Prayer (or, The Apple)/Το Μήλο (Η Αγία Ειρήνη και ο Ποιητής)

by Dimitra Kotoula, translated by Maria Nazos

Dimitra Kotoula is the author of Three Notes for a Melody (2004) and The Constant Narrative (2017). Her poetry, essays, and translations have been presented in literary festivals and appeared online as well as in poetry anthologies and journals in Greece, Europe, and the U.S. including the Poetry Review, the Columbia Review, Mid-American Review, the Denver Quarterly. Her poems have been translated in nine languages. Currently, she works as an archaeologist and lives in Athens, Greece with her daughter.

Maria Nazos’ poetry, translations, and lyrical essays are published in The New Yorker, The Tampa Review, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of A Hymn That Meanders (2011 Wising Up Press)  and the chapbook Still Life (2016 Dancing Girl Press). Her work has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and scholarships from The Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s English Ph.D. program.

Her fellow Greek poet Katerina Iliopoulou has described Kotoula’s work as possessing “a lyrical voice deprived from any sentimentalism or aestheticism without, however, lacking in warmth or beauty.” Although Kotoula’s poems are stripped of sentimentality, they are still passionate, with the current Greek financial crisis either at the thematic heart of the poem or at the periphery. I would also argue that Kotoula’s ethos is romantic and wildly passionate.

My biggest challenge throughout the translation process was remaining true to both meaning and music without compromising the poems’ political sensibility. There were several instances when I struggled to remain true to the poems’ meanings while preserving their musicality. It has been a challenge to render Kotoula’s poems in an accurate light, as many of them have been written during the current Greek financial struggle, which, although not always dominating the poems’ core, is usually lurking in their peripheries. Therefore, I had to keep that sociopolitical tragedy in the back of my mind while translating, in an attempt to keep the mood and influence intact. In addition, many of Kotoula’s poems are about the act of writing poetry itself, though there are moments where she prefers not to explicitly to engage this metaphor, but rather relies upon an intelligent reader’s inference, which as a translator, was particularly challenging to portray. To add to these challenges, Kotoula’s work does not only employ the narratively grounded lyric to lament Greece’s recent struggles. Greek syntax tends to mercilessly torture itself in such a way that would have made John Milton envious.

Aside from her fusing of various forms and drawing upon specific historical events, the other most sizeable challenge in translating Kotoula was rendering the diction in the correct manner. During our extensive email exchanges, Kotoula would describe at length both the logic of the stanza and the overall context of the word being used, which, in my interpretation was sometimes inaccurate. On a more positive note, however, after having translated a substantial amount of this poet’s work, I can confidently say that although a lack of clarity still exists in certain places throughout the translating process, these instances have grown farther and fewer between as I familiarize myself with the poet’s diction, ethos, and intention. Therefore, it took me weeks before I was able to come up with a line that was coherent, graceful, and musical. Moreover, it is an understatement to say that Kotoula and I have zero aesthetic overlap.

The acclaimed polyglot translator Michael Heim aptly said, “A good translation will allow a person who has read the work…to have an intelligent conversation about it”. Having been raised until the age of thirteen in Athens, Greece and then moved to Joliet, Illinois, I realized that I had left behind my formative years, home country, and mother tongue. After these past five years of re-discovering a language that used to come intuitively to me, it is my sincere hope that I have rendered a collection of poems that are worthy of discussion, that are a combination of both my own aesthetic choices and Kotoula’s predilections, as she and I have worked side-by-side to maintain this collaborative balance. I remain hopeful that, as a result of this collaborative work, these translations possess shades of my own voice, of my own once-forgotten Greek heritage and tongue, and finally, of my own poetic choices.

—Maria Nazos


A Poem by Dimitra Kotoula
Translated from the Greek by Maria Nazos

 

Prayer
(or The Apple, 7/28/2013)
This is the imagined ‘dialogue’ between the praying St Irene and an atheist who suddenly questions his non-belief.

 

 

“This sailor who today brings you the fruits,
with happiness you should greet him, eat to gratify
your soul, and the sailor puts out three apples that
he has wrapped in cloth, and tied with gold strings,
and places them in her hands. … All this beauty, the
appearance of the fruits, and the scent of their
fragments… what could one say? They kept their
origin from when humans were exiled, and
thereafter became mortal.”

  Anonymous, The Life of St. Irene of Cappadocia

 

For Vaseileia, who created this.

I.

She raises the arms.
Straightens the body.
In the right pocket of her robe
the apple dances to the rhythm of her heart.
She starts chirping—again.  

*

Time gathers in her two upraised hands
roils/ incubates.
The same words
relentlessly repeated.
The mind settles reassuringly warm— 

All empty.

 

II.

  I want to pray
—tap tap—
Her five fingers say.  

 

III.

I want to pray, his five fingers say.

He opens the eyes in the darkness of the cathedral.
He blinks.
Overwhelmed by the deafening fullness
for a moment leaves the poem behind.

He knows. Who he is.
He has already walked the distance.
I’m cold/ scared/ to pray
I want to pray.
He insists on believing
(at least he thinks so).

Surrendering the self to the truth of the next available myth
he almost (who has asked him of this?) reaches out his hand.

A breeze swirls in from everywhere
rippling the meanings
initiating action
as a drop of perception falls.

No one has the right to judge him.

No one’s smug self-indulgent virtue
or banal sympathy
have the right to judge that which his five fingers are negotiating:

I want to pray
—tap tap—
Her five fingers say.

 

IV.

She raises the arms.
A diaphanous mushroom of energy envelops her.
Tap-tap
the persistent hammering of God inside her— 

 

V.

I want- he insists.

 


 

Το Μήλο
(Η Αγία Ειρήνη και ο Ποιητής)

Προσευχή, 28/7/2013

 

«…τον ναύτη αυτόν, που σήμερα σού φέρνει τις οπώρες, με χαρά
υποδέξου και φάε ν’ αγαλλιάσει η ψυχή σου και βγάζοντας
ο ναύτης τα τρία μήλα, που είχε τυλιγμένα σε υφάσματα κεντημένα με χρυσή
κλωστή, τα έβαλε στα χέρια της…το κάλλος και η όψη και η ευωδιά
τους -τι να λέμε;- κρατούσαν την καταγωγή τους από εκεί που η
φύση μας εκδιώχθηκε και έκτοτε έγινε φθαρτή».
Ανωνύμου, Βίος της Οσίας ημών Ειρήνης της εκ Καππαδοκίας

Για την Βασιλεία που το έφτιαξε

 

 

Ι.

Υψώνει τα χέρια.
Στήνει το κορμί.
Στη δεξιά τσέπη του ράσου της
το μήλο χορεύει στο ρυθμό της καρδιάς.
Αρχίζει το τιτίβισμα- πάλι.

*

Ο όλος χρόνος μέσα σε δυο υψωμένα χέρια
μαζεύεται/ επωάζει.
Οι ίδιες λέξεις
σταθερά επαναλαμβάνονται.
Ο νους βολεύεται καθησυχαστικά ζεστός-  

Όλος άδειος.

 

ΙΙ.

Θέλω να προσευχηθώ
– ταπ ταπ-
λένε τα πέντε της δάχτυλα. 

 

III.

  Θέλω να προσευχηθώ λένε τα πέντε του δάχτυλα.

Ανοίγει τα μάτια στο σκοτάδι του καθεδρικού.
Παίζει το βλέμμα.
Παρασυρμένος από την εκκωφαντική πληρότητα
του τετράγωνου χώρου που τον περιβάλλει
προς στιγμήν παραμερίζει το ποίημα.
Ξέρει ποιος είναι.
Έχει ήδη διατρέξει την απόσταση
κρυώνω/ τρομάζω/ να προσευχηθώ
θέλω.
Επιμένει ακόμη να πιστεύει
(τουλάχιστον έτσι νομίζει).

Υποκύπτοντας στην αλήθεια του επόμενου διαθέσιμου μύθου
άθελά του σχεδόν απλώνει το χέρι.
Ένα ρεύμα ανακυκλώνεται από παντού
ταράζοντας τις σημασίες
εγκαινιάζοντας τη δράση
σαν την πιο ακριβή σταγόνα της αντίληψης.

Κανένας δεν έχει το δικαίωμα να τον κρίνει
(έντρομο το ανθρώπινο ζώο στην αυγή του 21ου αιώνα
απαιτεί υπακοή από το Θεό του).

Καμία αυτάρεσκα ηδονική ευλάβεια
-ποιος είσαι;-
ή η κοινότοπη συμπάθεια κάποιου δήθεν ταπεινού πόνου.

Κανένας δεν έχει δικαίωμα να κρίνει
αυτό που διαπραγματεύονται τα πέντε του δάκτυλα.

 

ΙV. 

Υψώνει τα χέρια.
Ένα διάφανο μανιτάρι ενέργειας την περιβάλει.
Ταπ-ταπ
η επίμονη σκαπάνη του Θεού μέσα της-

 

V.

Θέλω—επιμένει.

 

 


Dimitra Kotoula is the author of Three Notes for a Melody (2004) and The Constant Narrative (2017). Her poetry, essays, and translations have been presented in literary festivals and appeared online as well as in poetry anthologies and journals in Greece, Europe, and the U.S. including the Poetry Review, the Columbia Review, Mid-American Review, the Denver Quarterly. Her poems have been translated in nine languages. Currently, she works as an archaeologist and lives in Athens, Greece with her daughter.

Maria Nazos’ poetry, translations, and lyrical essays are published in The New Yorker, The Tampa Review, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of A Hymn That Meanders (2011 Wising Up Press)  and the chapbook Still Life (2016 Dancing Girl Press). Her work has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and scholarships from The Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is a recent graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s English Ph.D. program.

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