|September 11, 2012|
Photograph by Robyn Lee
“Seferis, Seferis. Do we have him? Is he one of ours?” (eínai se mas) shouts the clerk to a colleague sipping a frappé at a desk across the room. Fani Papageorgiou and I are negotiating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of death at some lesser Ministry of the Underworld. “George Seferis?” We confirm he has the right Seferis, and he finally reads the coordinates off a faded Xerox taped to a metal closet behind his desk: 12/45.
We are not so lucky with the other Nobel Prize winner, Odysseus Elytis. (“Try Alepoudelis,” Fani suggests, “Elytis was his pen name.”) Yes, he’s in the family plot. Angelos Sikelianos?: 18/14.
For Kostis Palamas we are sent to the colleague, who opens a wooden desk drawer and draws out a folder with famous graves organized by profession (military, politics, literature, etc). The man’s face is disfigured with what look to be severe burns—perhaps he’d been transferred from a hotter area of hell. (“Everyone in Greece is scarred, one way or another,” Fani whispers, echoing Seferis’s famous line, “Everywhere I go, Greece wounds me.”) There is an old, dusty computer on his desk, but evidently it is there for decoration only: it looks like all the records are still held in crumbling, jaundiced manila folders. Civil servants shuffle listlessly through papers in the un-air-conditioned office, awaiting inane requests from the living. The dead file no complaints.
Success! Coordinates in hand, we leave the mysterious office and climb down the stairs (we dare not enter the ancient elevator, for fear that there might be a power outage and we’d get stuck—necessitating different paperwork from the Ministry of Death altogether), back across the square to the First Cemetery where the rest of the class is waiting. (It is the last day of a week-long poetry seminar. The students—mostly intrepid Americans who were not frightened off at the dire predictions of our recent election—and I have decided to take a field trip, withering heat notwithstanding.)
For living poets, the economic crisis of the past few years is perhaps a reminder that even their relatively recent poetic forebears, as well as their genetic ones, have seen worse: occupation, famine, civil war, military dictatorship. Only poets under the age of forty were born into the present democracy, dysfunctional as it is. (And in the gerontocracy of modern Greece, forty means a young, not just a younger, poet—Kronos is still busy eating his children.)
“Crisis isn’t new to poetry; it’s only new to us,” Iana Boukova explains. Iana is a Bulgarian poet who works and publishes in Greece.
This is back in April, at a poetic taverna lunch arranged by my friend, the poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou. It is a bright blue afternoon and despite the crisis, or perhaps because of it, there is a need to sit outside under the sky and enjoy the time with friends. Though it is Lent, no one at the table is fasting, so our fare includes roasted feta cheese and village sausages.
Everyone agrees that there is an added sense of urgency. (“With the crisis,” someone utters wryly, quoting the newspapers, “Greece has reentered history.”) But the poets also agree that their calling is to speak to the human condition, to what is timeless rather than to current events. That is the job of journalists; it is the work of prose. Poetry needs distance.
Merleau-Ponty’s Child Psychology
As much as death signals the end of the self, birth is just as mysterious. Both extend out to infinity and signal the brevity and contingency of our lives. As mysterious are those first few years of life that one does not have access to as an adult, I know I existed before my earliest memories. I know I interacted with others, I learned to walk and talk. I was willful from my parent’s tales.
William Pope.L: Reader Friendly
William Pope.L is famous for (among other things) carrying a business card that identifies him as “The Friendliest Black Artist in America.” It’s a clever gag because it makes itself true, in a way, every time it draws people closer. The card must be especially useful when Pope.L does business with people who dread Black men or Black artists.
10 Things the NSA Has Seen Me Do
One winter in my early twenties myself and some good friends — a merging of art, music and literary ladies of New York, full-grown girls aspiring to be women — got together, had a lovely dinner, some wine and delightful chat. Then we decided to spend an hour practicing “Teach Me How To Dougie”. NSA — can you teach me how to Dougie? You know why? “Because all my bitches love me.”
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On the subject of death I’m inclined to turn to my two favourite writers. Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak Memory, an autobiography of sorts, with the kind of banality any reader of his knows better than to get cosy with: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ Given how much respect he had for common sense we shouldn’t be anything but wary.
Though Aldous Huxley is primarily remembered for his novels and to a lesser extent his essays, he began his writing career as a poet. While a student at Balliol College at Oxford, having been exempted from military service due to extremely poor eyesight, he was involved in several student poetry magazines. In September 1916 his first book of poetry, The Burning Wheel, appeared.