BODY OF SUMMER
By Odysseus Elytis
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
A long time has passed since the last rain was heard
Above the ants and lizards
Now the sun burns endlessly
The fruit paints its mouth
The pores in the earth open slowly
And beside the water that drips in syllables
A huge plant gaze into the eye of the sun.
Who is he that lies on the shores beyond
Stretched on his back, smoking silver-burnt olive leaves?
Cicadas grow warm in his ears
Ants are at work on his chest
Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits
And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly
Sent by the little siren that sang:
" O body o summer, naked, burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
Body of rock and shudder of the heart
Great ruffling wind in the osier hair
Beneath of basil above the curly pubic mound
Full of stars and pine needles
Body , deep vessel of the day!
"Soft rains come, violent hail
The land passes lashed in the claws of snow-storm
Which darkens in the depths with furious waves
The hills plunge into the dense udders of the clouds
And yet behind all this you laugh carefree
And find your deathless moment again
And the sun finds you again in the sandy shores
As the sky finds you again in your naked health."
Odysseus Elytis is considered as one of the most important Greek poets of last century. He is also the winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born the scion of a prosperous family from Lesbos, he abandoned the family name as a young man in order to dissociate his writing from the family soap business. Elytis studied law at Athens University. Intrigued by French Surrealism, and particularly by the poet Paul Éluard, he began publishing verse in the 1930s, notably in Nea grammata. This magazine was a prime vehicle for the “Generation of the ’30s,” an influential school that included George Seferis, who in 1963 became the first Greek Nobel laureate for literature. Elytis’ earliest poems exhibited a strong individuality of tone and setting within the Surrealist mode.
When Nazi Germany occupied Greece in 1941, Elytis fought against the Italians in Albania. He became something of a bard among young Greeks; one of his great poems, “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign”, became an anthem to the cause of freedom. During and after the Greek Civil War, he lapsed into literary silence for almost 15 years, returning to print in 1959 with To Axion Esti (“Worthy It Is”; Eng. trans. The Axion Esti), a long poem in which the speaker explores the essence of his being as well as the identity of his country and people. This poem, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became immensely popular and helped Elytis earn the Nobel Prize.
As mentioned, Elytis was perhaps the first modern great poet who embraced surrealism as a poetic inspiration. He felt that surrealism heralded a return to magical sources which rationalism had calcified; it represented a plunge into the wellsprings of fantasy and dream, a free-flowing clustering of images creating its own shapes. The broad perspective of an open mind and a vital, concrete bond with the archetypal gestures of life, magical surrealism and unbroken Hellenic substance merge in poetry to form painfully illuminating images of Mediterranean existence.
Through surreal , Elytis infused spirit into the material world. Through personification he molded the abstract into concrete forms as we see in this poem, "Body of Summer". The animate inanimate is found in fruit which paint their mouths in summer heat and transform into earth's swelling pores. Summer itself is a boy stretched out on the shore while " Cicadas grow warm in his ears/Ants are at work on his chest/Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits/And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly". Infused with light and idyllic joy, these are images of hope, joy, and sensuality, bathed in the light that has become the trademark of a poetry free of the sentimentality .
The Greek landscape is perceived by the poet as archaically harsh and glaring—considering Elytis's birthplace, one is tempted to say "Cretan"—and man does not appear here as lord of creation, as the measure of all things. Human form is, to be sure, assumed by the forces of the landscape and of time: the summer, the earth, youth, memory. But man, for his part, is scarcely anything other than a lens, in which the burning force of the landscape and of time is refracted—a reflection, and perhaps a deceptive one.
From: Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems 1940-1979 [Paperback]: Odysseus Elytis (Author), Edmund Keeley (Translator), Philip Sherrard (Translator), George Savidis (Translator), John Stathatos (Translator), Nanos Valaoritis (Translator)