Προς Aμυδράν Iδέαν, Rodakio, Athens 2013

As published in Volume 11, NO 2, June 2014

by Frangiski Ambatzopoulou

Her Travels

Niki Marangou was an avid traveler; and to unusual places she travelled. She writes somewhere: “On leaving Berlin I had burnt my bridges; I determined not to go further North than Egypt, nor further West than Damascus. That’s what I’d tell those friends who’d invite me.” (p. 46)

And by that she abided, persistently and passionately.

From her travels to Egypt, Alexandria and Cairo, she brought us poems and drawings blessed with a deeper sense of the world that departs from the Mediterranean in the direction of the Nile, towards the desert, towards the sketes of the Anchorites, the secret places of the poets.

Her travels weren’t uncomplicated. She often sent us messages about the hardships she had encountered: rough seas aboard liners of mishap, forsaken inns in dubious cities of the East.

Her Carta

No, her travels weren’t effortless. Still, she made them. She traveled as if within a life plan headed for authenticity. Now, owing to her last book of poems, entitled Προς αμυδράν ιδέαν [Towards a vague idea], we may conjecture that, during those travels, she wanted to draw up a map of her own world, a sum of the Greek, Mediterranean, ancient and new worlds, where the sons of Abraham had taken up residence and crafted languages, cultures, religions.

Even the phrase “towards a vague idea of archaeology,”, she herself explains, is an excerpt from a peculiar map, the celebrated Carta of Rigas Feraios.

“Towards a vague idea of archaeology,” wrote Rigas in his Prologue to the Carta, printed in Vienna in 1797. It is comprised of twelve independent maps, which depict the Balkan Peninsula in its entirety, with its history, place names, and a wealth of mythological and historical references. It would be home not only to the Greeks but also to all Balkan peoples in a supranational, pan-Balkan republic state, the Utopia of his visions.

But Rigas’ Carta had its westernmost beginning in the Adriatic and its easternmost end in Bithynia; it did not include the South Sea or Cyprus.

I am certain that Niki must have noticed it when she came across a copy of the Carta, now on display at the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation (donated by the Collection of Ms Sylvia Ioannou).

As “hailing from Nicosia of Asia,” Ioannis Karatzas used to identify himself. A Cypriot who happened in Pest as a verger, Karatzas became one of Rigas’ disciples and partakers in his great pan-Balkan vision…

They said he was a verger in Pest
Hailing from Nicosia of Asia
Nobody knew of his life
How he happened from Nicosia to Pest
How he met Rigas
How he became entangled
In the uprising of the Greek Genus
From Nicosia of Asia

“What about the rest of the Greek world, beyond the Carta of Rigas Feraios? What about the world eastwards, the world southwards?” Niki Marangou seems to inquire in this collection and it is precisely this I think she had in mind, to further expand the Carta, toward the north, toward the Mediterranean, and toward her own Utopia.

That is perhaps why across these poems she breathes life into individuals who had dwelled in the Greek South and Cyprus, people of every nation and language, living, sensual, forlorn faces of men and women, adolescents and girls, tormented faces like Hambis, Ahmed, Froso, Anne de Lusignan who walked about with her parrot, Savou who had two dresses “one made of wool, the other made of yarn” (p. 193) – faces she perhaps wanted to draw in Fayum, or faces reminiscent of those drawn by Cavafy to be dreamt by people across the world on the nights of orphan yearning.

Her “Oneiraitissa”

In her journeys to the East of Sinbad and Cavafy, Niki Marangou was looking for the land where poets could dream and ask the god for oracles – “Oneiraitisies” they were called in Hellenistic Egypt, and she availed of the word for the title of the first poem in “Αρχή Ινδίκτου” [“Beginning of Indiction,” 1987]. It had been years since then but Niki was still pursuing her Dream Revelation, for she knew that art is long and hard, it requires sacrifice and devotion, risks and wages; peril even. Yes, peril!

“Perilous things” is the title of a poem by Cavafy. For “Some perilous pieces” wrote Miltos Sachtouris in another poem. Niki Marangou appropriated danger in a different manner, with her own “perilous pieces,” and like so she wrote of the simplest and the hardest things. And she wrote of that thing called Eros (Peaceful Eros), Leaven, Return, The Dreadful moment. She even wrote about that thing called “Buffer zone” – such are the words taken from her poems.

Looking at the road map
of Nicosia and suburbs
Fuad Paşa street terminates at Dion and Iasius
Defne Yüksel at Lambros Porfyras
Yenice Şafak at Leontios Machairas
close to the Rocca Bastion
In the old maps the river ran through the city
but Saborniano changed the bank
to fill the moat with water.
There, on Sundays, housemaids
from Sri Lanka spread out their kerchiefs
and dine together.
The palm trees remind them of their land.

In this poem, the first in her last book of poems, the streets of a city, just like the roots of its people, are subjected to the violence of history.

I know not of many poems which may render in so poetic a fashion the contemporary configurations of history in this particular space and time –and here I speak of a strange poeticalness, tragic and human, where the scream becomes an insinuation, street names become signposts pointing towards the open question of History, the great Why.

In the poem “Road map,” these faces, either real or imaginary, which lend their names to the streets, well-known politicians or poets among them, appear merely as witnesses to reversals of fortune which render people homeless, childless, refugees, foreigners in their own city.

But in this Utopia of Niki Marangou, the sob becomes a smile, for life there, alongside the palm trees, goes on.

Her characters and lands

The poems in Niki Marangou’s last book of poetry are replete with names of people and lands. Many of them are linked to the history of Cyprus: Catarina Cornaro, Anne de Lusignan, Kyprianos the Archbishop of Cyprus, Said pasha who in 1867 extirpated the locusts in Cyprus. Other names are drawn from the wider region: Rigas, Brânkoveanu, St Raphael.

Above everything else, the poems of Niki Marangou are poems for the human being. Here, man cohabits with his fellow men, and at the same time he is inhabited by the rest of humanity. This is accomplished by means of familiar and unfamiliar names, of Greek, Turkish, English or other decent, which transport us to Cyprus, a crossroads of civilizations.

This is precisely what her last collection intends to animate, the strange encounters at crossroads and across borders. Could this be Cavafy’s myth-weaving, intended to transfer the past to the present in the form of a contemporary human condition? Perhaps.

At any rate, what I am certain of is that the characters in the poems of Niki Marangou operate in the fashion of tesserae in a large fresco of history and that she uses them with the diligence and skill of a craftsman at an art workshop. She is aware of their special weight, she knows the sensuality they rouse, the nostalgia, the pain of absence, as well as the materiality they confer to their verbal setting which could might as well be a painting.

Characters in the poems of this collection are not the décor; they are a building element, what precisely carries/supports the secret and mystical dimension of speech, aka the magic of poetry, the magical invocation, the poetess’ commitment to the human being, the longing for the human being.

I’ve said it before: the poems of Niki Marangou are first and foremost poems on man.  Man as the cohabitant of fellow men, and inhabited by others.

the sun will rise in good time
because this world
is run by unbending rules
and settled outlines
I lack the skill to comprehend.
Therefore I keep the illusion
of freedom
and rejoice
in the view of brightly lit ships
from the shore of Limassol
as I read the story of Anne de Lusignan
who strolled with her parrot
and on her wedding day a gigantic eagle walked among the crowd
mechanically flapping his wings.

Niki Marangou gestated the poems of her last collection for years, giving some of them to friends, nicely printed and bound with a red ribbon (in the Cavafian manner). In their entirety they appear in this very collection, exceptionally, uniquely edited by Julia Tsiakiris.

It is a book which has afforded me, as well as many of her readers, profound emotion. In it, her poetic voice unfurls in the shape of a world; a voice largely personal, recognizable, without redundant embellishments. There is nothing vague, nothing blurred, nothing loose.  The expressive means are disciplined, the emotion tamed, flowing into a single direction within the poem, acquiring a uniform body and colour as it comes out naked, unrestrained but above all specific.

I saw them in the corner
worn and dried out
with drops of white paint
of the painting of his room
stepped-on heels
laces untied
and all of a sudden I felt like crying
in the manner of ancient mourning women
with sobbing unrelenting
and tears undried.

In this poem too, just as it is in the rest of them, narrativity, internal cohesion and austere economy reinforce the feeling that the poem is written in our measure, it has been written for us and that the poetess stands at an angle to the reader, she speaks to him, communicates with him. And she becomes even more specific and tangible, poetic and familiar when she shows him the clear contours of portraits depicting the human condition, just as those found in Fayum where she made her last journey.

Alypios the saddle-maker
and his neighbor, a coffin-carver,
Petros the locust-egg collector
and Yiorgos Minas the pasteli seller
all gathered at the Lower Square,
the Piazza di Basso,
to protest against lack of bread
for the King was shipping
all the wheat to Venice
and Nicosia was left breadless.

The poem is “listened to” – it is as if it sings to us, bringing to life a world in the manner of the renowned “World of Cyprus” by Diamantis.

The magic of Niki Marangou

I am trying to find an interpretative key, something to help us tread the paths of her magic, board her ships, enter the caravans that took her to Mesaoria, the bicycle that brought her to Victoria street.

And I can’t shed the feeling that she counts time with the watch of times past, treads the paths of history, attunes her pacing to pass from what is now to what was then, to reminisce moments of the past in the present, as persons eponymous and anonymous, kings and agas, princesses and laymen, of old and present, cohabit her poems, their stories running side by side, tracing a magic motion which annuls multiplicity, the scatter of the Self and the Others, and secretly unites them in the light – the unrelenting light of the sea in a map of her own.

We named it “Hotel Theresa”
from Aghios Therissos,
said Sonay,
the female doctor,
after mass
we passed the Kleides,
looking for the mosque of Sarpidon
the remnants of the De Nores.
– Don’t go swimming down there, they told us,
the currents will drag you to Turkey.
Philon was sent from Rome
to bring Epiphaneios and heal
the ailing Poulcheria.
From the lion-shaped rock
as the sun set between the palm trees, there emerged
the figure of the Saint.

These are emblematic verses, verses which are embedded in memory because they have the dramaticity and the grace of pacing from a street into a room, from one island onto the other, from one desert to another, one century into another.

And everywhere across the pages of this book, Niki Marangou is always the same, with her contemplating and tender glance, and she changes what millions have seen, with her colours and words, in order to reoffer it to us. And this is a gift from her, one that she has bestowed upon us in the form of art, a gift she herself was endowed with in order to hold back attrition, laboriously, arduously, with kindness and wisdom. That’s why in her poems too, just as it is in her other books, she reminds us that Savou and her stories await us with open arms, together with other women and their own stories, with the fable of narration, with the greatest mystery in the world, to treat us with pomegranates, “jasmine, sweet potatoes, clams with lemon” (p. 101) or offer us “breakfast with pomegranates and honey” (p. 189).

I had two dresses,
one made of wool, the other made of yarn.
My granny span the wool
with the spindle at the hearth.
I could hear her at nights when I slept,
she would card it on the dropspindle,
all night, all night,
I listened to the thudding
and slept, I listened on
and took pleasure.
My godfather, Loizis,
was a mercer
with a cart and a horse
he dealt cloths
but shoes he never got me.
My mother would buy seeds
in a thimble.
She wrapped it in cloth
and put it close to the hearth,
the caterpillars hatched
she placed them onto the leaves
and they were all over
I would hark them.
All night long, chick, chick, chick
all night
I listened on and took pleasure.
At first she pulled the silk out herself.
Then, a silkman would come
from Ays-Andronikos.
The sea was full of fish!
My grandfather would use bucks
with jasmine
to trap parrotfish,
he’d blur the water too
with fleabane in the lake
to fish eels.
When I went to England
I saw them inside bins
but they were tasteless.
Yet when my granny lit a fire
and cooked them
the room smelled like flowers.
Outside, beyond the carob tree
there was a pit they called “the cracks”
and down there they hid wheat and barley
so not to pay a tithe.
Along the river of Melissakros
I ate briars,
I found mastic,
I found crabs.
At night I travel
I roam every location
but I can’t sleep forever!
I used to stroll down the shore
to wash the plates
and fishermen came at dawn
with music and lights to cast their nets.
Still, my lass,
wherever we step on
we don’t owe it
while over there everything was ours.
I see them all night, all night.

How does one craft poetry? With what materials? And how do poets choose their materials? Niki Marangou knew how to pick them from just about everywhere, carefully and above all lovingly. She wanted to change into poetry whatever it was she touched, saw and heard. She listened to people and their stories, she empathized and wanted to salvage their message in their own language, the way it was spoken through the centuries – to salvage their message for the reader, for in it and elsewhere she recognized the great miracle.

There are moments when I stand in awe
of this mystery,
of this wonder of the world
the wonder that is language
the wonder that is religion
the wonder that is an orchestra,
all those made by man with patience and cognition
but above all I stand in awe of the miracle
of the silkworm spinning its cocoon
to be weaved by young children in dark rooms
in Benares
then carried to the markets on camels
that unfold their leg to keep from sinking into the sand.

This is how Niki Marangou enchants the reader, for enchanted she is herself.

Translated by Despina Pirketti

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