By plane and steamboat – Dionysis Savvopoulos

Here’s another great Greek zeimbekiko song, the latest in a little series (see here for my posts on Roza and Love Song) I’ve been doing as a result of repeated listening to the CDs of the live zeimpekiko concert that Dimitris Mitropanos gave at the Akti Peiraias with Dimitris Mpasos and Themis Adamantidis in 2005. This time the lyrics and the music are by Dionysis Savvopoulos and it’s called By plane and steamboat:

By plane and steamboat
and with our old friends
we wander around in the dark
and yet you can’t hear us.

You can’t hear us singing
with electric voices
in underground galleries
until our paths meet
your fundamental principles.

My father, Mpatis,
came from Smyrna in ’22
and lived for fifty years
in a secret cellar.

In this place those who loved
ate dirty bread
and their passions followed
an underground route.

Yesterday evening I saw a friend
going around like a goblin
on a motorbike
and dogs were running behind him.

Stand up my soul and turn the power on
Set fire to your clothes
Set fire to your instruments
let our great voices
start up like a black spirit.





Deciphering the Love Song of Alkis Alkaios

I posted recently about the obscurity of the lyrics in the Greek song Roza which was written by Alkis Alkaios. Here’s another very well-known example of his lyrics (again set to music by Mikroutsikos) which I have been struggling to understand:

Love song
In a dug-out you come and go
while it’s pouring with rain.
You wander in the land of the Visigoths
and hanging gardens win you over
but you rub your wings together.

Saltiness covered your naked body.
I brought you fresh water from Delphi.
You said your life will be cut in two
and before I managed to deny it three times
the key of paradise became rusty.

The caravan speeds through the dust
and hunts your mad shadow.
How can the mind be calmed with a sheet?
How can the Mediterranean be bound by ropes?
My love, whose name was Antigone.

What night has taken your light
and in which galaxy can I find you?
Here it’s Attica, a grey pit,
I am a cheap shooting gallery
where foreign soldiers, swearing, practise.

Once again it is the music that turns it into a great song, in spite of its obscurity, as here performed by Mitropanos, Mpasos and Adamantidis at the Zeimbekiko Live concert in Peiraias:




The Doomed by Kostas Varnalis

Here’s another poem I came across recently by the Greek poet Kostas Varnalis (1884-1974). Born in Burgas in what is now part of Bulgaria he studied literature and then became a teacher and journalist, before moving to Paris in 1919 to continue his studies. It was here that he became a Marxist and this poem of 1925 reflects both an awareness of the social conditions the poor together with a critique of their fatalism.

The Doomed
In the cellar of the taverna,
Amidst the smoke and swearing
(and the loud shriek of the hurdy-gurdy)
all of us were getting dunk yesterday evening:
yesterday evening, as every evening,
to drown our sorrows.

We were pressed together side by side
and someone was spitting on the ground.
O what a great torment
this life is!
No matter how much our mind is tortured
it’s forgotten in the cold light of day.

Sun and blue sea
and boundless, deep sky!
Ο! crocus-coloured gauze of dawn,
carnation of the sunset,
you shine and set far away from us,
without entering our hearts!

Someone’s father, paralysed
for ten years, same thing
for another whose wife
wastes away from consumption at home:
Mazis’s son is in Palamidi
and Giavis’s daughter in Gazi.

‘Our vicious fate’s to blame!’
‘God’s hatred for us is to blame!’
‘Our poor brains are to blame!’
‘Wine’s the main thing to blame!’
Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame?
No mouth
has yet found the word or said it.

So in the dark taverna,
bowed down, we get drunk.
Like worms, each heel
stamps on us where it finds us.
Fearful, doomed and weak-willed together
we wait for some future miracle!
(my translation)

Battle Hymn of Rigas Velestinlis

Battle Hymn is one of the most famous pre-revolutionary patriotic hymns in Greek, written in 1797 by Rigas Velestinlis, also known as Rigas Feriaos (although he was born as Antonios Kyriazis). A political thinker, writer and revolutionary in the second half of the eighteenth century, he was part of the Greek Enlightenment: that period between 1770-1821 leading up to the War Of Independence against Ottoman rule.  The Greek Enlightenment was inspired by the ideas coming out of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, dissatisfaction with the conditions under Ottoman rule and an increasing desire for emancipation and a Greek national identity.

Velestinlis was active in Roumania and Serbia and believed that the Ottoman Empire could be overthrown by an uprising in the Balkans. Attempting to get in touch with the French Army in Italy he was captured, tortured and strangled in transit to Constantinople in 1798.

Here’s my translation of his most famous poem:

Battle Hymn

For how long, my lads, must we live a restricted life,
alone, like lions on ridges and mountains?
Must we dwell in caves, see branches,
leave this world, because of bitter slavery?
Must we lose brothers, native land and parents
our friends, children and all our relatives?

One hour of free life would be better
than forty years of slavery and imprisonment.

What good does it do you, if you live in slavery?
Just think how you are grilled on the fire every hour.
Vizier, Dragoman, Master, whatever your standing,
the Tyrant will unjustly send you to your doom:
you work all day and whatever you are told
that Tyrant tries to drink your blood again.
Soutzos, Mourouzis, Petrakhis, Skanavis,
Gkikas and Mavrogenis are mirrors to look at yourself in.
Brave captains, priests, lay people
have been murdered, tyrants too, by an unjust sword:
and so many others, both Turks and Greeks,
lose their lives and wealth without any cause.

Come with fervour now
to take the oath upon the Cross:
to set to work energetic advisers
to give meaning to everything;
that the unwritten laws may be our one and only guide
and become a leader of our native land;
because otherwise anarchy would look like slavery;
to live like wild beasts would be a much fiercer fire.
And then with hands raised up towards the sky,
let us say to God with all our heart:

(Here patriots stand up and, raising
their hands towards the sky, take the Oath)

“O, King of the World, I swear to you,
that I will never have the same view as the Tyrants!
that I will not work for them, nor be deceived
by their promises to surrender.
For as long as I live in the world, my only aim
is to destroy them and be unswerving to my vow.
Faithful to my native land, may I shatter the yoke
and be united under our general.
And if I break the Oath, may I be struck down by Heaven
and burn up and become like smoke!”




Great song – but what does it mean?

When I started this blog, I intended to focus on photography and travel. That still remains my main aim, but for the moment my study of Modern Greek has pulled me off-track into the translation of Greek poems and listening to, and reading the texts of, some classic Greek songs.

The linguistic effort required to read and understand poems by, for example, Seferis, Elytis and Ritsos in the original Greek mirrors the effort to understand them as poems. I find it very satisfying to at least make the effort, even though I know I will never fully understand all the cultural allusions and associations. Sometimes the poems are really difficult to understand and not necessarily because they are difficult linguistically.  More often though, I find this type of obscurity in Greek songs.

I have been listening to a lot of Rembetika, the music that came out of the Asia Minor migration and invigorated Greek popular music from the early 1920s onwards. The obscurity here for me is linguistic and comes from not fully appreciating the context and the slang in the song texts.

But more recently I came across the great singer Dimitris Mitropanos and the extraordinary concert of Zeimbekiko songs he recorded at a concert recorded with Dimitris Mpasos and Themis Adamantidis in Peiraias in 2005. The recording features one of his greatest songs, Roza, with lyrics written by the poet Alkis Alkaios and music by Thanos Mikroutsikos.

It has been claimed that song is about Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist activist and thinker murdered in the suppression of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin 1919. This association may be due to the fact that Mitropanos’s was a lifelong Communist. In fact the lyricist Alkaios always refused to explain the meaning of the lyrics despite repeated requests, especially from Mikroutsikos. Even if it actually was about Rosa Luxemburg, it doesn’t make the song’s text any easier to understand.  Here’s my translation:

My dry and parched lips
Are searching for water on the asphalt
Vehicles pass close by me
And you tell me that a downpour is waiting for us
And drag me off to a dank club.

We walk together along the same road
But our cells are separated
We are going back to a magic country
I don’t want to know any more what we are asking for
It’s enough for you to give me two kisses.

You play me at roulette and you lose to me
In a nightmare fairy tale
My voice is now the voice of an insect
My life a climbing plant
You cut me off and throw me into the void.

How does need become history?
How does history become silence?
Why do you look at me, numbed, Roza?
Forgive me for not understanding
What the computers and numbers are saying.

My love made from coal and sulphur
How has time changed you like this?
Vehicles pass over us
and in the fog and the downpour
I sleep, hungry, by your side.

How does need become history?
How does history become silence?
Why do you look at me, numbed, Roza?
Forgive me for not understanding
What the computers and numbers are saying.

Whatever it means, it’s the music that makes it a great song and carries you through the cloudiness of the lyrics and the lack of any coherent narrative. I may write some more soon about Alkaios’s lyrics because I find them so intriguing, but I would also like to write something about the challenges of real obscurity in poetry.



Images of Odysseas

In my first year at university reading French we had to study a rather dry collection of sonnets called Les Regrets by the sixteenth century poet Joachim du Bellay.  Du Bellay was a contemporary of Ronsard and wrote a sort of manifesto promoting French as a suitable language for writing poetry. In the 1550s he spent four years in Rome acting as secretary to his cousin, a Cardinal and it was here that he wrote the bulk of this sonnet cycle. Initial enthusiasm for Rome quickly turned into homesickness and the classic expression of that is sonnet No 31:

Heureux qui comme Ulysse
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage,
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison,
Et puis est retourné, plein d’usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!

Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
Qui m’est une province, et beaucoup davantage ?

Plus me plaît le séjour qu’ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais Romains le front audacieux,
Plus que le marbre dur me plaît l’ardoise fine :

Plus mon Loir gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l’air marin la doulceur angevine.

Fortunate is the man who like Ulysses
Fortunate is the man who, like Ulysses, has completed a fine journey,
Or like that man who won the Golden Fleece,
And then returned, rich in experience and judgement,
To live amidst his family for the rest of his life!

Alas, when will I see the chimney smoking
in my little village, and in which season
Will I see the garden of my humble house,
Which to me is a province, and so much more?

I prefer the dwelling that my ancestors built
To the bold frontages of Roman palaces.
I prefer thin slate to hard marble:

My Gallic Loire to the Latin Tiber,
My little Liré to the Palatine Hill
And the gentle Angevin climate to the sea air.
(my translation)

Imagine my surprise then to come across this poem again in a Greek context, a poem written by Seferis in 1931 when he was serving as a diplomat at the Greek Embassy in London. His starting point is the first line of du Bellay’s sonnet, but that’s where the comparison ends. Du Bellay’s use of the image of Ulysses strikes me as a bit of a cliche: the returned traveller, happy to be back home again after his wanderings.

Seferis however conjures up an altogether more vital picture of the exile and wanderer. It’s so vivid you almost can see and hear Odysseas in front of you. Seferis spent much of his working life abroad as a diplomat, in effect a voluntary exile from his native land. For him Odysseas is not a tired metaphor: he is a deep connection with the Greek past, an inspirational figure, who can teach us how to live and win our own Trojan wars.

On a foreign verse
Fortunate is the man who has completed Odysseas’s journey.
Fortunate, if at the outset, he felt the strong armour of a love, spread through his body, like veins where the blood roars.

Of a love with an eternal rhythm, overpowering like
music and eternal
because it was born when we were born and when we die,
Neither us nor anyone else knows whether it dies too.

I beg a god to help me say, in a moment
of great bliss, what this love is:
sometime I sit, surrounded by foreign-ness
and listen to its distant roar, like the sound of the sea
mixed with an unexplained storm.

And before me appears, again and again,
the ghost of Odysseas, with eyes reddened
by the saltiness of the waves
and by his long-cherished desire to see again the smoke
coming from the warmth of his home
and his dog that has grown old waiting at the gate.

He stands there, tall, whispering through his whitened
beard words from our language,
as they spoke them three thousand years ago.

He spreads out his palm, calloused by ropes
and the helm, with skin weathered
by the wind, heat and snow.

It seems as though he wants to drive out from amongst us the superhuman
Cyclops who sees with one eye; the Sirens
that, when you hear them, cause you to forget; Scylla
and Charybdis:
so many complex giants that don’t let us
think that he was a man
who fought in the world with his mind
and his body.

He is the great Odysseas: the one who commanded
the wooden horse to be built so the Achaeans could conquer Troy.
I imagine him coming to advise me
on how I can make a wooden horse and conquer my own Troy.

Since he speaks simply and calmly, without effort,
it seems as if he knows me like a father
or like some old seafarers, resting
on their nets, as winter has drawn on and the winds have turned angry.

When I was a child, they used to tell me with tears in their eyes
the song of Erotokritos:
then I was afraid as I slept hearing about
the hostile fate of Arethousa climbing
the marble steps.

He tells me of the pain of feeling the sails
of your ship inflated by memory and your mind becoming the helm.
And of being alone, dark in the depth of night,
rudderless like a straw on a threshing floor.

The bitterness of seeing your companions sink
amidst the elements, scattered one by one.

And how strange it is that you become stronger talking
to the dead when the living are no longer with you.

He speaks…I see his hands still that knew
how to feel whether the mermaid on the prow was
well carved
and knew how to give me the gift of a glassy, blue sea
in the depth of winter.


Τhe Greek military junta ripped to shreds

April 21 2017 marked 50 years since the military Junta came to power in Greece. To commemorate that catastrophe in modern Greek history, I would like to offer a translation of the last poem that Seferis wrote. It was published posthumously in To Vima in August 1974, days after the Junta fell, although it was written in March 1971.

The poem, entitled On Gorse for reasons that become clear when you read the poem, is set in a specific location and on a particular date in the calendar. The location is the temple dedicated to Poseidon at Cape Sounio, south of Athens. Sounio has deep roots in Greek culture: it is mentioned in the Odyssey and looks out towards the island of Salamis, site of the great victory of the Greek city-state fleet over the Persians in 480BC. In the poem the temple resonates still with all this history and associations.

In the liturgical calendar the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a child and become the mother of Jesus, falls on March 25. This date is also Greek Independence Day, a public holiday commemorating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottomans. During the Junta, Independence Day was celebrated with military parades, particularly in Athens. But in this poem, we are away from all the pomp and bombast of the regime, in a place deeply connected with Greek history and culture, on a day celebrated in Christianity as an event when good news and hope came into the world.

Like the statement condemning the regime he made to the BBC two years earlier, Seferis’s poem condemns the Junta indirectly, this time through Plato’s report of the murder of an ancient Greek tyrant.

“On gorse…”

Sounio was beautiful on that day
The Feast of the Annunciation
once again in the Spring.

A few green leaves around
the rust coloured stones
the red earth and the gorse bushes
revealing their great thorns ready and waiting
and their yellow flowers.

From a distance the ancient columns, strings of a harp,
reverberate still.

The calm before the storm.
– What could remind me of that Aridaios?
A word in Plato, I think, lost in the recesses of my brain:
the name of the yellow bush
has not changed since those times.

In the evening I found the passage:
“They bound him hand and foot”, he tells us,
“they threw him on the ground and flogged him,
they dragged him apart and tore him to pieces
on the gorse thorns
and went and threw him like a rag into Tartarus.”

Thus in the nether world he paid for his crimes,
Pamphylian Aridaios, the wretched tyrant.

(31 March 1971)