Κυριακή, Δεκεμβρίου 18, 2005

The Island ..........................................................

First the distant cocks. A hairfine
Etching on silence, antiphonal silver,
Far-flung nooses of glittering sound,
A capstan chanty to launch the day,
While the young though time-honoured Early Riser
Fingers and proves her way.

Then the donkeys; clumsily splicing
Coarser hausers – Haul away, bullies,
For all your grumps and catarrh. Be docile,
Enter those golden shafts and heave
The chariot over the mountain, freighted
Once more with a reprieve.

Next and together a gush of water
And gabble of Greek. The sluices are open,
Each to his runnel, down from the mountain,
From thriftily hoarded dams of sleep,
It flows as arranged; we are back to daylight
When men and plants drink deep.

Back to normal; the ghosts in the pinetrees
Have dwindled to lizards; primaeval brows
Lined with a myriad drystone terraces
Smile in the sun; the welded blue
Of sea and sky is the tenure of legend;
Far; near; true.

Always begun so. Cutting his capers
On mattock and needle, sun on the cypresses
Polishing cone-studs as in Homeric
Times when he brassed the boss on the shield
Of some rough-hewn hero under the cypresses
And held out fame in the field.

But then, as now, Sun was deceiver
Who promised no more than he could give
But than man could take, dangling before them
Wealth, glory, freedom, life;
When Icarus flew too high that freedom
Lopped his wings like a knife

And he fell by this island. Where the woodsmoke
Smelt as now, where the naked rocks
Were as naked then, where labouring wisdom
Then as now, ready to leave
Things till tomorrow, asked of tomorrow
No freedom, only reprieve.


Which still is much. Here in this mountain village
Favoured with trees, bareness above and below it,
Suspended over a sea which melts in a sky suspended
Over a little blue dome which melts, which melts in upper
And nether blueness: here, one might think, is a closed
Circle, cave of Calypso. No horizon
Beyond the sombre warmth of looseknit stones, beyond
The warmth of daily greetings – no horizon
Did not those whitewashed rooms among wine-gourds, goatskins, icons,
Include a letter or two with a foreign postmark
From Cleveland and Detroit, diners and luncheonettes,
From wholesale grocers, coffee jobbers, gobetweens,
Who proved there was a horizon when they crossed it
Yet still are sons and uncles. Hermes came from Olympus
Tipster and god of the market; these across the Atlantic,
Tides invading the tideless. Where was the land of the dead
Rise now the towers of life, the steel and concrete
Which scorn yet prop these cabins. Hermes parted the creepers
That screened the cave of the nymph, gave her his ultimatum
And left. As the sun will leave who is peeping now through the figtree
But also broods on Wall Street. The epithets of Homer
Were fixed, albeit capricious, including the compounds
With God in them, by dint of repetition
Or ignorance ringing true. As cockcrow and cicada
Argue that light will last. The timeworn baker,
Burns out of Smyrna, smokes his hubble-bubble,
The grey stones breathe in the sky, a slim and silent girl
Gathers salt from the sea-crags, green among green leaves
Figs, kid-soft purses, bulge, on low stone roofs
Figs, grapes, tomatoes, dry in the sun and sweat
Pastes the hair to the forehead, a tall woman
Strides out of Homer over the pine-needles, mule-droppings,
Holding a distaff while the swallowtail butterflies
Fly, or seem to, backwards. Seem to. Backwards.
The sluices were all closed hours ago; where the water
Tumbled the rocks are dry, our shadows are short in the sun,
Painters would find this innocent. If difficult.
Its blue too blue. And giving nothing away.


Gorged on red, green, purple, tomatoes, peppers, aubergine,
The visitor lies among tattered shadows
Under a walnut tree where a high sun shines through the smooth green

Leaves so unlike the leaves of Athens,
Those dusty rats’ tails. An August siesta. Here, he feels is peace,
The world is not after all a shambles

And, granted there is no God, there are gods at least, at least in Greece,
And begins to drowse; but his dreams are troubled
By the sawmill noise of cicadas, on and on – Will they never cease?

Were he to count a thousand, a hundred
Thousand sheep, they would be all scraggy and stare at him with the stare
Of refugees, outraged and sullen,

Who have no gap to go through, who even if free are free as air
Long since exhausted. And the cicadas
Force, force the pace; a jaunty cavalcade of despair.

Idyllic? Maybe. Still there is hardly
Such a thing as a just idyll. The sanguine visitor dreams
And finds himself on the run with barking

Dogs at his heels who turn into wolves, into men, and each of them seems
To be running in creaky shoes; before him
Brood vast grey rocks, turtle-shape, cottage loaf, rubble of dried-up streams,

Among which reigns the judge in his glory
In a wig like a dirty sheep, frightened himself, with a nerve in his face
Ticking away, giving wisdom and warning

In the voice of a circular saw. Forcing the pace, forcing the pace
Did not a quick breeze scout the treeless
Dream and also the tree that shelters the dreamer, yet cannot efface

The truth of his panic; these are no megrims,
This is the world and this island – a brown leaf clanks from the green tree
Dry on dry ground like a subpoena –

And there are prisoners really, here in the hills, who would not agree
To sign for their freedom, whether in doubt of
Such freedom or having forgotten or never having known what it meant
to be free.


Our shadows now grow long in the sun,
Not to be long in it. No horizon
All day for the brightness of sea and sky,
All night for their darkness. One by one
The clefts are closed and the colours run
And the olive groves turn muted velvet.

Later the water. Through his contrived
Miniature channel he dives and prattles
To puddle the powdery grooves; his voice
Breaks where the steep from which he dived
Turns level; but the earth revived
Feels young this evening, as this morning.

Our shadows walk on stilts, look old
As our ambitions, the sun is younger
Having no dreams; like a self-made god
Who mouths his mottoes, parades his gold,
But swaggers off with the facts untold,
The name on his cheque still wet behind him.

The water-talk ends; the scrawl on the sky
Smudges and fades, the upper and nether
Darknesses close, the night grinds small,
Gives nothing away; but frail and high
A new moon rides and the starved eye
Finds the full circle in the crescent.

Finds or seems to. Seems to. A full
Circle and full close. One donkey
Erupts, a foghorn, then runs down
Like a worn disc; and the moon’s pull
On these dark seas comes weak or null
As the will and whims of a jilted goddess.

That gods are grudged the loves of men
Born proof against a life immortal
Calypso knew before Hermes spoke;
She sleeps alone in her cave since then
While the tired peasants in this glen
Lie upon planks, at least together.

Some who lived long on this poor soil
No more have part in it; their twilight
Falls eight hours later, their evening meals
Like their morning minds are soon on the boil
But where is their island wine and oil?
Where the slow concord of an island?

Slow. As life is. One by one,
Islands themselves, the stars move forward
In echelon, in grave pursuit
Of a routed, already returning sun
Who seems to be falling back, on the run.
Seems to. Back. Yet marches forward.

The round of dark has a lip of light,
The dams of sleep are large with daybreak,
Sleeping cocks are primed to crow
While blood may hear, in ear’s despite,
The sun’s wheels turning in the night
Which drowns and feeds, reproves and heartens.

(From, Ten Burnt Offerings, by Louis MacNeice, London 1951
- sent to me as a gift by Jude, October 2005.)

2 σχόλια:

a2ge είπε...

This was "The Island", one of the 10 poems of the collection "Ten Burnt Offerings" by the imminent
English-Irish scholar, poet and playwright Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) which he wrote during his
18-month stay in Greece from 1950 to 1951. MacNeice was invited in Greece by another English-
Irish, the travel writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor, in order to succeed him as head of the
British Institute (subordinate then to the British Council). He arrived in Athens in July 1950 and
while he was waiting for his official nomination, he met another adventurous figure, Kevin
Andrews. This hyper-energetic traveller, passionate lover of Greece, writer and qualified historian
(also photographer and musician, keen hiker and swimmer), knew Ikaria well and advised
MacNeice to take the boat and spend August there.

Sailing on the traditional route (Syros, Mykonos, Ikaria) and following Andrew's advice, from
Armenistis MacNeice and his wife reached the mountain village Christos in Rahes and checked in
one of the few rudimentary tourist lodges available in the area already since the 1930s. However
the MacNeices must have been the only tourists in Rahes, 1950. The Greek Civil War had just
ended and there were still a few Leftist guerillas hiding in the mountains of the island, while in the
villages there still lived many exiled political prisoners. Also the local population was under heavy
police surveillance for having showed unacceptable sympathy to the exiles and the fugitive

Nevertheless, everything -however poor- looked idyllic: "a closed circle... -Kalypso's cave..."

During that time Woodhouse was writing his notorious political thriller "The Apple of Discord",
Andrews had just finished "The Flight of Icarus", a dramatic historical and travel journal from
across the lines of the Greek Civil War, and Patrick Leigh Fermor was on his way to write "Mani"
and "Roumeli", his two unsurpassed reports on the way of life of the Greeks of the mountains (a
whole world vanishing already, a fact mainly due to the consequences of the Civil war). On the
contrary, the discreet, more moderate Louis MacNeice chooses to write a poem about a remote
Greek island apparently outside and away from History.

Well, it wasn't really. "It looked like..." -to paraphrase the words of the poet.

I'm no expert in literature, even less in poetry. From the Anglo-saxon writers of that time I 've read
some Dylan Thomas and for the rest most of my knowledge was indirect, through Seferis. I had
never heard of Louis MacNeice before. Only from a reference in A. Papalas' book "Rebels and
Radicals –Icaria 1600-2000" I knew there was a poem called "The Island". However, when my
friend Jude who had also read Papalas' book, found and sent me the poem (with the irresistible
comment: "rather wonderful!"), as soon as I read it, I was thrilled and decided to do something
about it.

According to all evidence "The Island" was written only 50 m. away from the house I live!

You will find it at: http://our-own-ikaria.blogspot.com/

NOTE 1: Warm thanks to Maria for the terrible battle she gave to translate in comprehensible
Greek the very difficult English original.
NOTE 2: I don't claim any copyrights for the translation. How could I? I didn't ask for permission
to translate and publish it, though I know I should. For me it was an impulse, however you should be more
careful about it. You can leave your comments in my blog page, refer to it, link to it if you
like, but please, do not copy-paste and publish it anywhere else on the web or on paper. I don't
think the copyright-watchers and their lawyers will accept an argument like "but it's about
Ikaria!..". "The Island" has no name. The name of it is nowhere mentioned in the poem!


Ανώνυμος είπε...

I fell for your poet! He was gorgeous.
Help! ... I'm in love with a man who died 37 years ago!
Quickly the time machine!
set place: Rahes, Ikaria, set time: August 1950!
I don't mind walking over mule droppings if there are butterflies flying around me and that man watching and writing!