Thursday, December 25, 2008

Greek Poetry - Nikos Kavvadias (1910-1975)

I often joke that I am Nikos Kavvadias' reincarnation (he died the night before I was born, not far from the hospital where I was born). I was very young when I heard his poetry in this record and to this day it is my favorite Greek record. It was like I had been there and had felt what he was describing. The endless nights at sea and the pressing need to travel...

Nikos Kavvadias was born in 1910 in a small town in Manchuria near Harbin, by Greek parents from Cefallonia. When he was very young, his family returned to Greece.

They lived in Cefallonia for a few years and later from 1921 to 1932 in Pireas, where Nikos Kavvadias finished elementary school and then the Gymnasium. He wrote his first poems as a pupil at the elementary school. In 1929, he started working as a clerk in a shipping office and a few months later he went on board a freighter as a sailor. Over the next few years he continued to travel on the freighters, returning home wretched and penniless, only to take off again shortly after. This went on until he decided to get a diploma as a wireless operator.

At first he wanted to become a captain, but he had already lost too many years wandering around and the wireless operator's diploma was the quicket way out. He got it in 1939 -- but World War II started, he became a soldier and fought in Albania, and, throughout the German Occupation he lived in Athens, landed.

He embarked again in 1944 and travelled continuously, as a wireless operator, all over the world, until November 1974 -- three months before the fatal stroke he suffered on February 10, 1975.

Vardia, his only novel, was published for the first time in 1954. His collection of poems Marabou was published in 1933, Pousi in 1947, and Traverso in 1975. His short stories Li and Of the War/On my Horse were published in 1987. "Li" was produced as a film in 1995 with the title "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea".

(Ena Machairi)

I always carry tightly under my belt
a small african steel dagger
-- like those that blacks are used to playing with --
that I bought from an old merchant in Algiers.

I remember, as if it were now, the old shopkeeper,
who looked like an old oil painting by Goya,
standing next to long swords and tattered uniforms,
saying in a hoarse voice the following words :

"This here dagger that you want to buy
legend has surrounded with eery stories,
and everyone knows that those who owned it at some time,
each has murdered one close to him.

Don Basilio murdered Donna Julia with it,
his beautiful wife, because she was unfaithful.
Conte Antonio, one night, his wretched brother
was slyly murdering with this here dagger.

A black his young lover out of jealousy
and some Italian sailor a Greek boatswain.
From hand to hand it passed and into mine.
Many things my eyes have seen, but this one makes me quiver.

Come close and look at it, it has an anchor and a crest,
it's light, why take it, it's not even a quarter,
but I would advise you to buy something else."
-- How much? -- Seven francs only. As long as you want it, take it.

A small dagger I have tightly in my belt,
that a whim made me make it my own;
and because I hate no one in the world to kill,
I am afraid lest some day I turn it against myself ...


The fog fell with the evening
-- the lightship lost --
and you arrived unexpected
in the pilot-house to see me.

You are wearing all white and you're wet,
I'm plaiting your hair into ropes.
Down in the waters of Port Pegassu
It always rains this season.

The stoker is watching us
with both feet in the chains.
Never look at the antennas
in a storm; you'll get dizzy.

The boatswain curses the weather
and Tokopilla is so far away.
Rather than fearing and waiting
better at the periscope and the torpedo.

Go! You deserve firm land.
You came to see me and yet see me you didn't
I have since midnight drowned
a thousand miles beyond the Hebrides.

(Stavros Tou Notou)

In the nor-wester the waves boiled;
we were both bent over the map.
You turned and told me how in March
you'd be in other latitudes.

A Chinese tatoo drawn on your chest;
however you burn it, it won't come off.
They said that you had loved her once
in a sudden fit of blackest fever.

Keeping watch by a barren cape
and the Southern Cross behind the braces.
You're holding coral worry-beads
and chewing bitter coffee beans.

I took a line on Alpha Centaurus
with the azimuth compass one night at sea.
You told me in a deathly voice:
"Beware of the stars of Southern skies".

Another time from that same sky
you took lessosn for three whole months
with the captain's mulatto girl
in how to navigate at night.

In some shopin Nosy Be
you bought the knife - two shillings it cost -
right on the equator, exactly at noon;
it glittered like a lighthouse beam.

Down on the shores of Africa
for some years now you've been asleep.
You don't remember the lighthouse now
or the delicious Sunday sweet.


That first trip - a southern freight, by chance -
no sleep, malaria, difficult watches.
Strangely deceptive, the lights of the Indies -
they say you don't see them at a first glance.

Beyond Adam's bridge, you took on freight
in South China - soya, sacks by the thousand,
and couldn't get out of your mind for a second
what they'd told you in Athens one wasted night.

The tar gets under your nails, and burns;
the fish-oil stinks on your clothes for years,
and her words keep ringing still in your ears:
"Is it the ship or the compass that turns?"

You altered course when the weather turned,
but the sea bore a grudge and exacted its cost.
Tonight my two caged parrots were lost,
and the ape I'd had such trouble to train.

The ship! - it wipes out all our chances.
The Kuro Siwo crushed us under its heel,
but you're still watching, over the wheel,
how, point by point, the compass dances.


Always the perfect, unworthy lover
of the endless voyage and azure ocean,
I shall die one evening, like any other,
without having crossed the dim horizon.

For Madras, Singapore, Algeria, Sfax,
the proud ships will still be setting sail,
but I shall bend over a chart-covered desk
and look in the ledger, and make out a bill.

I'll give up talking about long journeys,
My friends will think I've forgotten at last;
my mother will be delighted: she'll say
"A young man's fancy, but now it's passed."

But one night my soul will rise up before me,
and ask, like some grim executioner, "Why?"
This unworthy trembling hand will take arms
and fearlessly strike where the blame must lie.

And I, who longed to be buried one day
in some deep sea of the distant Indies
shall come to a dull and common death;
shall go to a grave like the graves of so many.


Hunted by fate, you travelled towards
Switzerland, the pure-white but grieving;
always oon deck, in a chaise-longue, skin yellow
foor that dreadful but all too well-known reason.

Your people uneasily fussed around you;
indifferent, you gazed out to sea. All they said
raised only a bitter laugh, for you knew
your journey would lead to the land of the dead.

One evening, as we were passing Stromboli,
you turned to someone, laughing, to speak:
"How my sick body, here, as it burns,
is like that volcano's flaming peak!"

Later I saw you in Marseilles,
lost, without looking back, as you left.
And I, who loved only the watery waste -
you were someone I could have loved.

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