On Translating Nikos Gatsos’ Amorgos by Anita Sullivan

Anita Sullivan


I want to tell you about a Greek poem I once spent an entire year translating, even though it’s only eight pages long if scrunched into the generic single-spaced, 11-point online screed that passes for elegant reading nowadays.

The booklet I translated from was 35 pages, double-spaced, in a lovely italic font, and thus would qualify as “free-range” by allowing enough pacing room for each of the many wild creatures enclosed therein.

Legend has it that Nikos Gatsos wrote “Amorgos” during a single night in 1943, when he was 33 and World War II was tearing his country apart. The poem is divided into six sections, each one composed in a totally different style, but each part achingly lyrical and stunning in the force and uncanny aptness of its images. I have no idea why this poem remains so little known outside of Greece.

It may find its way to a wider audience now, because of the recent popularity of “language poetry,” which it resembles but most certainly is not. “Amorgos” has been called “a surrealist epic,” and if you accept this (which I do), you are taking on the idea that the work must be downright nuclear in its fission capacities. That is, in order to fit the entire Story of Greece into a poem slightly shorter than Eliot’s Four Quartets without directly mentioning Odysseus, Helen, Troy, the Argonauts, or any of the Olympian gods, is an awesome feat. The poem imbricates–a word I learned recently–which means it is constructed like overlapping roof tiles. You can’t stop reading, not because there is a plot that keeps you hanging, but because you are always sliding down to the next little section of roof.

For me, “Amorgos” feels like a kind of cross between Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” I was driven to translate the entire poem because at a very vulnerable time in my life, someone in a dark coffee house passed me a fragment from the end of Part I:

And so she sleeps, my tender love, naked among cherry blossoms,
a girl unwithering as an almond branch,
with her head leaning on the crook of her arm, and her other hand
              resting upon her golden coin,
upon its comforting warmth, while slowly and quietly like a thief
from the window of spring, enters the Morning Star that shall waken her!

Notice! Notice! Notice! The exclamation point so unashamedly placed at the end. A quick glance through the rest of the poem shows how rare, how deliberate was this placement, like setting a stone into a mosaic. A poet earns trust by such delicate attention to the doorways through which love may pass unemcumbered.

The golden coin, the almond branch, the thief, the Morning Star–all these are essential poetic material in Greek tradition, but you don’t have to know that to feel yourself swimming in what could become “formula” if carelessly arranged. As soon as I learned enough Greek to read this fragment in the original, I sought out the rest. At the time I was unable to find an English translation of the entire poem*, so I sat with my dictionary and began to generate a picture puzzle by translating word, after word. This is a foolish and desperate way to go about such a task, but sometimes it’s the only way possible.

My original translation has disappeared, as if it were eaten by the wild and the holy. This is as it should be. But later, I found that several others had fallen in love with the poem and like me, had sought to transfer it into English with some of its original power intact.

In reverse, can you imagine translating Gerard Manley Hopkins into anything else? Or Ginsberg’s “Howl” for that matter? Such poems are part charm, part riddle–the meaning is so embedded in the language itself that your translating criterion becomes something totally insane, like: I want the readers of this poem in English to end up lying on the ground in the exact same position as the original Greek readers must have been flung after they read the poem for the first time in 1943.

Coming cold, from another culture, to a lyric poem that makes syntactic sense (that is, it’s mostly constructed in complete sentences), but whose vocabulary of icons is meant to set up an entire super-structure of ideas made from the stuff of shared myth–you have to be very methodical and beat back your tendency to “poeticize.” Only thus will the roof-tiles begin to overlap on your page, and then–even more miraculously–you will start to feel entire sub-sections coalescing into larger tiles, and the whole poem will reveal itself as an ancient Greek Chorus rising in enormous shadows from where it has been long flattened across the stones. The chorus has something to say that builds in increments. Here is one increment, from Part 2:

And may your heart not yield
May your tears not fall on this implacable earth
As once on the icy wastes rolled the tear of a penguin.

Two important images here, water and eyes, will keep returning. For example, in the third stanza of Part 3:

In the courtyard of the embittered the eye has run dry
The brain has turned to ice and the heart petrified

In the short Part 5 he again combines wet with dry: “…amid sighs, tears, hunger, lamentations, and the ashes of underground wells.”

Thus the poem builds, as does Nature herself, accreting material by way of a spiral motion.

With what might seem an almost draconian economy, almost every “thing” the poet mentions comes back around again, filtered, enriched and purified by intercourse with other “things” being similarly whirled. In the opening lines, which immediately evoke the voyage of Odysseus, and which I believe reflect the overcharged imagination of the young poet heading into his all-night writing binge, he quickly veers away from what might have turned into a deliberately crafted parody or extended metaphor on this theme. And by that veering, he is able to introduce a variety of images that ring out over and over throughout the rest of the poem:

With their country tangled up in their sails, and their oars hanging
              in the wind
The shipwrecked sailors slept like stunned dead beasts amid sheets
              of sponges
But the eyes of the seaweed are twisted towards the sea
Hoping the south wind will bring them back to life again
              with newly-dyed sails
For one lost elephant is always worth more than the trembling breasts
              of a girl
May the roofs of the deserted mountain chapels light up
              with desire for the evening star
May birds come in waves to the masts of the lemon trees
With a new way of walking, a steady white breathing
Only then shall come the small-winded bodies of swans
              who have been waiting immaculate, motionless and tender
Amid the steam-rollers of commerce and the cyclones of market-gardens
When the eyes of the women turned to coal and the hearts of the
              chestnut-sellers were broken
When the harvest was stopped and the hopes of crickets began.

Gatsos is dealing from a dear, cherished and largely traditional core-collection of images: the sea, tender young love, eyes, birds, fruit trees, winds and stars by name and location–all remnants of a centuries-old horticulturally-based, and seagoing village society. The images are both specific to Greece and universal (some of one, some of the other), and he doles them out with such finesse that there is always time to forget one before it comes around again. This is essential. In Part 4, for example, the water that has been locked up in ice and in dryness, suddenly begins to flow:

Wake, murmuring water, from the root of the pine tree to find the eyes of sparrows and to revive them by watering the earth with the fragrance of basil and the whistling of lizards.

If there is a central idea emerging from the poem, it would be “persist, do not give up in the face of this current misery and dreadfulness.” Why? Because…

Somewhere an immortal rock exists where a human angel once passing by, inscribed his name and a song as yet unknown by anyone…

When this stone is found again, and the song bursts out, then the world will change:

…the snows will melt on the mountains, the wind will sing like a bird, the swallows will come to life, the osiers will quiver, and men with cold eyes and pale faces, hearing the bells in the cracked belfries ringing by themselves, will find holiday caps to wear and gay-colored ribbons to tie on their shoes. For then no one will ever joke again, the blood of brooks will overflow…and the timid girls will come slowly and quietly to cast their last garments into the flames and to dance about them nakedly…

Gatsos might have neatly wrapped the poem up at the end of Part 4: “but I keep in my fingers the music for a better day.”

Or, with Part 5, a short rant on the quixotic nature of humans.

But instead, he closes with a love poem to Poetry whom he is, in real life, about to abandon. It is an extraordinarily tender and brave lament, from a gifted bridegroom who makes the choice to renounce the One he loves best. “Poems come easily to me. It is the making of a poetry that is difficult. The telling of the truths,” he said later, after this poem had become famous in Greece.

“Amorgos” was a rapid journey through a treacherous swamp by someone with an uncanny and totally flawless gift for stepping on the few solid stones hidden beneath the surface so as never to drown in the mud. What Gatsos feared, I believe, is not that he would start missing stones, but that the swamp would gradually turn into a shallow pool of pebbles and he wouldn’t even notice. This would be bad for him, but also bad for Poetry itself. So, to avoid the curse of his own potential glibness, this young man chose for the rest of his life to restrict his word skills to translating other poets, and writing song lyrics**. To me this seems a tragic act, fully worthy of his mythical heritage.

With Part 6, the final section of ‘Amorgos,’ he sings an achingly beautiful farewell to Poetry:

Year after year I wrestled with ink and mallet, my tormented heart
With gold and fire to make you an embroidery
The hyacinth of an orange tree
A flowering quince to console you
I who once touched you with the eyes of the Pleiades
And embraced you with the mane of the moon, and we danced together
In the summer meadows
On the stubble fields, and we ate together the cut clover
Dark, vast wild one with all those pebbles around your neck, all those
Tiny colored stones in your hair


*The excerpts from “Amorgos” are my own translations, from the 1987 edition, published by Ikaros, Athens. I have been guided by the translations of Sally Purcell: from her 1980 version, posthumously published in 2004 as a 64-page book by Anvil Press Poetry, London; and of Diana Gilliland Wright, copyright October 2007, www.nauplion.net. Other translations are available, for example from Kimon Friar and Marjorie Chambers, and I have another one or two floating around as anonymous xeroxes. The more the better, is what I say.

** This is in no way meant to imply that song lyrics can never be “as good as real poetry,” although they usually are not. What I mean here is that Gatsos himself apparently saw a difference between being a words-only poet, and being a poet who wrote his words to be set to music, and he deliberately chose to maintain that distinction in his life work. An excellent book of his song lyrics in Greek comes from Ikaros, Athens, 1995 (third edition), and the title, which is lineated like a small poem, translates “blow breeze, blow me/ but don’t let up until. . .”

The final song in this posthumously-published collection is a segment of a cycle entitled “Mani Vespers,” that the publisher indicates in an epilogue was a large, many-part work the poet had been occupied with for years. The book was delayed in publication because Gatsos wished to have the cycle included in its entirety, but apparently died before he was able to finish it. Is it possible that he was working his way back into poetry through the medium of his beloved songs?


Anita Sullivan is and essayist and poet who writes about early keyboard temperaments, translation, gardening, religious philosophy and Greek islands. She has published two essay collections, a poetry chapbook and a full-length collection of poems, and writes regularly for the Weekly Hubris. She is a member of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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