A Greek Anthology

June 2007

"If a separate personal Paradise exists for each of us, I think mine must be irreparably planted with trees of words the wind silvers like poplars, by people who see their confiscated justice given back, and by birds that even in the midst of the truth of death insist on singing in Greek, saying eros, eros, eros."
Odysseus Elytis



Translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard


Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before growing old,
sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,
roses by the head, jasmine at the feet--
so appear the longings that have passed
without being satisfied, not one of them granted
a single night of pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.


That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.


As you set out for Ithaka,
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Lastrygonians, 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.
Lastrygonians, 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 your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing 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
and learn and go on learning from their scholars.

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

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t 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’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria during the reign
of the Emperor Konstans and the Emperor Konstantinos--
in part a heathen, in part christianized--
 “Strengthened by meditation and study,
I won’t fear my passions like a coward;
I’ll give my body to sensual pleasures,
to enjoyments I’ve dreamed of,
to the most audacious erotic desires,
to the lascivious impulses of my blood,
without being at all afraid, because when I wish--
and I’ll have the will-power, strengthened
as I shall be by meditation and study--
when I wish, at critical moments I’ll recover
my ascetic spirit as it was before.


Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me--
when the body’s memory revives
and an old longing again passes through the blood,
when lips and skin remember
and hands feel as though they touch again.

Come back often, take hold of me in the night,
when lips and skin remember...


He wrapped them up carefully, neatly,
in expensive green silk.
Roses of rubies, lilies of pearl,
violets of amethyst: according to his taste, his will,
his vision of their beauty--not as he saw them in nature
or studied them. He’ll leave them in the safe,
examples of his bold, skillful work.
Whenever a customer comes into the shop,
he brings out other things to sell--first class ornaments:
bracelets, chains, necklaces, rings.


I didn’t restrain myself. I gave in completely and went,
went to those pleasures that were half real,
half wrought by my own mind,
went into the brilliant night
and drank strong wine,
the way the champions of pleasure drank.


Ordinary mortals know what’s happening now,
and the gods know what the future holds
because they alone are totally enlightened.
Wise men are aware of future things
just about to happen.

Sometimes during moments of intense study
their hearing’s troubled: the hidden sound
of things approaching reaches them,
and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
the people hear nothing whatsoever.


The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.

And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love’s body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.


Try to keep them, poet,
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
Try to hold them, poet,
when they come alive in your mind,
at night or in the noonday brightness.

[ Two lines from a poem called “Sensual Pleasure”: “My life’s joy and incense: recollection of those hours / when I found and captured pleasure as I wanted it.” 1917 ]


Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires glowing openly
in eyes that looked at you,
in voices trembling--
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too--how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.


Out of talk, appearance, and manners,
I’ll make an excellent suit of armor;
in this way I’ll face malicious people
without the slightest fear or weakness.

They’ll try to injure me. But of those
who come near me no one will know
where to find my wounds, my vulnerable places,
under the deceptions that cover me.

So boasted Aimilianos Monai.
One wonders if he ever made that suit of armor.
Anyway, he didn’t wear it long.
At the age of twenty-seven, he died in Sicily.


He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He’ll hold to some laws
but he’ll mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
He won’t be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
This way he’ll grow virtuously into wisdom.


As I was going down those stairs,
you were coming in the door, and for a second
I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw mine.
Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again,
and you hurried past, hiding your face,
and slipped inside that house,
where you couldn’t have found pleasure any more than I did.

And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you--
the love I was looking for--so your tired, knowing eyes implied--
you had to give me.
Our bodies sensed and sought each other,
our blood and skin understood.
But we hid ourselves and turned away.


From all I did and all I said,
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions--
my most veiled writing--
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect world,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear, and act freely.



Translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard



The flowering sea and the mountains in the moon’s waning,
the great stone close to the Barbary figs and the asphodels,
the jar that refused to go dry at the end of day,
and the closed bed by the cypress trees and your hair
golden, and the stars of the Swan and that other star, Aldebaran.

I’ve kept a hold on my life, kept a hold on my life, traveling
among yellow trees in driving rain,
on silent slopes loaded with beech leaves,
no fire on their peaks; it’s getting dark.
I’ve kept a hold on my life; on your left hand a line,
a scar on your knee, perhaps they exist
on the sand of the past summer, perhaps
they remain there where the north wind blew as I hear
an alien voice around the frozen lake.
The faces I see do not ask questions, nor does the woman
bent as she walks giving her child the breast.
I climb the mountains; dark ravines; the snow-covered
plain, into the distance stretches the snow-covered plain, they ask nothing,
neither time shut up in dumb chapels nor
hands outstretched to beg, nor the roads.
I’ve kept a hold on my life, whispering in a boundless silence,
I no longer know how to speak nor how to think; whispers
like the breathing of the cypress tree that night,
like the human voice of the night sea on pebbles,
like the memory of your voice saying ‘happiness.’
I close my eyes looking for the secret meeting place of the waters,
under the ice the sea’s smile, the closed wells,
groping with my veins for those veins that escape me,
there where the water-lilies end and that man
who walks blindly across the snows of silence.
I’ve kept a hold on my life, with him, looking for the water that touches you,
heavy drops on green leaves, on your face
in the empty garden, drops in the motionless reservoir
striking a swan dead in its white wings,
living trees and your eyes staring.

This road has no end, has no relief, however hard you try
to recall your childhood years, those who left, those
lost in sleep in the graves of the sea,
however much you ask bodies you’ve loved to stoop
under the harsh branches of the plane trees there
where a ray of the sun, naked, stood still
and a dog leapt and your heart shuddered,
the road has no relief; I’ve kept a hold on my life.

                                                           The snow
and the water frozen in the hoofmarks of the horses.


from THRUSH, 1946


The house near the sea

The houses I had they took away from me. The times
happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile;
sometimes the hunter hits the migratory birds,
sometimes he doesn’t hit them. Hunting
was good in my time, many felt the pellet;
the rest circle aimlessly or go mad in the shelters.

Don’t talk to me about the nightingale nor the lark
nor the little wagtail
inscribing figures with his tail in the light;
I don’t know much about houses,
I know they have their own nature, nothing else.
New at first, like babies
who play in gardens with the tassels of the sun,
they embroider colored shutters and shining doors
over the day.
When the architect’s finished, they change,
they frown or smile or even grow stubborn
with those who stayed behind, with those who went away
with others who’d come back if they could,
or others who had disappeared, now that the world’s become
a limitless hotel.

I don’t know much about houses,
I remember their joy and their sorrow
sometimes, when I stop to think;
sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own,
watching the evening spider, I imagine
that someone is getting ready to come, that they dress him up
in white and black robes, with many-colored jewels,
and around him venerable ladies,
gray hair and dark lace shawls, talk softly,
saying that he is getting ready to come and say goodbye to me,
or that a woman--eyelashes curled, high-girdled,
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna, Rhodes, Syracuse, Alexandria,
from cities closed like shutters against the heat,
with the perfume of golden fruit and herbs--
climbs the stairs without seeing
those who’ve fallen asleep under the stairs.
Houses, you know, grow stubborn easily when you strip them bare.



From the Exile Diaries Ritsos made while in prison between 1948 and 1949

Translation variations after collaboration with Ari Banias

10 January
You must tie your hands yourself.
You tie them.
Night cuts the ropes.

18 January
Our house, you said. Which house;
our house is over there
with the single bed
the broom
and the unsuspecting poems
not yet torn.

21 January
A pause.
You’re not searching.
How pleasant it is tonight.
Two birds have fallen asleep in your pockets.


From his Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, which Theodorakis set, under the dictatorship, 1968 

Variations on translations by Amy Mims


Words, poor words, are baptized in bitterness and weeping,
they make wings and begin to fly--throats and begin to sing.

And that word, that hidden word--the single word, freedom,
instead of wings makes swords and tears the winds asunder.


In one corner stands the grandfather, in the next, ten grandchildren,
and on the table nine candles stuck in the round loaf of bread.

The mothers are pulling their hair and the children are keeping still,
and from the garret window, freedom is watching and sighing.


How is this house to be built? Who will be hanging the doors,
since the hands are very few, and the stones impossible to lift?

Be quiet: at work the hands become strong and they multiply;
and don’t forget that all night long the dead are also helping.


Here the birds become silent, the church bells silent too,
and the bitter Greek silent together with his dead.

And upon the stone of silence, he sharpens his fingernails;
he’s alone and without assistance, the one who’s pledged to freedom.



Translated by Kimon Friar

Come to the luminous beaches, he murmured to himself,
Here where the colors are celebrating--look--
here where the royal family never once passed
with its closed carriages and official envoys.

Come, it won’t do for you to be seen, he used to say,
I am the deserter from the night,
I am the breaker of darkness,
and my shirt and pockets are crammed with sun.

Come--it’s burning my hands and my chest.
Come, let me give it to you.

And I have something to tell you
which not even I must hear.


The sun does not consider any of your hesitations--
naked it wants you and naked it takes you,
until night comes to dress you again.

After the sun, there is repentance.
After repentance, the sun again.


I hide behind simple things so you will find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,

you’ll touch what my hand touches,
the imprints of our hands will merge.

The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a steel pot (it becomes like this because I tell you)--
it lights the empty house and the kneeling silence of the house--
always the silence remains kneeling.

Every word is a way out,
for an encounter often canceled,
and it’s then a word is true, when it insists on the encounter.


Sunday. Buttons glitter on every coat
like small laughter. The bus has gone.
A few cheerful voices--it’s strange,
how you can hear and reply. Under the pine trees
a working man is learning to play the harmonica. A woman
says good morning to someone--such a simple and natural good morning
that you too would like to learn to play the harmonica under the pine trees.

Neither division nor subtraction. To be able to gaze
outside yourself--warmth and quiet. Not to be
 “only yourself,” but “you too.” A small addition,
a small act of practical arithmetic, easily understood,
in which even a child can succeed, playing with his fingers in the light,
or a man playing a harmonica for a woman to hear.


They took the plough to the field,
they brought the field into the house--
an endless interchange shaped
the meaning of things.

The woman changed places with the swallow--
she sat in the swallow’s roof nest and sang.
The swallow sat at the woman’s loom and wove
stars, birds, flowers, fishing boats, fish.

If only you knew how beautiful your mouth is
you would kiss me on the eyes so I might not see you.


There are certain stanzas--sometimes entire poems--
whose meaning not even I know. It’s what I do not know
that holds me still. You were right to ask me. But don’t ask me.
I don’t know.

                                                                The parallel lights
from the same center. The sound of water
falling in winter from an brimming drainpipe,
or the sound of a drop of water as it falls
from a rose in a watered garden,
slowly, slowly, on a spring evening,
like a bird’s sobbing. I don’t know
what this sound means; even so, I acknowledge it.
I’ve explained to you whatever else I know. I haven’t been neglectful.
But even these add to our lives. I would notice,
as she slept, how her knees formed an angle on the sheet.
It was not only a matter of love. This corner
was a ridge of tenderness, and the fragrance
of the sheet, of cleanliness, and of spring supplemented
that inexplicable thing I tried--in vain again--to explain to you.


When the clock struck at some distance from his window,
he knew night had fallen--not from the number of times it struck--
he didn’t even count them--but from the quality of the sound. He knew,
from the somewhat moist fragrance of the bedsheets, that it was spring.
He even knew, from the manner in which a woman took off her shoes
under the table with its five glasses, that she was weary.
This he knew particularly from the bearing of the fifth glass,
from its tempered glow: so much weariness, wonderful, proud, deathless.


When he closed his eyes he could remember nothing of that summer,
only a golden haze and his ring warm on his finger,
but still more the naked, broad, sunburned shoulders of a young farmer
whom he managed to partly see behind the willows--at two in the afternoon--
as he was returning from the sea--an odor of burned grass everywhere.
At that moment the crickets shrilled, and a ship’s siren.
Statues, of course, are made much later.


As he was walking alone in the deserted street,
he felt behind his back a star’s knife
piercing the warm darkness of his body. He did not turn.
The point had already penetrated his left breast.
He saw it glittering through his open chest, seized it
with two fingers, drew it out, and lit his cigarette.


The sea, the sun, the tree. And again:
the tree, the sun, the sea.
that in this inverted repetition,
the sun is once again found in the middle,
like sensual delight in the center of the body.


He left his pickaxe by the wall and said:
 “The field breaks your back. Every day
you struggle with thousands of tons of earth. Afterwards,
even two spans of earth are too much for you. And not even
one sheep bleating behind.”
                                                           The sunset 
was fading away in deep crimson. And Poetry
hid speechless behind the trees,
staring at her luminous and useless hands.


His sandals, left on the sand, warping in the sun.
He couldn’t be seen anywhere. Perhaps he had forgotten himself
down below, with a group of swimmers. The shape of the sandals
betrays the attitude of a young man’s foot. Evident the imprint
of the rhythmical, strong toes. Yet, how strange,
the familiar, distinctive wings at the ankles are missing.


In the end, afraid of the poems and the many cigarettes,
he went out at midnight to a suburb--a simple, quiet
walk past closed fruit stores, among
good things with their vague, true dimensions.
Having caught a cold from the moon, he wiped his nose
now and then with a paper napkin. He lingered
before the pungent odor of fresh brick,
before the invisible horse tied to a cypress tree,
before the granary’s padlock. Ah, like this, he said--
among things that demand nothing of you--
and a small balcony shifting,
with a solitary chair. On the chair
the dead woman’s guitar has been left upside-down.
On the guitar’s back, moisture sparkles secretly.
It is sparks such as these that prevent the world from dying.

from Carnal Word

Translated by Kimon Friar


Erotic sleep, after the act of love. Sweaty sheets
hanging from the bed to the floor. In my sleep I hear
the strong river. In a lingering rhythm. The trunks of huge trees
roll with it. In their branches a thousand birds
sit motionless, voyaging with a long song
of water and leaves, interrupted by stars. I pass
my hand under your neck lightly, fearful
of stopping the birdsong in your sleep. Tomorrow at ten,
when you open the shutters and the sun rushes in,
the bite on your lip will be more clear in the mirror,
and the house will turn a bright red, all spotted
with golden down and far-off unfinished verses.


I am still sleeping. I hear you brushing your teeth in the bathroom. In this sound
are rivers, trees, a mountain with a small white chapel,
and a flock of sheep (I hear the bells), two red horses,
a flag on the terrace, a bird on the chimney--
a honeybee buzzing in a rose, the rose trembles.
Oh you’re taking so long! and don’t start combing your hair,
for I am sleeping, waiting for your mouth. I don’t want
the smell of mint on your saliva. As soon as I awaken,
I shall throw down the skylight all your combs, hairpins, and toothbrushes.


You’ve taken all of me. Death will no longer have anything to take.
In your body I breathe. I have sown a thousand boys in your wet field.
A thousand horses gallop on the mountain, dragging uprooted fir trees behind them,
they descend to the outskirts, lift their heads,
gaze with black almond eyes at the Akropolis, the tall streetlamps,
open and close their short eyelashes. The green and red lights bring them
to a disagreeable perplexity. And this traffic policeman
moves his hands as though cutting an invisible fruit from the night,
or grasping a star by its tail. They turn their backs,
as though defeated in a battle never fought. Then suddenly
they shake their manes again and gallop toward the sea. On the whitest
you are mounted, naked. I shout to you. Encircling
your breasts are two sprigs of ivy. A snail
lies motionless on your hair. I shout to you, love. Three gamblers, up all night,
go into the neighborhood milkshop. Day is breaking.
The city lights go out. The vast paleness pours smoothly
over your skin. I am inside you. I shout from inside you. I shout to you,
here where the rivers converge and the sky rolls
in the human body, lifting with it
mortal creatures and things--wild ducks, windows, buffaloes,
your summer sandals, one of your bracelets, a sea-urchin, two doves--
to the open grounds of an inexplicable and unsearched-for immortality.


Sappho fragments via Anne Carson



 ] you will remember
 ] for we in our youth
                did these things

yes many and beautiful things


Eros shook my
 mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees



as long as you want



 ] right here
 ] (now again)
 ] for


 ] I have
 ] of girls



but me you have forgotten



or you love some man more than me



Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
                  what you love.

Easy to make this understood by all.
For she who overcame everyone
in beauty (Helen)
                   left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.
Not for her children nor her dear parents
had she a thought, no--
                   ] led her astray

                              ] for
                               ] lightly
                   ] reminded me of Anaktoria
                   who is gone.

I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
                   of footsoldiers in arms.

] not possible to happen
 ] to pray for a share
 ] toward [

out of the unexpected.


[ & PS from SG, the end of Dialogue with the Archipelago, 2003 ]

Borrowed postlude

Some say the massed ranks of horsemen/or of infantry or of armed ships
Is most beautiful on the dark earth/I say
Most beautiful is what you love

Anyone can understand this/Helen
Most beautiful Husband and daughter deserted/sailed Forgetting Led aside
By something missing from the papyrus

Which brings me to A who is not beside me/I leave out her name so you can’t
Her way of walking The terrible banner of her face/which I would rather see
Than all your helicopters and infantry