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