The rubrics of ‘Rationalization’ and ‘Conservatism’ mark this poem out as one of the more openly polemical in the collection.
‘The Beggar’ by Dimitra Christodoulou (trans. Dinos Siotis) is a brilliantly compact lyrical depiction of the humiliating death of a homeless man, a fourteen-line pseudo-sonnet, also worth excerpting in full:
Look at him. With degrees and a moustache of stone.
He drags two three hungry babes
Feeling completely illiterate
Next to the Old of the Days. His Creditor.
He pushes a puppy in his belly.
He hates and is ashamed and afraid.
His mouth gapes from difficult breathing.
Does not expect clean air.
All his thoughts a stain with his finger
On the name, the origin, his kilos.
Sketched in a bill
He passes directly to Charon.
Not even there he’s welcome.
First he has to beg for the fare.
The trope ‘With degrees and a moustache of stone’ is particularly resonant and reminds us that austerity capitalism is no more a respecter of the educated than it is of the less well-educated working classes. The unpunctuated line ‘two three’ of the second line places the stylistic firmly in the breathless textspeak of the early 21st century; while the image ‘He pushes a puppy in his belly’ is either just ambiguously phrase (the ‘in’ actually meaning ‘into’), or a surreal metaphor. ‘The Beggar’ is for me one of the standout poems in the anthology.
Yiorgos Chouliaras’ ‘Grow Up’, translated by David Mason and Chouliaras himself, is the only piece presented in the form of poetic prose or prose poem in the anthology. Its second stanza/paragraph contains a pseudo-mythological image which faintly reminds me of the tale of Tantalus, and in this sense serves aptly as a metaphor for austerity:
…If the tree grows
fast, the sitting person with the noose will hang. If, however, the
sitting person grows faster, will he uproot the tree?
I love the alliterative effect of these lines from Yiorgos Chronas’ ‘Cafeteria Minion’, translated by Yiannis Goumas:
You light one cigarette after another
and see through sunglasses
bought cheaply in Patission Street.
This poem ends on a rather lurid onanistic image which packs a real punch in its depiction of the abject degradation of exposure through homelessness and its complete lack of privacy:
that you might come,
your sperm spurt out on the tiles
like a morning garland
in this, Chaos’ cafeteria.
Veroniki Dalakoura’s ‘Prayer’, translated by Dinos Siotis, works on repetitions:
The dead with the dead
The stone with the stone
The view with the view
The shame with the shame
The paid answer simply with the paid
And is thereby, for me personally, one of the more obviously formulaic poems in the anthology. However, amid such overripe repetitions, no doubt designed to read mantra-like, in-keeping with the poem’s title, there are some thought-provoking lines:
The illusion with the reality
The sweet children with the children
The sweetness with the leprosy
The infected with the symbol
--or with the infected--
The youth with the passion
The desire with the echo
The strength with the angels
Another standout poem, for me, is Yiannis Dhallas’ ‘Welcome’. This is one of the most directly polemical poems in the anthology, striking a blow for Greek homology against what is depicted as the second German Occupation in the nation’s history, this time an economic one, though not without civil unrest and occasional outbreaks of heavy-handed firepower. Here it is in full and glorious technicolour:
‘Welcome glorious German!...’
said an artisan who recognized you,
‘German of the Third Reich back then,
and now of the euro zone… Welcome
to this fiefdom of yours, of the South
In the year 2013, yes!... where the victim is obliged
to declare the victimizer as benefactor
With his body bleeding indebted and with his soul out resisting
As a serf who raised his head
Oh, the rage of the people, my soul, who holds you?
And at the gates of the presidential pavilion the police
with their thumb passing from the water stopcock to the teargas
and instantaneously in case of need to the trigger
The ceremony was held inside
the reception, the line-up of the contingent
and the playing of the anthems: elegiac
the one ‘From the sacred bones arisen. . .’
and unbowed and marching
the tone of the hegemonic of yours ‘. . .uber alles’
A fiesta with the streets all closed
You should come again, skilled, come again
and the carpet which would then be unwrapped,
said again the industrial who was present,
oh! the carpet will be a carpet of blood
of red colour deep red
tapisserie of a genius colourist
from the palette of an abattoir Bacon style’
Irini Papakyriacou’s translation seems to stumble at times, mixing singular and plural with ‘police/ with their thumb’, and slightly broken-up phrases as ‘said again the industrial’ but in a sense these presumable mistakes are serendipitous in how they lend the poem a fractured, almost slightly concussed quality, while also part-resembling a kind of stream-of-consciousness, or depiction of the moment when the blood is up and the mind rambling. This image-rich poem reads very much like an adrenalin rush.
Kiki Dimoula’s ‘In Defense of Improvidence’ is another interesting piece, playing on Æsop’s fable of ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’; albeit again slightly confusing in terms of its translation by Cecile Inglesis Margelos: ‘Those little funnels are called moonflowers/ evenings they open their leaves wide in gardens’. The poem is rich in aphorisms:
Pinecone explosions grow scarcer
heat now takes great care not to throw
Providence is a handyman. Early on it harnessed ants
pushing and pulling they’ve already hauled
a good deal of winter into their nest.
Storing up. A respectable, I must admit, sated
form of euthanasia.
In part the fable is right.
The grasshoppers should be reasonable
set aside half a song for the cold
of their life’s improvidence.
Easy for the fable to say.
What else can grasshoppers do.
Intensity can’t be stored.
Wouldn’t it too want to live longer?
But it can’t be stored.
Keep it just one day and it goes bad.
George Douatzis’ ‘Fatherland of the Times’, translated by Yiannis Kanakakis, is a brilliant depiction of the cuts-pelted Front of austerity capitalism as a war fought with silent but deadly pecuniary weapons, shown through the daily grind of Greek evictees and street-homeless:
You did not think this was war
for you couldn’t see the blood, the wounded,
but you saw those, the dead
bending over the garbage bins
high noon in the heart of the city
pleaders in the trash of shopping malls
the hungry, the dead tellers begging
you saw them
War I say, war
with no ammunition and gunfire
the grey suits and the white collars
new aged computers used as heavy guns
my refuge was sold
your hands were sold
dreams were sold
voice, mouth were sold
our existence was sold…
How can we look into our children’s eyes?
And please never forget
that there is not greater guilt
than our own tolerance
If you only knew with how
the world could change...
This poem as a justifiably accusatory tone, thought the accused, or the culprits of this misery, the markets, are ubiquitous but invisible, unable to be targeted. The second stanza has a distinctly Thirties take on the nature of economic Depression as a kind of dummy warfare, reminding me of Graham Greene’s polemical novel on the brutality of capitalist society, It’s A Battlefield (1934).
Mihalis Ganas’ ‘The Smoker’s Sleep’, translated by Minas Savvas, is a fine mood-piece, fairly casually phrased but still lyrically affecting, its depiction ambiguous, but, one senses, another portrait of street-homelessness, with an interestingly combustible metaphor for economic Depression and its devastation, almost like an invisible forest fire:
The duration is an obsession.
It’s a slow-burn obsession.
All in accord, without flames since it devours them.
But without fumes as well. With fewer ashes.
It doesn’t get red hot, you say. Nor does it cool down.
In contrast, it keeps the fire alive.
At least the spark. That, too, is something.
Its final figurative verse is particularly arresting:
Give me your hand to put it to sleep.
The night is an unbuttoned coat,
a hide of a slaughtered animal that is still breathing.
Sleep: my heart is lying awake.
Yiorgos Gotis’ ‘The King of the Market’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, is another directly polemical verse, one of the most blatant protest poems in the anthology, but none the least compelling fir its directness:
The king of the market is selling the desert
that grain by grain for so many years
he’s been hoarding inside him.
His kingdom a world of hypocrisy
He kowtows and answers to it daily.
By stylistic contrast, Ilias Gris’ ‘Lethargic World’, translated by Kerassia Karali, heaps its polemical point with some brilliantly figurative language and allusion, and is for me another standout of the book:
Patricians shoot at you
Under the sun’s mantle on the green mound
We are surrounded by thick-skinned serpents and the cats
Ah! Your cats, Mr. George S.
With dry eyes they have bade us farewell
Without a meow; our vineyards unharvested
And the carcasses of construction sites, in a single night
The scoundrels sold away our entire livelihood
Mr. George S.
We ruminate oblivion
Shoeless moons in Erebus-like heather land
The chubby Lady of Red Years has come back
Inviting us for coffee at the nip of noon
. . . . . . . . . . .
Unshapely as she hastily crosses the pavements
Her shoulders stooped from so many dead ones
From so much blood.
Yiannis Kakoulides’ ‘Crisis Management’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, focuses powerfully on the psychological effects of extreme economic austerity. Its final stanza is particularly chilling, hinting as it does at the intensification of suicidal ideation among countless Greek citizens as a direct repercussion of the bleakness and hopelessness of chronic poverty in an economic Depression apparently without any tangible end in sight (the suicide rate in Greece skyrocketed following the nation’s bankruptcy and debt-bondage to the Troika):
I must make you laugh more
write new poems for you
and tell you stories
with sunshine and great storehouses
I must wrap you in a lie and let you
believe that you have gained
one more day of happiness.
Afterwards I’ll bring the blacksmith
to block securely the balcony door.
That last trope packs a particular punch of suggestion.
Elias Kefálas’ ‘Jack’, translated by Yiannis Goumas, uses the template of the English fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk (originally written by one Benjamin Tabart in 1807, then embellished further by ‘Felix Summery’ (Henry Cole) in 1842, and then by Joseph Jacobs in 1890) as a metaphor for the effects of austerity. This poem is consciously composed in a kind of naïf nursery-rhyme style, albeit without the rhyme, which is reminiscent of the deceptively simplistic verse of Stevie Smith:
Jack, is it snowing up there?
Jack, is it raining?
Who has hung out his snow-white sheets
Which spread and flutter in the sky?
Like the waters of a white sea do they rise
When it foams with the wrecks of dreams
Alarming us with its roaring.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Our orchards have no fruit
Something invisible scares us and worries us.
Jack, Jack, Jack,
The dragon is here.
Where’s your bean stalk?
Cough, sneeze, laugh, and let me hear you, Jack.
Seeing as so many Greek children have been scandalously impoverished by Troika-inflicted austerity over the past few years to the point at which countless Greek parents have had to go without food in order to afford to prioritise their medical treatment, ever more expensive due to depleting supplies (a scenario which permatanned IMF-head Christine Lagarde shamelessly dismissed by highlighting Third World poverty as far more abject than anything the Greeks were enduring), Kefálas’ ‘Jack’ is a quite ingenious subversion of the popular fairy tale to fit the modern age of austerity, and could well be distributed throughout Greek schools as a figurative primer for the times for Greek children. (Significantly, too, the noun dragon derives from the Greek drakōn, the same root-source for draconian, itself derived from Draco, the name of the ruthless original legislator of ancient Athens; the word therefore dovetails over many associations, a chief one being the ubiquitous use of the word ‘draconian’ used by almost all contemporary critics of capitalist austerity).
In its pithy and stark lyricism and almost crucificial symbolism, Elsa Korneti’s ‘Bearing Humanity’s Pain’, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, is one of the resounding highlights of this anthology, and warrants excerpting in full:
I stand amazed
And look at myself
Turned into what I always dreamed of
Slow and steady of step
Faithful servant of law and order
Dogged follower of the straight and narrow
I freeze into my assigned position
Rusty of joint
I struggle to pick myself up when I fall
A key bores obstinately into my back
Never one to complain
I endure all without a word
Steely of sensibility
Dead of tongue
I throw myself on the mercy
Of those who scourge me, those who break me
Those who beat me, those who reject me
Just this, let it suffice me
To be remembered now and forever
For that which I always dreamed of
For that which I have become
A little Wind-up Man
The last quite stunning image, depicting what appears to be one of countless street-homeless Greeks as a kind of clockwork martyr, is truly compelling, emphasising the depersonalisation of abject poverty and exposure, its almost robotic auto-pilot of the personality, drawing disturbing but inescapable parallels with Christ on the cross almost rapturously accepting His tortured self-sacrifice; the trope ‘A key bores obstinately into my back’ could almost be replaced by splinter or nail; while ‘I throw myself on the mercy/ Of those who scourge me, those who break me/ Those who beat me, those who reject me’ has definite associations with the Passion and Crucifixion, and Christ’s mocking by the Romans with the crown of thorns.
In this figurative context, it is Greece, as a collective consciousness, sublimated into a martyr or Christ-figure sacrificed by the Troika (or Roman yoke) and taking on the perceived ‘sins’ of fiscal profligacy for the sake of redeeming the rest of the near-bankrupt European community from bankruptcy. But it is the Troika or in this context perhaps, the new Germanic ‘Roman’ economic Empire which is morally bankrupt, mistaking the Lutheran virtues of thrift and frugality as more important than those of basic compassion and human worth above the material.
Maria Kyrtzaki’s ‘Nude’, translated by David Connolly, projects her metaphors on Greece’s Troika-inflicted austerity cuts onto the truncated form of a Classical Greek sculpture here are some excerpts:
the belly the limbs’ joints what weight
of bodies they supported what
metal sperm of pleasure was emptied
in your mould and you keep your knees joined
like a hidden wound…
. . . . . . . . . . .
but you/shielding your eyes
but you/hiding. Your life all cuts
and your body wood.
(As if for the first time someone were seeing
you naked. ‘Ask to see the passbooks’
comes the sound from sign stuck
to the wall. Knees joined
to hide the vulva and the feet the base
of the standing statue a horrid repetition)
. . . . . . . . . . .
Your life all cuts and your body
wood in a private collection
your mould a public menace
(Ever under some regime--superfluous for me the crisis)
Again, there is a sense of the translation going slightly awry grammatically, particularly in the stanza in parenthesis above but this doesn’t significantly detract from the piece. There are some syntactical translation issues too in the following poem, ΝNektarios Lambropoulos’
‘Untitled’ (trans. Dinos Siotis), particularly in its first stanza:
Each class has its means of transportation
Few fly in the sky
Some are high in a limo
Many and lower in the bus
Most of them deep in the subway
Some and deeper go on foot
Few crawl at the bottom
and all of them tread on the poet
Not for the first time in this anthology there’s a Cyclopic image:
in times of crisis
never leave their country.
labor is free
and finally blind people seem to be more than them;
Lambropoulos plays on what this writer often terms the ‘trans-satirical’ nature of modern political rhetoric:
It is a fact.
Comedy in Greece is under crisis.
There aren’t any good actors anymore.
All talents have been absorbed by politics.
The fourth and final stanza is the most polemically direct, emphasizing the universal ‘Draconic codes’ of capitalism-in-crisis, certainly indistinguishable from our Tory-run austerity regime in the UK:
If you have no income
they will tax you because you ’re a thief
If you have small income
they will tax you because for sure you cheat.
If you ’re on salary
they will tax you because you can’t do otherwise
If you ’re a banker
the more they can do is to export
Again, the translation gets slightly muddled here (though really it’s no major thing in itself seeing as one finds similar types of grammatical errors in poetry collections written in their first language), and one suspects the ‘more’ of the penultimate line is meant to be ‘most’; although the line ‘they will tax you because you can’t do otherwise’ is a little sloppily phrased, but presumably just means ‘without your permission’ or ‘automatically’.
Lily Michaelides’ ‘Unexpectedly’, translated by David Connolly, is another striking polemical lyric, this time personifying ‘crisis’ as a perfumed prostitute or whore-goddess pithy and thus best excerpted in full:
Crisis burst in everywhere.
Her hair wafts in our faces.
Her heady perfume a smell of brothel
she gazes smug and intense.
The downhill streets of crisis.
Balcony overlooking the valley of crisis.
The escutcheon at the entry of crisis.
Yet crisis, I reflect, is an abstract concept
How could it vanquish the air, the mountains
the sea, the sun?
How can all that expansive light around us
possibly belong to the crisis?
I disregard the warnings.
I wear time in reverse, pluck its white
temples, slap some red on its lips
and surrender myself to your judgement.
Equally pithy, and a little more casualised in phrasing, but no less powerful, is Pavlina Pampoudi’s ‘Colour Photo’, again translated by Connolly:
(The card players startled, red-eyed like rabbits. Trapola means
How did I come to be here?
On someone’s account.
Some common ancestor most likely.
I fancy I dint want to play. I don’t recall.
It seems a simple game of cards. But
It’s not always what it seems:
Often, at daybreak
Playing partners invisible amid the smoke
Gods, these too condemned in their power
Shuffle other cards.
In the word above they shuffle, cut and deal
My images and my mirrors
In poses and in motion.
Amid the smoke
They shuffle, cut and deal
They cheat me.
Me, an excusable mortal.
The card-playing images are apt for what has been an economic crisis caused by banking speculation, euphemistic for gambling, while the cutting of the cards obviously plays nicely on the austerity cuts; here the poet is powerfully and appropriately juxtaposing the omnipresent but invisible Markets with the Olympian gods, endlessly meddling in the affairs of ‘mere mortals’ from the impunity of their cloud-obscured mountain-top this is an almost inescapable metaphor for the hedge-betters and speculators who have caused global economic meltdown but who continue unabated to speculate even on the catastrophic social repercussions of the austerity by which they are the super rich apart singularly unaffected. The translation slips a bit again here, the ‘I dint’ of the fourth line presumably an error, though possibly a serendipitous one, since it can be interpreted either as some sort of truncated textspeak patois with an inadvertent double-meaning.
Another of the standouts for me is Eftychia Panayiotou’s ‘The Sea that Binds’, translated by Philippos Philippou, which I think one of the most faultless poems in the anthology in terms of purpose and composition another fairly short piece, it warrants excerpting in full:
First we love our dead.
First it’s those we’ll remember, if we have to remember,
as our childhood eyes remember an explosion.
Time; bomb disposal expert; hand that comes
and smudges the eyelids like a poem.
I talk to my mother, I write her ‘sea’.
Words on paper wash into a map.
Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt
some unfulfilled dream
but what bars our way to the Canal
is not black smoke;
There must be something that awakes a frightened man
from the slumber of the dead.
No one knows what really happened
except cold memory or naked revelation.
For now humanity is a sound,
call it an attempt for freedom.
Christos Papageorgiou’s ‘Spectator’, translated by Angelos Sakkis, is another short poem, but one which opts for a more stream-of-consciousness; contentiously, it appears to posit the question as to whether spectators of the Greek austerity riots were/are themselves vicariously instrumental in the acts of the riots themselves; but reading at another level, with the mention of ‘screen’, presumably meaning TV screen, and other references such as ‘markets of Albania’ (possibly referring to black markets?), the poet seems to be suggesting that all those who buy into the capitalist system are thus inculcated in the violent repercussions of its collapse. Papageorgiou deploys an almost stream-of-conscious style which ends abruptly, as if truncated, on a conjunction ‘and’ and a full stop:
You’ve read the screen, spectator, and
Dense pack of hooded ones and
You smashed shop windows and
You looted sensibilities
Anything that is sold in the markets of Albania
You ducked for the bullet to go by and
Held the wood beam in your two hands
What the construction workers left
In the enormous garbage bin
You destroyed the parked cars and
So that the Ambulance looks like a limousine
Spectator, you tossed Molotovs inside banks
You set on fire buildings dedicated to culture and
What few people desired as they went by
During the night/day and
In front of a million cameras and
On the edge of a razor
That speaks in the ghetto and
Before the rejection of
The social doctrine and.
Translation-wise, the first and second lines appear somewhat confused although since the poem ‘and’ seems to be of very deliberate emphasis on the part of the author.
Yiannis Patilis’ ‘Alcohol in Remission’, translated by Vassilis Manoussakis, is one of the more allusion-packed poems in the anthology. It begins with a quote: ‘and if I do not see // before Greece’s sanctum / tangled in a dance / Freedom and the Muses / it is death that I desire (Andreas Kalvos, ‘Hope of a Country’)’. Compositionally the poem uses sentence case lines but omits full stops, so that a first reading is rendered slightly stilted until one picks up on the grammatical pattern, realising that each clause ends where a capitalised first letter of a line appears next (I confess I’m not quite sure why, if one wishes not to use full stops, a simply em dash can’t do just as well, and thereby also make the reading a little easier; moreover, there’s also an occasional omission of commas too, which creates its own issues of arrested understanding). But all that apart, it’s another strong and interesting poem, albeit self-consciously stylistic, reminiscent of ee cummings:
I found you in the turmoil
with a borrowed coat, sleeping
on a bench with memories from the future
and it was London cold, toxic
I do not know if God speaks Greek
but surely the Greeks here
will soon speak it less and less
If they talk at all, that is
Sit up on your mattress a bit to see
the garbage it drags along
the wind of change
bottles, the brave
of the boodle emptied
And hold on as strongly as you can
because the alcohol is in remission
bringing the hypodermic shudder and torpor
the nightmares from the assault of the vacant
There’s a curious line, ‘en th twn nyn Ellhnwn dialektw’, which is asterisked to a not altogether completely clear elucidation: ‘In ‘greeklish’, ie the language of contemporary Greeks’. There’s also the presence of some slightly esoteric terms, as glimpsed in the following polemical verse:
Greece Hellas of the New Age
a neoteric fantasy you were
delivered as a test
by three flagships*
To be nourished by the unequalled corruption
The coinherence of the socialists
with the scum of the Earth
The compound of Family and Parliament
London one thousand eight hundred nineteen
The term ‘neoteric’ means ‘belonging to a new fashion or trend’, and is no doubt also meant here as an allusion to the Neotericoi (Greek νεωτερικοί "new poets") school of Greek poets in the Hellenistic period (323 BC onwards), which was essentially the first avant-garde literary movement. It is perhaps then fitting that there is very much a high modernistic flavour to this poem, as mentioned, to my mind, reminiscent of ee cummings, among others, but presumably echoing the Greek line of modernist poets, such as the Anglo-Greek C.P. Cavafy, for instance. I confess I’ve insufficient knowledge of Greek poetry to recognise the more implicit homage to:
Andreas Kalvos Ioannidis
HOPE OF A COUNTRY**
what a modern title, my god
and even if it was written two centuries ago
All I can glean from a quick glance at Wikipedia is information on one Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869), a Greek poet of the Romantic period. (That other curious word, ‘coinherence’, means inherent spiritual fellowship).
Titos Patrikios’ ‘The Lion’s Gate’, translated by Roula Konsolaki, is one of the shortest poems in the book, and one of the most ostensibly simply written, but neither of these aspects in any way detracting from its significance. Patrikios employs an effective use of repetition with the word ‘terrible’. Here it is in full:
The lions had already departed.
Not even one in all of Greece,
except for a rather solitary, evasive
lion hiding out somewhere on the Peloponnesus,
a threat to no one at all,
until it too was slaughtered by Hercules.
Still, our memories of lions
never stopped terrifying us:
their terrible images on coats of arms and shields,
their terrible figures on battle monuments,
that terrible relief carved
into a stone lintel over the gate.
Our past is forever full, terrible,
just as the story of what happened is terrible,
carved as it is now, written on the lintel
of the gate we pass through every day.
Angeliki Sidira’s ‘Unemployed’, translated by the curiously named Platon Memo, is one of my favourite poems in the anthology, both for its theme, simplicity and emotive use of symbolism. It occasionally incorporates syntactic inversions which seem rather peculiar in that this is a free verse lyric and thus needs no such contortions to wrestle out end-rhymes; further, such inversions are rendered slightly confusing when commas are omitted. However, it’s still a powerful lyric, which, again, I excerpt in full below:
It is not the alarm clock
that makes him jump
out of bed, sweating
It is his heart beating
accustomed to being rudely
woken by the loud ringing…
Lazy sips of coffee
petrify poison stalactites
in his guts.
In the dregs
In the wardrobe
a grey suit
scarecrow on the hanger
with its striped tie
ties his neck in a knot
and his shoes
shine grinning memories
of itineraries finally
empty sheets the newspaper
as if the letters
had jumped off the balcony.
He goes out,
Balconies seem to be something of a leitmotif through some of the poems in this book, hugely symbolic of course for a psychical sense of being out on a limb or precipitous edge, which taps into a recurring theme among some of the poets of suicidal ideation.
Yiannis Stroumbas’ ‘Ice Box’, translated by Dinos Siotis, is also just 16 lines long, as Titos Patrikios’ ‘The Lion’s Gate’, though both two lines longer than 14 line ‘The Beggar’ by Dimitra Christodoulou (which up to this point is the shortest poem in the anthology). ‘Ice Box’ is a slightly naïf lyric, almost like a compact fairy tale or strange vignette, but for me it seems to run out of steam by its close, ending somewhat abruptly and on what feels a rather throwaway and unedifying line which seems as if in place of a more purposeful ending. Here it is in full:
Mom, something strange happened while you were swimming.
As I was playing with the sand in front of our tent
A lady with a straw hat approached limping
She asked for water.
I opened the little faucet of the ice box
And offered her ice water.
‘Lady, why are you limping?’ I asked her.
‘Just came out of the plaster cast’, she explained.
She raised her cup and started drinking
And as she was sipping
To my surprise I saw her getting old
Like a bag lady, like a beggar homeless and jobless
As if forty years had fallen on her hunchback.
Water poured out of her denture.
‘From plaster to ice’, she whispered mysteriously,
Then she disappeared where she came from.
Thanasis Triaridis’ ‘Keyboard’, translated by Hara Syrou, is very much a protest poem without frills, but makes a very important point nonetheless in its haranguing arraignment of those citizens who choose to parrot right-wing tabloids by blaming many of the victims of austerity immigrants, prisoners, the homeless, the unemployed etc. for the nation’s economic woes, which of course distracts them and others from the true organ-grinders:
It’s really interesting to drag around our so-called guilt
but tarring everyone with the same brush
is a first-class alibi for the actual culprits
(industrialists, capitalists and other plutocrats).
This trick justifies Josef K.’s judges,
you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
and if everyone is guilty, then no one is…’
Thomas Tsalapatis’ macabre ‘The box’, translated by Lina Altiparmaki, is presented as a prose poem, and though I find this kind of block-text approach in much contemporary poetry almost instantly off-putting, its dark, chthonic metaphorical conceit is instantly arresting and deeply disturbing. It begins:
I have a box inside which someone is always being slaughtered.
A little bigger than a shoe box. A little more graceless than
a cigar box. I don’t know who, I don’t know whom, but someone
is being slaughtered….
Obvious echoes of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Arrival of the Bee Box’ aside, the metaphor of a box in which someone is ‘always being slaughtered’, which implies some hidden torment muffled by its containment and yet somehow detectable, the ‘always’ emphasizing a chronic condition of ‘someone’ or a continual state of affairs in which someone among many is always suffering, is a potent one for the topic of a social fabric being continually harmed and lastingly scarred by relentless austerity cuts. I’m almost reminded here of a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874): ‘That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence’.
‘The box’ closes on the interesting trope, ‘A friendship I maintain simply to give someone presents’, makes me think of a possible play on the ancient dialectic of Greek altruism, whereby it’s argued that giving is actually receiving, in that it gives pleasure to the average person at a moral level to be generous to or please another, and that therefore selfless giving is a sublimated form of self-gratification (not a line of philosophical argument I personally subscribe too however). But of course, given the very ominous innards of the ‘box’ in question, there is certainly no pretence of altruism in this particular context.
Christos Tsiamis imaginatively titled ‘Churches of the Enraged’, translated by Karen Emmerich, is to my mind another standout poem in this anthology one of the very best of the crop; a brilliantly subversive, aphorismic poem which manages to combine bold polemical comment with a sharply poetic use of the figurative to get its point across:
Dogs bark at uniforms
and the entire country retreats.
Logic is disrupted. Winds and sacrificial smoke
blow here and there. The city squares
have become the churches of the enraged.
Punctual for once to their rendezvous, these tragic
doppelgangers of an ideal benefactor
speak as Tiresias might.
Words thick and dark as tar.
Not for the mind, these words, but for bottles
set to explode, against rhetoric and pre-packaged laws.
People drift amid reflections of mirrors
and the small bonfires from Molotov cocktails.
The mention of Tiersias, its mythological significance apart, immediately reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s ‘III. The Fire Sermon’ from The Waste Land (1922). There the simple but profound rhyming couplet: ‘In the chaos everyone wants to speak his mind,/ in a place where language is hard to find’. Then something of the distinct pathologisation of societal decline and economic meltdown typical of many writers and cultural commentators of the Depression-hit 1930s surfaces in the following verse:
A language that would pull us from this sickness,
that would call things by their names a rotten fig is a rotten fig
in our yard, and the worms headed for the neighbour’s yard…
The use of the word ‘sickness’ to describe the austerity of Greece was common to the kind of diagnostic terminology often used to depict the social effects of the Great Depression, and so is well-suited in the context of today’s “Great Recession”.
It feels quite fitting to find the anthology close on a four line epigram, by far the shortest poem in the entire book, Yiannis Yfantis’ ‘Question and Answer at the Market Place’, translated by Ourania Yfanti:
‘Do you make money’ they ask me ‘from poetry?’
‘Money?’ I answer them, ‘money?
Does the lover ever make money?
Only the pimp makes money’.
Pithy but unaffectedly profound in its juxtaposition of the poet and the ‘lover’, both pursuers of pure and unprofitable impulses/pastimes with the ‘pimp’ a parasite profiting from the prostitution of others and the unnamed but implicit publisher, who profits (albeit nowadays very modestly) from the ‘poet’ who himself seldom receives any material returns for his output. In the context of the anthological theme, we might see the ‘pimp’ symbolising the parasitic speculators who profit not only from Boom but also from the subsequent Bust they themselves have created, their bonuses seemingly unstoppable no matter the economic health of the society from which they leach.
Crisis is an exceptional anthology, catholically selected and meticulously edited by Dinos Siotis, who is of course also one of its most prolific translational contributors. Since Greece has been the most socially devastated of all European nations post-Crash, rocked by seismic civil unrest, riots, political extremism and societal meltdown, and reduced to an effective bondage state of the democracy-eviscerating Troika, any anthology of anti-austerity protest poetry is a must-read for all conscientious objectors to today’s anarcho-capitalist asset-stripping and the kleptocratic machinations of the unaccountable markets; but the almost uniformly exceptional poetic quality of this particular Greek anti-cuts anthology makes it a truly invaluable piece of work a poetic social document or testament in verse to the iniquities inflicted countless citizens who were unfortunate enough to be living at a time when its most ancient seat of democracy was declared bankrupt, and its democratic sovereignty subsequently auctioned off to the lowest bidder.
A vicissitude which is testament in itself to the fundamentally contra-democratic nature of capitalism, which puts money, property, capital before the rights and welfare of the people on whose wills democracy itself is supposed to be founded. But it’s not elected politicians who really call the shots in capitalist societies: it’s the markets which no one elects, nor can ever easily identify in terms of actual living entities or individuals. Capitalism puts a price to everything, including democracy, and our human rights; and when capitalism tips into crisis, it will manipulate the democratic framework to prop itself up, even if this means stripping the people (hoi demos), the embodiments of democracy, of all but the most basic means of survival. Crisis is a deeply affecting and resonant counterpoint in poetry to the continuing capitalist assault on the rights of the common people of Greece to decide their own future. With the present rise in support for the Far Left in Greece, we can only hope that in the coming years there will be less and less need for such collective verse-interventions as Crisis; but in the meantime, we can at least draw some significant consolation from such powerful and well-accomplished contemporary political poetry from the very eye of the economic storm. Highly recommended.
[Alan Morrison, founder and editor of The Recusant literary ezine at the URL http://www.therecusant.org.uk] 3 October 2014