs ennuis.

Looking over some of the Greek poems I have studied over the past year, I came across this one by Odysseas Elytis from his collection Maria Nefeli. I find he is often obscure and difficult to understand, but this short poem has the directness of everyday language and seems to speak out of a personal experience of depression. It offers no great insight or comfort, other than his own observation of sadness. It seems to me that Elytis may also have had SAD and that is why the sun is such a potent symbol in his work, and maybe why he described himself as ‘iliopotis’, a sun drinker.   

Good morning, sadness

Hello, sadness
Good morning, sadness
the insect that nestles inside me
and watches all night long for me to open my eyes…

Initially I have forgotten you:
I look at the lines on the ceiling –
but suddenly you invade
my consciousness.

You come and make my morning coffee taste bitter
and see off the least pleasure
of my hand on the window catch
you bring troubles to the bath water
provoke the first unpleasant telephone call
you are a monster
a miniature Minotaur that demands food
and is kept alive by the least thing…

Eat, eat, Minotaur:
this is flesh, not air
if you carry on this way, there’ll be nothing left.

Hello, sadness
Good morning, sadness
you have installed yourself permanently inside us
you are worse than viruses and bacilli
philosophers examine you through a spectroscope
you have given rise to an exceptional literature.