Jenny Mastoraki: “Bumping against marble busts”: poems translated by Eleni Fourtouni

Ice flower 15_January 19th 2016_Toronto
Jenny Mastoraki (Τζένη Μαστοράκη) (born 1949)
How I Managed To Square The Circle Of Dreams In The Shape Of A Window At The Top Of The Stairs In A Tenement House
a. The Poet
The poet’s work
has simply got to be difficult.
Personally, I know nothing about it.
My whole life long’s been spent
writing long, desperate letters
about drought-stricken neighbourhoods
which I’ve sealed
inside bottles
and chucked down the sewers.
. . .
b. Birth
I sprouted in a hothouse
made of concrete.
The voice of a cow feeds around
inside my intestines.
I’ve limited myself in such a
vegetable state.
I haven’t spoken.
I haven’t provoked anyone.
I’ve always simply thrived
in places
where dictionaries consistently
denied my existence.
. . .
c. Marble Busts
I don’t know what I would’ve done
if things hadn’t turned out
this way.
I might’ve written
history books
for the third grade.
And then again I might’ve surpervised pebbles in public parks.
In either case
the hands are useless.
I’m always bumping
against marble busts.
. . .
d. Theorem
Now then, I’ve shown you
how I managed to square
the circles of dreams
in the shape of a window
at the top of the stairs
in a tenement house.
The modest ceremony’s over.
You’re asked
to disperse
. . .
How did it happen?
How did we get to this place, anyway?
What did we put into it and what are we getting out of it?
We’re lugging on our backs
a name that doesn’t belong to us –
endless roads
that were never our own.
They examine us like a new shoe
that someone else is wearing
while we were dreaming
of huge leaps over the seas
– in drought, you drink – as if to say
look, but don’t you touch!
How did they come to squander us this way?
We paid out every last dime to them
in withholdings!
We who never owned much in the first place
gave up all our rights in advance…

. . .
The day’s gone
The day’s gone
and you’re left with a telephone coin,
not knowing who to call
to say
that outdoors the sunset’s scattering
to the weathervanes.
You’re left with a scrap of paper
clutched in the hand
on it a mangled message.
So you stand there with the coin in your palm
You stare at it: on one side
a profile of Justice
on the other, the herald’s wand of Hermes –
symbols whose meanings
you can’t even begin to see.
. . .
Translations from Greek into English: Eleni Fourtouni (from her book Contemporary Greek Women Poets, published in 1978 by Thelphini Press)
. . .
The poems above were selected in the late 1970s by the translator from Jenny Mastoraki’s first collection, Right of Passage, published by Kedros in Athens. (A bookstore by the same name was also run by Nana, the woman who owned the publishing business.) It was Nana who steered Fourtouni in the direction of Greek women poets at a time when Greek poetry was still often regarded as mainly the literary – and socio-political – endeavour of men. Jenny Mastoraki had been at the University of Athens when she became active in the student resistance/uprising at the Polytechnic Institute in 1973 against the Greek Seven Years’ Dictatorship (1967-1974), also known as the Régime of the Colonels – very much connected to the Cold War politics between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. that developed after the end of the Second World War.

A poet and translator, Jenny Mastoraki has published several volumes of poetry and has translated into Greek novels and essays by authors from English, German, Italian and Spanish. In 1989 Columbia University awarded her the Thornton Wilder Prize for her translation opus. She has not published her poetry “conventionally” (in paper-book form) since her 1989 collection With A Crown of Light. But the latest generation of poets circulates her work via blogs and websites. Mastoraki’s poetry and place has been described thus: “[It] treats history with irony and…describes family situations with acid humour…She is the offspring of a difficult era, political upheavals and crushing social problems.” (Quotation from editors Nanos Valaoritis and Thanasis Maskaleris, 2003)

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