- Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry ed. by Karen Van Dyck
The Penguin edition of this urgent anthology (2016) carried on its back cover two lines from a short poem, "Elegy," by Stamatis Polenakis, translated by Richard Pierce:
Nothing, not even the drowning of a child,stops the perpetual motion of the world.I know that today or yesterday some child drowned;a child who drowned today or yesterdayis nothing—an inanimate puppetin the hands of God, a short motionless poemin the perpetual motion of the world.(235)
Perhaps it was not used on the back cover of the present edition because while it speaks so heartbreakingly of the refugee crisis, the poem does not touch on the [End Page 608] Greek economic crisis or the crises of being and identity expressed by so many other poems within. For me, however, Polenakis is one of several revelations contained in this book simply because he is a very fine poet (though best known as a playwright), and his reportage of immediate troubles feels connected to modern poetry in the broader sense. Here is his "Poetry Does Not Suffice," translated by A.E. Stallings:
Gentlemen, don't let anything,anyone, deceive you:we were not bankrupted today,we have been bankrupt for a long time now.Today it is easy enoughfor anyone to walk on water:the empty bottles bob on the surfacewithout carrying any secret messages.The sirens don't sing, nor are they silent,they merely stay motionless,dumbstruck by the privatizationof the waves and nopoetry doesn't suffice since the sea is filled upwith trash and condoms.Let him write as many sonnets as he wants about Faliro,that Lorentzos Mavilis.(231)
Those last two lines, with their irony about the past, are perhaps more familiar in tone to readers of Modern Greek poetry. The question of Greek identity obsessed poets like Cavafy and the Generation of the Thirties—rather like William Carlos Williams fretting over his American grain (1925). Greek poets have always asked, What is Greek? And now they ask it while pulling out their empty pockets. The present volume frequently reveals an unaccommodated hopelessness, as when Z.D. Ainalis's "Telemachus" says, "burnt generation / my generation" (223). Or when Yannis Stiggas expresses a weary Hellenism: "'the depth' he said / 'the depth to the point of exhaustion / is my language / and my country'" (37, both poems translated by Stephanos Papadopoulos).
As Karen Van Dyck writes in her introduction, "Lately, Greece and the Balkans have been living with more than their share of less" (xvii). In Greek cities, the sheer bitterness and despair induced by Europe's austerity measures not only have produced some of the most creative graffiti I have ever seen but also appear to have reenergized literature in the same way. Necessity has leveled the field and let in a greater diversity of voices. "Poetry," writes Van Dyck, "is one thing there is more of" (xvii). Her anthology gathers an ambitious range of voices and modes: [End Page 609]
There have been other anthologies of poetry about the Greek crisis. By expanding its purview to the whole of contemporary Greek poetry, however, and including a much greater proportion of work which doesn't directly address the political situation, this survey aims to provide deeper and more various answers.(xxi)
Most anthologies present one school or one generation of poets, or they outline a subject matter, such as identity politics. Austerity Measures partakes of such definitions but is also concerned with the forms of poetry itself. Here one finds good rhyming poems by Yiannis Doukas and Doukas Kapantaïs. One finds the long, energetic lines of Yiannis Efthimiades harkening back to 9/11, a key event in the global crisis. One finds internet poets, poets born in America, Chechnya, or other countries, and the Cypriot poet Mehmet Yashin, who lives and teaches in Nicosia, "crossing the green line daily" (403). His Turkish poem, translated as "The Bitter Loss" by Taner Baybars...