Solving life’s riddles in poems of resistance

The way that the word «democracy» is bandied about in Greece today, it seems we have forgotten that there was a time not so long ago that country was in the grip of civil war and later under a dictatorship, when the individual truly had no rights and was subject to the illogical whims of the state. Author Antonis Samarakis escaped a firing squad by a hair’s breadth, Alekos Panagoulis wrote his poems with a pin in his own blood on cigarette papers and smuggled them out of jail in the laundry, and Titos Patrikios buried his work in the dry sand during his detention on the island of Ai Stratis. These were the authors and intellectuals who truly had something to rail against as well as an inner drive to get it down on paper or perish – and sometimes they did both. So just when the memory seems to be fading of these patriots’ struggle to stand up for the freedoms we enjoy today, comes the most complete translation into English of the work of one of them: «The Lions’ Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios,» translated by Christopher Bakken and Roula Konsolaki (Truman State Univ. Press, 2006). The poems included in this selection span 54 years of Patrikios’s work, from 1948 to 2002. And it might just be easier to let the poems speak for themselves: Here is «Flesh.» «My flesh/ always hurts when beaten,/ always rejoices when caressed./ It hasn’t learned a thing.» Or «My Hometown.» «I touch the walls of the houses,/ no one responds./ I find myself in a nameless town./ I search the sky to find its position/ but am blinded by colorful signs./ My hometown had two simple orientations:/ north latitude, blood/ east longitude, death.» Patrikios translates well into English, as he is a poet of simple imagery and fundamental truths that surpass the barriers of language. His pain readily comes through, although he isn’t one who screams at injustice – «The Mountains.» «In the beginning was the sea./ I was born among islands,/ me too an island that emerged temporarily,/ just in time to see light/ – this also like a stone – / and then sink back again./ «The mountains came later./ I chose them./ Somehow I must share the weight/ that for ages pressed this country down.» Patrikios was born in Athens in 1928 into a family of actors. He studied law at Athens University but his career was shaped by his participation in the Communist-led resistance against the Nazis from 1941 to 1944. Sent before a firing squad just before the war’s end by Nazi sympathizers, he was spared at the last minute. When the conservatives seized power, Communist Party members were rounded up and detained on the islands of Makronissos and Ai Stratis. On the latter, Patrikios met the poet Yiannis Ritsos, who became his mentor and encouraged the young detainees to write despite the extreme hardship and official silencing; the prisoners were subjected to hard labor, solitary confinement and brainwashing and were pressured to sign documents of capitulation. Patrikios never signed, though he suffered from tuberculosis which was made worse by his confinement. His first collections, «Dirt Road» and «Years of the Stone,» were written under those conditions. In 1959, he was exiled to Paris, where he studied philosophy and sociology at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and at the Sorbonne. Upon returning to Athens in 1964, he found himself at odds again with the status quo. He had become more critical of communism during the years away and finally made a break with the party. But that didn’t keep him from fleeing in 1967 to escape the colonels’ junta. He spent this period in exile in Paris and Rome working for UNESCO, before returning to Greece after the reinstatement of democracy in 1974. Patrikios has published 15 volumes of poetry and three works of prose. In 1992, he was awarded the Greek National Prize in Literature and he served as head of the Athens 2004 Cultural Olympiad. And though Patrikios is more often identified as a poet of the Leftist resistance with which he came of age, much of his work surpasses the actual ideological struggle. He writes mostly about the pain of daily existence or with a bemused hope of better things, of better times or of what sadly has been etched upon his soul – as in «Oedipus’s Story.» «He wanted to solve the riddles,/ cast light on the darkness/ everyone feels at ease with,/ no matter how heavy it is upon them./ What scared him most wasn’t what he saw,/ but the refusal of the others to see it./ Would he always be the exception? / He couldn’t stand loneliness anymore./ In order to find his neighbors/ he thrust the two pins/ deep into his eyes./ He still understood by touch/ things nobody wanted to see.» The poems stand alone and are worth discovering in this English translation. The translators – Christopher Bakken, himself a poet of two collections, and Roula Konsolaki, a professional translator who studied at Aristotle University – have done an excellent job. The collection reads clearly and with immediacy. And so as not to put off the potential reader who might think his work is all toil and resistance, Patrikios can also be erotic: Here is «Plaster Sky.» «Your garters are still on the bedpost/ and the comb from your hair is on the floor./ Through the old window/ the plaster of the sky was falling.» Patrikios, fully reinstated today as a much-respected poet and international man of letters, still resonates as the author of «Drafts on Makronissos.» «That’s how I learned how heavy sandbags are,/ how unbreakable stone can be,/ how to uproot shrubs and brambles./ The sand remained in my mouth forever,/ stone forever in my heart,/ the thorns forever stuck under my nails.»

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