THE HOMELAND IN CYPRIOT POETRY

by Yiorgos Moleskis

As published in Volume 10, NO 4, December 2013

Cypriot poets, both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, discovered their country as a unique geographical and historical place and gave it a new role and shape in their poetry, mainly after the events of 1974. Before that, for both communities, Cyprus was like a boat in the sea and each wanted it to sail towards the one or the other motherland. The tragic experiences of both communities and the feeling of loss, which becomes stronger as time passes, as well as the danger of losing the country as a whole, were turning points in the poets’ approach to the homeland. But poets from the different communities came to these turning points via different roads. From different roads they also came to understand the multicultural character of Cypriot society.

It is true that this multiculturalism, especially in Cyprus’s written culture, remains unknown until today. This is due to the difference in languages, but also to social and political causes. There were no translations or specialized publications aiming to promote dialogue and understanding between the people of the different communities. This situation is changing gradually nowadays with the appearance of some periodicals and other publications, mainly by the University of Nicosia and the European University, but also, because more and more people understand the importance of this type of communication. This effort, of course, has its limits, as it addresses a limited number of people who read in the English language and who have a special interest in literature. Personally, I find these publications very interesting and helpful. The poor trans-communal communication within the written culture of Cyprus didn’t  allow the inhabitants of the island to understand the unifying role of the historical and cultural inheritance in society, of the monuments left behind by different civilizations that passed from the island, as well as what they left in the language and the everyday lives of the people.

On the other hand, in matters of everyday life, if we go back to the years before the separation, people from different communities knew each other; they knew what they had in common and what was different in the way they were living, preparing their food, working, celebrating their holidays, receiving their guests. They knew and they accepted each other. Living together for centuries, they had, of course, many things in common. This influenced the folk art and culture on different levels, poetry, music, dance and craftsmanship. This didn’t affect though the written culture and eventually education, which were oriented towards the mother languages and the mother countries’ traditions and were inspired by political and ideological ideas. However, there was always a kind of “locality”, to the extent that literary works were inspired by local historical and social events and life on the island.

This approach is, in a way, natural for Cypriot poets, who live in a small place but experience historical events that had a dramatic effect on people’s lives. Contemporary Cypriot poets, the ones whose poetic contribution has developed from the 1950s onwards, have lived striking events. Such events are the struggle for independence of the Greek Cypriots in 1955-1959, under the banner of Union with Greece and the demand for partition demonstrated by the Turkish Cypriots, the Cyprus independence of 1960, which brought to an end the previous enthusiasm and banners. Then came the bi-communal conflict of 1963-1964 and ten years later, in 1974, the coup and the Turkish invasion of the island, with masses of dead and missing persons, ruins and destruction for both sides.

The Greek Cypriot poetry written before 1974 was oriented toward history. Historical names and historical events were interpreted poetically in a way that could serve the national and ideological goals of the poets. Of course, the interpretation of historical events, or the role of historical figures, although not identical in the works of different historians, they are still historical facts. But in poetry they become symbols. And the symbols may have multiple meanings and roles, in accordance with the place and the time the poet lives, his or her social and historical environment, personal experiences and philosophical and ideological beliefs and ideas or aesthetic orientations and the model of the world he or she tries to build up in poetry. To some extent this historical approach applies to Turkish Cypriot poetry as well, with references to heroes and martyrs. For Greek Cypriot poetry though, this is one of its main characteristics. Following the examples of Constantinos Kavafis and Giorgos Seferis, poets refer to historical times and heroes in a modern context. The ancient figures of Evagoras and Onesillos, as well as heroes from modern times, like Gregoris Afxentiou, Kyriakos Matsis and others, become symbols with a strong ideological context.

Pantelis Michanicos, for example, in his book “Deposition” (“Κατάθεση”), which was published in 1975, refers to the historic figure of Onesillos, expressing feelings of disappointment and criticizing his compatriots for their passiveness and inaction:

Ten years Onesillos has been sending his bees to us,
to sting us
to wake us up
to bring us a message.
Ten thousand bees Onesillos has sent
and all of them died on our thick skin
without giving us any feeling.
And when the marching of the barbarians
was heard in Salamis
Onesillos shuddered.

The allegory of the poem is obvious. Ancient Salamis with the neighboring city of Ammochostos were occupied by the Turks in 1974. In the poem “The two mountains”, published in 1963, the heroes are Macheras and Hilarion, names of two mountains of Cyprus and names of historical persons as well, the chronicler Leontios Macheras and Saint Hilarion.  The poet conducts a dialogue with them about contemporary social and national problems.

Theoklis Kouyialis refers often to history and mythology in his poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, using an allegorical language. In his book “Mythology” (“Μυθολόγιον”), published in 1981, there are many such references to history, especially in the triptych poem “Chronicle” “Χρονογραφία”.  The poet uses history and mythology freely, without following chronological order. He refers to the medieval history of Cyprus and to Leontios Macheras, uses historical persons and historical events from that time, as well as the words of the chronicler himself, in order to speak about the tragic events of 1974. In the part “Who is afraid of Circe?” we read:

Look at things from the end and from their end to their beginning
because water goes and sand stays
which means that all those foreigners who came by force will go and the locals
will stay and rule upon their land
after such a big massacre.

Also, Kyriakos Charalambides, following the examples of Giorgos Seferis, and mainly Constantinos Kavafis, often refers to history, especially to the Byzantine Period from where he takes themes for his poems. Again, historical names are placed next to modern ones. The purpose of the poet is two-fold: He tries to give his own interpretation to historical events, to show them from another side and, at the same time, to give expression and meaning to contemporary events and place them in a historical perspective. The present is elevated to history and to myth. This is obvious, especially for the poetry written after 1974, where names of dead and missing persons, names of abandoned cities and villages, burnt and ruined places, become the main themes of poetry. With these names emerges in poetry a tragic feeling, which grows as time passes without change in the political situation. These names become symbols and a new mythology is created around them. In Kyriacos Charalambides’s collection “Ammochostos Reigning” (“Αμμόχωστος Βασιλεύουσα”), the poet draws a parallel between the occupied city of Ammochostos in Cyprus and the “Queen of the cities”, according to history and tradition, Constantinople, which was also invaded many centuries ago by the Turks. The parallel with the lost queen of cities starts as an adjective to the name of the occupied city of Ammochostos, borrowed from the historical Constantinople, and develops on different levels in the book. The modern city personified in the book is placed in parallel to Constantinople, the city personified in poetic tradition.  In this way a new mythology is created. Through historical and mythological references and parallels drawn with the life and the historical fate of the Byzantine capital, Ammochostos is elevated onto a diachronic podium, where the great lost cities stand against time:

I hear that your head was transferred
like a holy skull to Constantinople.
Byzantine emperors with bravery
placed you in the purple and gold
the star of Saint Sophia
is standing and protecting you.
And you, a woman in late hour
opens your closed eyelids.

As time passes the consequences of the 1974 war – the long lasting partition of the island, the loss of places that are associated with the poet’s memories and feelings, and the danger of losing the entire country – become more and more obvious. Poetry turns, in a way, to geography. Cities, villages, mountains, sea sites emerge in poetry as symbols of the loss. Poets recall names of different places like the names of the dead in liturgy. Let me give some examples:

You stretch the fingers
of your  weakest hand
and reach Anchora
and the faraway Afentrika…..
You stand up slightly
and see the other Pentadaktylos,
Famoudi, Davlos, Sacred Akanthou.
Small countries of the bee
which nobody harvests.
(Polyvios Nicolaou: Prescriptions for young poets of Ammochostos, 1976).

Or:

I say whole villages are lost
Lyssi, Vatili, Kontea
probably the whole island is lost.
(Eleni Theocharous: Cause Death my Angel)

Poets apply permanent and unchanged values to the occupied places and to the names of the dead, trying to give them mythological dimensions and perpetuity. The wound that was opened in place and time creates a vacuum that is filled with the sounds of the names that are repeated in an effort to receive a new meaning, since the one they had is lost.

While this is taking place in Greek Cypriot poetry, the references of Turkish Cypriot poets to the homeland after the tragic events of 1974 and their consequences on the lives of the people, take a different meaning. From the heroic and nationalistic poems of the previous period that spoke about martyrs and enemies, poetry turns to the loss and the partition of the island. Using mythological, historical and geographical names, they strive to stress the unity of the island in time and the role of the different civilizations in the formation of a local identity. References to mythological names, like Aphrodite and Adonis (Temuz), to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, as well as to the various civilizations that left their traces on the island, from the ancient Greeks to the Lusignans, the Franks, the Venetians, the Ottomans, all have in contemporary Turkish Cypriot poetry an obvious ideological meaning: to demonstrate that Turkish Cypriots belong to this island and that they are products of its collective historical civilization. All these go together with references to historical and cultural places, as well as the blue sea, the olive trees, the palm trees, the land and the mountains.

In his poem “Thalassa”, Zeki Ali writes:

I am here,
Blue as thalassa
In her ebb.
…………………….
Here on the dark sand
Footprints of time
Are not to be seen. Better to be gathered.
Beneath my feet, landscape
Drawing itself on memory
In thousands of moons’ eclipse.
…………………….
Now the seashells are empty,
They locked Aphrodite in a museum,
Under empty gaze,
Without you and me…

In the same spirit, but in apocalyptic and subversive poetical images, writes the poet Jenan Seljuk:

I am a tree, a date-palm
In some Mesaoria cemetery.
Many civilizations buried in my shade,
Their bones are my roots…
We were brought from Egypt by boats
Forty-curly-slaves rowed the oars.
A Hellene with an ear-ring was my godfather,
My circumciser, a fold up Ottoman barber
Pederast.
Springs to Aphrodite
Winters to Zenon, I’ve been given an apprentice.
May be you didn’t realize.
I was modeled after the Lusignan architects.
A heritage from Venetian merchants is
This delightful talk of mine, chasing a pleasure
Roman Byzantium… An invention of the British….

Along the same ideological lines, sometimes with an ironical and sarcastic spirit, moves the poetry of Gurgenc Korkmazel. In his poem “Arthur Rimbaud’s Last Day on the Island,” he writes:

Bursting from the bitter mountain of which wine he drank plenty,
he stood by the cedar tree,
wide as the sky now, and unbuttoned his fly.
Height was conquered and distance!
He gazed from the well-earned place,
over indifferent valleys, forests that never see the sea,
and plains sworn to boredom.
There is nothing new to write!
Accompanied by the idle melody of an antique musical instrument,
down the “snowy mountain chaos” he pissed,
over the to-be-founded republic of an unborn generation.

This identification with the history and the civilization of the island, as well as its geographical landscape, shows the need of the poets to define themselves, first of all, as Cypriots. It is expressed, of course, in different ways. In the parabolic and ‘biblical’ poetry of Fikret Demirag it is a devotion to the country and its people, both Greeks and Turks. We can sense the same approach in the philosophical, more abstract and surrealistic poetry of Mehmet Kansu. In the passionate and powerful images in the poetry of Mehmet Yasin is a lament for the victims of war, the lost places and people, as well as anger against those who brought death and destruction. Nese Yasin speaks in a passionate way about buffer zones and barricades that stand between the people and her strong wish to overcome them. Alev Adil is striving to bring together the parts of her split personality.

In the poetry of Turkish Cypriots (as well as of Greek Cypriots) written after 1974 there are many images of death and destruction. Young boys lie dead in the fields, under the hot summer sun, dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, which do not fit them. Lonely, caring women stand by the doors of their houses or in refugee tents waiting for their sons or their husbands to return, or go to cemeteries, to the tombs of their children. From these tragic events comes an appeal for peace:

The most beautiful song for peace
Sing those who were killed in the war,

writes Mehmet Yasin.

And Mehmet Kansu:

Our boys and girls
fathers and mothers want peace
in the streets of this small country…

And Fikret Demirag:

They have tied us to pain
but we are united with you peace.

Turkish Cypriots speak about peace in the same way as Greek Cypriots speak about a solution. Love for the homeland is a source of inspiration for both. I am certain that further study of contemporary Cypriot poetry will reveal many more interesting things.

Paper presented at the 1st Diversity Arts Festival of the University of Nicosia on Thursday, October 10, 2013.

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