THE MAD POMEGRANATE TREE
by Odysseus Elytis
Translated by: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows
Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter
With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad
That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn
Raising high its colours in a shiver of triumph?
On plains where the naked girls awake,
When they harvest clover with their light brown arms
Roaming round the borders of their dreams-tell me, is it the mad
Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets
That floods their names with the singing of birds-tell me
Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the
On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers,
Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms
Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes,
Never sad and never grumbling–tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That cries out the new hope now dawning?
Tell me, is that the pomegranate tree waving in the distance,
Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame,
A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more,
With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go
To unscented shores-tell me, is it the pomegranate tree
That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?
High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates
Arrogant, full of danger–tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That shatters with light the demon’s tempest in the middle of the world
That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day
Richly embroider with scattered songs-tell me, is it the mad
That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?
In petticoats of April first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August
Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice
Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness
Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds
Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things
On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?
At the beginning of his luminous career, the great Greek poet and Nobel Laureate Odysseus Elytis said: “I write so that black does not have the last word.”Black and light, sunshine and darkness, these were the two poles of Elytis’ poetry, a pendulum between passion and patience, a bewilderment stretching throughout the day. At the beginning, he was acclaimed as the poet of the sparkling Aegean .The best of his Poetry - such as The Mad Pomegranate Tree, Commemoration, Aegean Melancholy, Body of Summer, and Drinking the Sun of Corinth, distils vividly and evocatively the typical features of the Aegean scene: its closeness to the natural world, its startling colors, and its hints of the simple and the unsophisticated.
The sea and ad the Sun are so consistently celebrated as to suggest a kind of pagan mysticism, a pantheism, a worship of the god of water and light. The poet himself has said his vision is “essentially that of the marine world of the Aegean , with certain mystical extension that has its center in the midday and light”
There is a radiating quality in many of his great poems. He is a poet of sunshine, vitality, colour, and exuberance. It was endemic in his personality, his geographical setting and spiritual awareness. I have never experienced so much light, light, light, sun, sun, sun, fire, fire, fire as in the poems of Elytis. But his greatness lies in the fact that when engaging in simplicities of such elemental features, he interpolates also his unique ingredients of the inspirational and the spiritual; so that, in the end, all of it becomes universal in its significance, and enduring in its meaning. The sun can burn and kill as well as illuminate our earth. And the dark silence can be even greater than the light. But though aware of them, Elytis was never attracted by the darker aspects of the world. That is obvious by looking at the images he returns to again and again in his poems: the Aegean sea, young men and women, or boys and girls, often naked, poppies, pebbles, vineyards, butterflies, branches, olive trees, almond trees, pomegranate tree etc.
The above one is a lovely poem, full of song and laughter and sunlight, a celebration of the lyric spirit itself. The central image here-the pomegranate tree as a playful sprite who occasions all that is hopeful and gay , that is, as the embodiment of the mood-typifies what the poet himself has called the “personal mythology” of his verse: “Repeated metamorphoses- a girl that becomes fruit, a morning disposition that becomes a tree, an idea that becomes incarnate in a human form-create personal mythology which, without divorcing itself from feeling, finds it correlation in the world of the poet’s metaphysical experience”. The mystery of change, the transformation of the inanimate into the human and the human into something stranger is not something in poetry but in the surrealistic mode of Elytis, it acquires a rare sensibility which is in tune with the beautiful landscape of Greece.
In “The Mad Pomegranate Tree”, the poet answers to the difficult questions hanging from its branches (”Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things / On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?”).One has the feeling that it is the mad pomegranate tree that drives the world. The unabashed pomegranate tree dances and dances in the ear. It sings and stuns the mind with extravagant repetitions.( ‘Tell me, is the mad pomegranate tree’). The sound of joy repeating and rushing seems to careen wildily ahead of our thought with tickling uncontrolled energy.
Also, there is something of the frenzy of a Van Gogh painting in this - an urgency to capture the beauty of the various images, as if it would slip away if not grasped at immediately. The poem is intoxicating and invigorating at the same time, lulls you into a trance with its rhythm and repetitions but awakens you to a different world.
I simply love the lyrical surrealism that lingers in this poem. Whenever I read this poem, I gain a rare ‘ Elan vital ‘ (the current of life, the way Bergson used it). I feel that I have the heart of Bacchus to revel and rejoice; I am charged with 440 V to recklessly rush forward, to dance, to fly, to laugh around and do all the naughty things I had dreamed of. Poetry is Viagra!
The mad pomegranate tree will continue to toss in the wind and “scatter its fruit-laden laughter” lifting up my spirits with buoyancy and bliss in my ritual for renewal.
This poem is pure Mozartian rhapsody.
Source of the poem: Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems
Odysseus Elytis (Author), Edmund Keeley (Editor, Translator), Philip Sherrard (Editor, Translator), George Savidis (Translator), John Stathatos (Translator), Nanos Valaoritis (Translator): Viking Press
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