pastiche: a mock-kleftic refrain

It must be something of an unusual –and quite thrilling– pleasure, I imagine (it certainly was for me), to be asked to contribute verses to be included in a 'thriller'.
In my case, it was for a novel relating the adventures of a “reluctant spy” in mid-18th century Venice. In The Four Horsemen (Polygon Books, 2017), the novel’s author (who is also Associate Professor of American Literature at Università Ca' Foscari Venezia, Venice), Gregory Dowling, has his previous novel’s, Ascension (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), protagonist, Alvise Marangon, meet Komnenos, a Phanariot Greek who, among other things, recites pseudo-kleftic songs.
My ‘assignment’ (a challenge kindly relayed by Alicia E Stallings) was therefore for “a couple of lines in Greek, which would be the refrain, something along the lines "We must keep our knives sharp for we will need them soon"”. To concoct such a pastiche of 18th c. patriotic, mock-folksong in Greek, I turned for inspiration to the style used, for example, by Rigas Ferraios (1757-1798). And, after spending a fascinating time double-checking some words and grammatical forms with poems of, and dictionaries for that period, I proposed the lines:
Αδέλφια, το μαχαίρι βαστάτε κοπτερόν,
Ναν' έτοιμο να κόψη τυράννου τον λαιμόν.
Thus, the novel’s narrator, on p. 121, has the following dialogue with Komnenos – subtly condensing not a little historical and philological knowledge:
”So you recite poems about bandits”, I said.
“Songs composed by bandits but rearranged by me into more formal poetry for a more sophisticated audience. […] Here I am, clearly a man from an educated background, who has worked for the Ottomans, pretending to be a wild rebel ready to cut their throats.”
“Is that what was happening in your poem?”
“The refrain said ‘Adelfia to maheri vastate kopteron / Nan’ etimo na kopsi tyrannou ton lemon’, which is to say, ‘Brothers, keep your knife sharp, so that it may be ready to cut the tyrant’s throat.”
– hardly a spoiler; and there are another 181 pages in this historical mystery!


five poems

As my third book of poems in Greek, Poland, has just been shortlisted for the "Anagnostis" award for poetry books published in 2016, I thought I'd share here four poems translated, and one originally written, in English, and published in "Hotel Amerika" and "Poetry London". 

The first poem, "Jan III" belongs to the aforementioned Poland; "Cadenza" and "Burning candle" are from my first book, The lifesaver (2008); "Honey, meaning of" is as yet unpublished in Greek; while "Chinese movie" comes from my second book, Uncovered (2013).



this love of Jan Sobieski
for his enemy’s beauty

Every day for twenty years
he’d write to his wife
half in Polish and half in French
And about the Turkish spoils after victory
des fort jolies choses et fort riches
mais fort riches

Among all of Hussein Pasha’s treasures
he fell in love with a silk embroidery
with two thousand rubies and emeralds
He loved it so
he draped it over his horse
on his coronation day

Indebted to the Grand Duke of Tuscany
he parted with it
The Duke had it taken down
in the register and stored –
Una cosa del barbaro lusso

Note: Sobieski (1629-1696) is principally known to the rest of the world because, as king of Poland and Commander of the joint Polish, Austrian and German armies, he stopped the Ottoman army's advance outside Vienna in 1683. But he had vanquished the same army before, at the battle of Hocim in 1673. It was this victory that led to him being elected King a year later. “Des fort jolies choses et fort riches / mais fort riches” (Fr.): most pretty things and most rich / but most rich.“Una cosa del barbaro lusso” (Ital.): An object of barbaric luxury.

[Translated by Panayotis Ioannidis and first published in “Hotel Amerika” 13 (2015). Later included, in this translation, in T. Chiotis (ed.) Futures – Poetry of the Greek crisis (Penned in the margins, 2015), and, in the original Greek, in Polonia [Poland] (Kastaniotis, 2016)]



Just before lowering his bow
the violinist sees his mother
straightening his collar before the parade
His fingers hurt
like they did after practice
but quickly they break free and warm –
they know no other body

Now he doesn’t hear
the audience’s cough
gradually stopping – doesn’t see
my neighbour’s programme gently
gliding to the floor – the eyelids
lifting up, the eyes
that hurt on
the shiny surface of the violin
while he sees off
the final phrase

His eyes hurt
as his mother’s hand
pushes him gently
onto the glare of the wet
flag-decorated street

[Translated by Panayotis Ioannidis and Stefanos Basigkal and published in “Hotel Amerika” 13 (2015). The Greek original has been published in To sossivio [The lifesaver] (Kastaniotis, 2008).]



First time this spring I held two candles
at Good Friday’s Epitaph procession
I not quite a believer

Still, since three years ago
I always light two candles
in the tiniest chapels

Since we say the soul falters
I light them up tenaciously naive
and with the expectation of the faithful

Then we say – gone
But I will not ever forget
how your face lit up austere

one night when seeing me
blow out a candle flame
You take its soul away. Never

blow it out. Always
with wetted fingers touch the wick
– inside your palm

gather the flame
don’t scatter it away
Since then I’m always careful

without explaining even though I’m teased
for such an odd attention. It is worth
wetting the fingers

tenderly holding the flame
it is worth the effort
the slight risk that your hand

cowardly, hesitant, may get burnt
that a soul may burn you
as it –temporarily– retreats

But before dozing yesterday I forgot
blew out the flame – the wall
got splashed above the second pillow

with melted candle wax
Nothing then could comfort me – as if
it were a human being – and I were to blame

[Translated by Panayotis Ioannidis and Stefanos Basigkal and published in “Poetry London” 82 (2015). The Greek original has been published in To sossivio [The lifesaver] (Kastaniotis, 2008).]


HONEY, meaning of
[entry updated July 2013]


Jean Paucton, stagehand of the Palais Garnier, started keeping bees on its rooftop in 1981. Their honey proved exquisite. At least, Parisian opera-lovers seemed to think so: the jars –with their handwritten, numbered and signed labels– would rapidly sell out from the establishment’s boutique. “Letting a seventy seven-year-old man climb on the roof was becoming problematic”, an official was quoted as saying upon M. Paucton’s retirement in the spring of 2013. It is rumoured that new bees will be installed, care of a private company, “to better frame the activity”. Nobody knows what next season’s honey will taste like.


It comes from the Germanic “hunangam” – perhaps, ultimately, from the Indo-European “keneko”, for “golden” or “yellow”. But there is another Indo-European word: “melit” –meaning, precisely, “honey”– from which both the Greek “meli” and the Irish “mil” derive. Unrelated, unfortunately, to both “melody” and the muse “Melpomene”.


Honey makes the difference between truth and falsity. Gorged on the “Gods' blond sweet food”, the three mantic, virgin bee-sisters will dance what is, what was, and what will be. (They taught Apollo divination; he gave them to his brother Hermes as a gift.) Deprived of it, however, they become unruly; their utterances unreliable.


I was very fond of it, my ‘test’ poster: two black and white photographs by Richard Avedon. On the left, “Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris”: the fashion model of the 1950’s standing lithe in her long black dress, sash trailing on the circus tent’s straw, between the two heavy gray beasts. On the right, “Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981”: a hairless albino, bees swarming on his naked torso and head (including nipples and ears). A few of my friends were as fascinated as I by this coupling of sabotaged beauty and serene symbiosis. Most, though, would cringe at a hastily interpreted creepiness. The poster used to hang in my apartment's hallway. When H. moved in a year ago, we took it down to make room for his bookshelves.

[Originally written in English and published in “Hotel Amerika” 14, (2016).]



My friend brought me bread
that was homemade by his mother.
He told me about his trip
Most of all I enjoyed the airports

Then we went to watch
a Chinese movie: about a boy
who photographed people from behind
to show them all
what they couldn’t see on their own

As everyone got up to leave
we stayed put quietly in our seats
until the last line of the credits disappeared,
the music faded

[Translated by Moira Egan and first published in “Hotel Amerika” 13 (2015). The Greek original has been published in Akalyptos [Uncovered] (Kastaniotis, 2013).]


two poems in "austerity measures"

Two poems, "Mosquito" and "The poet in the hallway", from my second book in Greek, Akalyptos (Uncovered - or, in A.E. Stallings', the poems' translator's, rendition, Unsheltered; Kastaniotis, 2008) are included in Karen Van Dyck's anthology Austerity Measures - the new Greek poetry (Penguin, 2016; New York Review Books, 2017).