Austerity Measures (Penguin Books, 2016) subtitled ‘The New Greek Poetry’ is a collection of poetry written in the Greek language (or, rarely, written in English and then translated into Greek), anthologised by Karen Van Dyck (Director of the Hellenic Studies Program at Columbia University). Within its pages are a vast range of Greek poets and poets writing in Greek from the last decade. Some of the poems are overtly political and others not so. It is arranged by the locations of publication and performance. Van Dyck has grouped them all together in an attempt to ‘provide deeper and more various answers’ to the Greek crisis than has been so far achieved by other poetry collections, which she infers highlight purely the political.
The collection is highly ambitious in scope which results in extreme variations in form and tone. By sheer numbers alone this is a formidable volume, made thicker as the poems are presented in Greek and English side by side. The translations are provided by a host of multinational poets and translators, including a large number by Van Dyck herself.
I include this picture so you can see what a sizeable volume it is, and perhaps sympathise with how long it took me to read. You certainly get your £10.99’s worth!
I was struck by how blunt some of the poetry was in comparison to what else I’ve been reading recently. A. E. Stalling’s translation of Panayotis Ioanndis’s ‘Mosquito’ is direct to an unfashionable point:
Last night as I was reading
with a bright light in bed
poetry written under the conditions of oppression
circled me, menacing
both enjoyment and sleep
I killed it and took up my reading again,
until I got tired
and turned off the light.
That kind of matter-of-fact starkness is disarming; you feel forced to re-evaluate your usual approach. The mood could be called apathetic but the act of writing the poem is the reverse of apathy. The act of writing poetry is connected to the act of reading poetry that the poem describes, drawing a connection between the conditions of the read poetry and written poetry.
As Van Dyck explains in her introduction, the title Austerity Measures is used to denote the political reality of Greece but also to connote ‘the poetic strategies employed in response. Austerity measures call both for cutting back and for turning limited resources to new and creative ends.’ There is a tension running through certain selections between action and defeat. Killing the mosquito is a short term solution to irritation, but the poet eventually tires and the light which both attracted the mosquito and facilitated his reading is put out.
The notes on the poems at the back of the book do an excellent job of providing context without being obtrusive (they are not indicated when you first read the poems). One change I would welcome in any future editions would be the inclusion of first dates of publication for each poem, to allow the reader to consider them within their immediate context.
My favourite poem in the collection is Chloe Haralambous and Moira Egan’s translation of Yiannis Doukas’s ‘The Children of Abel’. The poem describes two events: the death of a lion and eight tigers by asphyxiation while being transported to Siberia as part of a circus, and the capsizing of the livestock transporter Danny F II en route to Syria. The Abel of the title could refer to the biblical shepherd Abel, or the Syrian Saint Abel, Saint of the blind and the lame.
It is made of eight stanzas set out in a kind of grid, whereby stanzas 1 and 2 sit side by side, and stanza 3 is made of two centred lines. This pattern repeats for stanzas 4 and 5, underlined by the centred couplet of stanza 6, with the final two stanzas 7 and 8 also side by side. The paired stanzas 1 and 2, 4 and 5, and 7 and 8, can also be read as one stanza. The first lines of each can be read as one together, or you can read them each separately. It is a perfect formal illustration of the austerity measures Van Dyck defines in her introduction. By allowing this multiplicity of readings (for who’s to say you have to stick to the same method as you travel over the page), Doukas challenges any preconceived notions of narrative cohesion and passes agency to the reader, who in a way assumes authorial power. The blurred lines in the relationship between poet and reader implicates the reader in the narrative as it plays out in the poem:
The Danny F bound for Syria Transport by the sea
Like an arc; for slaughterhouses Bearing the live prey
But it flounders with the waves In the water and the silence
Of the sea that does not wash out A fresh, red blemish
Some of the poems in Austerity Measures speak directly to our modern anxieties, like Karen Van Dyck’s translation of Olga Papakosta’s ‘No New Messages’ which becomes ‘Empty Inbox’ in translation. It yearns for an age free of social media:
The new friends
will never be
like the old ones
Those who just
rang the doorbell
and dropped in
Others are unapologetically abstract and liminal like Maria Margaronis’s translation of Hiva Panahi’s ‘Ash Person’ which closes the volume:
Dreams come from far away places
The stones, birds and I take on new forms of life
Dreams have their own road
And we live far away these days, like dreams.
In ending Austerity Measures on this note of forward momentum, with a poet who after being forced to leave Iran was later awarded a scholarship to study in Athens, Van Dyck affirms the power of human endurance through hardship. It suggests that poets will not be made hopeless by the sort of headlines (Greece downgraded deeper into junk) that A. E. Stallings uses to craft the opening poem ‘Austerity Measures’.
In a recent article for The Guardian, Van Dyck writes,
The times are an invitation to speak out against dogma, division, and monolingualism – and also, often equally importantly, simply to register the lived experience of Greeks today, the news that stays new when headlines move on to cover other parts of the world.
In an age where the importance of poetry is often dismissed, and its power underestimated, Van Dyck’s work is vital. Austerity Measures forces readers anywhere to look beyond their immediate context to a brave and startling world.
Thank you to the people at Penguin Books who very kindly sent me this to review.
The new Greek poetry, Karen Van Dyck in The Guardian, 25th March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/25/new-greek-poetry-karen-van-dyck