Yiorgos Chouliaras

Yiorgos Chouliaras

YIORGOS CHOULIARAS is the author of Roads of Ink and five previous volumes of poetry in Greek as well as numerous essays – in Greek and in English – on literature, cultural history, and international relations. Reviews of and translations from his work have been published in leading periodicals, including Agenda, Grand Street, Harvard Review, Méditerranéennes, Modern Poetry in Translation, Ploughshares, Poetry, and World Literature Today. An excerpt from his memoir America Is No Longer Here appeared in Greece: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, ed. by Artemis Leontis, while his work is included in New European Poets by Wayne Miller & Kevin Prufer and other notable anthologies. Samples of his work are accessible online.

A founding editor of the influential Greek literary & arts reviews Tram and Hartis and an editor of literary and scholarly periodicals in the United States, he was the third writer from Greece, after Odysseus Elytis and George Savidis, to serve on the jury of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. An Emeritus Member of the Board of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, he was elected and served on the Executive Board of the Hellenic Authors’ Society as Vice President for international relations.

He is currently Director of the Press & Communication Office and Press Counsellor at the Embassy of Greece in Dublin, Ireland. He has previously worked as Press Counsellor at the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C., in Boston, Massachusetts, in Athens during the Olympic Games, and at the Greek Embassy in Canada. Born in Thessaloniki and educated at Anatolia College, Reed College, and The Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, he worked for many years in New York as a university lecturer, advisor to cultural institutions, correspondent, and press officer at the Greek Press & Communication Office at the United Nations.


In its center all is water
you were saying that night, if you remember
as the fire was dimming the light
on moist fingernails slowly peeling
the dry skin from the orange
before sinking into its yellow succulence
A woman, the boy, fruit – everything
in this world is made of water
simmering indifferent or silent within them
languidly sometime breaking out in sweat
to quench the thirst of its creatures
before evaporating upward again
The surface of water is called earth
and its homeland the clouds
in the impenetrable interior of air
while fire is extinguished at its shudder
batting eyelashes, I think you were saying
with the end’s fiery gaze
I am afraid, I had said, before you spoke
of inflicting evil on you with all I carry
with hands that do not resist the cold
when my thought freezes as
the wind burns the face behind it
deserting dust carved in relief
You rose then not to stoke the fire
but to bring me some water
without my asking for it yet
letting it run for a while
closer to the heart of the liquid deposit
that shines precious drops on the glass
I have tried many times to remember
exactly what you said that night
and why your words, unforgotten
though not remembered
comforted me in a translucent way
softening on me wherever they flowed
I know that when I come home burdened
I peel the dry garments off now
let the water run naked on the body
and have the sense of bathing with light
in the dark bathroom, but even if light enters
I close my eyes
Don’t be afraid, you said, if this love is not
as you think, something solid, of earth
but a sandcastle sinking
while a boat traversing the deep
mails waves to shore
sprinkling babies with salt
A being is fluid
so it can flow on the body’s slopes
and fit in the vessels of the soul
before it returns water to water
before it discovers its ends at the center
before it becomes centered
Nothing can hide in water

As upon it falls the grain imprinting
the universe and before it dissolves
it rocks its hard surface
reconstructing reflections
in water’s memory – remember?
of every moment one forgets
Cleanse your own words if not mine
at the sound of the tap or the waterfall
which bring water from the center of water
being within us so deep at the origin
until that moment arrives
when it has finally circled us all
No need to remember my exact words
Let go, though
Don’t let me go

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation Maria Koundoura and Yiorgos Chouliaras


Propositions and suppositions torment me
I put fragrances on my tongue, the verbs smell sweet
In vain I color my eyes with paints
Nobody sees me any more
I stay shut in the house, I don’t go out
There’s no sea to look at here, a foreign place

I was saved by ship when I traveled hunted
Among sailors, seasickness, seagoing lore
Wherever I stopped there were Greeks
Our own people, who love the water
But land does not dazzle them
They easily stick their necks into money

Now far from the sea I lose myself
In waves of voices
I dive shouting into tears, I remember
Before you go, please, draw up the bedsheet
Close the door quietly, don’t wake me
Nor should you remember me

I don’t know what else to say, whether I’m drowning
Because here there is no sea
But also in the sea there is no here

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation David Mason and Yiorgos Chouliaras


The fish were smoking
wordlessly in the pan
Lungs were being browned
filtering the burning smoke
Tufts of it in the air
artlessly concealed
the sweating face of the day
The island breathed summer
The breeze was blowing
a tune that was familiar
– but not to us
The radio played something foreign
from a place where fish are not netted
don’t writhe full of sea
don’t rub themselves
before they swim in the oil
of a macabre sunbathing
So we don’t all boil
in the same pot
The kitchen contains
other utensils too
Fish a pan for me
I’ll make you dance
though the tune may be foreign

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation David Mason and Yiorgos Chouliaras


We led him precisely to the point
where he imagined he had started.
The stones were intensely hot in the ruins
as the sun now penetrated everywhere
in a methodically uncovered past.
We looked without seeing.
Here must have been that labyrinth
he was telling himself lost in thoughts
uncorrupted by light.
Here it must have been entirely dark
just like now, he was saying, I can see it
while noisily the cicadas
sharpened the bull’s horns.
He must have wandered to the exit
his hand tightly held in a ball
that its end was not visible
not now either if it existed.
Because we lost him from our eyes
in a moment as we were blinded
by the sun giving flight
in a mythical mirror to the real
idol of a nonexistent world.

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation David Mason and Yiorgos Chouliaras


My wife was not born in Missolonghi.

Later, she would go down alone to the water
perfectly smooth, waveless
ever ready to accept the sun
when it finally decided to soften
its colors upon the lagoon
shamelessly reddening the edges
of a horizon without perspective.

Where were they going, those who saved themselves
escaping to the embraces
of the girls from the city where
the crippled poet died, having brought
all that money for the revolution?

Late in the day, thousands of nights ago in London
as we took the dogs out for a walk
we realized that the historian would
have been much harder on the Greeks
or at least with us, had we not been his guests.
We paid dearly for Byron’s money.

Those were the years of another revolution
as they used to say in Greece, and the English
philhellene held accountable only
the descendants of those who were saved in the exodus.

I have also seen the salt from a distance
getting drier and thirstier
while the neighboring water so carelessly
flaunts its glaring wetness
to the dead poet’s countrymen
while the sun sets ever so slowly
tracing the cenotaph of the empire.

At a reception in England Don Juan
for those who consider every poem autobiographical
overheard or was told of a woman
who sternly warned her daughter:
Don’t look at him. He is dangerous
when you look at him.

I live to make you happy
I didn’t say to her, because, if it’s impossible
I prefer you to be unhappy is what they’d say
those who like straight talk
and die talking to themselves
in little, everyday revolutions.

Marriage is a difficult story.
Marrying history is difficult.

Shelley’s wife, Mary, bore
a monster of our own.

We are all Greeks, her husband used to tell her
just like I still hear from his countrywomen
who would prefer that I were English.

Solomos, without ever having taught
at an English school like Kalvos did,
decided not to become an Italian poet.
His mother’s language a domestic servant
and in fragments it survived
as if he were an ancient author.

Across the water, the two of them keeping company
in the Zakynthos square greet the tourists
taking a little plunge
into the murky waters of culture.

You would have to be there, she tells me
at the exodus festival of today –
three days and nights of drinking and
making rounds on horseback
from tavern to tavern while in front
the drums are played only by Gypsies.

Missolonghi was a city before the birth of Palamas
and Athens was a village
and the capital of the kingdom.

In days of democracy a former successor to the throne
gets married to a little princess
of an American dynasty and their kid
must dance as Greeks do
just like Anthony Quinn.

A friend came to see us in New York where we live
not too far from the water.
We buy Greek salt.
We plan the exodus every year.

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation Peter Hasiakos and Yiorgos Chouliaras


The baby crying even though so far away
woke up the girl who had fallen asleep
after giving him the last pill dissolved
in the cool tears of the young liquid
whose surface reflected her dream

She was swimming alone in a colored sea
with soft hairdresser’s highlights in waves
when suddenly she had seen his face, she said,
appear and disappear changing colors
more intense as she thought she approached him
while their shine gradually weakened to white
every time he moved away again

When small he had sunk in the embrace of a face
that had gently pulled him to its side
holding him steadily and without any haste
tirelessly filling up infinity with a moment
when the body calmly deepens to accept
in its dark mirror the shadow of the world

She got up not wishing to be seen looking at him
although she would believe he was asleep as pain receded
and approached her glass face to the window
that circumscribed her body erasing everything outside
despite not wishing to show what she knew even inside her

He thought of the water, the sea that had not failed him
he thought of the baby swimming from one embrace
to the other until the crying should stop
and while she was still turned away he fell asleep

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation Maria Koundoura and Yiorgos Chouliaras


Using as everyone knows my cunning
I left my shadow at sea
and returned immediately to Ithaca.

Nobody believes that I am here.

That is why I now pass my days
as one of the suitors.
I am secretly weaving, however.

Penelope is disturbed every morning
when she finds a new dress on the loom.
She immediately makes us unravel it
each suitor pulling a different thread.

Without a single dress her body
will become a wedding garment
and she will marry one of us
dispersing the rest to foreign places.

It is in our interest therefore
when history delays
and in her eyes we are all part of the plot.

Time passes this way, waiting
Odysseus’ arrival.

Yiorgos Chouliaras

© translation David Mason and Yiorgos Chouliaras

Yiorgos Chouliaras’ interview excerpts

  • I think poets write to account for that first poem nobody understood.
  • Poetry is like water. It’s all around us, inside us, but we don’t know we are made of water. It’s the same with poetry. We find ourselves – whether on land or inside land-imitating contraptions, floating, submerged or airborne – at the center of water. And water, of which we are mostly made, is at our center. We are born bathed in fluids and we are washed when time comes for us to sink. But we are mostly not aware of this.
  • It’s the same with poetry. It’s all around us. It is inside us. But we rarely, if ever, know it. Our solidity depends on being fluid. There is no life without poetry. Poetry (from poiein, which means “to make”) is what we make. Life is what we make of it. It is perhaps sad, but may also be fortunate, that we don’t know it.
  • Ink is fuel spent on the road. We may wish to change the future thereby. Instead, we are only able to change the past, by rewriting it. The conflict between the oral and the written, between form and content, between history and creation: These are all represented here.
  • Is a road book a book for the road? We wish roads to take us somewhere, anywhere. What is certain is that they take us away.
  • The content or theme of a poem must be conceived of as a pretext. It is literally not the text. When confronted with grand ideas, I become a formalist. If confronted, however, by formalities, I’d rather go for content.
  • In poetry, what matters is not what you say, but how you say it. Having said this, it only matters if you have anything to say.
  • Poetry emerges at the border between the written and the oral. It is a struggle, a contest, and a sexual union between these two forms or forces of language. In epic times, memory aided by metered rituals became a registry and writing depository. In our times — in the West since Gutenberg, that is — poetry is a necessarily written craft that returns or must pretend to return (as no origin is authentic) to its oral origins.
  • This is why readings are required. Although contemporary poetry is too complex to be understood without the hypertextual assistance provided by books or other print and electronic media, very much is lost if voices are not heard.
  • Good advice to poets is to write. Better advice is to read. The best advice is to erase what they cannot hear.
  • Any potentially outstanding act of creativity, such as poetry, is a denial of history. It is an act of standing out of the stream that takes everyone along in its indifferently, leisurely or violently becalming way.
  • What is heard and is then written becomes sacred. It is a scripture. Each poem starts a new religion. Human modesty is firmly based on this kind of hubris.
  • At the same time, humans are both creators and creatures of history. Their home is to be found neither in concrete houses nor in abstract nature. The home of humans is history, which is lived self-knowledge that appears to exceed understanding.
  • Poems, when and if they work, as acts of human creation, are historically grounded to the extent they deny their parentage.
  • Don’t think of poetry as exalted or obscene. It’s both. Very much like mathematics, poetry is an inquiry into the universe that takes humble, everyday words — similar to numbers crunched by accountants — and builds simple and elegant linguistic designs that can only be compared to the enchantment of higher mathematics.
  • Diaspora and exile are necessary conditions for writers today. Whether internal or external, imposed or elected, ugly or beautiful, these experiences always raise their head into a writer’s lap.
  • Since Babel, language is provincial and the dream of a universal tongue leads to nightmares. Writers, even when their words become the coin of a lingua franca, are provincial creatures whose home turns into a language in exile.
  • Poetry may be untranslatable, but language of and by which it is made, is by definition translatable as it belongs to a community of speakers.
  • As hare-brained as writers may be, they still resemble turtles in their motion, alive in the shell of their language as they move it along persistently in hieroglyphic, cuneiform, ideogram-generating, alphabetic or any other conceivable patterns.

excerpted from:

Chouliaras Kathimerini English Edition/International Herald Tribune interview

Published with the permission of Yiorgos Chouliaras