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)

In the orchards – a song by Mikis Theodorakis

In a recent Greek lesson, my tutor, Maria, introduced me to this powerful song by Mikis Theodorakis. So I thought I would share it and provide my own translation of the lyrics which are also by Theodorakis.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

As once we did, we will set up a round dance, 

And we will invite Charon 

To drink together and sing with us.

Take hold of the clarinet and the zourna [type of folk clarinet]

And I will come with my little baglama [small bazouki]

Oh, and I will come along…

You took me in the heat of battle, Charon.

Let’s go to the orchards for a dance.

In the orchards, amidst the flowering gardens,

If I take you along, Charon, to drink wine,

If I take you along to dance and sing songs

Then give me the gift of life for one night.

Hold your heart, sweet mother, 

For I am the son who came home for a single glance from you.

Oh, for a single glance…

When I left for the front, dear mother,

You didn’t come and see me off.

You went out to work and alone I caught the train

That took me far away from life.

The odd thing about the song which took me a while to register is that it is being sung by someone who has died. In fact he died fighting on the battlefront during the Second World War and from that state invokes the figure of Charon, the ferryman across the River Styx in Greek myth and the personification of death in Greek poetry and song.

The song vividly conjures up his love of life and longing for a chance to live again just for a night. I get the sense that the mother he invokes may be a personification of Greece itself as well as his own mother who didn’t see him go off to war.

I love the heft of Giota Negka’s voice in this song and her ability to control its power to add light and shade to the narrative, as the music moves between stately and solemn tread to intense longing.

Two other things to note from this recording. The first is the fact that the TV celeb audience to a man mouth the words with the singer. This is something I’ve often noticed when watching audiences in Greek concerts and it always surprises me. I don’t think this is anywhere near as common in the UK for example and is a specific cultural difference. I wonder why this should be the case?

The second thing is the way that, particularly at the end of the song, one of the celebs on stage raises his arm. Again I’ve noticed this at live performances in Greece and it sees to be at points in the music where someone identifies with the music or the sentiments being expressed (‘einai se kefi’).

Anyway, it’s a great song.

Scenes from Ithaka

Ithaka

One of the things that helps me to learn Greek is listening to songs and reading poems. It’s a useful way of learning words and, even though poetic language often uses contorted syntax, a good aide-memoire for grammar points. Over and above that though is the short cut it provides to the culture of the country, what it celebrates and values, its feelings, its way of thinking and how it expresses itself.

Ithaka

I’ve even been known to take a poem or the text of a song with me on holiday to Greece to commit to memory. One I’ve tried to learn is Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, but at the moment it’s just too long and its language a bit too much of a stretch for my level of Greek. It is a beautiful poem though and like many poems that draw you in, there’s something mysterious about it, something that you can’t quite grasp no matter how many times you read it, something elusive like Ithaca itself for Odysseus.

Ithaka 2

My Greek tutor, Maria, tells me that this is one of the first poems that Greek children learn at school. I can’t think of a better one to start the journey of life and learning.

Ithaka 3

For me too it evokes Greece in the summer: sea shading from light to dark blue and emerald, ozone and its salty tang, cloudless azure skies, blinding light, fierce heat. Standing on harbours, looking into clear water, watching yachts, cruisers, fishing boats come and go, each on their own journey of discovery, you get a sense of what the search for Ithaca means in the poem.

Ithaka 4

Ithaka  

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translation by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard

Ithaka 5