Monday, April 24, 2017

ready to collect the blood from the wounds - Angelos Sikelianos and the old gods

From the Greek section of Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry anthology (1966), I have picked up the idea, likely wrong, that the great and glorious tradition of Classical Greek literature and mythology was something of a curse for modern Greek poets.  Were they allowed to write about anything else?  But maybe I should come at the problem from the other direction – to be a great modern Greek poet, you really had to earn it.

Angelos Sikelianos (1884-51) earned it through a genuine poetic mysticism.  He was devoted to ancient Greek literature as to ancient Greek religion, and he searched for its surviving remnants.  Thus, poems about the Eleusinian Mysteries or like the long “Hymn to Artemis Orthia,” a cryptic, strange invocation of a mystery cult that I did not think I had even heard of (but I had, since it is in the background of the Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Taurus of Euripides):

O Orthia,
like the workman
who collects resin
from cedar or pine
incised for the purpose,
You hold Your cupped hand ready
to collect the blood from the wounds.  (81)

Sikelianos embraces the raw, bloody Greece, more Spartan than Athenian, with erotic deities rising form the sea:

O but the sudden breaths of earth, filling my breasts, rousing me
                  from head to foot.
O Zeus, the sea is heavy, and my loosened hair drags me
                  down like a stone.  (“Aphrodite Rising,” 21)

… on the very edge where spray dissolves,
                 and leaning motionless,

upper lip pulled back so that his teeth shone,
                 he stood
huge, erect, smelling the white-crested sea
                until sunset.   (“Pan,” who else, 29)

The poet’s job, as mystic or seer, is to pull the reader of his poem a step or two closer to the lost or hidden state in which these gods and rituals function.  Or perhaps he is just an anthropologist, as in another long one, “The Village Wedding,” an occasion where, if anywhere, the old ways still have some force.

Before the bride enters,
the bridegroom’s mother
 anoints the threshold with honey,
breaks the pomegranate on the lintel.  (59)

Sikelianos wrote plays, too, and organized festivals.  He has some interesting resemblances to Yeats, the public Yeats, showing the people their gods.

I read the Selected Poems (1979) as translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.  The translators do not supply any dates.  The first poems of Sikelianos are from 1909, the last from the 1940s.  The last poem is an imagined parable of Christ’s, and it is easy to guess that it is from 1941, the Nazi conquest of Greece.  Jesus has come across a garbage pit, and is examining the corpse of a dog.  “’Look how that dog’s teeth glitter in the sun: / like hailstones, like a lily, beyond decay.’”  The poet ponders Christ’s words, thinking that

…  the world from end to end is all ruins, garbage,
all unburied corpses choking the sacred
springs of breath, inside and outside the city…  (139)

He prays for something “above the putrefaction / beyond the world’s decay,” for “Justice.”  The poet is no longer the mystic, but another of the supplicants.

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