Lent (2) and Nikiforos Vrettakos

March 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

January 1st marked the centenary of the birth of the Laconian poet, fiction writer, essayist, translator, Athens Academy member, and Nobel Prize Nominee, Nikiforos Vrettakos. Therefore the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and tourism has declared 2012 Nikiforos Vrettakos Year.

Since he didn’t win a Nobel Prize for Literature like his two contemporaries Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, Nikiforos Vrettakos is less-known abroad. In Greece though, he is a poetry giant, taught in schools, and many of his poems are set into music. People go back to his poetry for “his tenderness and boundless humanism”.

These last two years have been a nightmare for the Greek people. Probably even worse than that, they have been the beginning of a long nightmare. The first generation of Greeks who had no experience of poverty and brutality caused by World Wars, Civil Wars, or dictatorships is condemned to face a new kind of disaster caused by, partly, homemade bad politics which is now being “fixed” according to, as I find, cynical, problematic, and greedy international financial market rules.

I live abroad but I have family and friends, in Greece. They are all not doing really well. Either they’ve lost their jobs, or they’re badly paid and in fear they might lose their jobs any minute. They are all depressed watching a whole society sinking in shame, guilt, and violence, additionally to being stigmatized and stereotyped abroad. The health and welfare system is collapsing, proud people become homeless beggars, less proud people become racist villains running after poor illegal immigrants, as there must always be someone less powerful to blame and hit. They are all disillusioned about the European idea of solidarity and common future. Even worse, many are disillusioned about democracy itself, and that on the same soil democracy’s seed was planted.

At the beginning of Lent I felt I had to retreat from the world, at least the online one, very tired of not finding answers to many of my questions about the future, and recognising I’m some kind of a “weak spirit”, keeping very few traditions, and certainly not a highly disciplined person. I don’t find real comfort in silence so I’ve already broken it when it felt too heavy, but in silence I find precious time to look for the places where comfort hides, and I mostly find these places in poetry.

In Nikiforos Vrettakos’ poetry:


There are sorrows no one knows of.
There are depths the sun never
seeks. Glacial silences around the lips.
The witnesses are silent. The eyes are blank.
There aren’t ladders long enough
to descend to those depths
where the human core seethes. If silence spoke,
erupted, exploded—it would level
every tree in the standing world.

It’s getting dark, the windows are shut,
the lights come on, and the rented room
becomes a kind of world. My few books
come and go, crossing my path
like friends that bear gifts
of bread, water, fruit, medicine.
One of these, open all night
on the page where my eyes closed
stays with me atop my blanket—
a guardian angel that listens, face down,
to the beating of my heart.
I’ve said a lot, watching and wondering
about this world. The sun challenged me,
the eternally reborn green earth,
sights and sounds—the soul of things.
I’ve said a lot, looking into
my neighbor’s eyes, taking his hand.
And maybe all of it amounts
to nothing. But I’ve said my piece,
and it’s enough to know that
here and there, now and then,
I’ve added my song to the birds’.

(from Thirty Years in Rain, translated by Robert Zaller and Lili Bita)


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