Conversations on Poetry

I remember having to wear a white pleated skirt with 300 pleats to honour the years under occupation by the Ottomans. I remember having to recite poems in high Greek on the stage. I remember they sounded good, but I do not remember any of the poems.

We recited the poems to feel patriotic and present ourselves as Greeks that could speak the language. But we learnt the language by speaking, not at school not by reciting poems.

Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey are amongst the greatest poems, and I am sure we recited parts of these great works, but I do not remember.

Even at school I loved poetry in English class. I used to write anonymously for the school magazine and they were always published. Under my name the teachers thought I could not write because I was not creative.

Even the Greek Liturgy is poetic. It has rhythm and rhyme. It mixes tradition and faith and culture.

Some songs are based on poems, but we never pay attention to that.

The first poem that impressed me was given to my father by Rod Conacher. It was simply framed, on letter size white paper with simple print that I copied in calligraphy and have it framed above my desk. It is a poem by an anonymous Confederate soldier. I have written about it elsewhere. Each couplet is a powerful contrast between what we want in order to live, and how we are given the opposite to enjoy living.

“I got nothing I had asked for but everything I had hoped for,

                Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered.”’

Imagine if I told my father I wanted to be a poet. Ha, worse than anything else I stressed him with.

“Poets cannot make a living. You will need to do something, get a proper degree first and then you can write poetry,” he would have said.

And I would have retreated in anger, my soul shattered and my mind angry that dreams were to be shelved for something concrete.  He was a powerful driving force in keeping anyone on the proper road away from soft arts that would not benefit them in the modern world.

Yet when I look at all the sheep in this world and see many unhappy faces I wonder if perhaps there should have been some more poets.

I remember at my father’s funeral when George Bizos spoke he began reciting Homer in Ancient Greek and half the church joined him in unison and perfect voice.

At least my father left with a poem.

Conversations on Awards

Life with my father always had expectations but was not based on achieving awards. Yet, when we received awards he was visibly proud of us. I remember him saying on those occasions:

“You have set your own standards now.”

He was implying that we had to strive to be better than ourselves.

He received many awards in his lifetime. He always attended the ceremony, and if necessary, made an incisive speech. But he never went for glory. The award was a sign, I suppose, that he had set his own standards.

I started this piece as we are going to Johannesburg tonight to attend the Italian Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner, where my father in law is to receive an award for his contributions to Italian culture and business in South Africa. He too has set his own standards.

My father has two awards framed in the dining room at the village house in Kakouri. It is a simple two storey stone house set in the valley of the village, from where the old village rises towards the mountain. The lower level above the cellar was where animals were kept and their body heat rose through the floorboards to warm the bedrooms above. The once stable now holds the awards of the Cross of Apostolon from the Patriarch Nicolaos. The older one I cannot date but was awarded to my grandmother, Marigo.

The Patriarch of Alexandria was incumbent from 1968, so my grandmother’s cross must have been awarded shortly after that. My father’s cross was awarded in 1971. The cross is real, blue ceramic with gold filigree edges. The certificate is written in High Greek and I cannot understand all of it. It is awarded in recognition for service to church and country. My father was 44 years old at the time.  Four years before that, when he was 40 years old, he proudly made a speech at the opening of the Alberton Hellenic Hall as chairman of the community he headed.

The Crosses of Apostolon and their certificates hang in the stables that are now the dining room of his father’s house in Arcadia. Not at his home in South Africa, nor his office where he received many people and could have easily boasted. These hang hidden away for a few villagers to see. And for his children and grandchildren to see.

Our achievements are different. We may have excelled. We may have stable incomes. But we have not dreamed beyond the possible to make the impossible come true.

The Crosses of Apostolon hang to show that we have set our own standards. They hang to show us we can dream big.