Odysseus Elytis, Journal of an Unseen April reviewed by Peter Bien
The first thing to say about this thin volume is how beautifully it is printed. For once we have an elegant bilingual edition that is a pleasure to hold in the hand. The original text is Elytis’s , consisting of 49 entries, typically prose-poems, that cover most days in the April and early May of an unspecified year. Since Sunday 26 April is noted as Easter, the journal’s year might have been 1970, 1981, or 1992.
The precise year does not matter to David Connolly, the translator. For him, what matters is that Elytis died in 1996 just before another April. Connolly tells us in a short “Afterward” that he began the translation in “the first April without Elytis or, perhaps more correctly, the first April with an unseen Elytis.” He continues: “It was a spontaneous reaction to Elytis’ death and a translator’s way of dealing with grief.”
This reminds us that translation is “an intrinsically humane activity. I don’t mean that its practitioners are always themselves, in whatever else they do, humane, but that the activity itself, ideally conceived, is humane, and, in practising it as well as they can, translators are doing something that Rilke might have added to his list of things to show to the Angel, as proof that humanity matters after all” (David Constantine in the Times Literary Supplement, 21 May, 1999). So this elegant bilingual edition is a memorial not just to the deceased poet but also to the dedication of every translator who works for love.
The poems are extremely difficult. I am not sure that they have a theme; yet it is easy enough to suspect a theme consistent with the prominence of Easter in the entire construction—namely, that death can be mitigated by transcendent life. This is announced (or seems to be) on the first and last pages, which are situated outside the journal proper. “Come now my right hand, depict what demonically torments you, but over it place / The Virgin’s silver sheen that at night masks the waters of the marshy waste” stands at the start, while “—All things vanish. For each a time is due. /—All things remain. I go. Now it’s left to you” serves as an envoi at the end. (Owing to Connolly’s straining to get the rhyme due/you, the envoi is actually clearer in the Greek: «— . ».) Also, within the journal—on Palm Sunday, as it turns out—we find still another statement, this one entirely explicit: “An unknown Gabriel motions to me /—Agreed, we’ll all die; but to what end? / . . . / I proceed with close behind my numbered days /—Agreed, yes; but this life’s without end . . .” (68).
Fine. Nevertheless there is so much pessimism throughout the journal that one wonders whether transcendent life is really our end after all. The entry for 9 April will suffice as an example:
It’ll be one of those houses amidst the ivyclosed and uninhabited ones that the strap releasedfrom the hideous events within
And now you can feel those howls unleashed upon youthose first bites from the age of Adamthe teeth of the old man who still dared to loveand untiring blew his secret lindenson a delicate night in April.
These things now out to bring you to your kneesare out again to cover you in blood.
Then again, just to complicate matters, perhaps “life transcendent” is nothing more than : “As I thought too much of nothing and nothing moved me, time grew bold and released me in the midst of the Cretan Sea. / I’ve become thousands of years old and I’m already using the Minoan script with such ease that people marvel . . .” (7 May).
Full review (restricted access) as published at the Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, October 1999 (pp. 433-435) found here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/21871/pdf