Alexis Levitin

Photo © Nick Levitin

Alexis Levitin

Alexis Levitin has published forty-seven books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. In addition to five books by Salgado Maranhão, his work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal, The Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil and has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada, The European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany (twice), and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has three books coming out in the next year: Eugenio de Andrade’s Furrows of Thirst (Dialogos Books), The Craft of Revision: W.H. Auden at Work (Lexington Books), and The Last Ruy Lopez: Stories from the Royal Game (Russell Enterprises). He loves to travel and regrets that he did not spend his life in the Greek islands.


It was late June, the Aegean was transparent, and the swimmer felt utterly content in its soft embrace. He had left his towel and portable chess set on a deserted crescent of beach and had plunged into the maternal waters of the summer sea and simply begun to swim. He had no destination and no purpose. But to swim endlessly seemed a worthy activity, if not exactly a cause. And so he swam, slowly paralleling the coast of Spetses, the occasional sandy beach, the rocky shore with its sea urchins and star fish, the outcropping headlands marking his progress, the gently curving coves unfolding like the body of a beloved.

After a timeless stretch of time, a small, deserted beach tucked between two promontories slowly came into view. As he approached, he saw a man reading on the beach, his head supported by a driftwood tree trunk. He did not wish to emerge from the sea, to invade the other’s privacy, but, after more than an hour of total solitude, he felt an urge to speak to a fellow human being. So he called out yassou, and asked what was beyond the next headland. The bronzed solitary reader looked up from his book, contemplated the passing swimmer, and in a quietly stern voice, gave an oracular response:

       Keep Ithaka always in your mind
       Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

Nodding his head thanks, in puzzled acquiescence, Alexis kept on swimming. He was astonished to have encountered those verses from Cavafy’s great poem “Ithaka,” called out to him by that solitary figure, an unlikely prophet in a modest black bathing suit, on a narrow strip of yellow sand. He wondered how that uncanny directive could be relevant to his progress along the shores of Spetses, with the entire bulk of the Peloponnesus between him and Odysseus’ Ithaka in the far-off Ionian Sea. Surely the advice, nay the command, was not precisely geographic in nature. And so, mulling the stranger’s words, he continued his slow progress through the serenity of the glassy sea.

Beyond the headland the rocky coast continued, deserted. Soon he saw that what had looked like a peninsular was actually a small island with boulders and low-lying scrub. As he drew near, he could hear the insistent shrilling of cicadas under the hot sun. Slowly he passed the island, then decided to circle around it. He found a tiny beach, but there was no sign of life. Further on, however, he was surprised to discover a very small chapel, blazing white under the midday sun. The island was clearly uninhabited, yet someone had built the chapel. As he swam by, he thought he glimpsed a candle flickering in an alcove beside the front door. Perhaps the white chapel, sharp-etched against the blue Aegean sky, was dedicated to a local saint, to be used only on his designated feast day once a year. Alexis continued his quiet breaststroke and left the chapel and the island behind him.

The water remained warm and comforting and so he swam on. Finally, he saw a sleek sailboat anchored in the distance before him, its elegant lines mirrored in the stillness of the sea. As he drew near, he could make out the name engraved on the stern: Invitation au Voyage. On the mast there flew the flags of Greece and of France. A lanky young man was stretched out on the deck, reading a book. He was protected from the sun by a simple awning. The swimmer drew near and for the second time on his leisurely journey, he called out yassou to a stranger.

The stranger looked up and put down his book. He returned the greeting, but in formal English: “Good afternoon,” he said. The swimmer asked permission to cling for a bit to a buoy hanging from the stern of the pleasure craft. He quickly declared that he had no intention of invading the boat, he only wished to rest for a few minutes from his pleasant, aimless swim. As he clung to the buoy rope, he could see the cover of the book the stranger had been reading. Stark against a black background, was the word Anabase. He had read the book in T.S. Eliot’s translation back in grad school, but its content was lost in the mists of the past. The slender Frenchman seemed not to mind the unexpected visit. The swimmer asked if St. John Perse was one of his favorites. Bemused by the question, glancing back at the book in his hand, the young man replied: “He is not only a fine poet, but it so happens, he was my god-father, as well.” The swimmer was impressed. He dared to inquire further. The Frenchman continued in elegantly accented English: “St. John Perse was a close friend of my grandfather. You might have heard of him: Jules Supervielle. In any case, due to that connection, my father grew up knowing St. John Perse and stayed with him and his wife when he was in France. As for me, I was named after him.”
“Your name is St. John Perse?”
“No, my name is Alexis. His real name, you know, was Alexis Leger.”

The swimmer was astonished. Had he swum all afternoon with no clear aim, no destination, only to find another Alexis in his path? Had he come all that way to find himself in another man’s skin, another man’s charmingly French-imbued English? Was this Alexis his destination? Had he been swimming, unawares, towards himself during all those aimlessly pleasant hours? Or had he been seeking, blindly, a stranger, an Alexis with the same marker as himself, but with an unfathomable otherness within?

“I, too, am Alexis,” he finally offered. His counterpart was startled, then smiled.

“What a coincidence,” he said. “Or could it be,” and his voice rose with a modulated ironic lilt, “Could it be a case of synchronicity?”

Bemused, they went on to chat about South America, since the Frenchman had grown up in Uruguay and the swimmer had lived for years in Brazil. They went on to discuss modern poetry, praising Rilke and Lorca, Celan and Pavese. They talked about voyages and where they might lead. They talked about the endless search for we know not what. Alexis on board, offered a sip of red wine to Alexis, the swimmer. And as the swimmer, waving good-bye, started to turn back, since the afternoon’s empty beauty had already been answered, however ambiguously, Alexis on board the Invitation smiled a most amiable benediction and called out to the receding figure, slowly returning to where it had come from: “Et alors, mon vieux, bon voyage!”

Previously published in Agon              

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