Archive for the ‘Greek Writers’ Category

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ARISTOTLE

  1. Ethics

Standard interpretations of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics usually maintain that Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) emphasizes the role of habit in conduct. It is commonly thought that virtues, according to Aristotle, are habits and that the good life is a life of mindless routine.

These interpretations of Aristotle’s ethics are the result of imprecise translations from the ancient Greek text. Aristotle uses the word hexis to denote moral virtue. But the word does not merely mean passive habituation. Rather, hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself.

Virtue, therefore, manifests itself in action. More explicitly, an action counts as virtuous, according to Aristotle, when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. This stable equilibrium of the soul is what constitutes character.

Similarly, Aristotle’s concept of the mean is often misunderstood. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle repeatedly states that virtue is a mean. The mean is a state of clarification and apprehension in the midst of pleasures and pains that allows one to judge what seems most truly pleasant or painful. This active state of the soul is the condition in which all the powers of the soul are at work in concert. Achieving good character is a process of clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of the full efficacy of the soul.

For Aristotle, moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action. What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful. Hence, the virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as the direct and natural response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful. 

  1. Habit

In many discussions, the word “habit” is attached to the Ethics as though it were the answer to a multiple-choice question on a philosophy achievement test. Hobbes‘ Leviathan? Self-preservation. Descartes‘ Meditations? Mind-body problem. Aristotle’s Ethics? Habit. A faculty seminar I attended a few years ago was mired in the opinion that Aristotle thinks the good life is one of mindless routine. More recently, I heard a lecture in which some very good things were said about Aristotle’s discussion of choice, yet the speaker still criticized him for praising habit when so much that is important in life depends on openness and spontaneity. Can it really be that Aristotle thought life is lived best when thinking and choosing are eliminated?

On its face this belief makes no sense. It is partly a confusion between an effect and one of its causes. Aristotle says that, for the way our lives turn out, “it makes no small difference to be habituated this way or that way straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference.” (1103b, 23-5) Is this not the same as saying those lives are nothing but collections of habits? If this is what sticks in your memory, and leads you to that conclusion, then the cure is easy, since habits are not the only effects of habituation, and a thing that makes all the difference is indispensable but not necessarily the only cause of what it produces.

We will work through this thought in a moment, but first we need to notice that another kind of influence may be at work when you recall what Aristotle says about habit, and another kind of medicine may be needed against it. Are you thinking that no matter how we analyze the effects of habituation, we will never get around the fact that Aristotle plainly says that virtues are habits? The reply to that difficulty is that he doesn’t say that at all. He says that moral virtue is a hexis. Hippocrates Apostle, and others, translate hexis as habit, but that is not at all what it means. The trouble, as so often in these matters, is the intrusion of Latin. The Latin habitus is a perfectly good translation of the Greek hexis, but if that detour gets us to habit in English we have lost our way. In fact, a hexisis pretty much the opposite of a habit.

The word hexis becomes an issue in Plato‘s Theaetetus. Socrates makes the point that knowledge can never be a mere passive possession, stored in the memory the way birds can be put in cages. The word for that sort of possession, ktÎsis, is contrasted with hexis, the kind of having-and-holding that is never passive but always at work right now. Socrates thus suggests that, whatever knowledge is, it must have the character of a hexis in requiring the effort of concentrating or paying attention. A hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself, and that is what Aristotle says a moral virtue is.

Some translators make Aristotle say that virtue is a disposition, or a settled disposition. This is much better than calling it a “habit,” but still sounds too passive to capture his meaning. In De Anima, when Aristotle speaks of the effect produced in us by an object of sense perception, he says this is not a disposition (diathesis) but a hexis. (417b, 15-17) His whole account of sensing and knowing depends on this notion that receptivity to what is outside us depends on an active effort to hold ourselves ready. In Book VII of the Physics, Aristotle says much the same thing about the way children start to learn: they are not changed, he says, nor are they trained or even acted upon in any way, but they themselves get straight into an active state when time or adults help them settle down out of their native condition of disorder and distraction. (247b, 17-248a, 6) Curtis Wilson once delivered a lecture at St. John’s College, in which he asked his audience to imagine what it would be like if we had to teach children to speak by deliberately and explicitly imparting everything they had to do. We somehow set them free to speak, and give them a particular language to do it in, but they–Mr. Wilson called them “little geniuses”–they do all the work.

Everyone at St. John’s has thought about the kind of learning that does not depend on the authority of the teacher and the memory of the learner. In the Meno it is called “recollection.” Aristotle says that it is an active knowing that is always already at work in us. In Plato’s image we draw knowledge up out of ourselves; in Aristotle’s metaphor we settle down into knowing. In neither account is it possible for anyone to train us, as Gorgias has habituated Meno into the mannerisms of a knower. Habits can be strong but they never go deep. Authentic knowledge does engage the soul in its depths, and with this sort of knowing Aristotle links virtue. In the passage cited from Book VII of the Physics, he says that, like knowledge, virtues are not imposed on us as alterations of what we are; that would be, he says, like saying we alter a house when we put a roof on it. In the Categories, knowledge and virtue are the two examples he gives of what hexis means (8b, 29); there he says that these active states belong in the general class of dispositions, but are distinguished by being lasting and durable. The word “disposition” by itself he reserves for more passive states, easy to remove and change, such as heat, cold, and sickness.

In the Ethics, Aristotle identifies moral virtue as a hexis in Book II, chapter 4. He confirms this identity by reviewing the kinds of things that are in the soul, and eliminating the feelings and impulses to which we are passive and the capacities we have by nature, but he first discovers what sort of thing a virtue is by observing that the goodness is never in the action but only in the doer. This is an enormous claim that pervades the whole of the Ethics, and one that we need to stay attentive to. No action is good or just or courageous because of any quality in itself. Virtue manifests itself in action, Aristotle says, only when one acts while holding oneself in a certain way. This is where the word hexis comes into the account, from pÙs echÙn, the stance in which one holds oneself when acting. The indefinite adverb is immediately explained: an action counts as virtuous when and only when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. I am translating as “in a stable equilibrium” the words bebaiÙs kai ametakinÍtÙs; the first of these adverbs means stably or after having taken a stand, while the second does not mean rigid or immovable, but in a condition from which one can’t be moved all the way over into a different condition. It is not some inflexible adherence to rules or duty or precedent that is conveyed here, but something like a Newton’s wheel weighted below the center, or one of those toys that pops back upright whenever a child knocks it over.

This stable equilibrium of the soul is what we mean by having character. It is not the result of what we call “conditioning.” There is a story told about B. F. Skinner, the psychologist most associated with the idea of behavior modification, that a class of his once trained him to lecture always from one corner of the room, by smiling and nodding whenever he approached it, but frowning and faintly shaking their heads when he moved away from it. That is the way we acquire habits. We slip into them unawares, or let them be imposed on us, or even impose them on ourselves. A person with ever so many habits may still have no character. Habits make for repetitive and predictable behavior, but character gives moral equilibrium to a life. The difference is between a foolish consistency wholly confined to the level of acting, and a reliability in that part of us from which actions have their source. Different as they are, though, character and habit sound to us like things that are linked, and in Greek they differ only by the change of an epsilon to an eta, making Íthos from ethos

We are finally back to Aristotle’s claim that character, Íthos, is produced by habit, ethos. It should now be clear though, that the habit cannot be any part of that character, and that we must try to understand how an active condition can arise as a consequence of a passive one, and why that active condition can only be attained if the passive one has come first. So far we have arranged three notions in a series, like rungs of a ladder: at the top are actives states, such as knowledge, the moral virtues, and the combination of virtues that makes up a character; the middle rung, the mere dispositions, we have mentioned only in passing to claim that they are too shallow and changeable to capture the meaning of virtue; the bottom rung is the place of the habits, and includes biting your nails, twisting your hair, saying “like” between every two words, and all such passive and mindless conditions. What we need to notice now is that there is yet another rung of the ladder below the habits.

We all start out life governed by desires and impulses. Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can’t live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room. How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle’s example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings. We don’t expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don’t weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger.

Aristotle doesn’t go into much detail about how this happens, except to say that we get the virtues by working at them: in the give-and-take with other people, some become just, others unjust; by acting in the face of frightening things and being habituated to be fearful or confident, some become brave and others cowardly; and some become moderate and gentle, others spoiled and bad-tempered, by turning around from one thing and toward another in the midst of desires and passions. (1103 b, 1422) He sums this up by saying that when we are at-work in a certain way, an active state results. This innocent sentence seems to me to be one of the lynch-pins that hold together the Ethics, the spot that marks the transition from the language of habit to the language appropriate to character. If you read the sentence in Greek, and have some experience of Aristotle’s other writings, you will see how loaded it is, since it says that a hexis depends upon an energeia. The latter word, that can be translated as being-at-work, cannot mean mere behavior, however repetitive and constant it may be. It is this idea of being-at-work, which is central to all of Aristotle’s thinking, that makes intelligible the transition out of childhood and into the moral stature that comes with character and virtue. (See Aristotle on Motion and its Place in Nature for as discussion energeia.)

The moral life can be confused with the habits approved by some society and imposed on its young. We at St. John’s College still stand up at the beginning and end of Friday-night lectures because Stringfellow Barr — one of the founders of the current curriculum — always stood when anyone entered or left a room. What he considered good breeding is for us mere habit; that becomes obvious when some student who stood up at the beginning of a lecture occasionally gets bored and leaves in the middle of it. In such a case the politeness was just for show, and the rudeness is the truth. Why isn’t all habituation of the young of this sort? When a parent makes a child repeatedly refrain from some desired thing, or remain in some frightening situation, the child is beginning to act as a moderate or brave person would act, but what is really going on within the child? I used to think that it must be the parent’s approval that was becoming stronger than the child’s own impulse, but I was persuaded by others in a study group that this alone would be of no lasting value, and would contribute nothing to the formation of an active state of character. What seems more likely is that parental training is needed only for its negative effect, as a way of neutralizing the irrational force of impulses and desires.

We all arrive on the scene already habituated, in the habit, that is, of yielding to impulses and desires, of instantly slackening the tension of pain or fear or unfulfilled desire in any way open to us, and all this has become automatic in us before thinking and choosing are available to us at all. This is a description of what is called “human nature,” though in fact it precedes our access to our true natural state, and blocks that access. This is why Aristotle says that “the virtues come about in us neither by nature nor apart from nature” (1103a, 24-5). What we call “human nature,” and some philosophers call the “state of nature,” is both natural and unnatural; it is the passive part of our natures, passively reinforced by habit. Virtue has the aspect of a second nature, because it cannot develop first, nor by a continuous process out of our first condition. But it is only in the moral virtues that we possess our primary nature, that in which all our capacities can have their full development. The sign of what is natural, for Aristotle, is pleasure, but we have to know how to read the signs. Things pleasant by nature have no opposite pain and no excess, because they set us free to act simply as what we are (1154b, 15-21), and it is in this sense that Aristotle calls the life of virtue pleasant in its own right, in itself (1099a, 6-7, 16-17). A mere habit of acting contrary to our inclinations cannot be a virtue, by the infallible sign that we don’t like it.

Our first or childish nature is never eradicated, though, and this is why Aristotle says that our nature is not simple, but also has in it something different that makes our happiness assailable from within, and makes us love change even when it is for the worse. (1154b, 21-32) But our souls are brought nearest to harmony and into the most durable pleasures only by the moral virtues. And the road to these virtues is nothing fancy, but is simply what all parents begin to do who withhold some desired thing from a child, or prevent it from running away from every irrational source of fear. They make the child act, without virtue, as though it had virtue. It is what Hamlet describes to his mother, during a time that is out of joint, when a son must try to train his parent (III, Ìv,181-9):

Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature…

Hamlet is talking to a middle-aged woman about lust, but the pattern applies just as well to five-year-olds and candy. We are in a position to see that it is not the stamp of nature that needs to be changed but the earliest stamp of habit. We can drop Hamlet’s “almost” and rid his last quoted line of all paradox by seeing that the reason we need habit is to change the stamp of habit. A habit of yielding to impulse can be counteracted by an equal and opposite habit. This second habit is no virtue, but only a mindless inhibition, an automatic repressing of all impulses. Nor do the two opposite habits together produce virtue, but rather a state of neutrality. Something must step into the role previously played by habit, and Aristotle’s use of the word energeia suggests that this happens on its own, with no need for anything new to be imposed. Habituation thus does not stifle nature, but rather lets nature make its appearance. The description from Book VII of the Physics of the way children begin to learn applies equally well to the way human character begins to be formed: we settle down, out of the turmoil of childishness, into what we are by nature.

We noticed earlier that habituation is not the end but the beginning of the progress toward virtue. The order of states of the soul given by Aristotle went from habit to being-at-work to the hexis or active state that can give the soul moral stature. If the human soul had no being-at-work, no inherent and indelible activity, there could be no such moral stature, but only customs. But early on, when first trying to give content to the idea of happiness, Aristotle asks if it would make sense to think that a carpenter or shoemaker has work to do, but a human being as such is inert. His reply, of course, is that nature has given us work to do, in default of which we are necessarily unhappy, and that work is to put into action the power of reason. (1097b, 24-1098a, 4) Note please that he does not say that everyone must be a philosopher, nor even that human life is constituted by the activity of reason, but that our work is to bring the power of logos forward into action. Later, Aristotle makes explicit that the irrational impulses are no less human than reasoning is. (1111 b, 1-2) His point is that, as human beings, our desires need not be mindless and random, but can be transformed by thinking into choices, that is desires informed by deliberation. (1113a, 11) The characteristic human way of being-at-work is the threefold activity of seeing an end, thinking about means to it, and choosing an action. Responsible human action depends upon the combining of all the powers of the soul: perception, imagination, reasoning, and desiring. These are all things that are at work in us all the time. Good parental training does not produce them, or mold them, or alter them, but sets them free to be effective in action. This is the way in which, according to Aristotle, despite the contributions of parents, society, and nature, we are the co-authors of the active states of our own souls (1114b, 23-4).

Source: www.iep.utm.edu

 

cover

 

ΔΙΑΒΑΤΗΣ

 

Ήταν παράξενος κι ίσως γι’ αυτό μπορούσε να περάσει μια ολό-

κληρη πόλη άθικτος

κάνοντας εκείνες τις μικρές παραχωρήσεις που κάνουν οι μητέρες

στα όνειρα

κι οι νικημένοι στην ευπιστία.

 

 

 

PASSERBY

 

He was a strange man for this he could pass through

the whole city untouched

allowing those little give ins that mothers allow to

their dreams

and the defeated to credulity.

 

 

TASOS LIVADITIS, translated by Manolis Aligizakis, Libros Libertad, Vancouver, 2014

www.libroslibertad.com

www.manolisaligizakis.com

 

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ΚΟΝΤΑ ΣΤΗ ΘΑΛΑΣΣΑ

 

Τον ενδιέφερε — έλεγε — η ψυχολογία των ψαριών, όταν

οι σκιές τους περνούν στο κατάστρωμα του βυθισμένου πλοίου

κι έξω στο λιμενοβραχίονα μικρά κορίτσια με ναύτες

ανάβουν μεγάλες φωτιές κι ύστερα κάθονται στις άγκυρες και κλαίνε.

 

 

 

BY THE SEA

 

He was interested – he said – in the psychology of fish, when

their shadows are displayed on the deck of a sunken ship

and on the pier young girls with sailors

start big fires and then sit on anchors and cry.

 

 

YANNIS RITSOS-SELECTED POEMS, translated by Manolis Aligizakis, Ekstasis Editions, Victoria, BC, 2013

 

www.libroslibertad.com

www.manolisaligizakis.com

www.ekstasiseditions.com

 

ARC POETRY MAGAZINE FEATURE REVIEW

 

Harold Rhenisch

 

Love and War and Oranges

Philip Resnick. Footsteps of the Past. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2015.

Nick Papaxanthos. Love Me Tender. Toronto: Mansfield Press, 2015.

Dimitris Lianinis. Hours of the Stars. Surrey, BC: Libros Libertad, 2015.

Tzoutzi Matzourani. Hear Me Out: Letters to My Ex-Lover. Surrey, BC: Libros Libertad, 2015

 

Classicism is the belief that adherence to past models recreates their successes. It’s why art students draw from the nude, formalists write sonnets, and Germany is structured on Goethe’s Faust. It’s also why Canadian poets write in a series of stances called, variously: self-actualization, emotional honesty, imagism, verse, activism, English and French, surrealism, glosas, villanelles, open fields, vers libre, academic deconstruction, and that juggling trick Leonard Cohen did with the oranges. Most commonly, classicism references the artistic works of ancient Greece—usually to foster humanist values. In this review I look at four Canadian poetry books that reference classical Greek modes.

 

Philip Resnick’s Footsteps of the Past is exquisite. Poems such as “West Coast Mythis-torema” and “Paris on a Sunday Afternoon” are tours de force of Greek metrics: mus­cular objects like Greek statues in marble: “limbs and flesh so dear / that words, you feel, are puffs of hollow air, / and images of love / Pygmalions carved in sandstone or in wax” (“Paris on a Sunday Afternoon”). Most of the other poems are satires. My work­ing model: back in the day, such jibes were sung by drunkards caught up in moonlit orgies in the Aegean hills; in civic life, satirical dramas stripped off the masks of power in dances of violence and forgiveness. Resnick’s are elegiac: “faces in a sullied looking glass / that must be digitalized / before they turn to dust” (“Cuarentena”). Often, they sound like pulpit work: “what is familiar becomes with time / a parasite in the intes­tinal flora” (“The Crown in Canada”). Resnick’s honoured dead aren’t the heroic dead of Homer and Alice Oswald, who fight in eternal battle on the scorched plains of the Middle East. They’re ghoulish. In Resnick’s reckoning, classical Greece was a wellspring of Western ideals; its citizens lived in common society, united with land and its spirits. In his Canada, this spirit lingers on in decaying fragments. The millions of people of his Vancouver, whose intellectual traditions honour Daphne and Apollo, have washed up on the shores of Raven’s sea. They have jettisoned classical unity in favour of the ability to live in tall glass rectangles. This is not courage. Reflecting the city’s ennui, many of Resnick’s poems fizzle away, as if a god has been filled with power but then, when fate hangs in the balance, slips down to the pub for a beer and to watch the Canucks lose the Stanley Cup. Classicism here grits its teeth to reveal a broad gap between realities and professed ideals, in beautiful but sad models of civic, occasional and funereal verse.

 

Nick Papaxanthos’ Love Me Tender draws on the oracular tradition of the priestesses of Apollo, who breathed sulfuric vapours to predict the future—in riddles that would ex­cite any neurolinguistic programmer today. His Love Me Tender is like a bomb of dada lobbed into an opposing trench in the Somme: “avocados fudge / blimps to raisins / the inning, lungs / in the fatso and / braids toothpaste.” It’s a bit blunt. Bombs are. Dada is. The sections “The Next Arrangement of Molecules” and “Chairlift to Hell,” though, are classic surrealist games. They just go by at warp speed, that’s all—like fanning a deck of tarot cards instead of laying them down one by one. Here’s one, to give you a taste: “the yo-yo panorama looks out gently / then returns, tinged with blood” (“At the Peak of Mt. Murder”). Fun, or what!? It’s language interrogating itself using a random­ness generator. No, wait: it’s René Char redux, differing only from the original in that Char learned his poetics in the 1940s Resistance, which certainly beat the heroism of running into machine gun fire or its contemporary equivalent, the randomness gener­ator. In Papaxanthos, the resistance continues—just faster than human sight, that’s all, and through the global universalism of surreal imagery. What was originally a group of exiles aggrandizing their verbal powerlessness during WWI by replacing art with nonsense (as the war had replaced civilization with destruction) is now Papaxanthos aggrandizing the hurlers of Molotov cocktails (rather than hurling them.) Have a look at one of his glorifications: “The Meadow of Dents // Light slams the flowers on its way out.” It’s clever stuff. Like the Dadaists, its topic is its own cleverness. It is display and a desire to disappear all at once. That can’t be healthy. For the Dadaists, a gesture like that was violent. Here the violence is turned inward. This is dangerous territory. Another example might help: “In the Atmosphere // of headlight beams and floral bedsheets, / voices trade hellos / from faces turning shyly away.” (Both examples are from “The Next Arrangement of Molecules.”) The text here has replaced “self” identity. Now the text is lobbing the IEDs. The self? The poor thing is embarrassed. Maybe that’s how a poet has to survive in Resnick’s anti-culture: a strong, victorious book is obscured to survive within the culture it tries to replace. That’s the necessary work of a clown. It’s sad that such a ruse is needed. These surreal sequences would be stronger if not vacuum-packed into a container of a size and shape better suited to hold the ashes of Bliss Carman. Such a nod to the norms of Canadian book editing dulls the revolution within these devices. It aestheticizes them. It makes them “safe,” just another turn within a potpourri of verbal gymnastics, compressed to fit. They aren’t the aesthetic objects the book shape—and the Canadian sensibility behind it—makes them to be, and they sure aren’t safe. They deserve their own launch vehicles.

 

Dimitris Liantinis’ Hours of the Stars draws on Greek culture from within. Where Papaxanthos manipulates Greek oracular tradition through secular surrealism, Liantinis uses similarly bizarre imagery within an unbroken connection with the Greek panthe­on. Where Papaxanthos’s Canadian postmodernism employs psychology and industrial identity severed from the earth to view its roots as flotsam left over after a tsunami, recombined into steam punk bangles such as “A sink washes the air’s hands / A detour around a candle darts” (“The Vaccinated Dawn”), Liantinis’ imagery is the oracle: “mem­oirs will be written only / on the edge of the sword / that cracks the cheekbones of the night like walnuts” (“Hercules”). Liantinis lacks Resnick’s and Papaxanthos’s sense of loss, tragedy, romance and bathos. His references to the gods fill the space their emp­tiness fills. In “Aquarius,” for example, an un-named god unearths “the viscera of the desert,” but then miracle—not a burning bush but “Suddenly water drops shone / on the weight of its tiredness and / filled the sun with passengers.” It is a warning against see­ing Greece as the root of the Western tradition, which shows the material faces of God and uses art to create archetype. After all, it’s also the source of Eastern tradition, which apprehends God as archetype and uses art to arrive at material presence. This is a book to set with Seferis, Cavafy and Ritsos. It’s the real deal.

 

Of course, classical tradition isn’t just a high testosterone phalanx of monks and sui­cide bombers battling to see who has the better bronze sword and who the best desert in which to watch the mind writing on silence. It also contains Sappho, writing of her lesbian lover so passionately that no love poem has surpassed hers in 2600 years. In Hear Me Out: Letters to My Ex-Lover, Tzoutzi Matzourani makes direct nods to her: “The agony, the heart ache, the pain in the guts, the longing the yearning each felt for the other, the match, the writhing, the complete surrender” (“The Road to Hell”). She discards many parts of classical tradition. She keeps precision: “What you loved of me, you killed” (“What You Loved”). She sidesteps Plato’s annoying questioning by directly addressing her beloved. She keeps elegy: “Because simply you can’t grasp onto anyone’s hand you can’t grasp onto anything” (“The Lost 1%”)—like Heraclitus and the river you can’t step into twice: “My dry lips still had the taste of watermelon we ate at lunch time, and now, evening already, my glance was glued high up in the sky” (“A Slice of Moon With the Scent of Watermelon Fragrance”). Classical metrics are eschewed for simple stanzas built around exquisite semantic rhythms and the ebbs and flows of prose. These are the sea’s tides, so present they need never be mentioned. Don’t be fooled, though: these letters gradually reveal themselves as notes to: Mantzourani’s ex-lovers, the things she has loved, and poetry’s passions and devotions. There is no oracle. This is a real woman, exploring the day-to-day triumphs and pains of love in all of its particulars, consciously aware that she is replacing an entire classical tradition of men jabbering about politics, sociology, religion, architecture, literature, philosophy, etc., with an alter­nate lens: love, and its devotions and attentions. Out of the four books here, all steeped in Greece, it’s hers that extends humanism, and with fused passion, wit and intellect. If an entire century were built on her model, we would do well.

 

        Hours of the Stars and Hear Me Out are poetic triumphs.

 

 

 

 

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SENSUALITY IN MANOLIS’ POETRY COMPARED TO CAVAFY AND YANNIS RITSOS

 

As history teaches us, the contrast between life and art has made it easy to think of Cavafy in the abstract, as an artist whose work exists free from tradition and attachment to a specific moment in time. This trend has been prompted by the two elements of his poetry for which he is most famous: his surprisingly contemporary theme (one of his themes, at least), and his attractive and direct style.

Certainly there have always been many readers who appreciate the so-called historical poems, situated in magical places of the Mediterranean during times that have been long dead and acrimonious with sociable irony and a certain tired stoicism. (“Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey, / without her you would not have put in the passage. / But now she has nothing to give you,” he writes in what may be the most famous evocation of ancient Greek culture: the journey is always more important than the fatefully disappointing destination.) This can be seen in the poem:

Thermopylae

Honor to all of those who in their lives

have settled on, and guard, a Thermopylae.

Never stirring from their obligations;

just and equitable in all of their affairs,

but full of pity, nonetheless, and of compassion;

generous whenever they’re rich, and again

when they’re poor, generous in small things,

and helping out, again, as much as they are able;

always speaking nothing but the truth,

yet without any hatred for those who lie.

And more honor still is due to them

when they foresee (and many do foresee)

that Ephialtes will make his appearance in the end,

and that the Medes will eventually break through

 

But it is probably fair to say that the popular reputation of Cavafy rests almost entirely on the remarkably preexisting way in which his other “sensual” poems, often not considered as this poet’s gift, deal with the ever-fascinating and pertinent themes of erotic desire, realization and loss.

The way, too, when memory preserves what desire so often cannot sustain. That desire and longing only makes it appear more contemporary, closer to our own times. Perhaps this is the case with Manolis’ poem:

Lamppost

 

After leaving our marks

on the sole lamppost

we parted

she to the west

I to the east

with a promise

to meet again

by this lamppost

and trace our marks

though we never thought of the Sirens

the Cyclops and the angry Poseidon

though we never thought of the pricey

ferryman

 

No one but Cavafy, who studied history not only eagerly but with a studious respect and meticulous attention to detail, would have recognized the dangers of abstracting people from their historical contexts; and nowhere is this abstraction more dangerous than in the case of Cavafy himself.

 

THE CITY

 

You said: “I’ll go to another land, to another sea;
I’ll find another city better than this one.
Every effort I make is ill-fated, doomed;
and my heart —like a dead thing—lies buried.
How long will my mind continue to wither like this?
Everywhere I turn my eyes, wherever they happen to fall
I see the black ruins of my life, here
where I’ve squandered, wasted and ruined so many years.”
New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will return to the same streets.
You will age in the same neighborhoods; and in these
same houses you will turn gray. You will always
arrive in the same city. Don’t even hope to escape it,
there is no ship for you, no road out of town.
As you have wasted your life here, in this small corner
you’ve wasted it in the whole world.

 

Surely his work is as good as great poetry can be and at the same time timeless in the way we like to think that great literature can be alchemizing details of the poet’s life, times and obsessions into something relevant to a large audience over the years and even centuries.

But the tendency to see Cavafy as one of us, as one in our own time, speaking to us with a voice that is transparent and admittedly ours about things whose meaning is self-evident, threatens to take away a specific detail one that, if we give it back to him, makes him look larger than life and more a poet of the future, as it was once described, rather than the time he lived in. This detail also pertains to the biography of Manolis who refers to mythical passages of his home-country and unfolds scenes of sensuality, abandonment and loss.

Cavafy’s style, to begin with, is far less prosaic, much richer although not musical, and rooted deeply in the nineteenth century in which he lived for more than half of its life. Some readers will be surprised to learn that many of Cavafy’s poems, even when he was almost forty, were cast as sonnets or other prepared forms of verse.

Manolis was born in Kolibari a small village west of Chania on the Greek island of Crete in 1947. At an early age his family took him first to Thessaloniki and then to Athens where he was educated, earning a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the Panteion University of Athens.

The subject in some of Cavafy which tend to be overlooked by readers as difficult are the poems deliberately placed in the dark, geographical and temporal margins of the Greek past: poems which seem not to have much to do with today’s concerns and are often passed in favor of works with more contemporary appeal.

Perhaps this is the case with Manolis who draws from the same Greek sources as Cavafy does making historical references to Greece, the cradle where his soul was born, when he creates the Greek myths interacted in his contemporary poetry. Even far from his motherland Greece where he resides now he still retains in his poetic memory, images and themes he channels through verve in this book and others.

 

Can Manolis channel the beauty as easily as he describes in his verse? “An ancient time leader / as an anointed and pious / a musical instrument of candor flowing free / ready to speak with words that relieve pain and free the soul?” Yes its main tool is its firsthand experience of the power of Eros. His psychological makeup attracts and conveys authenticity and happiness based on his worship and being adored by sensual and provocative female figures exposing him in an ecstatic transcendence through his bodies of lust and his deep love and dedicated understanding. It is obvious that he finds his purpose in falling in love passionately for his beloved.

He does not hide that before he emerged he wanted to become “a festival / movement song of a bird / a vesper / a simple sigh / that will heal the lips of his beloved.” If he feels impotent in the face of inconceivable and unlimited Destiny, he declares that a woman’s embrace beckons him and he likes to give in to his passion: “dark and vague circle / forever indeterminable / and this, the command / and this, the Obedience / This, the orgasm / and this, the Eros / and this is you.” He feels being favored by Eros he diffuses his burning passion with light that fills his erotic verses. As a gallant defender of lust and sensuality and the true emotions of love, he delivers the joy and joy to the soul.

 

Both idealism and pragmatism, messianism, but also the tradition in the languor of the senses, the subjects of love dedicated to ephemeral satisfaction and erotic drunkenness make up the changes of its vast poetic content. Having the maturity of an accomplished poet and the ability to create evocative images in a personal way, the poet introduces us to what constitutes the most brilliant expression of his most intimate thoughts and beliefs in front of the world of his time and age.

The way, too, where memory preserves what desire so often can’t sustain. That desire and longing were for other men only makes it appear more contemporary, closer in our own times as we see in this opening poem of Golden Kiss, which poem may seem obscene and prosaic created by a minor poet, but when creating by a poet as Manolis locks up the erotic aura of a Moravia.

 

like a bird stilled by camera lens

her scandalous vulva visits his mind

from days of that August

on the scorched island

in low tone siesta

in muffled moaning

lest the mirror would crack from tension

 

 

In the 1880s and 1890s, Constantine Cavafy was a young man with modest literary ambitions, writing verses and contributing articles, critiques and essays, mostly in Greek but in English (A language in which he was perfectly at home as a result of spending a few of his adolescence years in England), on a number of idiosyncratic subjects, Alexandria and Athenian newspapers. This similarity in biographies binds Cavafy with Manolis who lives in Vancouver and writes poems in Greek and English referring to both countries.

 

Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvasia, Greece, on May 1, 1909, in a family of landowners. He did his early schooling and finished high school in Gythion, Monemvasia and after graduating in 1925, he moved to Athens where he began working on typing and copying legal documents. A year later, he returned to his home town where he spent his time writing and painting, another form of art that he devoted himself which along with his writing he kept for the rest of his life, perhaps the painting has given him elements of his sensual poems:

 

WOMEN

Our women are distant, their sheets smell of goodnight.

They put bread on the table as a token of themselves.

It’s then that we finally see we were at fault; we jump up saying,

‘Look, you’ve done too much, take it easy, I’ll light the lamp.

’She turns away with the striking of the match,

walking towards the kitchen, her face in shadow,

her back bent under the weight of so many dead –

those you both loved, those she loved, those

you alone loved . . . yes . . . and your death also

 

Listen: the bare boards creaking where she goes.

Listen: the dishes weeping in the dishrack.

Listen: the train taking soldiers to the front.

 

 

Sometimes the poems are invested with the fractured logic of the dream with images of dream events or they’re placed in a landscape of dreams that grows, as one reads more, more and more recognizable, less strange, always attractive. At the same time, their locations and quotations are redemptive of a completely recognizable Greece: the balconies, the geraniums, the statuary, women in their black attires and, in a lasting way, the sea. His touch is light, but its effect is profound. Much depends on the image that causes the narrative movement. Some poems are so small, so distilled, that the fragments of history given to us – the kids’ psychodramas – have an irresistible power. “The less I get the bigger it gets,” said Alberto Giacometti and the same powerful reticence is a feature in Ritsos’ shorter poems.

 

The content of Yannis Ritsos also deserves renewed attention – both the specific themes of the individual poems, which in fact keep the historical and the erotic in a single focus.

Eroticism is one of the appearances of man’s inner life. In this one deludes himself because one is seeking his fixed object of desire. But this object of desire responds to the internal desire. The choice of an object always depends on the individual’s personal tastes: even if it falls on the woman most would have selected, what comes into play is often an unspeakable aspect, not an objective characteristic of this woman unless she has touched the inner being of man she creates the force to choose her.

The notion of disorientation (similar, perhaps, to the effect of a mild virus), when heightened emotion puts us at odds with the world, when the aromas become sour, when a view of the garden becomes desolate, when household objects shed their purpose, is perfectly evoked in these ten lines. There is an immediate recognition of a precarious ontological state tied to a story until, a moment later, we realize that we can see that street, see that window, see through that door:

 

 

ALMOST

 

It was just luck: I open the door, the two women

side by side on the sofa

 

in his black handkerchief,

mother and daughter, perhaps,

 

staying immobile, unpronounceable, a mouthful of bread

on the table, a cat sleeping on the couch.

 

Looking away and the sun at the top of the waves, cicadas

the swallows attractions in blue. They look back.

 

I almost had it, I almost had it in one of them.

Then Mother got up and closed the door.

 

This poem by Yannis Ritsos refers us to another poem by Manolis but more sensual and right:

 

Nothing to hold onto

but ourselves in lust

and the cenotaph with

names engraved in marble

yet in this near futile void

a sudden speck of light

gleams on Suzanne’s breast

as a lightning flash like

when her eyes demanded

a deeper meaning to this: are we

to search for it during this dark night

with our two bodies as the only absolution?

 

The sensuality of the Mediterranean world may be in the Greek soul of the poets to a greater or lesser degree, as we have seen over the years and centuries, referring to the idea that the Greek gods though dead are alive in the souls of the Greeks: Eros and Dionysus are alive from the bygone days of yesteryears to today and even more so in the case of Manolis who lives in Vancouver but has not forgotten his Cretan roots, and he writes in both Greek and English and shows with his simple poem Golden Kiss the sensual and erotic connection between his poetry and that of Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos.

 

~Eric Ponty, poet, translator, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2016

It’s my pleasure to inform you that the International Academy Mihai Eminescou has invited me to their 4th Poetry Festival, in Craiova, Romania to be held in May. Needless to say I’m totally excited; and yes, I’ll attend and after it straight to my motherland!

Με ιδιαίτερη χαρά σας ενημερώνω ότι η Ακαδημία Μιχαήλ Εμινέσκου με έχει προσκαλέσει στο 4ο Φεστιβάλ Ποίησης που θα διεξαχθεί το Μάϊο στην Κραϊόβα της Ρουμανίας. Περιττό να πω ότι πετώ στα σύννεφα! Και, ναι, θα πάρω μέρος, κι αμέσως μετά μαζί σας εκεί στην πατρίδα!

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Ο ΜΕΤΕΩΡΟΣ

Με τον καιρό οι παραστάσεις λιγοστεύουν. Το ίδιο και τα έπιπλα.
Το υπέδαφος, κούφιο, υποχωρεί. Δεν κρατάει
το βάρος της πέτρας ή του βήματος. Ένας άνθρωπος
λίγο-λίγο αφαιρεί τα περιττά και τα αναγκαία
για να σταθεί τουλάχιστον στον αέρα. Βαδίζει
δίπλα στα σύρματα του τηλεγράφου. Κάποτε, τα βράδια,
εγγίζει ψηλά τα λαμπιόνια της λεωφόρου, δοκιμάζοντας
τις αντιδράσεις της αφής του. Ανάμεσα στα δόντια του
κρατάει το ψαλίδι της τελικής συσκότισης, δίχως
ποτέ να το χρησιμοποιεί. Πιθανόν να φοβάται
τη συστροφή των καλωδίων, κ’ ίσως πιότερο ακόμη
αυτόν που κάθεται κει κάτω, στην τελευταία καρέκλα,
στο πεζοδρόμιο του φωταγωγημένου ζαχαροπλαστείου
πίνοντας με μελετημένες, ήσυχες, αργές γουλιές
ένα κίτρινο υγρό απ’ το μεγάλο, αστραφτερό ποτήρι.

~Αθήνα, 18-3-71

 

THE UNDECIDED

With time performances become less and less. Same as the furniture.
The subfloor, hollow, gives way. It cannot hold up
the weight of a stone or a footstep. A man
slowly-slowly removes the excess so
he can at least hover in midair. He walks
next to the telegraph wires. Sometimes, in the evening,
he touches the street lights, up high, trying
to see the reaction of his touch. Between his teeth
he keeps the scissors of total blackout, without
ever using them. Perhaps he’s afraid
the twisting of the wires or even more so
the person sitting down there, on the last chair,
on the sidewalk of the well-lit patisserie
drinking with thoughtful, calm, slow gulps
a yellow drink from the large, shining glass.

~Athens, 18-3-71
http://www.authormanolis.wordpress.com
http://www.libroslibertad.ca
http://www.ekstasiseditions.ca

nostos and algos cover

ΟΡΚΟΣ

Στάθηκε στο παραπέτο του παλιού κάστρου.
Από κάτω μας η πεινασμένη άβυσσο.
Λίγο βαθύτερα η θάλασσα λαμποκοπούσε
κι ημερωμένα κύματα χαιδεύαν
το κίτρινο αμμουδερό ακρογιάλι.

Τότε σήκωσε το χέρι του οριζόντια
λες κι ορκιζόταν στον ήλιο
σαν να υποσχόταν να ξαναγυρίσει
μιαν άλλη φορά σαν χρειαστούμε
κάποιον που να σταθεί ενάντια
στην απληστία τών μερικών
που βολεμένοι και παχουλοί
στη χαώδη χόρταση κολυμπούν.

Μα το κάστρο τούτο που δεν ανεχόταν
ηγέτες με τις παρωπίδες, έτριξε κι ίσως
γι’ αυτό κι ο ήρωάς μας επέμενε να δείχνει
σαν άπατη άβυσο τη θάλασσα.

Κι αφού σιγοπερπάταγε
στην άκρη του τειχιού
κι αφού έκανε το σταυρό του
αφέθηκε στη λύτρωση του μηδενός.
OATH

He stood at the edge of the old castle’s parapet
below it the hungry abyss and
even lower the gleaming sea
ready to splash its first wave
onto the yellow soft sandy beach

when he raised his arm
as if taking an oath
as if promising to come back
at another time when we’d need
one to stand against
the greed and gluttony of the few
who comfortable and fat
dwelled in their satiation.
Yet the old castle that couldn’t tolerate
leaders with blinkers, it creaked
as our hero insisted pointing
the endless abyss of the sea

and stepping on the parapet’s edge
he crossed himself over
then flew into
the deliverance of emptiness

~NOSTOS AND ALGOS, Ekstasis Editions, Victoria BC, 2012

 

Hear Me Out_cover_Jun9.indd

http://www.spreaker.com/user/6314317/air-play-poetry-corner-hear-me-out

On the Kitchen Counter

Good morning my love,
The day is of course just starting for me, although passed three
in the afternoon, but you see, I dedicate all my night to think of
you as I go to the various bars with my friends.
Yesterday I mused that three months have already gone since we
separated, three months that I haven’t found refuge in that little
dip of your chest. There where I told you it was my secret cave,
where I felt secure.
I mused that lone moment of summer when we lied down on the
beach and the sun burnt us, I dripped a few drops of sea water to
quench the thirst I had for your love.
I get up at noon I return home almost at daybreak.
Empty as always since you left, the house welcomes me with the
radio being on since morning and the lights set on the timer.
Toast and Happy Hippo cheese are my evening meal along with
pills for the hangover.
And tears ready to run down my cheeks.
This will pass, no matter what, it’ll pass.
I remember one time when we returned home after a night
at the bouzoukia, we prepared an omelette and fried bread
because we were hungry.
Then after we ate we left the plates on the table and made love
on the kitchen counter. At daybreak, before we went to bed
hugging each other to go to sleep.
Unique moments! Our love was such, as long as it lasted.
Yet it left a deep scar behind, a scar that refuges to heal and like
a cancer eats me up from within.

Στον πάγκο της κουζίνας

Καλημέρα, αγάπη μου!
Η μέρα βέβαια αρχίζει για μένα τώρα, που είναι πια περασμένες τρεις το μεσημέρι, αλλά βλέπεις, το βράδυ μου το αφιερώνω όλο για να σκέφτομαι εσένα, ενώ τριγυρνάω με αδιάφορες παρέες στα μπαράκια.
Αναλογιζόμουν χτες πως πέρασαν κιόλας τέσσερις μήνες που δεν είμαστε μαζί, που έχω να χωθώ στη λακκουβίτσα του στέρνου σου.
Εκεί που σου ’λεγα πως είναι η μυστική σπηλιά μου, που όταν βρίσκομαι δεν φοβάμαι πια τίποτα και κανέναν.
Θυμήθηκα εκείνη τη μοναδική στιγμή του καλοκαιριού, που όπως ήμασταν ξαπλωμένοι στην παραλία και μας έψηνε ο ήλιος, σου ‘σταξα μέσα της νερό απ’ τη θάλασσα και μετά το ήπια από ’κει, για να ξεδιψάσω τον έρωτά μου για σένα.
Ξυπνάω το μεσημέρι, Γυρίζω σπίτι μου τα ξημερώματα…
Άδειο, όπως πάντα, από τότε που έφυγες, το σπίτι, με καλωσορίζει με το ραδιόφωνο, που παίζει απ’ το πρωί και τα φώτα που ανάβουν με χρονοδιακόπτη, όταν σκοτεινιάζει.
Παξιμάδια, τυρί και Happy Hippo, το βραδινό μου, μαζί με τα χάπια για τον πονοκέφαλο απ’ το αλκοόλ.
Και τα δάκρυα στα μάτια μου, έτοιμα να κυλήσουν στα μάγουλά μου.
Θα περάσει, πού θα πάει! Θα περάσει.
Θυμάμαι μια φορά, που είχαμε γυρίσει ξημερώματα απ’ τα μπουζούκια και πριν κοιμηθούμε, φτιάξαμε ομελέτα και τηγανητό ψωμί, γιατί πεινούσαμε.
Και μετά, αφήσαμε τα πιάτα στο τραπέζι και κάναμε έρωτα στον πάγκο της κουζίνας. Ξημερώματα, πριν πάμε να κοιμηθούμε αγκαλιασμένοι στο κρεβάτι μας.
Στιγμές μοναδικές! Έτσι ήταν όλη η αγάπη μας, όσο κράτησε.
Η αγάπη, όχι η συμβίωση.
Αυτή τράβηξε πολύ κι άφησε πίσω της μια ύπουλη πληγή, που δε λέει να γιατρευτεί και δουλεύει από μέσα, σαν σαράκι.

~HEAR ME OUT, Tzoutzi Mantzourani, translated by Manolis Aligizakis, Libros Libertad, 2015
http://www.libroslibertad.ca

 

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ΚΑΤΑΝΟΗΣΗ

 

Κυριακή. Γυαλίζουν τα κουμπιά στα σακκάκια
σα μικρά γέλια. Το λεωφορείο έφυγε.
Κάτι εύθυμες φωνές—παράξενο
να μπορείς ν’ ακούς και ν’ αποκρίνεσαι. Κάτω απ’ τα πεύκα
ένας εργάτης μαθαίνει φυσαρμόνικα. Μια γυναίκα
είπε σε κάποιον καλημέρα—μια τόσο απλή και φυσική
καλημέρα
που θάθελες κ’ εσύ να μάθεις φυσαρμόνικα κάτω απ’ τα πεύκα.

Όχι διαίρεση ή αφαίρεση. Να μπορείς να κοιτάζεις
έξω από σένα — ζεστασιά και ησυχία. Να μην είσαι
“μονάχα εσύ”, μα “και εσύ”. Μια μικρή πρόσθεση,
μια μικρή πράξη της πρακτικής αριθμητικής, ευκολονόητη,
που κ’ ένα παιδί μπορεί να την πετύχει παίζοντας στο φως
τα δάχτυλά του
ή παίζοντας αυτή τη φυσαρμόνικα για ν’ ακούσει η γυναίκα.

 
UNDERSTANIDNG

 

Sunday. Buttons of coats shine
like small laughter. The bus is gone.
Some cheerful voices – strange
that you can hear and you can answer. Under the pine trees
a worker is trying to learn harmonica. A woman
said good morning to someone – so simple and natural good
morning
that you too would like to learn to play harmonica under the pine trees.

Neither division nor subtraction. To be able to look outside
yourself – warmth and serenity. Not to be
‘just yourself ’ but ‘you too’. A small addition,
a small act of practical arithmetic easily understood
that even a child can successfully do by playing with his fingers
in the light
or playing this harmonica so the woman can hear it.
~Γιάννη Ρίτσου-ποιήματα/Μετάφραση Μανώλη Αλυγιζάκη
~Yannis Ritsos-Poems/translated by Manolis Aligizakis
http://www.authormanolis.wordpress.com
http://www.ekstasiseditions.com
http://www.libroslibertad.ca