I recently returned from a short jaunt to France and the UK. My two extended sojourns were in Strasbourg and London – and for the first time, I got to ride the Eurostar and be spoiled by its attentive staff.
I had last visited Strasbourg as a teenager and I’ve been in London several times though not recently, except as a springboard for trips to Scotland. So I’ve seen all the hallmark sights: the cathedrals, big-name museums, large parks. This visit was low key, aimed primarily at meeting staunch long-distance friends. But it also gave me a rare opportunity to be “of the place” rather than surfing on it like a waterbug.
We spent an idyllic late morning/early afternoon at Strasbourg’s old town, La Petite France. The Christmas attract-tourist glitz had started (the Europeans are increasingly mimicking the US with ever earlier times for the holiday commercial mill) but it was a weekday, so it was not crowded. The weather, mild with Turner-esque clouds, was perfect for exploring hidden corners and dormant gardens; when we tired of walking, we indulged in mulled wine outside a café. One night we had tapas on a nibbles-and-wine barge swaying on the Rhine; on another evening we meandered to a nearby tiny restaurant, to discover that it offers four-star Alsatian cuisine at two-star prices.
In London I stayed at a family-run B&B recommended by a friend. I assumed the “next to the British Museum” decription was the usual PR exaggeration, but not this time. They are in fact exactly a block away from the museum yet the street is quiet, very much a lived-in place. A block away in a different direction is Oxford Street, where I acquired (for a pittance) a spiffy new handbag after the shoulder strap of my old faithful snapped. My room had a view of a kilim-sized garden; the building has a beautiful, tightly wound staircase, original woodwork intact, and canny old-fashioned window clasps (yet also granite-solid WiFi). The neighborhood is dotted with those tiny parks that act as oases in central London.
Of course, the highlight of the visit were the people. These friendship bonds were forged through ordeal; some are also professional collaborators. This was the first time I met any of them in person, although it felt like the continuation of ongoing conversations. We spent long, lazy hours in home kitchens and pubs, and the topics ranged from brain function to 9th century Wales, from space opera to the use of Celtic motifs by MacDonald and Macintosh.
One of these visits was combined with a viewing of the British Museum Celts exhibit. The organizers did a fantastic job of displaying the findings through the ages in context without overinterpretation. Some of the touches were wonderful: the videos of today’s Celtic diasporas; the gauzy dividers, evocative of the mists that shape the Celtic lands. Afterwards we repaired to the Museum café where I found meringues literally the size of cabbages.
There was a final eldritch touch: I flew Icelandair, the only airline that would allow for an open-jaw ticket that wouldn’t bankrupt me. The cabin lights were not the usual yellowish-white but an undulating green and purple — the colors of the northern lights that were also swaying and whispering outside as I made my way home through the dreaming dark.
Introduction: I read, write and celebrate poetry. As I said in a previous entry, I grew up in a culture where poetry was not precious and hermetic, but a vital way of expression that belonged to all. Poems were set to music and sung, poets were bards that could fuel revolutions.
The article below first appeared in Stone Telling issue 2 (Dec. 2010). It had a slightly longer title and contained a few lines of Hellenic text that WordPress won’t reproduce. I’ve rendered Hellenic (Greek) words as they are pronounced by native speakers to convey as accurate an aural impression as possible. Thus, Sapfó, not Sappho – and the p is voiced; Lésvos, not Lesbos; Afrodhíti, not Aphrodite, where dh=th as in “the” and i=ee as in “tree”. The very imperfect translations are mine.
When I was four, I taught myself to read – I had to suss out the activity that drew my adored, adoring father’s attention away from me. My parents, bowing to the inevitable, gave me access to their entire library. About four years later, I was poring over the essays of poet and firebrand journalist Kóstas Várnalis. In one of them, he ridiculed the vapidity and reactionism of contemporary popular love songs, in which the woman was always a mute, passive object of obsession. As a salutary contrast, he juxtaposed these “immortal words from a divine voice”:
The Moon has set and the Pleiades,
midnight, time passes,
and I lie alone.
The language was an archaic dialect from two and a half millennia ago and I was too young to have sexual needs, so the subtext sailed right over my head. But the naked yearning pierced my solar plexus. And that was my first encounter with the Blackbird of Lésvos, the Tenth Muse, Sapfó.
Sapfó (in Aeolian dialect, Psápfa) was born around 620 BC in Lésvos, one of the three large Aegean islands that hug the coast of Asia Minor. From an aristocratic family, she lived her life there except for a stint of political exile in Sicily – a common fate for Hellenes, who have politics in their blood. Sapfó’s contemporaries unanimously (and, oddly for Mediterranean men, ungrudgingly) hailed her as the greatest lyric poet in the Hellenic-speaking world. Level-headed Sólon, the Athenian lawgiver, is said to have declared upon hearing one of her songs, “I just want to learn it, then die.”
Of Sapfó’s nine collections, a single poem has come down to us intact and her music is totally lost, although she’s credited with inventing the Mixolydian mode (today’s Locrian, used in both classical and jazz music). Some of her lines survived as quotes in literary textbooks of Greek or Roman writers. The rest are literally fragments – one potsherd and papyrus shreds from mummy wrappings or, most abundantly, from the rubbish heaps of Oxírynhos (“Sharpsnouted”), a Hellenistic city in Upper Egypt. Yet the shards of her poems, often not even whole sentences, have cast a long shadow over poetry.
The few, uncertain facts of Sapfó’s life come mostly from her own poetry, although her exile is mentioned on the Parian Marble, a chronological stela that haphazardly covers a millennium of history. Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine sources also give stray biographical facts but their accuracy is questionable.
Here are the tenuous gleanings from these sources: Sapfó’s father, possibly called Skamandhrónimos, died when she was a child. She had three brothers and felt protective of the youngest. She had an adored daughter whom she named after her mother Kleís, “Glory of Deeds” (Fragment 132 reads, I have a beautiful child whose face is like golden flowers, my beloved Kleís, whom I would not exchange for all of Lydia…). Her husband was said to be a rich sea-merchant, Kerkílas of Ándhros, but this is widely considered a pun since it can be translated as “Prick from the isle of Man” – though Ándhros is real enough: the Cycladic island closest to the mainland, it has a formidable maritime tradition.
A far likelier lover for Sapfó was her friend and rival Alkaíos, a fellow aristocrat and poet to whose political party she belonged. His faction ended up the loser during the power struggle between the older families and the upstarts headed by Pittakós (Pittakós prevailed, ruled well, and is remembered as one of the Seven Sages of ancient Hellás, the originator of the Golden Rule). After returning from the Sicilian exile precipitated by her political actions, Sapfó founded a thíassos (band) of well-born young women whose social and literary prominence bred rival imitators. Subsequent generations have variously interpreted it as a finishing school, a cult of lay priestesses, an artists’ salon, a separatist lesbian enclave – or a circle of friends who were also colleagues in poetry and whose bonds included the physical, a configuration akin to similar groups of aristocratic and/or creative men of many cultures and eras, from Macedonian hetéroi to Shogunate courtiers.
Sapfó was said to be small and dark. Even her admirer Alkáios called her violet-tressed – but in Hellenic folk and literary tradition the blackbird is the equal of the nightingale. Finally, dating from the Hellenistic era there’s a tradition that Sapfó fell into a postmenopausal frenzy of unrequited love for Fáon, a much younger boatman. She reputedly trailed him slavishly and finally flung herself off the cliffs of Lefkás, an island in the Ionian sea. However, Fáon means “Shining” and he’s linked to Afrodhíti (“Foamrisen”) in her destructive aspect: he’s a version of Adonis. That, coupled with the fact that Sapfó considered Afrodhíti her patron god and wrote poems lamenting the wavering of inspiration with age, puts a rather different complexion on the story.
Whether Sapfó was lésvian by inclination as well as by birth has been a thorny thicket of assumptions and taboos. The time gap, the paucity of information and the physical and linguistic inaccessibility of her poetry have resulted in Sapfó being different things to different people, depending on her audience’s individual and collective context. But the issue is also hard to untangle because Sapfó lived in a time and place that not only differed radically from that of her explicators but was also unique within Hellenic culture of the early classical era.
Unlike the starkness of most of Hellás, Lésvos is green and rich. Lésvians were considered passionate, sensual and fond of beauty. Social strata were shallow and fluid in a merchant maritime culture where rulers ate the same austere food as farmers and all citizens were active in politics. Aristocrats of both genders seem to have been casually bisexual and polyamorous, though they took care to maintain inheritances and lines. Unlike Athenians, they allowed their women education and did not confine them to the house; unlike Spartans, they did not subjugate them to state purposes. Female activities extended beyond “Kinder, Küche und Kirche” and the fact that they were exiled implies at least indirect participation in civic affairs. These liberties were disapprovingly ascribed to the influence of the nearby Lydians and Carians. If classical Hellás is equated with medieval France, Lésvos was its Languedoc, which bred powerful queens, courts of love – and troubadours.
And so we come to the crux: Sapfó’s ability as a maker (which is the literal meaning of “poet” in Hellenic). Her poetry is as easily recognizable as Minoan frescoes. There are several extrinsic reasons for this. She is one of the very few poets who wrote in Aeolian, an older relative of Dorian whose relationship to Ionian-derived Athenian is that of a soft Southern accent to Californian. Aeolian dropped initial aitches, frequently changed “e” and “i” to “a” and “t” to “p” and pushed word stress to earlier syllables. Moon in Ionian is Selíni, in Aeolian it’s Sélana. Whereas Ionian is a fast-flowing river, Aeolian is long, deep seaswells.
Sapfó also used a unique meter in much of her poetry, the Sapphic stanza. This consists of three eleven-syllable lines plus a fourth line of five additional syllables known as the Adonic line, a fitting term for a devotee of Afrodhíti. This meter was also used by Alkaíos, Catullus, Horace and such more recent luminaries as Swinburne and Ginsberg.
Sapfó wrote several types of poems, many for public performance: epics, epithalamia, hymns, odes, elegies, dirges. Despite the common assumption that all her poetry is personal, she did not avoid large canvases: two of her larger fragments describe back stories in the Iliad. Besides, to argue that all the poems are “personal” devalues her craft. In any case, Hellenes did not put firewalls between the personal and the political: they were always aware they represented their family, clan and city-state. Many of Sapfó’s poems are first-person and address the listener directly, which gives them a startling immediacy. Sometimes this is is a god – usually Afrodhíti, who is treated as a confidante and ally. More often it’s a beloved friend or a lover. Some of these are men; most are women.
It is safe to say that Sapfó invented the language of desire for the Western world. There is nothing coy or demure about her declarations, they’re as frank and fierce as those of a torch singer. Yet even when impassioned, her words are precise, concrete and minutely calibrated. The phrases and images she was the first to use are now so embedded in the vocabulary of love that she has become the submerged bedrock from which such poems and songs spring. When singers moan I’m on fire, You make me weak in the knees, I hunger for your touch, it’s Sapfó they’re echoing:
Love shook my mind like the wind bends the mountain oaks.
I simply want to die now that she left me.
You came – it’s good you did, I sickened for you. You cooled my thoughts that burned with longing.
And of course there’s that cry of anguish, Fragment 31:
As a god he seems to me – that man across from you,
who attends you when you whisper to him and laugh softly.
But me – my heart tears in my breast, and as soon as I see you
I lose my voice and my words fade. My tongue is crushed
and a slow fire goes through my body, my eyes darken,
my ears ring, I sweat, tremble and turn paler than grass.
I’m near death but must dare everything, poor as I am.
Poetry is essentially untranslatable. Sapfó’s even more so, given its fragmentation, dialect, meter and boldness. Fellow poets down the centuries tried to shoehorn her work into acceptable content and style norms for their era while acknowledging her incandescence. The task eluded even Hellenes. The first good translation into contemporary Hellenic was by Sotíris Kakísis in 1979; it became the basis of a song cycle. And I keep hoping for someone with the chops of Olga Broumas to do it for English.
More surprising is the dearth of novels based on Sapfó, considering what rich material she would make. Only five 20th century Anglophone novels have her as their focus. None of them captures her or her era and all have dated badly (although one of them, The Other Sappho by Ellen Frye, at least rings authentic in its settings and song snatches because Frye spent time in Hellás translating its folksongs).
In Hellenic culture, women were thought to be less disciplined than men in their erotic desire. Pragmatic and prone to compartmentalizing, Hellenes feared passionate love as an emotion that could breach boundaries, bring disorder and upheaval. They counted it among the god-inflicted illnesses (rage, ecstasy, panic) that could drive humans mad, make them forget customs and obligations. So Sapfó stands out not only because of her gender, the gender of most of her love objects and her directness (each amazing on its own). She also stands out because she unapologetically embraced this divine madness – and single-handedly raised it to an art as honed and prominent as the vaunted epic.
When Hellenes said The Poet and used a masculine suffix, they meant Homer; when they used a feminine suffix, they meant Sapfó. Sapfó is quicksilver, saffron and wild silk; seabreeze and crackling flame. To hear her, even in pieces, is to drink starlight, glimpse the elusive blackbird that ushers the dawn.
Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Marguirite Johnson, Sappho
Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion
Sotíris Kakísis, Sapfó, the Poems
Aléka Kanellídhou sings Sapfó; music by Spíros Vlassópoulos, translation by Sotíris Kakísis
Images: 1st, The cover of Mary Barnard’s Sapfó translation (a Fayum portrait); 2nd, Sapfó and Alkaíos; Red-figured vessel from Akragas, Sicily, 470 BC; 3rd, the papyrus that bears Sapfó’s Fragment 98; 4th, Sapfó, Roman copy of a Hellenistic work
The Byzantine Empire, 1025 AD (medium extent)
[click on image for bigger version]
A slight variant of the article below first appeared in Stone Telling issue 1 (Sept. 2010) with the accompanying images in different internal locations. The reposting was triggered by two events but has been in my thoughts for a while, partly because of the recent fashionability of “hidden histories” in SFF. This directive considers “European-based” narratives undesirable as over-represented, shopworn, colonialist, etc. Like many western European history scholars, though for different reasons, the holders of this view (and, ironically, their ideological opponents) conflate “Europe” with its northwestern/central part and erase/ignore portions of European history that have always been unfashionable because they can’t be neatly slotted. Among those so erased are the Byzantines, who weren’t exactly a blink in history’s eye: they bridged east and west for a millennium. Yet on a rapid skim, I can count a single fantasy short story based on them, Christine Lucas’ “On Marble Threshing Floors” (Cabinet des Fées, Jan. 2011).
The shorter fuses that lit my decision to repost came from Twitter. One was an exchange with someone deemed a “scholar” in the SFF domain who informed me that “Greeks aren’t Eastern European, according to Wikipedia” (which makes me weep for the level of “scholarship” in SFF). The second was a link to someone’s article in which they called St. Basil of Caesarea “a Turkish bishop” again invoking Wikipedia as their authority – even though Logic 101, coupled with a modicum of historical knowledge, should have led them to wonder: a Turkish… bishop… in 330 AD?
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards
Today the sky is different, today the light has changed,
Today the youths are riding out to join in the battle.
— Start of The Song of Armouris, the oldest Akritikón
In the first chapter of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, enemies overrun the protagonist’s mountain fortress home. Rather than suffer the usual fate of captive women, his mother leaps to her death from the parapet. Western readers considered this a dramatic gambit, but to me it was routine fare: I had already encountered it in the history and folksongs of my people; prominently so in the Akritiká, the songs of the Byzantine border guards.
The common view in the West is that the Roman Empire fell in the fourth century, when it was overrun by the Goths, Vandals and Alans. In reality, only the western half disappeared under the waves of invaders. The eastern portion became a great multicultural empire that lasted a thousand years, acted as both a buffer and a bridge between Asia and Europe, and gave the Rus Vikings of Kiev the Cyrillic alphabet. Instead of Latin its lingua franca was a Greek evolved from the Alexandrian koiné, and its dominant religion was Orthodox Christianity. Renaissance scholars called it the Byzantine empire, but its citizens called themselves Romioí, Romaíoi – Romans – and they retained much from the older empire.
One of the Roman customs that the Byzantines kept was the entrusting of their eastern border defense to local militias in addition to the professional army. Ákron is the Greek word for “edge” – so these guards became known as Akrítai. In exchange for their service, they received small land holdings and tax exemptions. Not surprisingly, they were an ethnic and religious kaleidoscope. They were Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Bulgar, Thracian; they intermarried, changing religions as they did so. Usually they acted as guards and scouts, sometimes becoming the brigands they guarded against. They reverted to farming whenever the din of war subsided, though that never lasted long for them to put away their weapons.
From the 8th to the 10th century, the Akrítai were instrumental in checking Arab incursions into Asia Minor, from Syria to Persia to Armenia. They helped the Byzantine army push back the formidable armies of the Damascus Caliphate. They became crucial again in the Black Sea Byzantine empire of Trapezous (Trebizond), founded after the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 in their zeal to punish those the Pope declared schismatics (the Byzantines compounded their unnaturalness by giving some power to women and “effeminate” men and they also happened to possess astonishing riches as well as decadent habits, such as using forks).
From this liminal zone at the edge of the empire arose the earliest Greek folksongs to survive till our days: the Akritiká. The earliest versions hail from the 9th century. Some scholars consider them the beginning of modern Greek literature. The main figure in them is Diyenís (Two-Blood) Akrítas, a cultural hybrid representative of his entire group.
The songs tell that a Saracen emir kidnapped the daughter of a Byzantine general. Her five brothers hunted him down and the youngest challenged him to a duel, the prize being his sister’s freedom. The emir was defeated, but he had fallen in love with her. To keep her, he decided to convert to Christianity and live among her people. Diyenís was the child of this marriage. The lays of the exploits of Diyenís and the other Akrítai are equal parts Homeric saga and chanson de geste – and like them, they were sung by wandering singers (ayírtai) kin to troubadours.
The songs thrum with thirst for honor and glory, attainments that obsess men in such settings: the heroes swear unbreakable oaths, avenge murders and kidnappings of kin, duel and become blood brothers with worthy enemies, receive counsel from faithful horses and prophetic birds, fight entire armies single-handed, slay preternatural beasts. In deeds and attributes they are close to Herakles, Achilles and Cuchulainn, even to the extent of the berserker fury that can possess them in the heat of battle. These echoes have deep and tangled roots. The Akrítai not only lived and died on the plains of Hector’s Troy and the hills of Medea’s Colchis, but long ago the locals had also absorbed the Celts that once comprised the Anatolian nation-state of Galatia.
The songs also echo with laments about courtship and star-crossed love, loveless marriage and abusive in-laws, devotion or hatred between children and (step)parents, enslavement, exile. Through these preoccupations, the other half of humanity appears in the Akritiká. Byzantium was a stiffly patriarchal society that deemed women inferior, temptresses if not controlled. Nevertheless, its women were better off than their Roman, Frankish or Slav counterparts. They did not suffer the inequities of Salic law: they owned their dowries and were equals in inheriting and bequeathing property and status to their children; they could own businesses, be heads of households, even Emperors; and they were at least basically literate, while the upper class produced several female scholars and historians whose works are still studied today.
Young women in the Akritiká are invariably single daughters, prized and cosseted. The apple of their parents’ eye, they are surrounded by an army of devoted brothers. Perhaps the most famous Greek ballad, The Dead Brother’s Song, begins: “Mother with your nine sons and with your only daughter/ Twelve years she had reached and the sun had not touched her/In the dark her mother bathed her, in the dark she combed her/By moonlight and starlight she braided her hair.” A woman’s brothers drop everything to defend, rescue or avenge her.
Although Byzantine marriages were usually arranged, the Akritiká sing the praises of romantic love, just like the courtly love lays they resemble. Their heroines are often kidnapped (sometimes in raids, sometimes by a smitten spurned suitor) but equally frequently they elope with men whose singing or looks they like – as Yseult did with Tristan. The Akritiká also reflect the fact that women wielded real authority in the household. They marked their children’s lives by blessing or cursing them and, as with the Iroquois or contemporary jihadis, only mothers could give their sons permission to go to war.
Women’s power partly arose from the constant war footing of the society portrayed in the Akritiká. It is a sad fact that women’s status is often higher in warlike societies, from the Spartans to the Mongols: they have to keep everything going when the men are absent or dead. In the case of the Akrítai, there was an additional wrinkle. The Byzantine border populations came in touch with the more matriarchal (or at least less patriarchal) Scythians, Sarmatians, Phrygians and Lydians. Around the Black Sea, archaeologists have been excavating kurgans that contained skeletons adorned with jewelry and mirrors – but also with daggers, javelins, quiverfuls of arrows and weapon-inflicted notches on their bones. These tomb occupants merited human sacrifices and their pelvic angle leaves no doubt that they were female, once again vindicating Herodotus whose descriptions tally with the findings.
So women in the Akritiká are not just the “Angels (or Demons) in the House” but appear in yet another guise: as warrior maidens who hold besieged castles and best all men but the hero in single combat. Taking his cue from his Bronze Age confrères (Theseus and Hippolyta or Antiope, Achilles and Penthesilea) Diyenís almost finds his match and soulmate in the Amazon Maximó, a renowned fighter and the leader of her own band. But the more common tropes and mindsets prevail: the encounter ends with her rape and/or murder – and the warrior maidens in the Akritiká either fall to their death (just like Bagoas’ mother in The Persian Boy) or become diminished consorts to their conquerors. Just like the real-life sworn virgins of the Balkans, the women, unlike the men, can only have half a life.
Death, often chosen, awaits the women who cross boundaries. Death is also where the pagan bedrock surfaces in the Akritiká. If illicit lovers cannot reconcile their kin to their decision, they invariably die by suicide, the church teachings ignored. And the afterlife in these songs is not the Christian or Moslem garden of delights, but the dank, dark underworld of The Odyssey and of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. When Charon (Death) comes for Diyenís, he comes as the warrior whom none can withstand. For three days and three nights the two clash on a stone threshing floor. But Charon always wins, and the hero knows this when he agrees to the duel. The goal is to maintain honor by giving him a good fight. As a final shamanistic turn, the hero’s blood brothers dance and sing around him fully armed while he dies, defiant to the end.
Inaugurating the major shift from the older dactylic hexameter, the Akritiká are in blank verse iambic heptameter: fifteen syllables with a caesura after the eighth one. The style is known as “politikón” (civilian – that is, secular) or “galloping chariot” because of its rhythm. Like the British Border ballads, the songs are unadorned and straightforward, with barely any adjectives or adverbs. They also have a strobe-light effect, highlighting some telling minute action but compressing large swaths of events into a few words. The songs are sung either a capella or with a flourish-free instrumental background – usually the three-string Cretan or Pontian lyre (known as the kemenché to those familiar with World Music albums by Peter Gabriel or Yo-Yo Ma).
Just as the Akritiká were birthed at the borders of Byzantium, so did they persist there. While the rest of the Byzantine territory evolved different songs under Ottoman rule, the Cretans, the Cypriots and the Pontians of the Black Sea continued to sing them. From those peripheries, always more culturally conservative than the center, the lays survived to our days, shards of once great diadems. My people used the Akritiká as rallying cries during times of oppression – the Ottoman era; the German occupation and the resistance to it during WWII; the military junta of the sixties. I was raised and nourished on them. They run and murmur in my veins with all their glories, blind spots and contradictions.
The time has come to let the songs themselves take center stage. Included is a Cretan rendition of the Death of Diyenís by the famous singer and lyre player Níkos Ksiloúris (who, like Diyenís, fought Charon at the flower of his maturity). Here is a bare-bones translation of the text:
Diyenís struggles for his soul and the earth is frightened.
And the gravestone shudders — how shall it cover him?
As he lays there, he speaks a brave man’s words:
“If only the earth had stairs and the sky chain links,
I would step on the stairs, seize hold of the links,
Climb up to the sky and make the heavens quake.”
Sources and further reading/listening (partial list):
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium – The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall
Neal Ascherson, The Black Sea
Christódoulos Hálaris, Akritiká – Odes of the Byzantine Empire Border Guards vol. 1 and 2
Images within the article:
Diyenís Akrítas, woodcut by Spiros Vassiliou
Amazon, Attic white-figure vase, 470 BC, British Museum
Armed Pontian Greeks dancing to the lyre, Trabzon, 1910
Two publications appeared almost simultaneously: Bull Spec issue 7, which contains my poem Night Patrol; and The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press, which contains Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol. The cover (shown) is Sister, Brother by Terri Windling.
The anthology contains seventy poems. Some names you may recognize: Ursula Le Guin, Catherynne Valente, Delia Sherman, Amal El-Mohtar, Sonya Taaffe, Jo Walton, Nisi Shawl, J. C. Runolfson, Vandana Singh, Calvin Johnson, Shweta Narayan, Mary Alexander Agner, Theodora Goss, Yoon Ha Lee, Greer Gilman, Claire Cooney, JoSelle Vanderhooft.
Last fall I mentioned that my two Bull Spec poems (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol) and one of my dear friend and blog contributor Calvin Johnson (Towards a Feminist Algebra, in Stone Telling) will appear in The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press. The collection will be released in May at Wiscon, with a cover by Terri Windling (shown).
I find it strange that I got four poems published in rapid succession: I consider myself essentially a prose writer.
Dhómna: Lady, Mistress (Latin original: domina – a title given to noblewomen who held a barony in their own right.)
Tradition lies heavy on my people, yet it makes us who we are – for good and ill. One of its greatest champions just left us: Dhómna Samíou, a tireless collector and preserver of folksongs who began to sing them herself in her forties, in a distinctive voice that thrummed like the finest Damascus steel.
Samíou’s parents were working-class refugees from Asia Minor; her father had been a prisoner of war in Turkey after the disastrous war in 1922. Her childhood was spent in abject poverty, in a shack without water or electricity, but also in the strong social net of mutual support that sprang up in such circumstances. Her father and sister died during the German occupation. She might have starved or been killed herself – the shacks were in a neighborhood of Athens famous for its urban resistance, which the Germans punished accordingly. She escaped the roundups because she had started working at twelve, first as a seamstress in a small tailoring establishment, then as a live-in maid in a middle-class home.
The family she worked for heard her sing constantly while she worked, so they brought her to Símon Karás, a famous music teacher and pioneering collector of traditional music. He accepted Samíou into his choir on the spot, stipulating that she should finish high school (a rare feat in that context, particularly for girls). Work in the mornings, music lessons in the afternoons, school in the evenings: that was Samíou’s life for several years. In 1954 she started working in broadcasting under her teacher. National radio (all radio was national then in Hellás) started airing traditional music, as well as making and selling records of it.
As Hellás tried to show it belonged to the First World, traditional music tottered under the onslaught of Western popular music. Samíou, like Karás, could not imagine her people’s culture without it. During her vacations she started going around the country, on her own dime, to identify and record the fast-disappearing authentic versions of folksongs. When she started becoming too independent, Karás slowly removed her from his orbit: despite his initial generosity and crucial formative role in her life, he would not brook a competitor or even a successor – especially a woman.
When the junta came, Samíou was given tenure at her job but couldn’t stomach the repression. She resigned at 43 with no safety net. At that crucial moment, Dionyssis Savvópoulos – the iconoclastic, obscenely talented enfant terrible of Hellenic music – invited her to appear in his politically and artistically daring events. That launched her career as a singer of the songs she had so lovingly found and fought to save. After the junta fell, national television commissioned Samíou to do Musical Travel, a documentary series about traditional music that is considered a classic, the foundation for all subsequent such works. Below is a part celebrating Épiros, my mother’s part of the world.
Samíou worked with all the virtuoso singers and players (usually informally taught), whether famous or obscure, who carried the songs that run in our blood. She traveled all over the world to give these songs and players an audience – not only to the diaspora communities, who drank them like water in the desert, but to non-Hellenes as well, who realized for the first time that Hellenic folk music was not just the bouzouki they heard in tourist traps. She received a huge number of honors and prestigious commissions. Yet she never behaved like a celebrity, never lost her deep connections to things that mattered or her common touch.
Samíou continued singing, teaching, recording and archiving tirelessly till her death. Others shared her love of traditional music and the effort to keep it a living, breathing concern but her knowledge, thoroughness and exactitude were unparalleled. She was a national treasure, a towering presence.
May the earth lie lightly upon you, Dhómna Samíou, Mistress of Songs.
Videos: two famous folksongs — First, Háidho from Épiros; singer/tambourine, Mánthos Stavrópoulos; clarinet, Konstantínos Neofótistos; violin, Konstantínos Saadedín; lutes, Stávros Saadedín & Napoléon Tzihás. Second, Samíou sings Tzivaéri mou (My Treasure) from the Dodecanese.
These stones that sink into the years, how far will they drag me?
The sea, the sea, who will manage to drain it dry?
I see the hands beckon each dawn to the vulture and the hawk
bound as I am to the rock that pain has made mine,
I see the trees breathe the black serenity of the dead
and then the smiles, frozen in place, of the statues.
Like many other cultures, mine has funerary customs that are thinly disguised pagan rites. One of them is the mnemósyno: forty days after someone’s death, friends and family get together to reminisce. It has been that long since the death of filmmaker Theódhoros Angelópoulos, whose work I found flawed yet deeply compelling. So this is my mnemósyno for him.
Angelópoulos, killed at 76 in a completely preventable accident while filming the final installment of his latest trilogy, was a director’s director. If you don’t know his name, don’t rush to download his films from Torrent or Hulu. He requires enormous patience and dedication: his films are long (several reach four hours) and he was famous/notorious for unbroken takes that last more than ten minutes and include unapologetic dead time. He was not the only Hellenic director to become internationally famous (Koúndhouros, Kakoyánnis and Ghavrás are familiar names, to non-Americans at least) but he was the one who stayed steadily in the limelight, piling up awards like kilims.
Fellow directors and film critics likened Angelópoulos to Antonioni and Kurosawa, but his true siblings are Tarkovsky and Malick. The three share many attributes: they are masters of oneiric images drenched with nostalgia for lost Edens. Their characters are semi-abstract symbols, their dialogues vestigial: the poetry resides in their stunning images, often coupled with equally haunting music. All three have a powerful affinity for water, and they often use specific colors as emotional or mythical signifiers (for example, the rare flashes of red in Angelópoulos’ The Weeping Meadow; in one instance the color appears on an unraveling scarf that serves as Ariáthne’s thread between two long-persecuted illicit lovers at the moment they part for the final time). Their best films (Malick’s New World, Angelópoulos’ Odysseus’ Gaze) are hypnotic, otherworldly. When their inspiration flickers, their works become ponderous, pretentious to the point of parody – and they have not one atom of humor between them.
Angelópoulos had an additional burden that nevertheless enriched his art: the heavy pieces of beautiful but broken statuary that are the Hellenic legacy. Unlike Malick and Tarkovsky, he’s intensely political and his films are palimpsests of myth and history. Scenes often start in one epoch to dissolve into another – and they are inhabited by characters who are simultaneously everyday people and ancestral archetypes that cast long shadows. His films can be appreciated entirely as aesthetic achievements but for those who know Hellás they are full of echoes and ghosts. His lost Edens are not the innocence of childhood nor prelapsarian wilderness; they’re the lost homes and historic opportunities of his people. His wanderers do not seek to find themselves; they seek once-safe harbors now guarded by fog and barbed wire.
As one example, The Travelling Players at first glance is a slice of life: it depicts the precarious, picaresque existence of a group of wandering actors who go through the provinces in the forties and fifties, playing a pastoral potboiler. However, the film has at least two more layers: the actors, who are an extended family, reenact the tragedy of the Atreides. They also bear witness to the Nazi occupation, the resistance to it, and the devastating civil war that followed it. As another example, Odysseus’ Gaze is the story of a Hellene emigré filmmaker’s quest to discover a lost reel by the Manakis brothers, photographers who pioneered film art in the Balkans and recorded everyday life across ethnicities. It is also an elliptic, allusive odyssey through the region’s past (a time of deep-rooted diaspora communities, extinguished since by resurgent nationalisms) as well as its fragmented present, including the brutal war that dissolved Yugoslavia.
Angelópoulos was sure of himself to the point of obsession and self-indulgent hubris but this certainty also gave him the focus and bravery of those who have an overarching vision. Some of his films were made during the time of the military junta. He gave the censors false scripts and shot in remote locations, counting on his crew and the locals not to betray him. He used well-known international actors in his later films (Marcelo Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli, Harvey Keitel, Maia Morgenstern, Irène Jacob, Willem Defoe) but kept them under iron control. They were never allowed star flourishes, and he was demanding to the point of tyranny on the set. Like all self-absorbed geniuses, he attracted talented, loyal partners who became near-lifetime collaborators: his cinematographer, Ghiórghos Arvanítis – the Nykvist to his Bergman; his music director, Eléni Karaíndhrou, her fey, melancholy pieces as distinctive as his film techniques.
I’ve seen most of Angelópoulos’ films. I liked some far more than others, but each contained moments that transported me, that made the hairs rise on my arms: the red-sailed boats in The Hunters, floating by like swans to the heart-stopping strains of Elytis’/Theodhorákis’ Blood of Love; the mounted brigand rising into view at the Soúnion temple in Meghaléxandhros, wreathed in the molten gold of sunrise and the arabesques of Chrysanthos’ voice; the mother in The Weeping Meadow, as young as Michelangelo’s Pietá Mary or Sofoklés’ Antighóne, talking to her two dead sons who fought on opposite sides in the civil war; the brief but searing soliloquy of Thanássis Véngos, the Hellenic Chaplin, in Odysseus’ Gaze. Angelópoulos eschewed the locales most people associate visually with Hellás. He preferred the beautiful, forbidding north, snow, mist, bare trees, black waters, slate roofs glistening with rain. That is my mother’s part of the world, very different from my father’s sunny Aegean but just as much what makes us – me – who we are as a people.
The films of Angelópoulos were an umbilical that nourished me, a spirit home. The world is a poorer place without his idiosyncratic art, despite the stone-heavy hand he put on his creations.
Their souls became one with the oars and the oarlocks
with the solemn face of the prow
with the rudder’s wake
with the water that shattered their image.
The companions died one by one,
with lowered eyes. Their oars
mark the place where they sleep on the shore.
No one remembers them. Justice.
— Ghiórghos Seféris, Mythistórema, Part 5
Images: Theódhoros Angelópoulos; Harvey Keitel in Odysseus’ Gaze; “Get up, get up, my sweet boy…” — Eléni (Alexándhra Aidhíni) in The Weeping Meadow.
Posted in Art, History, Poetry | Comments Off on Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)
Life will pull you under if you let it and grind you to fine dust. I decided to steal a moment away from the usual cares while the mild weather lasted. Yesterday, Mr. Snacho and I went walking through The Great Meadows marsh in Concord at sunset – which was also moonrise, as the moon was one day before full. The sky and the water held rainbow colors; the land was infinite shades of brown and gray, deep in hibernation.
We’ve gone to that marsh in all seasons and it has never ceased to be wondrous, despite its obvious domestication. Once we chanced upon an enormous ebony and golden fuzzy caterpillar hurrying on its way to more food that would let it become a moth. We’ve seen all kinds of birds, from chickadees to hawks, as well as the occasional terrapin. I keep hoping that one day we’ll catch a glimpse of the elusive river otters, or the beavers from the lodge that peeks through the reeds.
This time, in the glass-calm water I detected a wake of two nostrils that eventually resolved into a muskrat busily fluffing its pelt. In the middle distance we spied three swans alongside the duck and goose flotillas. And we saw something incredibly beautiful across the sky, the contrast heightened by the bare branches. It coincidentally appeared in NASA’s picture of the day, so I discovered its lay name: the Belt of Venus.
Normally, the earth’s shadow below the reflected reddened sunlight is darker than the sky above. But yesterday, for some reason the shadow was a lovely shade of teal. While it lasted, it felt like we walked inside a shimmering opal pendant.
Whenever I see such beauty, I float on it and dream: what marvels like this will we see if we ever walk under strange skies?
My moon, faraway and alone,
sleepless and tireless, you hung on the balcony.
Come, my shipmistress, come to my window.
My poem Mirror Twin just appeared in Stone Telling 6. It is a twin in more ways than one: it is the mate/prequel to Spacetime Geodesics, which appeared earlier this year in Bull Spec 6.
Eleni Tsami generously gave me permission to use a black-and-white version of her haunting Spaceborn (to the right — click on the image to see a larger version) as the accompanying art, and the editors of Stone Telling granted my wish. As is customary in that venue, there is also a recording of me reciting the poem. The opening lines:
Starship navigators live
by renunciation and arrogance.
Erzebet discusses these connections in her introductory editorial to the issue. And wonderfully perceptive reviews have appeared for my essays and poetry in Stone Telling.
From Jessica Wick, co-editor of Goblin Fruit, in her review of Stone Telling 1:
“By far and away my favourite nonfiction piece was “A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards.” I can’t even pretend detachment. It was just cool. Athena Andreadis places the area’s folk-songs into regional context, history context, into context (again!) against similar Western traditions, and she ties the whole thing into the transformative (and preservative) nature of borderlands. My imagination — and my interest — are both certainly captive, and just as I reached the end of the article and was thinking, Man, I’d really like to hear some of this sung aloud, what should the article provide but some audio of Nikos Ksilouris singing a Cretan rendition of the Death of Diyenis. And, man, let me say again: Cool.“
From SF/F critic Sam “Eithin” in his review of Stone Telling 2:
“This poem calls up strong echoes of classical Greek hero tales, with its bitter, proud, bronze-voiced evocations of flame, ruin, and exile, but the issue’s focus on women and the ties between women makes it a particularly interesting read. It’s an away poem, looking back but resolutely orienting itself forward; remembering, but never regretting a choice.”
Even though I’m a feral loner, I’m not immune to the motivating power of recognition. Which brings me to my last piece of news: Two poems of mine were accepted in Bull Spec. They will appear in their summer and fall issue. Perhaps Rose Lemberg, the editor of Stone Telling, was right when she told me, “The wilderness is populated by nomads who happen to greatly enjoy your clanging cymbal.” Although I must put away my shaman’s drum for a while — grant deadlines are looming.
Images: 1st, Before the Desolation, by Heather D. Oliver — a portrayal that echoes in Though the Moon…. 2nd, small wooden ship, the Cyclades, Hellas.
In line with end-of-the-world prophecies linked to Maya calendars, there’s sudden noise on the Internet that Betelgeuse (the bright red star that marks Orion’s left shoulder) will become a supernova in 2012. The segue is that this will first give us Tattooine-like sunsets, then singe earth and all upon it.
Betelgeuse is a gas-shrouded red supergiant of about 20 solar masses whose circumference would extend to Jupiter and whose hydrogen fuel has run out. This does mean that its days are numbered and its end will be spectacular: when it explodes, it will be visible in broad daylight and will cast shadows as strong as those of the full moon. However, it’s easy to find out that Betelgeuse is about 600 light years away. So it’s not close enough to harm us (the radius for harm is 25 ly or less). Furthermore, if the explosion becomes visible to us in 2012, the event actually happened sometime around 1400 CE. A more in-depth search also reveals that the star’s axis does not point in the direction of Earth, precluding a potentially lethal directed gamma ray burst.
Betelgeuse is a runaway: it started life as a hot blue star in the prolific stellar nursery around Orion’s belt. This region, which includes the famous nebula that forms the middle “star” of Orion’s sword, is still giving birth to new stars. So after Betelgeuse has dwindled to a neutron cinder, it may have a successor. But its death will change the shape of perhaps the best-known constellation – a reminder that in our universe everything is born and will die.
Adrienne Rich wrote her elegiac poem Orion before many details about Betelgeuse became known. Yet she knew more and said it far better than the apocalypse pornographers of the Internets:
Far back when I went zig-zagging
through tamarack pastures
you were my genius, you
my cast-iron Viking, my helmed
lion-heart king in prison.
Years later now you’re young
my fierce half-brother, staring
down from that simplified west
your breast open, your belt dragged down
by an oldfashioned thing, a sword
the last bravado you won’t give over
though it weighs you down as you stride
and the stars in it are dim
and maybe have stopped burning.
But you burn, and I know it;
as I throw back my head to take you in
an old transfusion happens again:
divine astronomy is nothing to it.
Pity is not your forte.
Calmly you ache up there
pinned aloft in your crow’s nest,
my speechless pirate!
You take it all for granted
and when I look you back
it’s with a starlike eye
shooting its cold and egotistical spear
where it can do least damage.
Breathe deep! No hurt, no pardon
out here in the cold with you
you with your back to the wall.
Images: Top, data-congruent rendering of Betelgeuse (ESO, L. Calçada); Bottom, Orion (Hubble ESA, Akira Fujii)
Stone Telling Issue 2 went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, this magazine is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. I’m triply represented in the latest issue by a poem, an essay and participation to the contributor round-table.
The focus of issue 2 is the chains that sustain us even as they bind us. My dear friend Francesca Forrest has a deeply affecting poem in it, The Old Clothes Golem, amid a dozen equally stunning others.
I originally wrote my poem, Mid-Journey, in Greek. It is about feral loners like me who walk between worlds. The Greek text is there alongside my English translation, and there is also an mp3 file of me reciting it in the original.
My essay is about Sapfó, the Tenth Muse, the Blackbird of Lésvos. She has been different things to different people, so I thought I’d write about who she really was — and why she deserves her immortality.
Stone Telling magazine went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, it is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. It contains an introduction by Rose, fourteen poems, three non-fiction articles and a round-table contributor interview.
Among the poems is my dear friend Calvin Johnson’s eloquent and thought-provoking Towards a Feminist Algebra. Among the articles is A (Mail)coat of Many Colors, my discussion of the songs of the Akrítai, the Byzantine border guards — poetry of a time, place and language that is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world.
Yet Hellenes still sing these songs… and they still reverberate in the popular imagination in subtle but powerful ways. As the accompanying image shows, Antoine Fuqua’s Sarmatian border guards in Roman England hearken back to the Akrítai of Byzantine Anatolia. Too, real amazons lived and fought in the lands of the Akrítai — a liminal zone where all kinds of boundaries were crossed and history survived as tales and songs.
The poems in Stone Telling open wondrous windows to the world. And if that is not the best purpose of poetry, what is?
Image: Left, the Byzantine warrior saint Merkourios, a Scythian by birth (fresco by Manuíl Pansélinos, Mt. Athos, 1360 AD); right, Ioan Gruffudd as a Sarmatian border guard in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.
On September 15, editor/writer Rose Lemberg is launching Stone Telling, an online magazine of speculative poetry. The inaugural issue will contain poems by Ursula Le Guin and Calvin Johnson. It will also contain an essay by me about songs of the Akrítai — the Byzantine border guards. An Akritikón sung by the famous Cretan singer and lyre player Nikos Ksilouris will accompany the essay.
After my second article about Cameron’s Avatar, a young British media critic who occasionally visited my blog accused me of snobbery. He stated that my points about entertainment like Avatar went past aesthetics and “devolved into” political and moral pronouncements about people who like what he considers lowbrow art (he assumes I share his definition of lowbrow, of which more anon). He further opined that classes of artful brows are just peer pressure. Hence Cameron is as good as Ozu unless you “drip with disdain” for the hoi polloi.
In the article that started this discussion I primarily discussed biological drives. I posited that certain types of entertainment arouse the fight-or-flight response and repeated immersion in them can lead to PTSD pathology, including mob-like behavior. The argument that art is ever devoid of politics and (at least implicit) moral judgments is either naïve or disingenuous and my critic doesn’t strike me as the former. I suspect that his cultural background, awash in class distinctions and reverberations of colonialism, may partly explain his viewpoint. Even more fundamentally, however, I think his definition of lowbrow art differs so much from mine that we are really discussing orthogonal concepts.
So I’m taking this opportunity to articulate my art classification scheme. To give you the punchline first, my definitions have to do with the artist’s attitude towards her/his medium and audience and with the complexity and layering of the artwork’s content, rather than its accessibility. In my book, lazy shallow art is low, whether it’s in barns or galleries. What makes Avatar low art is not its popularity, but its conceptual crudity and its contempt for its sources and its viewers’ intelligence.
A common if usually implicit assumption is that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive. Hence, “lowbrow” is often considered synonymous with mass appeal: bestsellers, platinum albums, blockbuster films. Yet you can have wildly popular art that is light years away from least common denominations. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose comes immediately to mind; so do Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and flamenco; Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits (including their groundbreaking MTV videos); RPG games like Gabriel Knight, Myst and Syberia; and shows about nature or archaeological findings (as accessible “reality TV” as you can get) – or, for that matter, the cordon bleu-quality food you can buy cheaply in corner stores of any French or Italian provincial town.
My admittedly idiosyncratic definition comes from a cultural upbringing that makes no rigid high/low distinctions. Hellenes still read Homer and watch Eurypides and Aristophanes for entertainment. To use a parallel from my critic’s culture, Shakespeare and Dickens were not highbrow in their eras. People of all classes watched Elizabethan plays in open-air theaters and Dickens’ serialized novels were the Victorian equivalents of soap operas. Too, a lot of poetry, including that of Nobel-prize winners, has been set to compulsively singable music by Hellene popular composers – and the songs are sung across Hellas independently of social stratum.
Along similar (lack of) demarcations, there are no bestsellers or blockbusters in Hellas. Books are printed in small runs and are not warehoused or pulped. As a result, editors take chances on unknown authors but spend nothing on PR, and people aren’t trained to restrict their reading to genres. Nor are films split between hothouse esoterics distributed solely to hoity-toity boutique venues versus “crowd-pleasers” shown in every mall (besides, Hellas doesn’t have malls – it has small shopping courtyards). Finally, we live literally on top of several breathtaking, radically different past cultures, from Minoan to Byzantine. So our sensibilities tend to the syncretic.
Most cultures, if not terminally debased, have art woven integrally into the lives of their people. Folk art and craft are often extraordinarily sophisticated both in style and content: clothing, jewelry, utensils, instruments, furniture, dwellings, gardens, cooking, painting, dance, music can all be high art – yet they are part of daily life, not exhibited on museum walls or opulent stagings for the few. This is important not only in itself, but also because such art was/is created disproportionately by women. In such settings, artists/artisans are often political and moral forces to be reckoned with: builders and smiths, storytellers and bards. In some nations they are honored as living monuments that preserve and transmit cultural knowledge.
A perfect example of my definition of high art is the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells. It uses traditional 2-D techniques and is completely accessible – what my critic would call solidly bourgeois middlebrow. Yet it engages and stimulates many levels of thought and emotion at once. You can focus on enjoying individual aspects: the story teaches real history, since it’s based closely on what we know about the journey of the Kells manuscript from Iona; the conflict is not the usual tussle between monochromatic good and bad guys, but instead highlights the struggle between two versions of good (like Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime – or Sophocles’ Antigone); the nuanced interactions explore the interplay between Paganism and Christianity, myth and history, imagination and discipline, nature and culture; the style incorporates both Celtic curvilinear forms (in the style of the Book of Kells as well as its Jugendstil descendants) and the tense, jagged shapes used in such graphic novels as The Crow or Sin City.
Put together, the film becomes Gesamtkunstwerk at the level of Wagner’s Nibelungen cycle or Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: a total, totally absorbing work of art that delights and also exercises the senses, the cortical emotions, the intellect – and achieves this feat without loudly advertising its intent or, for that matter, its artsiness. Unlike the incessant trumpetings about the groundbreaking technique or “socially relevant” content of Avatar,The Secret of Kells came and left quietly. Then again, art of this caliber doesn’t need to shriek for recognition or classification. Its quiet but sure voice is potent enough:
Images and links: kilim rug (Konya, late 19th century); kohiki tokuri sake flask and guinomi sake cup by Kondo Seiko (Niigata, contemporary); poster for Tomm Moore’sThe Secret of Kells; Aisling sings magic into Pangur Bán (who has her own lovely story) in The Secret of Kells.
Note: If you visit the comments section, you will find that this review drew the attention of the Kells screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski and its US distributor Eric Beckman. Additionally, its principal director, Tomm Moore, linked to the HuffPo version of the review from his blog.