Nikos Gatsos


 Nikos Gatsos was born in 1911 or in 1914 in Asea Arcadia. When he came to Athens to study at the School of Philosophy, he could already speak fluent English and French. His first poems - which were short and had a classic approach- were published in the «Nea Estia» in 1931 and in «Rithmo» in 1933. Thereafter, he worked mainly with «Nea Grammata» and «Kalitechnica Nea» and the «Philologica Chronica» in which his review articles and notes were published. His exemplary poetry compilation, Amorgos, was published by «Aeto» in 1943. At the end of the war, he worked for the «Anglo-Greek Review» as a translator and for the National Radio Institute. He also started writing lyrics for Manos Chatzidakis’ music and in this way he marked contemporary Greek music. Later on, he worked with Mikis Theodorakis and other well-known composers. His ability to handle the language with such preciseness led the Arts Theatre, the National Theatre and the People’s Theatre to entrust him with the translation of many theatrical works -translations which remain «classic». He was buried in Asea on 12 May 1992.



From Amorgos 

With their country tied to their sails and their oars hung on
the wind
The shipwrecked slept tamely like dead beasts on a bedding
of sponges
But the eyes of seaweed are turned toward the sea
Hoping the South Wind will bring them backwith their
lateen-sails new-painted
For one lost elephant is always worth much more than the
quivering breasts of a girl
Only if the roofs of deserted chappels should light up with the
caprice of the Evening Star
Only if birds should ripple amid the masts of the lemon trees
With the firm white flurry of lively footsteps
Will the winds come, the bodies of swans that remained im-
maculate, unmoving and tender
When steamrollers rolled through shops, when hurricanes
whirled through vegetation
When the eyes of women became coal and the hearts of the
chestnut hawkers were broken
When the harvest was done and the hopes of crickets began.

And indeed this is why, my brave young men, with kisses, wine,
and leaves on your mouth
I would like to stride naked by the rivers
To sing of the Barbary Coast like the woodsman hunting the
mastic shrub
Like the viper slithering through gardens of barley
With the proud eyes of irritation
Like the lightning-bolt as it threshes youth.

And do not laugh and do not weep and do not rejoice
And do not squeeze your shoes in vain as though you were
planting plane trees
Do not become DESTINY
For the king-eagle is not a closed drawer
It is not the tear of the plum tree nor a smile of the water-lily
Nor the undershirt of a pigeon or a Sultan's mandolin
Nor a silken shawl for the head of the whale
It is a saw of the sea which rips the seagulls apart
It is a capenter's pillow, a beggar's watch
It is a flame in the blacksmith's shop teasing the wives of the
priests and lulling the lilies
It is a wedding proccession of Turks, a festival of Australians
It is the hideaway of Hungarian gypsies
Where the hazel trees in autumn secretly congregate
They watch the sensible storks painting their eggs black
And then they also weep
They burn their nightgowns and dress themselves in the duck's
They strew stars on the earth for kings to walk upon
With their silver amulets with their crowns and their purple
They strew rosemary in garden plots
That mice may pass on their way to other cellars
And to other cathedrals to eat of the Holy Altars
And the owls, my lads,
The owls growl
And dead nuns rise up to dance
With tambourines and drums and violins, with bagpipes and
With bannerets and censors, with wimples and magic veils
With the pantaloons of bears int he frozen valley
They eat the mushrooms of martens
They play heads or tails with the ring of St. John and the
gold florins of the Blackamoor
They mock all witches
They cut off the beard of a priest with the yataghan of Koloko-
They bathe themselves in the vapours of incense
And afterwards, slowly chanting, enter the earth again and fall
As waves fall silent, as the cuckoo bird at dawn, as the oil
lamp at evening.

And thus in deep jar the grape shrivels and in the belfry of
a fig tree the apple turns yellow
And thus flaunting a gay-coloured necktie
Under a grapevine bower the summer suspires
And thus naked among white cherry trees a tender love of
mine lies sleeping
A girl as unwithering as a branch of almond
Her head resting on her elbow and her palm on her golden
On its dawning warmth while slowly and softly like a thief
From the window of spring the Morning Star comes to awake

Amorgos: An island in the Aegean Sea, used only as a symbol of evocative beaty. 

NIKOS GATSOS. Translated by Kimon Friar. 



Nikos Gkatsos, "Dark Mother"

I brought you up with soil and water
a young swallow to be and yet a wild creature,
to have you as my alphabet-book in the times
and as my unfading nightlight in memory.

But you, looking for the source of dreams
near the Virgin Mary,
developed wings, refused the land
our dark, our first mother.

translation Marios Dikaiakos



Some time God must have smiled at the fire inside your eye 

The Spring must have clasped its heart like an ancestral seashore's pearl. 

Now as you sleep shining 

In the frozen fields where the wild grapevines 

Turned into embalmed wings, marble pigeons, 

Silent children of anticipation -- 

I wish you would arrive one evening like a tearful cloud, 

Stone's vapor, olive's rime 

For on your chaste forehead 

Sometimes I would see 

The snow of sheep and lilies 

But you went through life like a tear of the sea 

Like a Summer's shine and May's last rain 

Despite of you too having once been one of her mauve waves 

A bitter pebble of hers 

A small swallow out of her into a desolate forest 

With no bell's sound at dawn, no lantern's light at dusk 

With your warm heart turned abroad 

Toward the worn teeth of the alien seashore 

Toward the wrecked isles of seals and wild cherry trees.



 "We Who are Left"

We who are left on this stony ground
will burn bitter incense for the dead,
and when Charon the wrestler, new prey found,
has packed up his caravan and fled,
we'll dance in their memory round and round.

We who are left will begin each day
with a fresh-cut slice of the sun's rich bread -
golden honeycomb on a golden tray -
and now untouched by the sickle of dread
we'll steer our life forward on its way.

We who are left will scatter one dawn
seeds of grass on the desert's face,
and before night cuts us down like corn
we'll make earth into a holy place,
a cradle for children still unborn.

Translated by E.Keely & P.Sherrard



When you reach that other world, don't become a cloud,
don't become a cloud, and the bitter star of dawn,
so that your mother knows you, waiting at her door.
Take a wand of willow, a root of rosemary,
a root of rosemary, and be a moonlit coolness
falling in the midnight in your thirsting courtyard.
I gave you rosewater to drink, you gave me poison,
eaglet of the frost, hawk of the desert.
translated from the Modern Greek by Jon Corelis




Hear now the story of Kemal
A young prince from the East
A descendant of Sinbad the Sailor,
Who thought he could change the world.
But bitter is the will of Allah,
And dark the souls of men …

Once upon a time in the East,
The purses are empty, the waters are stagnant.
In Mosul, in Basrah, under an old date-palm,
The children of the desert are bitterly crying.
A young man of ancient and royal race
Overhears their lament and goes to them.
The Bedouins look at him sadly
And he swears by Allah that things will change.

When they learn of the young man’s fearlessness,
The rulers set off with wolf-like teeth and a lion’s mane.
From the Tigris to the Euphrates, in heaven and on earth,
The pursue the renegade to catch him alive.
They pounce on him like uncontrollable hounds,
And take him to the caliph to put the noose around his neck.
Black honey, black milk he drank that morning
Before breathing his last on the gallows.

With two aged camels and a red steed,
At the gates of heaven the prophet awaits.
They walk together among the clouds
With the star of Damascus to keep them company.
After a month, after a year, they find Allah
Who, from his high throne, tells foolish Sinbad:
‘O my vanquished sparrow-hawk, things never change;
Fire and knives are the only things men know.’*

Goodnight, Kemal. The world will never change. Goodnight…

*The original says “Only with fire and with knives does the world proceed.” at this page there are more poems and songs of Nikos Gatsos in english


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