The Countless Elpenors of History

Konstantinos Doxiadis

Elpenor


By Takis Sinopoulos, Translated by K.D.


Elpenor, how have you come to this land…
HOMER


Land of death. The frozen sea the black cypresses
the shallow shore ravaged by salt and light
the hollow boulders the unwavering sun above
and not a drip of water, not a single flutter of a bird’s wings
only endless unadulterated thick silence.

It was one of our men that spotted him
a young one that called: Look, isn’t that Elpenor.
Our heads snapped round. Strange, that we remembered him
for our memory was as dry as a summer stream.
And it truly was Elpenor, there by the black cypresses
blinded by the sun, and lost deep in his pondering
scraping away at the sand with shorn fingertips.
And then I called to him in joy: Elpenor,
Elpenor, how have you come to this land?
You had passed with that black iron impaled into your side
and just last winter we found you, with thick blood clotting your lips
as your heart was drying against the tholepin’s rod.
With a broken oar did we plant you, at the edge of that shore
that you may hear the wind’s murmur, the roar of the sea.
And we find you with such life! How have you come to this land
blinded as you are by your spite and incessant pondering?

He did not turn to look. He did not hear. And then I cried out again
a deep fear stirring within: Elpenor, you who kept a rabbit’s foot
hung around your neck, you who courted fortune, Elpenor
lost as you are in the countless threads of history
I call out to you and only my unanswered echo beckons
What brought you here, old friend? How did you chance
upon this dark ship that carries us, wandering as we are
deadened beneath the sun, answer me
if your heart desires to join us, answer me.

He did not turn to look. He did not hear. And the silence grew stronger.
The unrelentless light dug deeper, burrowing through the dirt.
The sea the cypresses the shore entombed
in deathly stagnation. And only him, that Elpenor
who we pursued with such toil through the crumbling manuscripts
tormented by the bitterness of his eternal solitude
with the sun scorching through the lapses in his thought
scraping away at the sand with shorn fingertips
only he, as a vision did recede and fade into nothingness
without wings without sound into the eternal aether.

Repast for Elpenor


By Takis Sinopoulos Translated by K.D.



That evening the air felt warm and heavy.
The wind pulled out the candles’ flames
toward the ceiling. Crimson curtains
covered the windows and the austere Silence
made its way through the deserted
boarded-up hall.

When I finally tired from the company of my thoughts
I raised my eyes and suddenly saw I was encircled
by a crowd of mute shades watching
unwavering and slowly increasing in number
always watching. It was then that I asked in a sombre voice:
Friends why have you gathered and what do you seek?
They did not answer but continued to meet my gaze
and yet more shades appeared until like the evening breeze
they filled the hall.
Faces I had seen figures I had greeted
all through life’s flow in the cruellest years
in fogs and cellars in grimy back-alleys
all well-versed in knives and blood and rape.
And again I asked, my tone resolute:
Why do you stand here mute and how did you enter?
And when they refused to answer my rage consumed me:
Cursed dogs what do you seek? Talk.
You, you blind clod what do you want? Answer quickly
for my hand impatient grows.
Then the shade softly responded: Friend recall
that countless years ago you blinded me. Give me
back the light I was deprived. Within me sparked
a scarlet rage and I said: Blind man
get out of my sight before death takes you.
The shade did not speak but continued to watch unwavering.
I couldn’t bear it any longer. I turned and saw Lucas
forty years dead bearing a terrible
affliction on his face. Behind him Isaac
a sickly man taken down by an embittered pellet in Albania
beside him Markellos and further back Alexander
whom I killed one night in a dark cistern.
And all they watched me mute and unmoving
with their bloated eyes, as they grew closer together
increasing in number around the hall.
I felt a sharp chill course through my being but still cried
in that deep and sombre voice: Dogs
demons begone with you. For you
I have nothing. And with that I entered the room
where I slept hoping I had seen the last of them.
But then dark rage and anger
clouded my visage. Countless forms
poured in and unwavering continued to watch me.
And the soft wind blew from the open windows
its faint murmur calling forth more
until unceasing the forms had filled the room.
And among them I saw Demos, donned fully in khaki
the very same Demos that was always so filthy at the front
and deeply shaken I inquired in a tremulous voice:
Demos how are you here? How did you come at this time?
He did not speak but gave only a sweet smile
and then solemnly began to set the table
with its long black cloth whose
weighted tassels reached the floor and alighted upon it
three large candles in their silver holders.
I felt my knees give way to fear and my memory
dove deep into my being dredging up some old
forgotten promise to dear deceased Elpenor.
And as suddenly as a soft light at the end of a deep
tunnel rapidly looms
so too did his image grow within my mind
and Elpenor was now afore me bursting with life.
His gaze locked on to me so sweet and resolute.
His lips began to move and then shut-off again
and I could swear I heard
his faint murmuring voice: My friend
you have long forgotten me. Not even a repast
nor a memorial did you grant old Elpenor.
Bitter does my death persist
and even darker and more bitter it shall be
through the passage of time. Grant me atonement my friend.
So did I hear and clouds of guilt appeared
afore me and my eyes glazed over
suddenly from tears as dark as a river
swelling in the autumn from the heavy rain.
And when finally they had dried and I wiped
my streaked face with my palms and raised my gaze
to meet Elpenor’s, I found nothing.
And the bedroom and the hall had suddenly emptied.
From the open windows blew in a warm breeze.
The light cheap and unbearably clouded
poured out everywhere and the nurse
clad in full white and deeply drained
carefully secured the row of magical herbs
lined up against the high shelf.

Interview



Poet, translator, essayist, art critic and painter, Takis Sinopoulos (1917-1981) is best known for his post-war collections, which reconciled French Symbolism with the political and personal turmoil he experienced throughout the German occupation and Greek civil war throughout the ’40s. A prolific contributor to (and reader of) literary magazines, Sinopoulos launched his career in the summer of 1934, quickly becoming an established name in the Greek poetry scene. It was in these years that he first chanced upon the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, reading multiple translations of both by Seferis in Τα Νέα Γράμματα (The New Letters). Sinopoulos was especially taken by Pound’s Canto I, which demonstrated how it was possible to express the horrors of his recent past through a discussion with history. This sentiment was exemplified by Elpenor, whom Sinopoulos used as a symbol to bring lost comrades back to life, journeying through the ‘countless threads of history.’

Disclaimer: The following interview was conducted in absentia.

Interviewer: Mr Sinopoulos, it would be a pleasure to have you here. I’d first like to ask you about Elpenor, and in particular, the role of Odysseus as an observer. In your diaries,[mfn]The Book of Night, 1978.[/mfn] as well as numerous previous interviews given for literary magazines, you talk of the influence Ezra Pound’s early Cantos had on your development as a poet. In the case of Elpenor specifically, one feels that you are paying homage to the first Canto, and the portrayal of Odysseus as a much more passive participant than what we are used to. Was your intention to treat historical events retrospectively? That is, did you wish to create a narrator that was reminiscing, rather than experiencing the events as they occurred?

Interviewer: Of course, my motivation for asking this question is linked to your depiction of memory in Repast for Elpenor, where are the unidentified narrator does the accept opposite from what we read in Elpenor – he pulls history out from the past and establishes it into his own present. And in fact, history continues to run its course into the present, for the narrator is not merely reminiscing. He is he having new interactions with long-lost faces. My question is this: Why is Elpenor the link between the two? What is it about him that allows for this variable interpretation of time and memory?

Interviewer: I would describe regret as the futile desire for agency. The knowledge that history has played its course, and the irrational, often perverse obsession that it may be continued.

Interviewer: I speak of continuation because you do not imply that history should be changed. In the case of Elpenor, Odysseus does not apologise. He offers to bring Elpenor back to his crew and continue to roam the seas in search of home. In the Repast for Elpenor, we see a plea for forgiveness. An acceptance of the wrongs done, and a desire to right them in the present. Is this desire for continuation down to the metaphysical limitations of time, or does it imply that regret is a constitutive account of character? That is, that a formative experience cannot be forgotten.

Interviewer: I use the modality of ‘cannot’ rather than ‘should not’ because I believe you are making a statement about character, not about morality. You are not preoccupied with whether the reliving the past because there is no adequate ego to do such a reliving. Odysseus cannot return to Circe’s island at the moment of Elpenor’s death, because it is the travel-worn and matured Odysseus which understands the importance of closure (depicted by an appropriate burial) following death. Similarly, the narrator in Repast cannot atone for his sins in the past – i.e. he cannot return to the battlefield and honour Elpenor as he should have, all those years ago, for it is this guilt that has defined him. It is this regret and obsessive desire for continuation.

Interviewer: Perhaps. But to me the reality you presented did feel like a form of absolution. The growing silence in Elpenor, the sudden reconciliation with the present in Repast. You grant your narrator’s self-awareness of their regret. You treat them as independent agents, allowing them to cope with the multiplicity of time. After all, if memories are constitutive of character when continuing the past, they are also constitutive of character when returning to the present. No amount of contemplation or forgiveness can change history.

For the land of death is cold and silent
And dry winds over hard rock blow
Illuminated by the fading trickle of time
By the moments and the whispers and the gasps
By the salt-worn tears of the soul.

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