Saturday, July 30, 2011

LINGUA GRAECA



Recently, while discussing the relative merits or otherwise of a particularly pernicious and corpulent lady from the ancestral village, one of my aged great aunts remarked to me: "But what do you expect from such a zhaba." This decidedly non-Greek word placed the author upon a train of inquiry that fruited this week's Diatribe.
In the general Greek consciousness, it is held that the Greek language is somehow superior to others. Proponents of this point of view tend to point to the languages' distinguished pedigree, that it was the first written European language that has survived and riding the orgasmic wave of patriotism, climax triumphantly with the proposition that Greek has lent vast numbers of loanwords to other languages, forms a large percentage of these and thus is inherently logical, superior and pure. This rather extreme view belies an inherent uneasiness as to its veracity. Yet this is nothing new. The plague of foreign loanwords has been with us ever since our ancestors descended into the Balkans, mixed with the proto-Hellenic aborigines of the region and acquired a veneer of their civilization. Thus words like τύραννος and Κόρινθος from the outset are loanwords from our more advanced co-habitants. Depending on which part of Greece Greeks settled in, they also adopted Thracian, Illyrian and Phrygian words. During the classical period which has left us with so many gems of literature, Ionian and its sub-dialect, Attic, were developed to full effect. Aeolian, spoken in Thessaly and Boeotia was used for pastoral poetry and odes, while Doric, the language of the primitive Spartans, Epirots and Macedonians generally fell by the wayside, surviving only in the shrinking Tsakonian dialect today and in Albanian grammatical forms. By the time of the Roman conquest and owing to the invasions of Alexander, Greek in its standardized koine form enjoyed unparalleled prestige. The Greek alphabet was even used to transcribe the language of the Kushans in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the 'scourge' of loanwords was unrelenting. The word κουστοδία, or armed guard along with a plethora of other Roman words entered the vocabulary, as did a multitude of Semitic words, with the advent of Christianity.
Sometimes words that appear decidedly non-Greek were in fact coined in Greek, borrowed by another language and re-loaned back to Greek with interest in a lectical transaction that would confound even the most adroit hedge-fund banker. Thus lasagna is said to derive from the ancient Greek, a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips and from which lagana, a type of bread eaten in Greece also is derived. Similarly, Bath, is derived from the latin Bagno which in turn is said to be derived from the Greek balanion.
Word borrowing achieved epic proportions during Byzantium where erudite scholars, the ancestors of today's linguistic Pharisees and word-Νazis, lamenting the 'corruption' of the Greek, took it upon themselves to write in unintelligible 'purified' 5th century Attic. Works by Irene Palaiologina Choumnaina are written in something approaching the spoken Greek of the period, are homely and comfortable. The stilted and convoluted prose of Anna Komneni however sometimes reminds one of the stuffiness of Persian court poetry, with the farce of the Junta thrown in. Interestingly though, it is through her chronicle that we gain the first recording of the Vlach language and Slavic words such as «ντόμπρος» (lit. good) to describe an upright character can also be traced to this period, granting our language great richness and diversity.
The Ottoman Empire merely exacerbated a trend that had begun in Byzantium with the mass migration of Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians into Northern Greece and Peloponnesus respectively. Most of the villages in Northern Greece bear Slavic names from the time of the empire of Serb Stefan Dusan over the area. Thousands of foreign words entered the Greek language as the inhabitants lived with each other, conversed, expressed thoughts and ideas. Bistritsa, the name of several villages, means clear running water in Bulgarian. In my mother's village, a central hill that encloses a vast network of caves, stalagmites and stalactites is known as "Goritsa," which in Slavonic, means little mountain.
Yet, in constructing a new national identity from scratch, our leading scholars continued the Byzantine and strangely Freudian tradition of obsession with purity. First with kathareuousa, 'purified' Greek, and its milder form, demotic, it was the deliberate policy of successive governments and thinkers to impose a form of Greek on the populace. A dialect of Peloponnesian was foisted upon the Greeks as the most 'acceptable' form of the language and our rich dialect tyradition was left to wither on the vine, the butt of jokes and scorn by self-confident southerners. Pontian-speakers of a certain age relate stories of being beaten at school for not speaking 'proper' Greek even though Pontian Greek preserves a unique array of ancient forms. In Greek movies, a particularly uneducated or dense person is type cast as speaking dialect.
Purity of language or superiority of same is an illusion that went out of academic fashion with the suicide of Hitler. Every language has to play a part in the unique facilitation of global communication. No language has ever remained unsullied by foreign penetration. Whatever puritans may say, intertextual intercourse is a fact of life, and what's more, is rather fun. Many of our everyday words, from, πόρτα to μπρίκι to γιαούρτι happen to be loan words. So much for the purity or superiority of our language. If this were the case, then there would never have been a need to borrow. Yet the borrowings, this time from English, continue. Purists must realize that abstinence from intertextual intercourse creates frustration and ultimately an absence of fertile thought.
To be asked as a child by Asia Minor dialect speaking grandparents to grab the μπαγκράτς (bucket) and take it to the γκαντούν' (corner) is to engage not only in world-wide communication but into their own personal history as refugees. To my question to my aunt as to the Greekness of the word zhaba, the answer was "of course, we are Greeks aren't we?" Zhaba is a Greek word. Borrowed from Albanian, which in turn borrowed it from the Slavonic it can either mean bullfrog or huge. And this remarkable borrowing does not end there. For it is no coincidence that zhaba sounds inordinately like Jabba and George Lucas appears to have engaged in some fantastic intertextual intercourse of his own.


DEAN KALIMNIOU



First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 July 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

JUST ICE FOR CYPRUS



"When I was a boy we didn't wake up with Vietnam and have Cyprus for lunch and the Congo for dinner." Lyndon Baines Johnson

Every year, on the day of the annual Justice for Cyprus protest march, the weather in Melbourne turns invariably cold and miserable. The final true believers, like drips from a tap that has long ceased to flow, pool together on Lonsdale Street, dressed in their heavy winter coats, exhaling steam, as their brows are furrowed in frowns. With the passing of each protest there are fewer and fewer of them and even the ultimate reluctant protesters who emerge at the last minute from the coffee shops do not swell their ranks considerably. The car with the loudspeakers begins to move, barking out barely intelligible slogans in a heavily accented voice. The small crowd, holding hastily scrawled placards, follows it down the empty street, intoning half-heartedly for the benefit of the blank windows and closed-shopfronts: "Tzastis four Sayprous," and "Terkis troups, aout of Sayprous."
They turn the corner into Swanston Street and the chant immediately intensifies for there are shoppers lining both sides of the street and they view the flag-carrying, slogan-chanting protesters with bemusement. Possibly, just one of these, through hearing the words "Turkish Troops out of Cyprus," will be placed upon a train of inquiry that will result in them researching and consequently feeling outraged about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Quite conceivably, they will then learn of the rape and slaughter of innocent civilians, the seizure of property and the pain of exile. Some of them may even become incensed to learn that such august personages as Cherie Blair QC are supporting the illegal occupation of Cyprus, through their legal representation of persons who have illegally purchased properties from third parties who have violently seized these from their rightful Cypriot owners. Indeed, in the five minute walk from the Lonsdale Street end of Swanston Street, to the Bourke Street end, more than one person could be inspired, or given pause to consider, by this chance and random encounter. And if, over the thirty seven years that the Justice for Cyprus protest has been conducted at least two persons are so moved, then who knows what could ensue? The icy and vacant stares of passersby betray nothing of their sentiments.
Briskly, the marchers turn into Bourke Street and begin the climb up to Parliament House. In years past, by this stage, the last group of protesters would still be at Lonsdale Street, but in this age of efficiency and rationalization, this is no longer the case. The momentum of the chant carries them forward, though by the Russell Street intersection, there is no one walking the street and the slogans bounce off icy and faceless buildings to rebound on the bitumen below. It is no longer cold. Warmth is being generated by the proximity of the people packed closely together and their marching in unison. Beaming, they propel themselves forward, in the half-belief that their words of truth are being dispersed from the silent street and into the wider world.
On the fourth rank from the head of the protest, some community organisation presidents are comparing this year's protest unfavourably with those of years past. They wonder why their fellow presidents no longer see fit to attend the march, though it was the place to be for many years. Where are the professionals? The businessmen? Finally, as they reach the stone facade of Parliament, they mount its steps to look down at the pitifully small group of campaigners milling about below. As they do, they take a sharp intake of breath. For it is in that moment, that realization comes, as cruelly and inexorably as it comes to a man who can no longer lift or move as much as he once was able to - the realization of old age and infirmity. So too, is it now realized that a community of some 250,000 Greek-speakers is not able to muster even one thousand people to protest against the occupation of a third of Cyprus. The tragedy is not so much the sudden comprehension that our labours all of these years are akin to those of Sisiphus, doomed to carry a boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down again, but rather, that we Sisiphians, are now, too weak, even to budge such boulders and undertake such futile tasks. This then, is our Tartarus.
When I stand with my back to Parliament and view the crowd, I heed not the speeches of the politicians (this year there were none, merely a parliamentary employee who mumbled something incomprehensible about the necessity of living in peace and harmony and who did not even have the strength of conviction to condemn the invasion and occupation.) Their absence is no matter for successive Australian governments are decent and compassionate. All have condemned the invasion and all have attempted to assist the process of a resolution of the conflict and will continue to do so. Nor do I overly heed the well-phrased exposition of the current status of negotiations by the erudite Cypriot High Commissioner, or the impassioned and rousing speech by the visiting Metropolitan of Kition, though his presence merely serves to juxtapose the absence of our local ecclesiastical leaders, something that fits ill with the traditional Modern Greek conception of clerics at the forefront of what we term "national struggles." Similarly, I pay no heed to the platitudes spoken by representatives of local organisations, the well-executed English speech by a member of the "neolaia," which commences with a thanksgiving to the few youth attending. Neither do I pay heed to my own speech, conveying the heartfelt greetings and feelings of solidarity of a people that too have known loss, persecution, privation, the division of their country and who know it still; the Greeks of Northern Epirus. How can our words tally up and weigh lifetimes of misery?
Instead, I look down the steps to the women shrouded in black. Year after year, each one of them holds a fading black and white picture of a loved one. These loved ones have not grown old. Their images are as fresh and youthful as the day they were taken. Their clothes and hairstyles are dated, yet the look of optimism and confidence in the future is eternal. Time has not been as kind to those that mourn them, their sisters, wives and mothers, who hold their pictures and an olive wreath. As the dignitaries speak, their eyes are continuously brimming with tears that pool on their lower eyelids and are carried away through the channels of sadness that furrow their grey faces. No words, no sentiments, no slogans will bring their loved ones back to them, or their lost youth. They will go to the grave wondering, but never knowing, what their last hours were, for these are the "agnoomenoi," the missing, whose fate is still unaccounted.
Finally, after a desultory rendition of the Australian and Greek anthems, the small gathering slinks away. There is no residual energy, no enthusiasm, none of the fire that is an outpouring of conviction fervently held. In Cavafian style, the contemporary Poseidonians have muttered their mantras and gone their way, cold. The icy streets of Melbourne on the wintry Sunday are left to bear mute witness to their grim conviction, never to forget, long after they cease to believe that their persistence will bear even the fruit of continued memory.
The next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, the black clad Cypriot women who have been dedicated to the icy grimness of a blighted life will go to church and light a candle for their missing people. They will whisper a prayer and look forward to the night when they will be visited by them in their dreams. And sometimes, more often than they would care to admit, they will see again what they saw in those horrific days that are now summed up in a few words at the steps of Parliament and they will wake up in mute scream.


DEAN KALIMNIOU



First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 July 2011

Saturday, July 16, 2011

ΟΙ ΑΓΑΝΑΚΤΙΣΜΕΝΟΙ



"What I don't get about you Greeks is this: How come here you all work hard and do marvellous things in this country but in your own country, you slack off? When I went to Greece earlier this year, the buildings were dingy and run-down, nothing worked, and all the Greeks were sitting around the coffee shops drinking frappe and looking aimlessly while the country was collapsing all around them. It just doesn't make sense to me." I looked up from my undercooked steak and fixed the portly features of the garrulous property developer sitting opposite me with a stern stare. Undaunted, with just a suspicion of asparagus head visible from the side of her mouth she continued:
"And you are all so law abiding and peaceful here. Over there, you smash up the shops and run riot. I'd hate to see what would happen to Australia if you guys don't get your way one day."
At this, I dropped my fork. As I am particularly attached to food and the implements invented in order to convey sundry comestibles into the mouth for the purposes of consumption and especially the fork, a Byzantine invention that has served us all in good stead for aeons, the moment when the fork touched the laminate surface of the table with a muted clang was one filled with drama indeed.
That Greece is in a parlous financial state is not a novel concept. Greece's finances, nay, its very existence, has been precarious long before and after Harilaos Trikoupis, one of the more visionary prime ministers of Greece declared bankruptcy in 1893, using the immortal lines: «Δυστυχώς επτωχεύσαμεν.» In 1932, in the aftermath of the Asia Minor catastrophe, Eleutherios Venizelos would also paraphrase those lines, declaring bankruptcy thus: «τελικώς επτωχεύσαμεν.» That bankruptcy had to do with debts stemming from the time of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, exacerbated by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, just as Greece's financial woes today, have to do with mounting debt exacerbated by the Global Financial Crisis.
There is a deeply disquieting delight and schadenfreude displayed by many over the plight of the Greek people and the futile and often violent way in which they are expressing their frustration at the plight of their country, (they refer to themselves as the Indignant - the title of this diatribe) as if the entire world is gathering to laughingly kick our Hellenic brethren, while they are down. It is all well for the portly property developer, having eventually masticated her asparagus, her to comment gleefully: "serves them right for not wanting to pay tax. Why can't they take a leaf out of your book?" yet this would ignore a true understanding as to why such multitudes have taken to the streets to voice their protest in the only way they have been taught to do so by the Socialist Party (which staked its claim to power on the back of this tradition): through demonstrations reminiscent of the Polytechnic Uprising. PASOK has taught Modern Indignant Greeks that if they kick and scream, burn a few cars and bring the city to a standstill, then they will get their way, as this was the way that the glorious students from the Polytechnic defeated the fascist dictators. Unfortunately, this time, no one is listening. Indeed, some of those who were involved in those democratic protests of the past and made a career on the back of them, such as the pachyderm Theodoros Pangalos, now have the temerity to pour scorn on the protesters, claiming, in Pangalos' case, that they don't scare him and making allegations of collective guilt such as: «Μαζί τα φάγαμε.»
This, in fact, is true. Successive Greek governments (and it is the PASOK government that has mostly ruled since the fall of the Junta), have misapplied European and other funding, by using them to fund an unviable welfare system, and provide handouts to their clientele in an effort to buy votes, rather than invest in the development of the country and a functioning civil service that actually delivers results. We have seen this in action through the tremendous amount of money expended in the setting up of a Land Registry office that seems to have never gotten off the ground, despite the government funded junkets for officials to Australia and America to explain it to us, and of course the Council of Greeks Abroad, where the government inexplicably paid for the tickets of 400 or so delegates around the world to attend a conference in Thessaloniki, solely for the point of voting for a president, sanctioned by Greek politicians.
Greek governments have reared two generations of Greek voters on the expectation that when they jump up and down and take to the streets, that they will have their demands acceded to, regardless as to how unrealistic these have become. Consequently, these governments have fostered a political culture that is centered not around clarity, efficiency, transparency and viability, but rather, around squeezing the government for concessions that translate into votes. It is indeed, an inordinately immature political culture and this can be evidenced by the fact that the Greek people are not so much protesting at the lack of political guidance and government but rather, the fact that they will have to endure austerity cuts. They, as a result of the political culture created around, them, lack the benefit of perspective, to view Greece's plight through the prism of a failure of the current rotten political system.
In this country for the moment, Greek-Australians are brought up secure in the knowledge that they will go to school, study at University if they want to, find a job, get married, buy a house and have a family. This is the great migrant dream. In Greece however, that security of life-path does not exist. Whether or not one goes to University depends on whether their parents have enough money for tutors, or can afford to send you overseas to study if you fail to enter the Greek institutions. Upon your return, you are not guaranteed a job - and if you do obtain it, this will have more to do with your family connections that your abilities. As a result, you will probably not be in a position to buy property unless one of your relatives dies and leaves you some money, so the setting up of a household and having a family is not a certain proposition. Even if you do manage your way by luck to navigate through the shoals of these difficulties, you will, in the course of your life, come into contact with a state whose organs are self-serving and self-justificatory and a bureaucracy that seems dedicated to maximum annoyance and minimum service. Faced with this, a state that appears to exist only for itself, why would you want to pay tax? At least in Australia, one of the highest taxing nations in the world, there is a belief in a system that does provide benefits and the ensuing social capital is one of the driving forces behind compliance. Thanks to Greek politicians, with their propensity to occupy Greek talk shows and scream at each other, there is no such social capital.
Having been treated to an exposition of the above, my property developer dining companion know knows that the people of Greece deserve our sympathy, not our derision, at their current plight. However, they also need help in understanding that if they do not realize the flaws and attempt to rebuild a responsible corporate political system, whereby politicians and citizens adhere to the rules, they are doomed to chase their tails for eternity.


DEAN KALIMNIOU



First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 July 2011

Saturday, July 09, 2011

NIKOS KAVVADIAS IN MELBOURNE



There is a notation in my father’s year 6 Australian history book of 1961, in which it is proposed that the Yarra River got its name due to a sorry concatenantion of circumstances whereby when the white colonialists sailed from the bay into the River, sundry members of the Wurunjeri people stood at its banks bandishing spears and yelling Warra Warra – which means go away, whereupon the linguistically challenged white imperialists concluded that the said Wurundjeri were a welcoming party and were, out of the kindness of their hearts advising the explorers about to wrest possession of their land from them, as to the name of this principal landmark, which they misheard as Yarra Yarra.
Thankfully, this story is not true. The truth of the matter is that the river was called Birrarung by the Wurundjeri people prior to European settlement. It is thought that Birrarung is derived from Wurundjeri words meaning "ever flowing".

The reason for this little historical foray is to outline our ambiguous relationship with the Yarra River. To conceive of Melbourne without it is impossible and yet it is not exactly beloved by Melburnians either. It is a gritty, functional river, with none of the romance or poetics of the Rhine, the Danube or the mystery of the Nile.

This then is the river that the peripatetic poet Nikos Kavvadias arrived at in 1951, when he penned his bleak poem Yarra Yarra, after making his way down to the land of the southern cross, having been warned, in his poem, also entitled ‘Southern Cross’, that he should fear the Stars of the South.. However, his Melbourne connection did not end with that poem, a few years later, a young bright eyed youth from Alexandria also called Nikos, obtained his first job as a wireless operator on a ship. Seated at his desk one day and scribbling some verses, the captain asked him:


"What are you doing?"
"I'm writing poetry,"
the boy answered.
"How funny," the captain mused. "Your predecessor and namesake, used to sit in that exact same chair and write poetry."


The predecessor was of course, Nikos Kavvadias, and the youth, Nikos Nomikos, who years later, would find his way up the Yarra to settle in Melbourne, only to become a celebrated Greek poet and artist. It is funny how rivers make things flow together.


So who was this Nikos Kavvadias who visited or shores and why did a group of local poets pay tribute to him on 5 June 2011, in a tribute concert at the Melba Hall, Melbourne University, entitled “Amphibian Fate?” The short answer is because he is cool and because they could. Furthermore, we are all pretty chuffed that one of the premier poets of Greece has an Australian connection. The only other Greek literary figure of note to enjoy such a connection is Stratis Tsirkas, who lived in Sydney for five years in the fifties. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the visit to the Yarra River of Kavvadias, a poet who confided in our major riparian artery:

"I want a boat, oh river, made of cardboard, like those with which students play by the banks of rivers. Tell me, does separation kill? It wounds, it does not kill. Who said we are going to crash? We never even arrived.,”

Profound and totally in keeping with the title of the local poets' event: “Amphibian fate.” Amphibian is a compound word, Amphi- meaning "on both sides" and -bios meaning "life" in Greek. A two sided, torn life is what we celebrate in Nikos Kavvadias, a man who could not bear the land and wanted to be constantly at sea.

You don’t have to be Greek to appreciate the genius of Nikos Kavvadias. He did not consider himself a poet, but rather a traveller, and this comes not only from his style of writing based on personal experiences and emotions reflected on the sea, the weather, the lost cities with their dirty ports, but also by the very limited amount of work he produced, heavily invested with experience. He used his travels around the world as a sailor, and life at sea and its adventures, as powerful metaphors for the escape of ordinary people outside the boundaries of reality.

Unlike many of his contemporary Greek poets who focused on folklore writing of at times nationalist sentiment, Kavvadias wrote both about modern Greece and about the world. He did not seem to distinguish between the two. For him, Greece was never home, because although he was Greek, he was not born there. His writings are characterized by a strong sentiment of universal humanism, a sense of a world united in cosmopolitan places, such as the dirty ports of multinational cities, which became his true home. The poet traveller drew huge inspiration and admiration for Constantine Cavafy, the writer of the masterful pseudo-historical poem Ithaca, who was born in Alexandria to Greek parents but spent most of his life travelling from Egypt to England, and who was the advocate of a universal Hellenistic spirit surpassing beyond the borders of the nation state.

The Greek community of Melbourne, at least its first generation lived through a similar experiences and share a similar spirit, being uprooted from the boundaries of their reality and being compelled to cross the same seas as Kavvadias, in search of a better life.

Kavvadias stark evocation of arriving in Melbourne, mirrors that which would have been experienced by all new migrants:
"The lights of Melbourne. The Yarra Yarra flows disinterestedly
Between cargo ships huge and mute,
Towards the bay, without giving two bob,
For the girls kiss, which cost you dear."

The difficult life of the sailor, the daily grind of work, but also the freedom of the eye to travel over new horizons opened by the increasingly longer and bolder voyages he undertook mark Kavvadias' entire poetic output. The poet constantly transforms external observations of the environment into a subdued, internal drama, often of a deeply existential nature. Indeed, critics described him as the 'poet of internal exile', and were not slow to identify in his verse and in his imagery the tendency to displace straight realistic description with scenes of reverse images which represent, in a particularly eloquent manner, the poet's journey from the open seascape into the closed and dimly lit realm of the conscience.Kavvadias was greatly inspired both by Baudelaire and the poetes maudits and observed his marine environment from precisely this viewpoint. His characters frequently descend into apathy, decay, decadence and self-destruction, and the space they inhabit has a suffocating effect on them. Kavvadias also enjoyed the cosmopolitan life (the constant journeying from port to port, country to country, ocean to ocean) which was equated with the pleasures of opportunistic love and the paralysing effects of hallucinatory substances. From these kinds of motifs emerged his overwhelming passion for travel, which he identified as the fate of the absolutely free yet totally defenceless artist.
A poet who as mentioned deliberately wrote little, Kavvadias directly addressed the metrical tradition, but always managed to take liberties with its strictures. He exploited tradition for his own purposes, adapting metres and rhyme schemes to his own linguistic and musical codes.

In Yarra Yarra all of the aforementioned is on display and is thus a fitting introduction to the poets work:

"When you fell asleep last night, the cape was on watch. You left your amulet at a home a few days ago. You laugh and yet i sold you in Rio for two centavos, and bought you back at a price in Beirut."
Nikos Kavvadias thus is a representative of a poetry of introverted exoticism, which projects the agony and spectres of a permanently restless and wakeful conscience onto alien and often mysterious seascapes.
A committed seaman and writer, he encountered some extremely difficult moments, facing them with the courage that is the preserve of those rare individuals who have absolute faith in what they do. He was in every sense a poet of the sea.

"Hold fast the rigging ladder. Coffee for the pilot.
You turn tail, chained by longing for the land.
And you, who I won in an evening game of chance,
Merge and leave with the smoke of the grey river."

Things rarely turn out the way we want them to. Life is like that.
And Kavvadias life was anything but unexpetional. He was born in Ussuriysk in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia, close to the border with China, part of the historic region of Manchuria. This fact, according to him, linked him emotionally to the Far East, expressed in his short story Li. He returned to his homeland of Cephallonia as a child. After graduating from high school in Piraeus, Kavvadias took the entrance exams to become a doctor in 1928. His father fell sick that same year and young Kavvadias was forced to get a job as an office clerk in a shipping office to help his family. He lasted only a few months there and after his father's death, he went on board the freighter ship "Agios Nikolaos" as a sailor. This is how the poet was born, He worked for a few years on freighter boats, coming back home always wretched and penniless.
Experiences of this nature can either make or break you. While reflecting on the no-nonsense, unromantic Yarra river, tamed in the service of wider causes, Kavvadias probably found a parallel and kindred spirit when he wrote:

"I command you with a porphyry shell on my lips.
Your falcon on my arm and the hounds loosed.
Wipe off the sea that drips from me
And teach me to walk on land correctly."
More vicissitudes would follow. During the German occupation of Greece, he was stranded in Athens. When the war was over in 1944, he embarked and traveled continuously as a radio operator all over the world until November 1974, having the opportunity to get to know the sea and its exotic ports. Through his experiences in the sea he collected material for his poetry. Returning from his last trip and as he was preparing the publication of his third collection of poems, he died suddenly from a stroke on February 10, 1975, after only three months off sea.
Kavvadias poetry was popularized in Greece, partly because some of his poems have been set to music by Thanos Mikroutsikos in his very popular albums Σταυρός του Νότου (Southern Cross) and Γραμμές Ωριζόντων. (Horizons' Lines).


His first collection of poems, "Marabou", was published in 1933 when Kavvadias was in his early twenties and carries within it the spirit of a romantic young man, impressed with the marvels of the world. Most of these poems tell half-fictitious stories that happened on the sea and the different places he visited. The collection begins with a poem about the catastrophic love for a young wealthy girl that ended up a poor prostitute that he could barely recognise. Other events recount the stories of a Norwegian captain who died homesick watching a ship sailing towards Norway, a dagger carrying the curse that whoever carries it shall kill someone he loves, and an African story-telling sailor who rescued him from a brawl only to die of fever in the Far East. The greek saying “ Η θάλασσα τα τρώει” the sea devours all, applies to hopes and dreams as well.

"Wipe the skin of the snake and give me a handkerchief, he writes in Yarra Yarra
I, who stripped you before old man Titian.
Raise anchor Cephallonian girl and set sail the votive lamp.
The last one sleeps on the Japanese hill
."

If guidance is so illusory, upon the sea, then we need the intervention of poets and authors to steer us in the right direction. This can be found in Kavvadias' other two collections: "Pousi" which was published in 1947 and "Traverso" which was published after his death 1975. Another short story, "Of War", published after his death in 1987, recounts the story of his rescue by a local during a storm. The war had a deep effect on him and these later collections are politically motivated, in support of the somewhat more liberal communists. One of these later poems is about the death of Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara and was written as an answer to the accusations by some active communists who thought that his poems romanticized too much on the otherwise harsh and dangerous life of sailors, who were potential symbols of class struggle. Another is about the execution of Andalusian poet and writer Federico Garθía Lorca by the Franco dictatorship, other brutal acts done by the Nazi forces occupying Greece during the Second World War.His only novel "Nightshift" was published in 1954 and recounts the stories told by the sailors on their night shift at the ship's bridge. Images from exotic places, prostitutes, captains gone mad and memories of the War blend in to form a dreamy world full of lucid forms, part fictitious, part true. His Story “The Watch” (Η βάρδια) translated by Sorbonne Professor Michel Sonie was included in 1990, in the French newspaper Liberation’s 100 greatest books of all time.

In addition to this material, more recently Guy M. Saunier published The Diary of a Skipper (2005), which contains extracts of intimate travelling experiences and memories written as a prose or poetry in the form of a diary. Originally, this was the first publication of the young Kavvadias published in the journal Peiraikon Vema in January and February 1932. The diary gives us a first glance to his future mythological themes with specific references to the dangerous Indian Ocean, the first trip of the writer to the sailors’ favourite and mysterious Marseille, his life-changing visit to Stromboli the Italian island opposite the volcano Etna, his parents’ home Argostoli the capitol of the Greek island Kefalonia, and other texts, which juxtapose his childhood expectations against the reality and dangers of travelling.

In these writings, and later in his poetry, Kavvadias intimately connects his internal feelings of loss of childhood with the external changes of the environment and its modernization, highlighting Modernity’s negative aspects by associating moral corruption to environmental pollution. In the poem entitled Kafar (1933) which is the arabic word for infidel, he wrote:

"Once the ships were our hidden wish
But now the world is an empty page
It is the same to be in Greece
And travelling to Fernando Po

The poles became to us familiar
We admired numerous times the northern Selas
And the ice is covered for years now
With empty cans of Spanish sardines

The Japanese, the girl in Chile
And the black Moroccan girls selling honey
Like all women have the same legs
And kiss the same."

For Kavvadias the juxtaposition of romantic nostalgia to the modern reality is a universal condition of the human being, reflected on his strong sentiment of nostalgia for a ‘home’ that is never there, which painfully stigmatises his work as a whole. The endless journey takes him from the mountains of Switzerland to the immobile seascapes of the equator, as people are different and the same, exotic in their own account but banal in their modern reality. Kavvadias does not seem to move, but rather the world travels around him: “Is it the compass turning, or the ship?” he asks in Kiro Siwa. His journey is static like the seascapes of the equator, as he is trapped in the ship, a metal coffin, which remains immobile in space, letting the globe move around it.

Kavvadias’ Yarra Yarra is the introspective journey of man with an albatross around his neck, compelled to travel the seas, view the pleasures and despair of mankind and yet never find peace. The Yarra River, rather than capturing him here, caused him only to reflect upon his peripatetic affliction.


"Oh sweetwater sailor,
You wore a pure white cap when you were young and a wide collar,
It catches you – don’t tell anyone,
Like steel plates catch cats
And you are startled by a sudden wind."


Here one cannot but apply these words to those of his companions who were captured by the Yarra and did not set off for foreign seas again – the Greeks of Melbourne, who despite the Odyssey which forms our founding myth – remained here, being caught like cats in steel plates ( I wonder whether that works for possums too,) being transformed into freshwater sailors, content to abjure their wanderings and settle here, by and around the Yarra, vowing never to leave again.

Are they content? Or are they just as cursed as Kavvadias, torn between two worlds, unable to find but the most fleeting satisfaction in either?

Kavvadias in Yarra Yarra does offer an insight into the complacency of pseudo-satisfaction and contentment:

"I bought you a fake cameo in Naples .
And a bleached coral.
Behind the refrigerator on the empty quay.
Ebony, the language of fire, at the centre, crimson."


Significantly, in Lee Kavvadias reflects on his own life telling the girl that he can speak some Cantonese because he was not born in “His La Kwo” (Greece in Chinese) but in Tung Sun Sheung (Manchuria) . In another text from his diary entitled “Argostoli: The Melancholic Capitol of Kefalonia” he further reveals his feelings for his parents’ Greek home as a place without life, “only mountains rising in a threatening and mourning manner”), an experience that is contrasted to the colourful and monotonous at the same time experience of travelling. At times, during his journeys, he might even consider committing suicide, but it is clear that he could not live for a second in the island of Kefalonia. Thus, in his life and poetry, he consciously took the role of a modern Odysseus, the sailor trapped in his inner search for a ‘home’ that is never there, becoming the protagonist in Cavafys imagination for a long gone Ithaca. This kind of textual introverted exoticism is reflected on the experience of static seascapes and cosmopolitan ports, as the Argonaut Kavvadias, in the role of the folklorist ethnographer, absorbs the exotic life surrounding him in his journey to nowhere, until he dies, and stops moving/experiencing.
Kavvadias is the poet of wanderers, or those who have ceased wandering, those who wonder what it is to wander, and being a sailor, certainly of a fish called Wanda. His winters of discontent are turned glorious summer by our homage to him tonight and we are most honoured that he chose our river, to outpour and cause to flow, the ruminations and depths of his soul.


The Amphibian fate tribute concert was therefore a walk in the shadow of genius, one of those rare moments where we mere flaccid mortals, are granted the coveted privilege of being able to touch the tortured divine. If Kavvadias is to teach us anything, it is the majestic solitude and splendid isolation that can be derived from following the wandering star. Happy travelling.


DEAN KALIMNIOU



First published in NKEE on 25 June 2011, 2 July 2011 and 9 July 2011