Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Volume Two, December 2020.
Haris Vlavianos was born in Rome in 1957. He studied Economics and Philosophy at the University of Bristol (B.Sc) and Politics, History and International Relations (M.Phil, D.Phil) at the University of Oxford (Trinity College). His doctoral thesis entitled, Greece 1941-1949: From Resistance to Civil War, was published by Macmillan (1992) and was awarded the “Fafalios Foundation” Prize. He has published thirteen collections of poetry. His most recent collection of poems. “Self-Portrait of Whiteness” received The National Poetry Prize, The Academy of Athens Poetry Prize, The Anagnostis Poetry Prize and The Readers’ Poetry Prize. “Selected Poems” volumes of his have been published in England, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Holland, Spain, Ireland, etc. His book, “Hitler’s Secret Diary” was recently published in France and Holland and his History of Western Philosophy in 100 Haikus” in England and France. He has translated in book form the works of well-known writers such as: Ezra Pound (Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1987; Drafts and Fragments of Cantos CX-CXX, 1991), William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1997 – short listed for the State Translation Prize) and T. S. Eliot’s (Four Quartets, 2012). His translation of Eliot’s The Waste Land was published in May to great critical acclaim. He is the editor of the influential literary journal “Poetics” and Poetry Editor at “Patakis Publications”. He is Professor of History and Politics at the American College of Greece. He is at present teaching a post-graduate course in Creative Writing at the Greek Open University, as well as, at https://www.patakis.gr/default.aspx.
“Self-Portrait of Whiteness”
The following ten poems have been translated from Greek by Peter Mackridge.
Ever since she died
(nine years now)
she’s not once appeared in my dreams.
I don’t believe in ghosts
(Yeats was crazy)
but even if I did,
even if I summoned her,
she still wouldn’t come.
When I bring her to mind
her face is always hard
and covered in deep wrinkles,
her eyes look at me with revulsion.
I hear her saying to an invisible audience,
“He wanted me to die as soon as possible,
so he could get rid of me at last.
Cancer granted his wish,
it didn’t waste its time.”
I can’t speak to anyone
about that woman,
about the unhealthy love that bound us together.
Whatever I write will be a lie.
I know how insidious words are,
they comfort you for a while
only to take their revenge on you later
with greater frenzy.
The more insistently you summon them,
the more profoundly they despise you,
like her in fact.
I give up.
A Knowing Letter
I know what you’d like now:
breakfast in the garden of a grand country house
with a view over the emerald green meadows of Somerset,
and just as you’re carefully spreading
marmalade on your toast
a butler suddenly appears
holding a silver tray.
Everyone can guess what’s on it.
That’s not the question.
Which of all your lovers thought of you
after all those months when you’ve been ostentatiously avoiding
every social event?
As far as I know
they haven’t even read Brideshead Revisited,
nor do they drink Pimm’s while desultorily watching a cricket match,
and they certainly don’t have their suits tailored at Albemarle Street.
Yet the fact that you still hope
to see a beautiful fox dash out
from the thickets of passion
Anyway, today it’s full moon.
Better to stay in your room
and play with your old dolls.
An escape to the past
in this lovely hideaway
full of bright photos
and flashing smiles
is always the safest solution.
It’s yours and nobody can take it away from you.
I’ll close with a line that reminds me of us:
“Parachutes, my love, could carry us higher.”*
So high that your little fox
would look like an ant.
Vowels Shout Out Loud
The vowels are seven and they shout out loud.
Greek children’s rhyme
When at last my turn came to speak
I stood up from the table
and with slow steps
I walked towards the podium.
I looked at the members of the Committee
– with a certain relief I admit –
that I wasn’t acquainted with any of them.
The guests, sitting at round tables,
went on greedily eating their dinner
(the main course was canard à l’orange)
while making awkward gestures.
From time to time they cast surreptitious glances
towards the speakers
to show that the topic of the Conference
was of particular concern to them.
They knew, of course, that they would depart
exactly as they had arrived:
enveloped in a thick cloud
of indifference and boredom.
It was natural
after such a long wait
that I’d forgotten what I wanted to say
and the sheets of paper in front of me
were unexpectedly blank.
To break the silence
I thought for a moment
of reciting a sonnet by Spenser
(as one of my wife’s lovers has admitted,
I have a very good voice),
but finally, I decided that the “case of the Zukovski brothers”
– which has yet to be solved –
would be more interesting to them.
It would please the President of the Committee
who, ever since he saw me enter the hall,
never stopped smiling at me
in a disarmingly mindless manner.
Nevertheless, the waiters’ worn-out dinner jackets,
the broken lamp fixtures on the walls
and the artificial flowers in the vases
discouraged me, I confess, from continuing.
The venue was more like a provincial card-playing club
than the salon of Mme de Sévigné.
What story should I tell them?
A dramatic incident from my childhood
such as you were naïve enough to suggest to me,
would only have complicated the situation,
since nobody is interested in being transported
from the comfortable present, which they have constructed so laboriously,
to the painful past of some stranger.
Reality, as we know, is merciless.
Constant activity, no postponement, no deferral, no pangs of conscience, is its motto.
By the way, how come you’re here?
Don’t you have your appointment with your analyst at this time on a Friday?
So I’m your analyst?
You see how quickly the time has passed?
We’ll discuss your obsession
with Pound and usury next week.
Would you like a receipt for the seventy euros?
April is the Funniest Month
And the discussion begins with who, when and why.
But is there any point in moralizing retrospectively
when the sun has disappeared behind the mountains,
the circus has already moved on to the next town
and the only things left in ours
are the traces left by the big top in the grass?
We could of course pretend
that the clown’s still here among us,
watching us with his mournful expression
and slowly repeating our every phrase
in his own incomprehensible language.
Besides, what would we gain from another exchange of fire,
especially now that neither of us
is able to clearly distinguish the target?
Each year, at this time, you announce the same news to me
(clearly to hurt me):
“Haven’t you heard? Poetry’s finished! It’s dead!”
and I as usual reply:
“I didn’t go to the funeral.
I stayed at home and watched it on television.”
However, neither of us means what he says.
The peacock disappeared many years ago
in the dense thickets of passion,
but we never searched for it.
And we were right not to,
because I’m not Stanley,
nor are you, obviously, Livingstone,
and the duck pond
is certainly not Lake Tanganyika.
So let’s welcome the Spring
that’s persistently besieging our garden
with no more insinuations and sighs,
each of us filling the vase
with the flowers he loves.
Violets, chrysanthemums and hyacinths,
yellow, red and blue roses.
What does it matter?
April is indeed the funniest month.
Where had we got to?
Oh yes, your theory
that the Islamists
are being funded by the Jews
and Obama is a freemason.
Don’t worry. It’s nothing.
After a certain age
a lot of people construct imaginary conspiracies
that explain everything
– from the secret activities of the Bilderberg Club
and the nefarious plans of the Illuminati
to swine flu.
How else could they bear the painful passage
from one shore of reality to the other.
The question of course
isn’t what reality I’m referring to,
nor the content of your theory
(it will end up in the garbage whatever happens)
but your insistence on holding on
to that little dead branch
just when you think you’ll soon find yourself
at the bottom of the cliff.
In a sense
your attitude is admirable.
It’s not easy for someone to fly
in a permanent cloud of incoherence
wearing a self-satisfied smile,
as though the message brought by the extra-terrestrials
is directed exclusively to him.
You’re right about one thing, though.
The world really is going to the dogs
and it’s carrying us all away with it to perdition.
By the way,
what time does your Rolex say?
Should I put my oxygen mask on now
The Postman Will Ring Twice,
But Not At Your Door
You don’t see her much anymore,
but even when you used to see her,
did you see her?
So why complain?
It’s better that the days turn their back on you.
Do you really want to see their sour faces
as soon as you open your eyes?
Often there’s a chink that casts better light on the story
and forces you to come out of your comfortable shell
and set off at last on your return journey –
indifference → children → marriage →
love → passion →
Don’t you understand what I mean?
It doesn’t matter.
Besides, the letter in question
never reached your hands.
Shall I tell you a secret?
I’m really not who you think I am.
But who are you?
Words, Words, Unbearable Words
What’s the use of losing sleep
because a French philosopher
(charmant, I grant you)
argues that the ghost in Hamlet
“has returned and has therefore never really left”?
You remember to keep looking at your watch
when on the Stratford stage Polonius falls dead
and you’re impatient to find yourself back in your hotel room
between Melanie’s shapely legs.
Except that the beautiful English girl forsook you as soon as the curtain fell
and hurried back to Matthew,
from whose arms
she’d slipped away a few weeks earlier for your sake.
As it turned out, she hadn’t really left either.
So that freezing March evening
found you alone,
lying face up on the double bed
and pondering the intractable puzzle of that oft-performed tragedy
while casting furtive glances
at Telly Savalas’s dazzlingly bald pate
(your grandma preferred Yul Brynner’s)
which took up almost two thirds of the screen.
What can Melanie be dreaming of now,
while Matthew, beside her,
is secretly totting up her numerous lovers?
Now you come to think of it,
it’s better that things turned out this way.
Essentially Denmark is always a squalid prison
and glorious Fortinbras
begins to do great things in the next act –
the one that the Bard,
in his furious haste,
forgot to write.
So what’s the use of tears?
Nel Mezzo Del…Pranzo
The quarrel started during lunch,
as soon as we’d begun enjoying, after the soup and the asparagus.
her beloved Chateaubriand.
The trigger, as usual, was former spouses, wrong choices,
wasted years, etc. etc.
But after a while the conversation extended
to other burning issues –
from the seminars of that “charlatan” Lacan
to the latest (and for me the ghastliest)
At some point
(I’d just uttered the phrase
if I remember rightly)
she stood up furiously from the table
snatched the Viking edition of Portable Dante
from the medieval literature shelf
and stabbed me three times in the stomach with it.
Now that I’m writing to you I’m in the second circle of the Inferno.
Luckily Paolo and Francesca are great company.
In the end life here isn’t exactly how the Florentine described it.
I’m impatient to go down to the lower apartments.
Maybe I’ll meet her there too,
because I forgot to tell you
that as I fell to the floor covered in blood
I managed to knife her in my turn
with Wordsworth’s Prelude,
which was lying – believe it or not –
on the little table next to the standard lamp.
In the end I was right to insist
on placing it there.
The joke is of course
that I haven’t picked it up
for more than twenty years,
but it did its job.
Just think if I’d been holding
That really would have been the perfect crime.
Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose
To my daughter
As Forster said,
“a poem must create
a relationship between flowers and humankind”.
Consequently, since for me humankind
is now you alone,
the moment I offer you this bouquet
I’ve succeeded in writing the perfect poem.
Pick it up carefully
and smell its words one by one.
They are all yours.
Even its thorns
highlight your beauty.
A White Brushstroke
Yesterday I visited the Van Gogh Museum again. This time, in contrast to my previous visits, my gaze dwelt for some time on two of the last paintings he completed in 1890 – shortly before his suicide. Many people see the well-known painting of the crows flying round a wheatfield as being the one that foretells the painter’s tragic end. Yet shortly after completing this picture, Van Gogh painted other landscapes – such as the one with the heavy blue clouds covering a green meadow –, landscapes which, as he put it, “grant me energy and strength”. It is therefore difficult to diagnose – as certain critics have attempted to do with facile and predictable analyses – the motives and reactions of a psychologically disturbed individual. In the painting of the clouds, for instance, I don’t see “the storm that is about to break”, but rather a harmonious combination of colours which might reflect the calm that Van Gogh felt at that moment – something that’s hinted at by the white brushstroke in the top left corner of the canvas. Mere conjecture, someone might say, and rightly so. Nevertheless, I’d rather have a question that remains open than an answer that insists on closing the matter once and for all and burying it in some luxury album about “the madman who cut off his ear”.
© Haris Vlavianos