Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
Against the Grain Vol. 33#4
Summer has always come with a reading list. This summer is no exception and includes a variety of titles: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson (a must read for a retired research scientist); Tiny Histories-Trivial events and Trifling decisions that changed British History by Dixe Wills (a Christmas present with an intriguing subtitle); The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy (an illustrated joy): Maryville, The Audacity of a People by Diane Hamilton (Diane is a “History Buddy” of mine and she has written about this African American town that was established after the Civil War in Charleston); a more perfect Union by Teri Ellen Cross Davis (a poet who brings her African American experience forward for us to bear witness). Insert a deadline for the Booklover column and the choices now include The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis.
For over ten years and more than 70 laureates, the “bucket list” goal to read one piece of work from every writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature continues to challenge. I find that I’m down to the “hard-to-find” category or poets. It is remarkable how many laureates are poets. I should make a count one day. But for now, the list is in hand to search the Charleston County Library’s offering online and I reserve two books, both from poets: The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, and Omeros by Derek Walcott.
This Booklover column focuses on two works from The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis: The Axion Esti, “one of 20th-century literature’s most concentrated and richly faceted poems,” according to the Swedish Academy; and Blissful Donna, because… how could I resist the title?
Odysseus Elytis was born in Heraklion on the Island of Crete in November of 1911.
Interesting — as in my mind, poetry originated in Greece. I guess because I learned about Homer and the epic poems of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” early in my education. And, according to the Merriam Webster website, the word poet comes from a Greek word meaning “to make.” Being more of a science geek, poetry didn’t initially resonate with me. It did intrigue me, however. Thus, I’ve been a student of poetry and the spoken word since high school.
Odysseus Elytis was recognized in 1979 by the Nobel Committee “for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clear-sightedness modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness.” In his reaction to the award, Elytis nodded to Homer and the influence of the Greek heritage on poetry: “The Swedish Academy’s decision was not only an honor for me but for Greece and its history through the ages. I believe that it was a decision to bring international attention to the most ancient tradition in Europe, since from Homer’s time to the present there has not been a single century during which poetry has not been written in the Greek language.”
The “Introduction” to The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis is written by one of the translators, Jeffrey Carson. It gives the reader a window into not only the skill of this translator but also Carson’s own beauty at word craft: “Biography tells little about Elytis. When in Athens, he usually woke up late, met with friends in various confectionary shops in the afternoon, wrote for much of the night. Summers he spent on Lesbos or other islands. For half a century he lived in the same small apartment in Athens, where an adequate family legacy enabled him to devote his time to writing. But his words reveal that his inner adventures were tumultuous, almost too vivid, and that poetry provided a way to order them. The poet chants his good news and then radically converts himself through his intensities of meter, diction, metaphor, structure. These make up the poet’s true biography, and they are almost unbearably intimate.”
With only the imagination of how Elytis’ poetry sounds in his native language, I leave you with the sensuousness of the translated versions — a very small stanza from The Axion Esti and the entirety of Blissful Donna. Once again, major props to the translators.
The Axion Esti
— What is good? What is evil?
— A point A point
and on it you balance and exist
and beyond it trepidation and darkness
and behind it the grinding teeth of angels
— A point A point
and on it you can infinitely proceed
or else nothing else exists anymore
Take some pollen from consolation’s sparkle
A place that flashes into the infinite
Higher even than your highest hope
Blissful Donna! And from the world of lightbeams’ edge
Roll the waves with dissolved emerald
For the zephyr of the music of the south
Waves for the zephyr of the music that takes
Night’s virginity far away
With journeys to boundless caves
With girls who love the embraces of lilies
And melodize the depth of sky
And long for empty aether’s chill wind
Take a place that flashes into the infinite
A blue pupil of an unaccounted eye
With stamens of wish at your level
Blissful Donna! And from a consubstantial heart
Go and see the depth of years
Strewn with pebbles of quiet seas.