Photo of Melissa Buckheit by Rebecca Seiferle
Six Poems from, Wish For Odysseas
Translated by Melissa Buckheit
I first began translating the poetry of Ioulita Iliopoulou (ΙΟΥΛΙΤΑ ΗΛΙΟΠΟΥΛΟΥ) from her book, ΕΥΧΗΝ ΟΔΥΣΣΕΙ, of which these translations are a selection, in 1999 when I was an undergraduate, under the study of Olga Broumas at Brandeis University. There, I was introduced to ΕΥΧΗΝ ΟΔΥΣΣΕΙ, translated as Wish or Prayer Toward Odysseas, which was written by Iliopoulou and published in 1997, after the death of her lover and companion, the Greek Nobel Laureate and poet, Odysseas Elytis. I had previously studied Latin, much more extensively French, and very briefly, Ancient Greek. Independent Studies and later a Fellowship, while I was at Brandeis, allowed me to learn Modern Greek through immersion in poetry translation, perhaps a very different method than most, which favor pure language study or an immersion method. I chose translation, supplemented my study with grammar textbooks, and I benefited most by working closely and often, collaboratively, with Olga Broumas, a native Greek from Syros and the lumescent translator of the late Nobel Laureate, Odysseas Elytis, and now, Kiki Dimoula.
I found learning and speaking Modern Greek this way akin to suddenly being thrown into a body of water—the music now familiar, now a surprise, the imagery lifted from the Greek landscape, Greek history, culture, national identity, sensibility; my brain filled with the sounds of words and their sensibilities I was only beginning to comprehend. In Iliopoulous dense and embedded, powerfully emotional yet controlled, and intimately visionary poetry, I felt a kinship with my own writing, especially in her use of syntax, how etymology echoed in associations with other words and toward other languages. When I first began translating, and her poems began to appear on the page in English, in the early versions which soon lead to a final poem, her voice—its fierceness, presence, boldness, subtlety, sensuality and depth—floored me. The music of her Greek is gorgeous and the greatest challenge has always been to bring that music along with meaning, as well as the density of her use of language, which is compounded by the density and efficiency of Greek grammar, as compared to English, in my opinion.
As is necessary to translate a writer from one language across to another, you must enter into that writers language and world in the sense of being a shadow beside their poems. As a result, you feel they are your poems, these translations, when you are done—but of course they are not. The humility of that reality is a welcome relief from the experience of writing ones own work, which can often become fraught with the presence of the troublesome self at every step. In this sense, translation is a lovely occupation, allowing a sense of play with language, meaning, music and inadvertent collaboration, whether across oceans, great lengths of time or beyond the grave.
In this brief selection of six poems by Iliopoulou, from Wish For Odysseas, you will receive a slight impression as to the arc of her book, its movement forward and backward through time, beginning with Angel which is placed after Elytis death, to poems placed in the midst of their relationship far before that event, which emerge in the Greek landscape, recur with specific imagery and are imbued with eros, complexity and a sense of their own history. In the last poem, Nouni youll see this vital reality merge with the reality of Elytis passing. Always, imagery, music and syntax communicate meaning first, as Iliopoulou rarely just makes statements. Poems avoid cliché, the triteness of black and white depictions, to arrive instead at a true complexity of emotional, spiritual and physical realities, where nothing is ever completely known or can be completely expressed.
Like light orbit of bird
And then the skys sand leading you
The slight air that passes
Under the sole
In the arch with small drops of cyan
Secretly the summer will be resumed
They were saying. The lips of shells, more thin
Dripping the thick juice
Into your tongues
From the summer
As of the few words
In one landscape pliable
You fold day and night into
The young air
Your hands on your chest.
Fragile – from the eyes that have passed now
Cobalt which here they call wave
And rise from it naked to bow in worship
To the Virgins stone
At dawn the deepest sleep in the bedrooms
With the bitter orange-trees mid-chest the wind
Of which other earth tears off your skin
With meaning raising small saplings of the sky
Which feed a boundless future to the birds and
Seeds of wheat to the future. It will come
Again from the pebbles during those noons where you saw
The sea move across you a deepest cut.
Let eros make you as the bees make spring
Citizen of an unseen world
Let you not know how to measure intervals of light
Intervals of music
In a fall hopeless as an entreaty
Im known by all Ive never known and even
Now people sign on but events betray them
On the page you were writing – pooling inside you moon –
Which you can also call mountain – before an emigration
Thin branches drag the earth
Wide and opening the other palms
Louder more loud the lullaby lights
How beautifully how beautifully you take me!
Nouni the name of the stars in the rains
The sun fits in a lemons seed
And the nomad eroses bloom themselves up
Here where you are
Winds crosses boats open close
The futures in their one small palm
And the nostalgia of blue in the mouth shhh slow slowly
Gesturing weightless evening which goes
to leave. As if the little blades of grass were cold and
Dawn shies in the iris of your eyes tha-