Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

George Seferis: Fires of St. John


Smoke from the High Park Fire fills the sky near Laporte, Colorado: photo by Marc Piscotty/Reuters, 10 June 2012

Our fate: spilled lead; our fate can’t change --
nothing’s to be done.
They spilled the lead in water under the stars, and may the fires burn.

If you stand naked before a mirror at midnight you see,
you see a man moving through the mirror’s depths
the man destined to rule your body
in loneliness and silence, the man
of loneliness and silence
and may the fires burn.

At the hour when one day ends and the next has not begun
at the hour when time is suspended
you must find the man who then and now, from the very beginning, ruled your body
you must look for him so that someone else at least
will find him, after you are dead.

It is the children who light the fires and cry out before the flames in the hot night
(Was there ever a fire that some child did not light, O Herostratus)
and throw salt on the flames to make them crackle
(How strangely the houses -- crucibles for men -- suddenly
stare at us when the flame’s reflection caresses them).

But you who knew the stone’s grace on the sea-whipped rock
the evening when stillness fell
heard from far off the human voice of loneliness and silence
inside your body
that night of St John
when all the fires went out
and you studied the ashes under the stars.

George Seferis (1900-1971): Fires of St. John, from Book of Exercises, 1940, in George Seferis: Collected Poems (Revised edition), translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1991

 "On the eve of the feast day of St John (24 June), it was customary in Seferis’ childhood village of Skala near the town of Vourla in Asia Minor -- as in other Greek villages generally -- for the children to light small fires in the streets after sunset and jump over them for good luck. Among the various divinatory rituals practiced by unmarried girls on this feast day are the two mentioned in the poem: 1) The girl drops molten lead into a container filled with “silent” water (i.e. water brought secretly from a spring by a young girl or boy who is forbidden to speak to anyone on the way), and the shape the lead takes on cooling indicates the trade or profession the girl’s future husband will follow; 2) The girl undresses at midnight and stands naked before a mirror, invoking St John and asking him to reveal the man she will marry; the first name she hears on waking the next morning is that of her future husband.

"Herostratus, in 346 BC, burned down the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in order to make his name immortal."

-- Keeley and Sherrard, notes

A large area of forest lies burned in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. The Whitewater-Baldy fire, a blaze that has charred more than 453 square miles of the forest and its famed Gila Wilderness, is the largest in the state's history: photo by KC Shedden/U.S. Forest Service/Associated Press, 15 June 2012


Susan Kay Anderson said...

Studying ashes--what can transform? What becomes something else? Under the stars, their light, I see a strange alphabet of the moon in my hands. The word bear. A river. It is the Rogue with its twisting trail. Day three goes through an old burn. Now, there are new trees, high brush. The wind is wild there and far away. An osprey screams. Silence at the gravel bar, wide, open, the rocks hot.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Too many words have burned
up like toothpicks
used on the earth's teeth
well, now
what to do? Where is
the water
convenient? The poet
scratching him her
self. Away from the table.

TC said...

The river is not convenient for fishing whether by bear or by osprey when it is on fire.

And the banks soon to be littered with more charred toothpicks.

Anonymous said...

La hora del zorro

La noche y su cortejo.
araña el cristal: no abras
es el viento.
Refugiáte en ti mismo
y huye de evocaciones que te empujan
a un tiempo que no existe.
Porque luego
llega la hora del zorro
la hora de salir
y meterte otra vez en esta vida.

José A. Goytisolo

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Summer of 2007 and yet another inept Greek government (New Democracy’s this time) fiddled with their thumbs as flames took out a large part of the Peloponnese, killing more than 80 people. As a reward for their incompetence, Greek voters re-elected them in 2009. This poem was written about a year later.

Wooden Boy said...

"Our fate can't change - nothing can be done" The lead takes its shape and we're done for.

The poem read alongside these pictures of present dread (beautiful as they are) is disturbing; Young people at the cusp, looking to a future with its inevitable shape set against that intaglio forest in New Mexico.

We all know what the ashes are telling us, whatever spiel we might give ourselves to

Susan Kay Anderson said...

It is bear-like
to hog Tom Clark's blog
but what to do on this hot
sunny day--
summer wind
whipping the dahlias
lavender from
last summer
then mountains
hazy with smoke
not from a volcano
much difference
a world in the air
beside the Umpqua
otter tracks, river
shellfish--tiny lobsters
Mom's watercolors
of trees
mine of rocks



"when all the fires went out
and you studied the ashes under the stars."

as in that picture of those charred trees in New Mexico (or are they match sticks? and it's still only July -- what other fires to come this summer?)


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
plane of ridge, crow calling from field
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

in each of his spoken words,
say that water change

is being, would be possible
to find, as when hear

grey white of fog reflected in channel,
cormorant flapping across toward point

TC said...


BBC World News in the night interviewed Germans who would like to detach from "the Southern Europeans" asap. Merely a technicality really, when the whole planet will soon enough be toast. Soggy or dry, depending.


Maybe Susan's right about studying ashes. Can we pick out of the ruins the runes that will transform? Or is it already too late for that? The lead will cool in the rivers. The spiel will go on all the same. Last night's World News ran a clip of Romney speaking to the NAACP about dismantling Affordable Health Care (of course he called it by the term with disrespect built-in: "Obamacare"). The crowd replied with waves of hooting and booing. The analysts opined that had been the expected response, the speech itself a cynical charade for show, intended to solidify Romney's position with the Right. Right.


This is a bear- and river- and berry- friendly blog, thanks in no small part to you. This blog loves hogs as well, though it's all vegetarian all the time. Your correspondence with nature has been a benison all through these several months when the principal project here has been surviving with a gaping hole in one's head. Life requires life to go on and treasures every otter track and gentle breeze carrying the scent of dahlias from the banks of the Umpqua. (Hope you got the postcard sent to your mom's.)


So then, cormorant and crow calling through the fog, again -- back into the grey whiteness as dawn comes on ... and no fires yet.


Thank you for guiding us to
the hour of the fox.

It is that hour now.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Postcard, yes. Thanks beyond words and shockingly bittersweet that you write with those thin black pens as Ed/Jenny did/do. It must be the beatnik ways that go on and on and on. I remember Ed saying your name in class in a slow, yet distinct way (the r and then k-sound at the end of your name) and showing us something about baseball. It was obvious that you were a special sacred someone. Sometimes it takes a long time to go see where the ball went, to fetch it and bring it back. It was suck under the fence.

The bear's lower lip intrigues--silly and so expressive. Dumb and dangerous. A god melting away any fanatic worship that one would be tempted into.



Yes, the crows and the cormorants are at it again, no fires yet in such thick fog.

TC said...

Well yes, the dumb look. But we have a cat with a very bear-like face (when you view from point blank range), esp. the nose... and he is fiendishly intelligent. So ya never know.

(He has terrible bad breath though, one imagines a bear might have that also, while another bear might regard it as fragrant as the scent of violets.)

Susan Kay Anderson said...

Above--stuck under the fence--for a long while--hidden and now glad to be found.