Making Statements


The Perfect Order, Selected Poems 1974-2010
, Nasos Vayenas, edited by Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou, various translators
(159pp, 12.95, Anvil)
The Sea Within
, Gonca Ozmen, translated by George Messo
(75pp, Shearsman)


Even this lead-in information, Edited by..., various translators or one only, and then a quick look at the scope: the first has a Preface, an Introduction, Notes to the poems, prose writings on poetry by Vayenas himself, about 90 pages of poems, whereas the second book has fewer than 70 pages of poems and no apparatus at all, all this sets subjective responses moving.

There's another difference: the first has no poems in the original Greek, the second has original and translation on opposite pages, which halves the number of poems in translation while offering something (the originals) the first book notably lacks.

My bias (not after long consideration) is apparent and, while I question it, I go along with it: list the Vayenas first, discuss it first.

The book does present itself as significant: the extras to the poems I've mentioned, a dozen translators (with biographical notes), it places Nasos Vayenas (born 1945) in a line of descent that names Cavafy and Seferis and includes poems from ten collections, 1974 to 2010.

It is curious what happens to poems between the making and the scholarly talk. Being new to Vayenas I have found David Ricks's Introduction helpful, but what of this towards its end?

     Vayenas has pleaded, against the card-carrying Post-Modernists,
     for the 're-enchantment of poetic discourse', but he does not
     understand by that the reproduction furniture of New Formalism.

I wonder whether Vayenas, who during 1972-1979 was in England, wrote the words quoted, 're-enchantment of poetic discourse', in English or whether it has been translated. The prose in this book is all translated by others. I'm wondering what kind of phrase it is in Greek.

As to the poems themselves. Those translated by David Ricks achieve a flow that is not always apparent elsewhere. A poem titled 'Stephanos Calcanes':

     Death carried him off by a slip of the pen
    forgetting that he was immortal.
    Wherefore
    he perambulates perspiring around the slippery
    banks of Cocytus along with several sufferers
    protesting, night and day calling in aid
    sonnets and odes and prizewinning compositions.

This contrasts with another honouring poem, 'C.P.Triantis' translated by Paschalis Nikolaou: 

     Triumphant. Prince of poets
     (for others, king of prose).
     But also the essay's dedicated
     curator, searching under the surface
     of things. Above all, iconoclast.
     He recited in a subdued voice, as befits
     one who always rises
     to the occasion. Wise is now
     the very earth that covers him.

Not a good flow. There is a pattern to some of the poems, whereby a scene is set and towards the end there is a turn, as a short story might do it. Others are more like a painting: as close as a poem can get to seeing everything at once. A poem called 'National Garden' has both scene and deflection, a sanitised scene-setting were it not for

                                       that man on the bench
     his head in his hands

     and that woman vomitting two steps further on

it would be perfect

As a whole, for all its ways and means, the book hasn't taken hold of me. Perhaps lost in translation, something to do with voice, place, tradition.

The prose notes, 'Poetry and Time, Poetry and Progress', and so on, might be good for student discussion.


I have persuaded myself that Gonca Ozmen's The Sea Within is not well translated. It's not that I know Turkish nor that from the Turkish here can I properly hear her voice. It is the awkwardness of much of the English.

She was born in 1982 and has published two collections. 'The Sea Within' is from both books, mostly from the second. The translator, George Messo, thanks her and two other people for their help with the translation.

There is, incidentally, some uncertainty provoked by the total absence of punctuation, and I don't see what is gained by it. The poems make themselves clear but only at a second reading - or when line by line I take a quick look on to see what is happening next, whether the line or couplet runs or whether there is a new sentence coming.

As to the English here, the opening couplet of 'Stone', for example, translates awkwardly as 'It was a moment ago / I bestowed coolness to stones,' and a poem called 'In Bird-Sleep' there is this:

     That was the mystery of innocent waiting
     - A knife in the moon's heart -
     I was having blue dreams
     during my bird-sleeps within

which I want to write as

     It was the mystery of innocent waiting
     - the moon's heart knifed -
     I was dreaming blue
     during my bird sleeps

The translation spells out in blocks of English; the following is the opening of the same poem:

     Rust on iron beginning to shudder
     On my skin deep whirlpools were talking
    The arms of twisting vines were growing longer

The poems proceed by making statements and perhaps this is true to the Turkish originals. Here is the whole of 'Old Asperity,'

     If I could set rain beside morning
     Put rain now to your joyless neck

     We were voices heard by rivers

    Waters poured through us
    Silences, abstractions through us

     We saw our pain is a curtain
     We closed it

     Now if I stop and touch that loneliness
     If only that loneliness and rain would fit

     If we flow to the end of time
     There is a hill, a vanishing point
     If we could only climb it

         ... They place before me an old asperity
         And from that I understood the birds


        David Hart 2011