George Seferis – Collected Poems

Posted: 21/03/2023 by vequinox in Literature

The Cats of Saint Nikolas

and yet

deep in my heart sings

without a lyre or escort

the Furies’ threnody

that no one has taught me

oh, the sweet hope’s benefit

that vanished I have lost

  1.                                   AGAMEMNON, 990 FF

‘The Cape of Cats is ahead…’ the captain told me

pointing through the mist to a low seashore

vacant beach, Christmas Day,‘…

and there to the west far away

the waves gave birth to Aphrodite

the place is called the Rock of the Greeks.

Turn three degrees to the east.’

The cat I lost a year ago had the eyes of Salome

and how Ramazan

stared straight at the eyes of death

for days on in the snow of the East

in the frozen sun

straight in the eyes for days on the young chthonian god.

Traveller don’t stop.‘

Turn three degrees to the left’ the helmsman whispered.

…perhaps my friend had stopped

out of work now

locked in a small house with icons

searching for windows behind the frames.

The bell of the ship struck

like the coin of a vanished city that brings to mind, as it falls

alms of another era.

‘Strange’ the captain said again

‘this bell—on this day—reminded me of that other one,

the monastery bell.

That story was told by a monk

half crazy, a dreamer monk.

‘It was at the time of the great drought—

forty years without rain—

the whole island was devastated

people died and snakes were born.

Millions of snakes in this cape

thick like a man’s leg

and poisonous.

Those days the monastery of Saint Nikolas was

under the control of the Saint Basil monks

who couldn’t work the fields and

couldn’t put their flocks to pasture;

they were saved by the cats they raised.

Every daybreak the bell would strike

and an army of cats would run to the battle.

All day long they fought until

the bell struck for the evening meal.

After the supper the bell would strike again

and the cats would go out to battle during the night.

It was a miracle to see them, people say,

some of them limping, some blind, some

without nose, with one ear, their skin in shreds.

Thus with four bell strikes per day

months went by, years, season after season.

With wild persistence and always wounded

they got rid of the snakes but at the end they vanished;

they just couldn’t put up with so much poison.

Like a sunken ship

they left no sign on the sea-froth not even a meow,

not even a bell.

Steady as you go! What could the wretched do

fighting and drinking day and night

the blood of those poisonous snakes?

Centuries of poison; generations of poison.’

‘Straight as you go’ echoed the helmsman indifferently.

Wednesday 5 February 1969

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