To understand poetry, I have to copy out poems that particularly affect me, to learn where the words go, why this word and not that, why these combinations work they way they do. This becomes more important when I read poetry in a language other than English where copying inevitably means attempting translation.
I was translating Gatsos' "The Knight and Death" the night before 9/11. I stood, that day, in a crowd on a street in Greenwich Village and watched the startling beauty of the burning towers with his lines in my head: ... I ... saw your descendants like birds / rip open ...the sky of my country / and I saw the cypress trees ... stop breathing.
Because those lines ran so like a fingernail along a nerve, it has taken nearly five years to come back to Gatsos, and this is the result. There is no shortage of translations of Gatsos, or originals, on the Internet, and in print, particularly of Amorgos and Elegy. The problem in translating Gatsos, the main problem, is that he is so specific, so deceptively simple, that the simplest English equivalent is almost always the right word translation, and each translator works out of very nearly the same vocabulary and with almost always the same idea of the simplest word. While I am not a poet and cannot hope to equal over-all the printed translations I own and have seen, I think that I have been able to bring out the idea behind an occasional line more clearly, such as the image of a μανδύλι (which appears several times in Gatsos) in Amorgos in the phrase, Μαντήλια καλαματιανὰ, Kalamata mandili. Mandili is usually translated as "kerchief," which I have translated here as Kalamata silks.
An aspect of Gatsos' language that necessarily goes missing in translation is the flavor of words from various sources, such as the classical θολός (muddy, dirty, turbid) in the poem for George Seferis; or τσοπαναρέοι from Amorgos 6, "shepherds," a formation from Turkish choban; or the northwest wind four lines later – καράγιαλη – the Turkish kara-yil; or the untranslateable Turkish-Greek χαλάλι in one of the songs.
While working on these poems by Gatsos, I have been rereading Margaret Alexiou's extraordinary study, After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth and Metaphor, and though she never mentions Gatsos, she has been invaluable in my understanding of his language:
"Many themes in tales are like images in ritual songs literally acted out ... In wondertales men are actually turned into marble or metamorphosed into planets, and women may turn into fruit and fruit trees. What functions as compressed metaphor in the songs ("straight and strong as a pillar"...) is filled out into metonymic chains in the wondertales – girl turns into an eel when pushed into well, or into a lemon tree when buried in garden ... . Perfect metaphorical distillation of theme occurs in the proverb "hand knife running water," in which only disjunct images remain; yet their juxtaposition implies a story ...Metaphor and metonym are not polar opposites, but slip into each other according to context of utterance." (pp. 233-234)
I would call attention to the lyrical translation of Amorgos by Sally Purcell (London, 1998,
previously published in 1980 and 1986) and that of Marjorie Chambers in The Charioteer 36 (1995-1996). A brilliant, partial, translation by Richard McKane is here.
Alexiou gives examples of such distillations from Romanos Melodios where meaning is transmitted in chains of images – seed, shoot, tree, blossom, fruit, kernel, seed and tears, perfume, water, tongue, language, flame, fire, dance – such chains across poems are typical of Gatsos where we find fire moon orange star meadow lilies basil, or where he writes directly green grass poplar leaves celery, or flowers birds deer, and expands such sequences to:
To find another sea another kindness
To grasp Achilles' horses by their reins
and dearest of all:
A little wheat for the holiday a little wine for remembrance a little water for the dust . .
Meaning is distilled into single images. One such is the mandili already mentioned. The mandili is essential to the courtship dance, a girl will weave one for her lover, one will identify the returnee kidnapped by Turks. Another such image is the stubble – καλαμνίτσα – in Amorgos which in folksong belongs to laments and curses, and even though the two are dancing in rapture, they dance on stubble which can only promise loss.
Unlike other Greek poets of his generation, Gatsos rarely draws obviously on the classical and Orthodox heritages. Non-Greek influences are usually subtle though Yeats and T. S. Eliot are in evidence. Perhaps section 5 of Amorgos draws on the chorus of Antigone in 332-383 for posture, but there is no repetition of language or image. It is a commonplace for writers on Gatsos to say his work is a combination of surrealism, and folksong, and sometimes these images seem to be a kind of shorthand to save trouble – tear, moon, crane, orangeblossom, pebble appear over and over. More often, these images are simply beautiful.
Perhaps most important in understanding Gatsos is the fact that for him beauty is morality and he offers, along with the prismatic shifting images and meanings of the poems, simply images of beauty, and each carries a moral imperative. These images are icons. Icons do not tell stories. They are not symbols. They are not original images. Icons are saturated with the collective force of accumulated meaning. They inform us that we are in the presence of living being, that we are present witnesses to this which happens once, uniquely. This is how Gatsos writes.
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The collection of poems and translations posted here contains Amorgos, The Knight and Death, Song of Old Times for George Seferis, Elegy, a postumously printed fragment, "Because I held you," – perhaps originally for Amorgos – and several songs. Included with Elegy is Take Your Ring, an early draft but not printed until 1994.
I want to thank George Baloglou who encouraged my first interest in Gatsos, and my partner, Pierre MacKay, who has worked patiently with me on problems of translation.