Nikos Fokas

Nikos Fokas

One of the most important figures in contemporary Greek literature, Nikos Fokas was born on the Greek island of Kefalonia in 1927 and educated in Athens. From 1960 to 1974 he lived in London and worked in the Greek division of the BBC World Service. Along with several volumes of fiction and critical essays, he has published 14 books of poetry–the most recent of which are Collected Poems: 1954 – 2000 (Ypsilon, 2002) and Free Theme: Prose Poems (Estias, 2005)–and 11 volumes of translations, including, from English, the work of Thomas Hardy, Thomas de Quincy, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin. Booklength collections of his poetry have been translated into French, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian and Italian, but to date only a handful of his poems have appeared in English. An Honorary Fellow at the University of Iowa, and a former Stanley J. Seeger Writer-in-Residence in the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton University, this past year Nikos Fokas received the two highest honors in Greek letters–the Grand Prize in Literature from the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Medal of Distinction in Letters from the Athens Academy of Arts and Sciences–both of which were awarded for lifetime achievement. He currently lives in Athens with his wife Angela.

Don Schofield’s poems, essays and translations have appeared in numerous American journals, including Partisan Review, New England Review and Poets & Writers, as well as in journals in Europe and Asia. The recipient of the 2007 Allen Ginsberg Award, he has also received honors from, among others, the State University of New York, Anhinga Press, Southern California Anthology and Princeton University, where, in 2002 he was a Stanley J. Seeger Writer-in-Residence. His poetry volumes include Of Dust, a chapbook from March Street Press (1991); Approximately Paradise, a book length collection (University Press of Florida, 2002); and the anthology Kindled Terraces: American Poets in Greece (Truman State University Press, 2004). Born in Nevada and raised in Northern and Central California, he has been a resident of Greece for over 25 years. He currently lives in Thessaloniki, where he is the Dean of Perrotis College, a branch of the American Farm School.

Don Schofield’s poems on


What’s become of the flies
of nineteen thirty-four,
Offsprings of ancient fat flies
from the previous year–
Those with us
when we were the world’s youth–
What’s become
of the flies of my generation?

Remember in bedrooms their liveliness
completely independent from our own?–
Since, as you know,
according to nature’s law
the history of flies
And that of mankind
Evolve independently, without
interference or mutual sympathy.

Take the day for example
Venizelos died:
Mother cried and the flies
Buzzed round our human grieving
–Like passersby
near a stranger’s funeral–
Thinking only
Of their own dead.

Stylish, thin-waisted flies, with wings
transparent and layed out,
Evidence of impeccable tailoring
over tiny black shoulders–
They compel me
with their insistent song
in a minor key
Toward some profound essence.

I remember them flying
perpetually in motion above us,
Settling down sometimes
in a warm swath of sunlight
–Eight in the morning,
across tables and floors–
Coupled sometimes
as if doubled.

Such familiarity with humans,
you’d think they were
old acquaintances,
Though they’re merely
transient, easy to grasp images
of a timeless elusive archetype.
But as our acquaintances we remember them
and mourn for them now.

Truly, we mourn for them,
And sincerely I confess to you that when
we speak of our dead,
Parents or relatives
or simply those we’ve known,
Calm in the sun like
this year’s flies
–The youth of the world, our survivors–

I confess to you I feel tenderness
Even for flies
of past seasons
–Violating as a poet
nature’s law–
Tenderness for the dead
of another history, yes,
and its lost generations.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Grey Season

“Grey is warm,” one of our tourism officials
Says to a group of foreigners.
Grey is warm and interesting. Come see
Its shades, its variety,
Its wide scale of tones,
Its own array of colors
Inside the monochrome. Grey…
That’s for the tourists. For us

Days are like bleached nights, the sun
Grey itself inside the mist,
Going white like the moon sometimes,
A shade lighter than our hearts.
The sky darkens or brightens and accordingly
Faces and landscapes cloud over or clear up,
Like when you turn the knob on a black-and-white
TV and inside, the absence of color.

And just as a black-and-white will never
Show color except by a miracle,
So too our surroundings. However in contrast
To that which is programmed from the beginning
For black and white, our lives can perhaps be seen
More clearly through a different metaphor
Borrowed from the days when we knew the world
By its brightness and color–

Gold, red, blue–memories
That awaken sometimes inside the grey,
Like the hidden flame that flares up
From inside an ember: it shines on its surroundings
For a moment, then again is covered,
Keeping, from underneath, the ember warm.
Grey so warm–our representative doesn’t lie–
You’d think it’s waiting for the flame.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Watery Spot

Walking the same route everyday,
Glimpsing on the road’s surface, at some point, slow-moving,
   inexplicable water,
Streamlets that never dry up, I think how tears or sweat
Can keep welling from our face, though we wipe nonstop,
So too that moisture wells endlessly from a certain watery depth.

And just as when a plumbing main breaks or the roof leaks,
And sooner or later large damp stains appear on the walls or ceiling,
Disturbing our peace of mind, so the water in question
Bothers the pedestrians wandering here and there,
Going about their business, their mental preoccupations.

Could this dampness be what remains of who-knows-what antique river
Worshipped here from time immemorial, some fluid deity
Which permeates the asphalt as mere moisture
Unable, alas, to create, as of old, greenery and romantic idylls
Which might inspire love on its banks, and in time become a myth?

What do you expect an outlandish city to answer,
A city landed on us from elsewhere,
With light that would be beautiful without the things it has to illuminate;
What testimony do you expect from vehicles that on this very spot
Spatter us, or from passersby who cross the watery area on tiptoe,
   concentrating on their pantlegs?

But those of us who still possess a divinatory soul might suspect
That this sludge perhaps is nothing other than our own Eridanus, and see
   in that river’s drama
Our proper drama, in its degradation our proper degradation;
And then might want to give a signal of recognition, which it needs so badly,
A signal for which (and this can’t be ruled out) it sends forth secret entreaties.

As for me, it pleases me to greet these dirty waters,
Or, if it happens to be July, these traces of moisture on the asphalt,
So holy, as I see it, that I go down on my knees–a public spectacle–
And rest my forehead there
In a deep bow of piety, as if praying.

And, as a cow sensing abundant water stamps her feet on the ground,
And if deprived of that water, may become dangerous,
I thump my fist against the asphalt hated by cattle as well,
Adoring even the slightest wetness it emits
As a sign perhaps of some vein of water, some buried stream,
   some fountainhead.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Random Sounds

Sometimes we accidentally leave the front door
Intercom on and all the hubbub of the street
Enters the house. Smugglers of some ceaseless
Foreign transmission, we listen in on the dim,
Random sounds of life, as if that life
Were a conversation we’re taping.

Life on the street is harrowingly painful,
But comes to us strangely distorted,
As if pain and anguish didn’t exist, as if simply pure sound,
Ignoring the bleeding, the aging flesh. We think we hear,
My friend, life from the land f the dead,
Its vague sweet sounds.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Spirit Saturday

Trees swell this time of year, their aromas
Like disembodied spirits
Coming round again
As we the living wash off the gravestones,
Part of a pattern that excludes innovation–
Spring, summer, fall, winter–
Every change known beforehand,
Every revolution a repetition.

Because it’s primordial, this cycle
Doesn’t accept innovation, nor do humans.
Better, we say, to live in light like a plant
With roots in the dark, or in front
Of the most horrifying scenes to hide
Behind one’s elbow,
As if in the middle of the night–better that
Than to fall into some third, unpredictable state.

A third state is completely unacceptable, unacceptable
What would disrupt the orderly interchange
Of light and dark, hot and cold.
Better to face, we say, Charon or Hell–
Better ghosts,
Who even without blood or brains share,
At least a bit, our belief in a yearly cycle,
So here they are again in the late winter trees.

Taking their liveliness, it’s true,
From our pain,
They appear to be alive, but in our world
They’re even frailer than we are. From their circle
Of existence exceeding reality,
They smile yet are absent–don’t trust them!–
Though it’s better, we assure ourselves, to have spirits
Who obey, like we do, seasonal limits.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Sail in the Open

As one who has visions wherever he looks,
I see clouds as cosmic deities, right now
Spineless demons that take
Their color from the forming darkness,
Pythons with smudged out eyes and lips,
Dragons with undeclared intentions.

The long rolling curves of waves
Are to me soft arms
Of who knows what submerged bellies,
Stretching out to the land
And returning having abducted
Fresh victims in their coils:

World of spirals in which
The straight line has not yet been invented,
Or only now comes forth with the first sails;
World of supernatural creatures
Destined for life on a huge scale
Like this one offered by ocean

And air, in light or darkness
Or the dusk right now, with one sail that’s different,
Also black but triangular,
Which my mind, lover and artist,
Admires with unreserved joy,
As if the masterpiece of the ages,

Though it’s nothing more than the beginning
Of all our progress up to the
Robot, the satellite, the computer,
This dark, isoceles-shaped cloud,
Similar to the other clouds only
In its blackness against the clear depth of sky…

Limitless view that, though in the present,
Is like the revelation of a pickaxe
Brought forth into the light of consciousness
With the sensation of lost beauty,
Lost chance for humankind:
Since I have visions, I don’t see.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

The Ocean

I avoid the coastline like a shark.
When a bulge of land appears,
like an embryo gradually forming,
taking depth and perspective,
The details steadily multiplying until,
as in Creation, Man appears
at last, and human families
start moving about
endowed with cinematic quality,
Even before I discern an individual’s
eyes, nose or mouth,
Though I too am anthropomorphic–
I take to the open sea.

From a secure distance
the mainland is just another cloud,
Though looking back as I flee,
I glimpse the phases of Creation
in retrograde, the closer
Lost inside the farther away,
The more recent in the older;
In this way escaping into distance
becomes a flight into time,
Until the signs of an antique age
are all around me,
as if God had not yet gone
beyond the horizon, a life
Still bearing the imprint
of apocalyptic scripture.

When waves are low, inclined
to final submission,
like scraps of paper hovering
until held motionless by earth,
Or when with uneven
momentary peaks corresponding
to uneven degrees of horror
on a spiritual scale–
When the sea possesses the dimensions of heaven
Or fits wholly inside a flash of lightning–
I see fleeting fins,
tails emerging from water,
disappearing tentacles
Like limbs in museums, elliptical, unintelligible
Parts of an invisible whole,

As if I were living in a time
before Man,
Where the whale too participates
unsuspectingly in some general preparation,
waiting for an arrival that
for its own sake shouldn’t happen–for truly,
Humans, your faces in the distance
empty yet of eyes, noses, mouths,
as if half-finished or hidden
behind a murderer’s stocking-mask–
I don’t want to see you close up.
I’m prehuman, a creature
Indifferent to calm or tempest–
Light in the Ocean, secure
As a floating plank.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Group Photo

Nineteen-hundred-three. Genoa.
Frozen in history.
Stephano, Domenico, Giuseppie,
Anna-Liza, Paola, Filippo. Partying it seems.
Engagement? Birthday?–who knows.
Dinner party? Dance party?–who can say.

Energetic sorcerer, experienced
At manipulating matter, I share their companionship,
Squeezing inti a past that doesn’t belong to me,
Intruder among bodies
Warmed by my own body’s heat,
I pretend intimate, convivial relationships.

They never detect me, disguised as I am
In clothes and ways of their time,
Dancing their dances, kissing their sweethearts,
Drinking to the health of us all
With antiquated charm
But the awareness of the eighties. . . .

Not the first or last time:
Wherever there are photographs of companions,
There I am, blending past with future
To amuse myself with bogus friendship;
If you look you’ll see me
Taking part in human revelry.

No preference for conditions
Or people, I consort with
Women and men of every age and land,
Classless, cosmopolitan, transcender of history,
Playing a different part each time–
Even a spaceman, as happens sometimes.

Uncompromising sorcerer, I have no essential connection
With these limited realities.
Maybe I’m searching for some absolute
Beyond each photo, inadvertently trapped
Again and again. Or maybe, as with lovers, I’m swelling
The partial into complete reality. Who can say.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

This Death

Giorgos is gone, you told me. And as with every death
The feeling seized me that suddenly a counting had finished,
Some numbering begun years ago
As if this were about losing stacked coins
(Unless I was dreaming they were lost, I thought for a moment,
Unless the dream, without logic, made me crazy).

One death, we know, does not resemble another death.
Each is the motion–sudden, personal–
Of an individual whose whole life was functioning collectively
Or so it seemed; each the perfection
Of a concrete person, a frame that
Objectifies you like a photograph.

However, this particular death, you believe,
Is identified with every loss in our world, every
Death like a new counting around us finishing.
A child dies, let’s say, an old man dies,
A whore dies in the middle of the road, one of our own in a clinic–
Whoever dies, it is always Giorgos Ioannou.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Ode to a Clothes Hanger

I use you for fantasies.
Bony as you are
I don’t want to see you, you scare me.
So I adorn you with dresses
old fashioned or modern
Indecent or shy
according to the moment’s inspiration.
Only in this way, through artifice, can you obtain femininity
endowed with pride,
The passions and hatreds of a real woman.

Sitting on my lap, my sweet,
you control me with your aroma.
Your feminine flesh, spineless,
pulls me like the water of a lake.
That flesh–so wide and bright–
Emerging from clothes as if from clouds
Resembles the moon
that expands as you approach it.
Makes me forget, not think
of your triangular skeleton.

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield


In the middle of her urgent work in the kitchen, or even in public–
At a reception, feast or funeral–while the world continues on its way
With looming conflicts, a ringing telephone, a cyclone, a brawl in the
   street, cholera spreading
Or an early butterfly in the room, leaving aside what I’m doing,
I tenderly yet solemnly interrupt her, pull her
Into my arms, no time left to resist.

On the contrary, she’s ready, it seems, to yield. And as we stand,
The two of us, you would think we were dancing to a music no one else
And in fact our dance–in spite of the perfect stillness of our bodies,
   corresponding to our perfect silence,
Particularly to our lack of explanation to the world–is an outright scandal!
Explanations? For what reason? Has the world ever given explanations to
That we now should explain our silent embrace?

Nikos Fokas
© Translation by Don Schofield

Published with the permission of Nikos Fokas