A Brand New Beginning: “Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry”

By Christopher JanigianApril 10, 2018

A Brand New Beginning: “Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry”

Austerity Measures by Karen Van Dyck

WHEN SO MUCH is scarce, there are only, as Karen Van Dyck writes in her introduction to Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, “new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities.” This anthology gathers an eruption of voices emerging from Greece in the last decade — where, amid 2008’s economic crisis, hunger and mass unemployment have been widespread, businesses have collapsed, and an outpouring of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iraq has entered the country. Somehow, among all of this, a renaissance in poetry has ignited. The scope is unprecedented: new publishing houses and journals, free public readings, wide digital proliferation, graffiti. The poems in Austerity Measures are urgent, and as varied as the lived experiences of their writers — all of them writing from a certain turmoil. “Poetry is nothing if not equipped for crisis,” C. D. Wright said, and this anthology of innovative, discordant voices is proof enough — an anti-chorus singing itself into the world.

There are no uniform allegiances in these pages, no traceable aesthetics. Some poems force you to flip the book on its side; many are presented with varied columns, margins, and spacing. For the most part, the poems are not in keeping with classical Greek mythology, and in fact most of Greece’s known mythic history is renounced. There are text-message poems, astrology poems, a poem where “[j]untas accessorize their wanks with national emblems.” That last quote comes from Krystalli Glyniadakis (tr. Chloe Haralambous), who works in English, Greek, and Norwegian. The poets here are worldly, but they all write in Greek. And because “diasporic multilingualism [is] so often ignored in national accounts of Greek literary history,” the last section of this anthology brings us to places outside of Greece — where poets are writing surrounded by dominant Middle Eastern and Balkan languages.

The most politically charged portion of this book comes from a section called “Unjust Punishment: Poets Online.” The freedom of the internet has offered these voices a space unburdened by censorship — and here we encounter the Greek rap scene, as well as the poet Thomas Ioannou, who is, the introductory note explains, “far from the traditional image of the activist […] a neurologist whose political poetry struck a chord and went viral.” Here we also find the poet Kyoko Kishida, who, in a poem called “Degenerate Girls Were My Girlfriends” (tr. George Economou), writes, “I like the fracturing of linearity / Art that involves more senses / Asking questions non-stop.” These lines could be read as an assertion of poetics — one that applies to much of the work showcased in this anthology: revolutionary in different ways, by poets who aim to crack the Doric columns of tradition.

Especially of note is the radical poet Jazra Khaleed, who has introduced the work of Amiri Baraka to Greek readership. (He was also interviewed by the poet Max Ritvo for Los Angeles Review of Books a few years ago, here.) In “Words,” the poet announces: 

I have no fatherland 
I live within words 
That are shrouded in black
And held hostage

(tr. Peter Constantine)

Khaleed, along with so many of the poets in Austerity Measures, knows that the “seat of power is in language.” Like Kishida, he proposes something new:

I need a new language, not pimping 
I’m waiting for a revolution to invent me
Hungering for the language of class war
A language that has tasted insurgency

It is exciting to see the original Greek presented alongside the translations, so we can discern the formal challenges and strategies used to bring the poems to English; often, the translators do as much formal footwork as the poets themselves. Take, for example, the excerpt from Dimosthenis Papamarkos (“from Ballad”; tr. Chloe Haralambous), where the long lines of a single stanza in the Greek are trimmed and broken into rhyming ballad quatrains in the English. The form of the original is based on a category of surreal folk songs called paralogues (οι παραλογές), which are a kind of ballad, but which also refer to the paralogical, surreal, or absurd nature of these songs. The two, side by side, look and read strikingly different. Or see how the music changes in Phoebe Giannisi’s poem “Penelope - Έχω πάθος για σένα” (tr. Karen Van Dyck): the original’s unpunctuated lineated stanza becomes a breathless, streaming block of text in the English. As the note points out, this particular poem relies on the reader “comparing the language patterns and shape of the original and the translation, and filling in the missing English.” These are just a few examples of innovative translation techniques gathered in this anthology. Overall, it is important, as Van Dyck observes, to understand how constraints can be sites for new discoveries of form: “The goal is not to reproduce the source text — you can’t — but to learn from it so as to make something else possible in the new linguistic context.”

The poets in this anthology represent varied streams of contact with English-language poetry as well. Emily Dickinson is conjured by a poet from Thessaloniki; the voice of William Carlos Williams echoes in the spare strophes of Glykeria Basdeki’s “Let Down the Chain.” These are poets who have been influenced by, and have introduced Greek audiences to, writers like Paul Celan, Hélène Cixous, Robert Hass, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, and Mina Loy.

In these pages where, amid political crisis, voices have been silenced, it is not uncommon to witness violence being done to language and speech. Previous modes of expression aren’t enough; tongues stretch after a different source of meaning, as in Dimitris Athinakis’s “A Semblance of Order”:

I lick the water dribbling from decaying pipes, 
I stick my tongue into the tube of the boiler. 
I stretch it as far as it’ll go — I keep stretching.

(tr. Peter Constantine)

The violence of boiling appears again in a poem by Thomas Tsalapatis, this time showing the complete inadequacy of written letters:

In the curved part of language 
where words stagnate 
The unused ones, the ones on walls,
the non-smoking ones
In the water
In the steam
And he is
Boiling water, always boiling water
Learning that what is scarce is what takes charge
Learning how Π and Τ lose their flat roofs
How ζ and ξ dry up at the roots
How vowels get murdered
How language bubbles up

(tr. Karen Van Dyck)

And a different kind of violence recurs in a poem by Eftychia Panayiotou (tr. Karen Emmerich), where a gardener is also a menacing silencer who “buries words under the soil. / hurt words, which first he hits / then binds without fear.”

Old myths do not suffice anymore. Where they do appear, they are mutant variations, like in one poem where a tiny siren removes her eyes, “Two glass marbles, green” (Katerina Iliopoulou; tr. A. E. Stallings). Stamatis Polenakis addresses sirens of his own, in a poem called “Poetry Does Not Suffice”:

The sirens don’t sing, nor are they silent,
they merely stay motionless,
dumbstruck by the privatization 
of the waves and no
poetry doesn’t suffice since the sea filled up
with trash and condoms.

(tr. A.E. Stallings)

What good, then, are poems? They are good for clearing a new path, for reinvention. Chloe Koutsoumbeli gives ancient stories a feminist spin and rewrites the myth of Penelope (naming her “Penelope III”) while showing us just why the same myths that are told and retold are not enough. In an updated version of the mythic lotus-eaters (those island dwellers, visited by Odysseus, who lived in a narcotic state by eating lotus flowers), Phoebe Giannisi writes,

you’ve already downed the medicine 
the medicine a flower 
the medicine is the medicine 
forgetfulness is every moment a brand new beginning 
it’s I don’t know where I come from I don’t want to return 
the medicine is always now always now

(tr. Angelos Sakkis)

The word φάρμακον (farmakon) means both medicine and poison, and it is the name of the literary magazine (φρμκ) in which many of the surreal poets of this anthology, including Giannisi, appear. Both healing and harmful, remaking and unmaking — perhaps the work of Austerity Measures is best summed up by Vassilis Amanatidis, in his poem “[supremacy: a riddle]” (tr. Patricia Barbeito): “Self-realization by means of what is said to be the unutterable […] both unapproachable and beyond language.”

“Times turn quickly in Greece,” writes Z. D. Ainalis, “the light goes out abruptly.” This is from a poem titled “September 3rd 1843” (tr. Maria Margaronis), the date of the Greek army’s uprising against King Otto in Athens. In relation to these lines, consider Elena Penga, writing about the passages of art through time: “The roads a stone takes to become a Cycladic figurine, a Picasso woman. The lengths it goes to stay that way. Sculpture that still emits the encounters it had back then, when it was a stone, before it became a sculpture” (tr. Karen Van Dyck). The way time functions in these poems is starkly different, one concerning a historical event and the other the production of art — there are two almost opposing views here — though both are welcome in the “Storytelling” section of Austerity Measures, where “the double sense of the Greek word ιστορία (istoria), ‘history’ and ‘story,’ is foregrounded.” Whether passing into a new age of art, a stone turned over and over, slowly, looking back on its history as a stone before it became a crafted thing (Penga); or the passage of Greek historical time, a light suddenly snuffed (Ainalis) — two sides of the same coin are displayed, and it’s one of the defining strengths of this multifaceted collection.

It is a huge gift to have this anthology, and it widens the frame of Greek poetry for Americans — beyond the scope of mammoths like Ritsos and Cavafy. Because it includes work that isn’t explicitly political (see Doukas Kapantaïs, who is “not interested in poetry as social commentary”), Austerity Measures stands apart from other recent anthologies of Greek poetry. But all of the poets here show us that something is at stake. The responses are always manifold and surprising.

These poem-makers are architects, experimental filmmakers, physicians, lawyers, rappers, bloggers, and many of them are translators themselves. They are cis and queer, from radical political collectives and working-class families; they’re young, multiethnic and multicultural — they’re not all Greek, but they’re writing in Greek. They were born in France, Chechnya, Germany, Bulgaria, Iran, and other countries. Many are making their debuts. They are enormously wide-ranging in their sensibilities and poetic affinities. Not confined to academic camps or motivations, resisting a political boxing-in — yet still refusing to be silenced or to vanish in their time and their place, which is also our time and our place.


Christopher Janigian was born and raised in Rhode Island. His poems appear in Boston Review, PEN America, and Web Conjunctions, among other places, and he holds degrees from Brown University and Columbia University. 

LARB Contributor

Christopher Janigian was born and raised in Rhode Island. His poems appear in Boston Review, PEN America, and Web Conjunctions, among other places, and he holds degrees from Brown University and Columbia University.


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