George Seferis: Poetry in Translation from Greek

Poetry by GEORGE SEFERIS

Translated from Modern Greek by JENNIFER R. KELLOGG

Poems appear in both English and Modern Greek

Translator’s Statement

These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.

His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.

In Seferis’ poetry, justice and truth are represented by an overpowering light that suggests the beguiling beauty of the physical light in Greek landscapes and the influence of Hellenism in Western Civilization. This light itself is balanced by a countervailing darkness that brings death and destruction.

In darkness, the means of perception shift. Seeing happens through visions, dreams, and memories. Information is received through the sense of touch, gut feelings, and extra-sensory intuition. Skillful hands can guide you forward, even in the midst of unceasing conflict.

Only through total destruction of the structures that hide the truth will the truth be able to emerge.

—Jennifer R. Kellogg

Selva Oscura

When I close my eyes, I find myself in an expansive darkness
the color of dawn; I sense it on your fingertips.
Forget the lie that helped you live.
Bare your feet, bare your eyes—
very few things remain when we’ve bared ourselves
but in the end we can see them exactly as they are.
When I close my eyes I always find myself on a path,
the yards ruined to the right and left and in the corner
the house with window panes beaten by the sun, empty.
I thought of your fingertips beating against the panes.
I thought of your heart beating behind the panes
and the very few things that set a man apart from others
and are never overcome.
You don’t know anything because you looked at the sun.
Your blood dripped into the black leaves of the laurel bush.
I see the nightingale and the marbled moon of evenings past,
when I dragged your blood into the river, dyeing it red.
I ponder—when I ponder—I ponder
my veins and the mystery of your hands,
guiding carefully, descending step by step.
When I close my eyes, I find myself in an expansive garden.

May 1937

Selva oscura

Τα μάτια αν κλείσω βρίσκομαι σ’ ένα μεγάλον ίσκιο
το χρώμα της αυγής το αισθάνομαι στα δάχτυλά σου.
Ξέχασε το ψέμα που σε βόηθησε να ζήσεις
γύμνωσε τα πόδια σου, γύμνωσε τα μάτια σου,
μας μένουν λίγα πράγματα όταν γυμνωθούμε
αλλά τα βλέπουμε στο τέλος πιστά.
Τα μάτια αν κλείσω βρίσκομαι πάντα σ’ ένα μονοπάτι,
τ’ αυλάκια χαλασμένα δεξιά κι αριστερά, στην άκρη
το σπίτι με γυαλιά που το χτυπάει ο ήλιος, άδειο.
Σκέφτηκα τα δάχτυλά σου να χτυπούν τα τζάμια
σκέφτηκα την καρδιά σου να χτυπά πίσω απ’ τα τζάμια
και πόσα λίγα πράματα χωρίζουν έναν άνθρωπο
που δεν τα ξεπερνά.
Δεν ξέρεις τίποτε γιατί κοίταξες τον ήλιο.
Το αίμα σου στάλαξε στα μαύρα φύλλα της δάφνης
τ’ αηδόνι, περασμένες νύχτες, μάρμαρα στο φεγγάρι
και στο ποτάμι το ‘συρα κι έβαψε το ποτάμι.
Συλλογίζομαι, όταν συλλογίζομαι, συλλογίζομαι
τις φλέβες μου και το μυστήριο των χεριών σου που οδηγούν
κατεβαίνοντας προσεχτικά σκαλοπάτι το σκαλοπάτι[.]
Τα μάτια αν κλείσω βρίσκομαι σ’ έναν μεγάλο κήπο[.]

Μάης 1937

The Blind Man

Sleep is heavy on December mornings,
black like the waters of the Acheron, without dreams,
without memory, without even a tiny laurel leaf.
Waking gouges oblivion like flogged
            skin
and the errant soul comes to the surface
holding shards of unearthed images, a dancing girl
with useless castanets, with feet that falter,
with ankles bruised from the heavy trampling
down where the annihilated gather.

Sleep is heavy on December mornings.
And each December is worse than the last.
One year it’s Parga, the next it’s Syracuse;
the ancestors’ bones are exhumed, mines are
filled with exhausted souls, crippled, without
            breath
and blood is bought and blood is sold,
spread around like the children of Oedipus,
and the children of Oedipus are dead.

Empty streets, pockmarked facades,
iconolaters and iconoclasts slaughter each other all night.
Latched shutters. Within the room
the scant light burrowed into corners
like a blind pigeon.
            And him—

groping,
he found his way
through the vast meadow
and saw the darkness
behind the light.

December 1945

Τυφλός

Ο ύπνος είναι βαρύς τα πρωινά του Δεκέμβρη
μαύρος σαν τα νερά του Αχέροντα, χωρίς όνειρα,
χωρίς μνήμη, κι ούτε ένα φυλλαράκι δάφνη.
Ο ξύπνος χαρακώνει τη λησμονιά σαν το μαστιγωμένο
            δέρμα
κι η παραστρατημένη ψυχή αναδύεται κρατώντας
συντρίμμια από χθόνιες ζωγραφιές, ορχηστρίς
μ’ ανώφελες καστανιέτες, με πόδια που τρεκλίζουν
μωλωπισμένες φτέρνες απ’ τη βαριά ποδοβολή
στην καταποντισμένη σύναξη εκειπέρα.

Ο ύπνος είναι βαρύς τα πρωινά του Δεκέμβρη.
Κι ο ένας Δεκέμβρης χειρότερος απ’ τον άλλον.
Τον ένα χρόνο η Πάργα τον άλλο οι Συρακούσες·
κόκαλα των προγόνων ξεχωσμένα, λατομεία
γεμάτα ανθρώπους εξαντλημένους, σακάτηδες, χωρίς
            πνοή
και το αίμα αγορασμένο και το αίμα πουλημένο
και το αίμα μοιρασμένο σαν τα παιδιά του Οιδίποδα
και τα παιδιά του Οιδίποδα νεκρά.

Αδειανοί δρόμοι, βλογιοκομμένα πρόσωπα σπιτιών
εικονολάτρες και εικονομάχοι σφάζουνταν όλη νύχτα.
Παραθυρόφυλλα μανταλωμένα. Στην κάμαρα
το λίγο φως χώνουνταν στις γωνιές
σαν το τυφλό περιστέρι.
            Κι αυτός

ψηλαφώντας βάδιζε
στο βαθύ λιβάδι
κι έβλεπε σκοτάδι
πίσω από το φως.

Δεκέμβρης 1945

Jennifer R. Kellogg is a literary translator from Modern Greek. In 2019, she was an Emerging Translator Mentee of the American Literary Translators Association. Her project is a translation of George Seferis’ Book of Exercises II, which has not appeared in English previously. Book of Exercises II was published following Seferis’ death and is a collection of drafts, satire, and finished poems drawn from his diaries.

George Seferis (1900-1971) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. He was born in the Ottoman empire and lost his ancestral homeland on the Aegean coast of Turkey following World War I. His Collected Poems was translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard and published by Princeton University Press in 1995.

George Seferis: Poetry in Translation from Greek

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