Manolis Xexakis’s Captain Super Priovolos:
Notes for an Exegesis
The Greek poet and prose writer Manolis Xexakis was born in Rethymno, Crete, in 1948. Besides writing The Death of the Cavalry (1977, 1980), which includes the sequence Captain Super Priovolos, Xexakis has published three volumes of poetry (Mathematical Exercises, 1980; Erotic Shipways, 1980; Mirrors of Melancholy Speech, 1987) and two other books of poetic prose (Where the Cuckoo? Where the Wind?, 1987; Sonata for a String of Worry Beads, 2000). His collected poems (Poiimata 1972-2006) were issued by the publisher Synchronoi Orizontes in 2008.
The twelve interconnected prose poems of Captain Super Priovolos are simultaneously set in at least three crucial periods of Greek history: the War of Independence (beginning in 1821), the Civil War (1945-1949), and the years of the Junta (1967-1974), during which Xexakis wrote the sequence, specifically between 1970 and 1974. The texts weave together two main themes, the hubris of political leadership and the people’s relationship to political power. Through allusions, which are sometimes cryptic, the poet juxtaposes the bloody Civil War that erupted at the end of the Second World War, the uprising against the Turks and, less directly, the Dictatorship of the Colonels. During the rampant censorship of the Junta, this approach was typical of Greek writers. In Greece, political oppression combined with fratricide constitutes a recurrent nightmare that many authors, in their works, have portrayed as precisely that. Captain Super Priovolos can indeed be read as a troubling dream sequence.
The name of the main character, “Priovolos,” exemplifies the lexical complexity of Xexakis’s writing. The name derives from the term “priovolos” (or “pyriovolos”), which has come to mean “tsakmaki,” a primitive cigarette lighter consisting of a piece of flint that is struck by steel. According to the poet and folklorist Elias Petropoulos (1928-2003), who was one of the first writers to point to the importance of Xexakis’s poetry (and who encouraged me to translate this sequence in 1984), the word specifically means the small tempered piece of steel with which the flint was struck. In his book To Bordello (The Brothel, 1980), Petropoulos adds that the expression “ton evapse ton pyriovolo,” literally “he tempered his pyriovolos / priovolos,” is an equivalent of the American expression “he shot his silver bullet”; in other words, having intercourse for the first time in one’s life.
Yet more pertinent than these etymological echoes to the significance of the main character is the Communist guerilla leader “Captain Priovolos,” who fought in the Civil War. Another leftist leader, Aris Velouhiotis stands out even more prominently. Velouhiotis was the legendary Resistance hero “Captain Aris,” one of the original leaders of the National Popular Liberation Army (E.L.A.S.). When the E.L.A.S. agreed to disarm in the Varkiza Agreement of 12 February 1945, Velouhiotis, accompanied by about a hundred men, returned to the mountains. Refusing to surrender, he spent the month of April near the Albanian border. In May and early June he wandered through the mountains of Thessaly. On June 14th, he was excluded from the Communist Party (K.K.E.) for “adventurism” and he killed himself two days later in Korakou (Thessaly). From June 18th to June 20th, his head was exposed on the central square of Trikala. At the end of the sequence, Captain Super Priovolos likewise dies: “Then they vanish: the bandits, dead Priovolos, absolutely everything. To mud! O mountains dipped and dirtied in milk! O Fatherland! Thousands and millions I seek.” Apropos of this ending, Xexakis provided this comment in a personal letter dated 22 October 1984: “Imagine the last lines of a film scenario. The camera focuses on the battlefield, on the mountains in which Priovolos has hid, and then conjures up the entire country, the fatherland, for which he has died.” Parallels can also be drawn between Xexakis’s work and Theo Angelopoulos’s later film Alexander the Great (1980), which deals with the theme of political power. In the light of nearly three millennia of observed and recorded European political history, the examination or demonstration of how power can be sought by, or become concentrated in the hands of, a single person remains an essential, ever-renewable, project for creative work.
As to the word “super” adjoined to the captain’s name, Xexakis provides this clarification: “I wanted to show that even if he were a ‘Super Captain,” a “hyperkapetanios,” a hero like Priovolos would be incapable of solving the problems with which a people—the populace—is faced. Generally speaking, the texts evoke the error which a people commits whenever it entrusts a hero with the reins of power while remaining, itself, apathetic. I wrote these texts at a time when everyone was expecting party leaders to guide the Greek people out of the impasse that they were in, at a time when the Greek people should have taken the matter of freedom and liberation into their own hands” (letter, 26 July 1984).
The prose poems suggest, moreover, that an entire world has changed in the meantime; that some of the most determined actors or participants in the former world, like Priovolos, have already been ushered out, left behind. Priovolos excels at guerrilla warfare, but he cannot understand modern politics: “The little he knows is about choruses; he wraps his voice in laurels.” When he speaks to his followers, all he remembers are his victories, his “laurels.” As the bandits tell him in “He Dreams”: “You won’t get anywhere climbing the wall with the past only.” For what it is worth, Xexakis reveals (in his letter of 26 July 1984) that the name “Super Priovolos” had eked into his mind because of a trade name, “Super Priovolos,” that could be spotted on a stack of products in a shop window in front of which he would pass every morning while he was walking to work. However, no allusions to “Super Privolos” as a commercial product appear in the prose poems.
Other allusions to the aforementioned periods of Greek history crop up. In the second text, “Night Everywhere,” the sentence “the country is tiny, the dance immense” refers to the geopolitical situation of Greece, to the strategic interests at stake in the country, and thus simultaneously to the involvement of the United States in the postwar political affairs of the country, to that of Great Britain during the Civil War, and to that of European powers during the Revolution of 1821 or even perhaps during the Asia Minor Disaster of 1921-1922. In the italicized passage of the third text, “Gunfire and Constellations,” Xexakis quotes from the Memoirs of the Revolution hero, General Makriyannis: “‘I’ve got,’ I told them, ‘three hundred men. I’ll give them three hundred lighted torches and we’ll set those houses on fire so your enemies will come running out and so we can kill each other out in the open and so these drunken men won’t keep getting killed like dogs by enemies shooting at them from inside.’” Yannis Makriyannis (1797-1864) taught himself how to write at the age of thirty-five so that he could set down these Memoirs, which now have a hallowed place in Greek literature. The poet George Seferis (1900-1971) remarked that Makriyannis was the author who had taught him the most about writing prose, and the poet Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996) echoes the general’s style in the solemn prose passages of The Axion Esti (1959) that relate to the Albanian campaign of 1940-1941. Makriyannis’s writings exist in H. A. Lidderdale’s incomplete English version, The Memoirs of General Makriyannis, 1794-1864 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), and in Denis Kohler’s complete French translation: Général Macriyannis: Mémoires (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986). The passage quoted by Xexakis is found in the chapter “October 1823-January 1825.”
Another leader of the Greek troops during the uprising against the Turks is mentioned (in the third text) when Priovolos claims that his “mustache shoots out flames like Athanasios Diakos’s.” Captured by the Turks on 24 April 1821 and impaled, Diakos is celebrated in several Demotic Songs for his courage: “. . . and Diakos remained under fire with eighteen brave men. / For three hours he fought against eighteen thousand men. / His rifle exploded and broke into pieces. / He drew his sword and rushed into the battle, / killed countless Turks and seven bouloukbachis . / But his sword broke at the handle, / and Diakos fell into the hands of the enemy” (N. G. Politis, Kleftika dimotika tragoudia, Athens: Pella, no date, Song No. 11).
In the fifth text, “The People have a Road to Gallop Over. . .,” Xexakis evokes Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936), who acted as prime minister several times (1910-1915, 1917-1920, 1924, 1928-1932), as well as Panayiotis Kanellopoulos (1902-1986), the last constitutional prime minister before the coup d’état of 1967. The phrase “And he who thinks of resurrection candles lit in the cellar is the same one whose cleverness once struck an entire army” especially recalls Kanellopoulos, who was a well-educated man and also a professor of sociology at the University of Athens. Kanellopoulos maintained a critical stance toward the Colonels throughout the Dictatorship, but he is also remembered for a declaration that he made at the Second World War: “Makronisos is the new Parthenon.” Kanellopoulos was referring to the island on which left-wing guerrilla fighters were imprisoned and tortured. “As if the island were the ‘font,” adds Xexakis, in which all Greek should be rebaptized!” (letter, 2 September 1984).
As a politically committed work, Captain Super Priovolos is nonetheless rather hermetic upon a first reading. Through the intermingling of past and present, the occasional obscurity of the language and the idiosyncrasy of the hallucinatory, dreamlike imagery, Xexakis seeks not historical exactitude, but rather historical verisimilitude on a more abstract, symbolic level. His method brings a famous distinction made by Aristotle to mind. Distinguishing between the historian and the poet, the philosopher remarks in The Poetics (1451b) that “the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters”. Xexakis’s multi-layered historical vantage point is aiming at poetry in this sense.
Furthermore, it matters little that the prose poems specifically concern Greece; they deal with the political dilemmas of any country in which guerrilla warfare has been the hope of a subjugated, though sometimes (as Xexakis is also maintaining) passive people: “O populace, you skip your way down the road. Nothing exists for you except the bread and cheese on the red and white checkered napkin.” The prose poems trace out the psychic or oneiric itinerary of a guerrilla leader who has gone back up into the mountains “to find a solution,” to “find a rampart for the populace.” Priovolos raises “angles over the moats” that separate the people and the tyrants. The people are passive, but when they accept the risk of death (“Once again astride the people’s head, astride their sweaty temples, the thought of death is riding”) and take matters into their own hands, then “the scales tip.”
There are Cretan elements in Xexakis’s use of the Greek language that also contribute to the reader’s initial impression of strangeness. In the seventh prose poem, “He Dreams,” the bandits speak to Priovolos thus: “Den ehis kali sterna,” literally “you don’t have a good cistern.” The phrase has a figurative meaning, deriving from its use in the Cretan dialect around the turn of the nineteenth century. “One doesn’t have a good cistern” implies that one’s mind does not have firm control over what it contains; that one’s memory is faulty; that one’s memory “leaks” (letter, 22 October 1984). Whence my non-literal translation: “Your cistern of a mind leaks.” The term “cistern” also recalls Seferis’s second volume of poetry, The Cistern (1932), and in a letter (22 October 1984) Xexakis quotes the last stanza of the like-named poem: “But night does not believe in dawn / and love lives to weave death / thus, like a free soul, / a cistern that teaches silence / in the flaming city” (Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).
The eighth prose poem, “Still Dreaming,” comprises a second, particularly vivid, Cretan term. In the sentence “He then brought down the swallow, the millstone, and ever so finely ground his brain,” the word for millstone is not the common Greek “mylopetra,” but rather “helidona,” literally “female swallow,” a term which, according to Xexakis, was employed in Crete during the years 1900-1930 (letter, 2 September 1984).
A third example enhances the ninth text, “The Starfish of Breathing, Love.” The “merofotia” of the first sentence, literally “daily fire,” was a word that the author’s mother often used when describing the red rays of the setting sun (letter, 22 October 1984). I have translated such terms according to the poet’s instructions, and not searched for analogously recondite equivalents from dialects in the United States or elsewhere.
Still other phrases allude to details of Greek literary history or popular culture. The sentence “I balance on the rim of the well every face that bores through the blackboard,” in “Gunfire and Constellations,” refers obliquely to the passage, in the first chapter of Dionysios Solomos’s Woman of Zakynthos (1826-1829), where the monk places his fingers on the rim of the well and counts the number of just people in the world. (See Marianthe Colakis’s translation of Solomos’s text in The Charioteer, Nos. 24-25, 1982-1983, p. 122.) Resonances of Solomos’s poetry in Xexakis’s Death of the Cavalry were first spotted by the critic and short-story writer Elias Padimitrakopoulos, in an article first published in Kathimerini (21 July 1977) and then reprinted in his essay collection Parakimena (Athens: Kedros, 1983). In an interview later published in the literary magazine Diavazo (No. 69, 1983), Xexakis admits that he had indeed been influenced by Solomos’s Woman of Zakynthos because, while he was writing the sequence, he was also attending a course on the same work at the University of Thessaloniki. The course, here symbolized by the blackboard, was taught by George Savidis, who was also a professor of Modern Greek Literature at Harvard University and the co-translator, with Edmund Keeley, of C. P. Cavafy’s poems. Although no other apparent links between their respective poetics obtain, both Xexakis and Cafavy (1863-1933) stage the eternal recurrence, as it were, of past political tragedies.
Other allusions to Greek culture occur in the fourth prose poem, “A Rampart for the Populace.” “Wood cucumber” literally translates “ksylangouro,” a variety of cucumber found in Greece and especially in Crete. The “services to the Virgin Mary” are the “afgika,” which take place on Fridays before Easter. The line “they’re a-cryin’ over you, Astero, or maybe they’re a-cryin’ over me” quotes from a song (“Astero”) sung by Aliki Vouyiouklaki in 1962-1964. In the text, Priovolos also remembers “a fellow named Lambros” who would sing the song out in the middle of the street. Lambros has a foreboding of his imminent death in a shipwreck. Xexakis suggests here “that a man’s fate is already programmed in his choices” (letter, 2 September 1984). The name “Lambros” should also remind us of Grigoris Lambrakis, the leftwing political leader and Member of Parliament who was assassinated in Thessaloniki on the night of 22 May 1963 as he was leaving a political rally. This story is told in Vassilis Vassilikos’s novel Z (1966) and in Costa-Gavras’s film version (1969) of the same. Lambrakis’s memory is still cherished in Greece; note how Xexakis, through the voice of Priovolos (who is speaking to a cat), describes Lambros’s lost corpse: “They say that way out in the open sea he forgot to turn his flashlight off, that ever since then it has stayed on like that, a marker for his wandering tomb.” This analogy can be extended. Priovolos’s next remark seemingly pertains to any political leader’s emotional relationship to legendary heroes such as Lambrakis: “I’m sick and tired of attending funerals for objects.” And does this statement also cast light on any citizen’s attraction to, or rejection of, political models, however virtuous or deceitful?
The title of the fifth text, “The People have a Road to Gallop Over, But Horses They have Not,” is a proverb: one lacks the means to accomplish one’s goals; by extension, the people lack the means to liberate themselves. In “Still Dreaming,” the word “Tartarus” refers to the Lower World, or Hades, a concept from antiquity that is still alive in the Greek imagination. In the same prose poem, Xexakis also mentions the Epitaphios procession that takes place in towns on Good Friday. As in Greek folksongs, Captain Super Priovolos is a hodgepodge of myth, legend, history, current politics, and poetry. One especially thinks of the Akritic Songs (from the Middle Ages), in which a hero takes on an entire army or wrestles with a personified Death figure, namely “Haros,” an archetypal descendent of the mythological Charon.
More difficult to grasp are phrases and images that are pure inventions of the author and reveal their meanings only stubbornly, after study and rereading. Occasionally the difficulty of Xexakis’s personal symbolism rivals that of the early Surrealist texts written by Andreas Embirikos (1901-1975), which so astonished Greek readers in 1935 when his Furnace appeared. In “In the Mountains, Night,” for example, Xexakis writes: “In the captain’s stomach the populace screams; the dancer’s bra drops; old geezers howl. Plip plop drops, horseshoe, non-existent breaths.” In his letter of 22 October 1984, Xexakis comments: “It is a hallucinatory image. The Captain’s thoughts flee from the problems at hand, only to be lost in a vision of old men. The old men no longer have active sexual lives and are reduced to howling at the spectacle of their lost passion. The same is true of Priovolos. He has come to understand that the game is now in the hands of the politicians. This vision continues into the third sentence: that which defines an ‘andartis,’ a guerrilla fighter, no longer exists. The ‘plip plop drops’ stand for the rain on the mountain; the ‘horseshoe’ for the riding of the horses in the battle; the ‘non-existent breaths’ for the withholding of breaths by the soldiers just before the battle begins.” Through onomatopoeia and this succinct primitive symbolism, Xexakis brings the writing as close as possible to his character’s thoughts; the descriptive interface between mental image and utterance is reduced to the very limits of comprehensibility.
“He Dreams” includes another idiosyncratic phrase: “flash up the wall fast,” which in Greek reads: “elapse to grigora.” “I invented the expression,” explains Xexakis in his letter of 26 July 1984. “It means that the Captain suddenly realizes that he needs to climb up and over the wall quickly. The image is related to a similar scene in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, where Jean Valjean escapes over a wall and finds himself in a monastery.” This scene occurs in the second volume of Les Misérables (Paris: Gallimard, 1973, p. 24), but a similar scene already takes place in the first volume (p. 124) when Jean Valjean, recently released from prison, searches for food and lodging. Turned out of two inns, he “resolutely climbs over a wooden fence and finds himself in a garden.” The scene shows Valjean, rather like Captain Super Priovolos, at his loneliest and most desperate. Priovolos suffocates “in a pine wood sprouted from errors.”
A few other obscurities may be elucidated. In “The Starfish of Breathing, Love,” the sentence “Black stains in the steam rising from the walls, as if a priest had been put into the oven” reflects the author’s recurrent feeling in his student’s room on Kassandros Street, in Thessaloniki, in 1969. “I used to make love there in the afternoons with a girlfriend,” he relates in his letter of 22 October 1984. “I would light a makeshift electric heater and turn on a red light. The walls would seem even dirtier than they actually were. A terrible feeling would overcome me and all eroticism would vanish.” In the same text, Xexakis associates the mirror in the last line (“Half of the mirror, love”) with a human face. “Don’t ask me what the other half is,” he told me. “That’s something everyone must find out for himself.” This “mirror” should indeed be pondered as the reader progresses through the prose poems. It goes without saying that Captain Super Priovolos is not exclusively political.
In the following poem, “He Awakes,” I also asked the poet about this sentence: “The monastery bells lick in the circles of the quartz little rooms of light.” He replied: “It is a dream image that derives from my student years. In the laboratory, we used to identify rocks through stereoscopes, as well as with the naked eye. In Thessaloniki, the University is located near a cemetery. I remember that while working in the laboratory, I would hear the cemetery bells ringing. What else can I say?” (letter, 22 October 1984).
What else can one say? Personal images such as the preceding suggest that Captain Super Priovolos is more than a composite guerrilla hero; he is intimately related to the poet himself. Xexakis aligns personal emotions with those of a political leader who has gone back up into the mountains “to find a solution” yet who is surpassed by the contemporary world. Perhaps like the poet who, in the midst of political tyranny, retires to his chambers to meditate upon the state of his country and his life—a telling parallel that brings me to the end of these translator’s annotations and elucidations. They are mere suggestions for reading this sequence, which remains as troubling today as when it was first published.
Saint Barthélemy d’Anjou, 2009
CAPTAIN SUPER PRIOVOLOS
IN THE MOUNTAINS, NIGHT
Captain Super Priovolos, a searchlight and a scout peering into the cloud, the populace imprisoned in the wooden barracks, with his stocking cap pulled down low, with his fingers broken, back up in the mountains the brother of darkness, surrounded by tough dudes, one of them nodding he’ll roll him a smoke.
And among the firs march soldiers with knife-scarred, ethereal faces, with carbonized breaths, with cartridge belts girdling them. And down on them rain jet-black orders like conflagrations in the womb of a woman in childbirth.
In the captain’s stomach the populace screams; the dancer’s bra drops; old geezers howl. Loneliness, death, incalculable tremors in the earth. Plip plop drops, horseshoe, non-existent breaths.
The little he knows is about choruses; he wraps his voice in laurels. He too was in the line of fire with those who set out on campaigns—that’s where he smashed up his hands.
Which is why the captain is sitting on the icy knoll, and why someone else is rolling his smokes.
Darkness prevails in the inhabited valleys and terrible words are heard about the elastic swings of those in power.
O populace, you skip your way down the road. Nothing exists for you except the bread and cheese on the red and white checkered napkin.
And he who wields the hatchet pours down on matters the same murky water that unknown sources bring up to him—and we, what do we do?
The country is tiny, the dance immense.
GUNFIRE AND CONSTELLATIONS
At daybreak they were still sitting on the rock. He started singing a tune with his sweet melodic voice, then smoked voluptuously, indolently. Around him a thirsty circle formed. Something came to mind, he paused, said this to them:
“My long fingers on the five scattered seas. On my cheeks frost, snow, in layers. I’ve got a war here, started by babies that slink about on their bellies, hit, smash everything. Our men are constantly getting killed. I’ve got, I told them, three hundred men. I’ll give them three hundred lighted torches and we’ll set those houses on fire so your enemies will come running out and so we can kill each other out in the open and so these drunken men won’t keep getting killed like dogs by enemies shooting at them from inside. I water my brain cells with turmoil. I have no hands. Thunderbolts are falling and stripping cities. I have raised angles over the moats filled with dirty water.
“Give me some rope, wait three days. I’ve also got the organized lackeys of those in power cutting off my road. I set a club next to a tear. I balance on the rim of the well every face that bores through the blackboard and erases the engraved words. In tribunals peacemaking judges judge as far as forty groschen. Capture the traitor’s mother! Thus the world is ruled, the judge imprisoned in his own prisons. Your conscience is an eye, a bead of sweat that rolls down my forearm, that finds refuge in my perforated body. I hold on to that conscience, nourish it.
“I show you around churches: this mosaic, that tomb. Angels and demons I see. Fingers on the silken cloth rot. My mustache shoots out flames like Athanasios Diakos’s whenever I need to lead you to victory. And victory? A masqueraded lady in whose pocket silver coins jangle.
“My soul is covered by plants sucking up its water.
“I advance and see in the middle of the people a fissure full of despair.”
A RAMPART FOR THE POPULACE
Sometimes Captain Super Priovolos acted as judge and bore the cross because of it. Now he paces about like a wild animal inside a large house.
He stood leaning on an armrest and got a fever like a large shellfish trapping a sea urchin in its two pinchers.
He took up talking to the cat which, every morning, all alone, saws the wood cucumbers in the kitchen.
He says to the cat:
“I’m suffocating in a pine wood sprouted from errors. A vehement wind is firing away at the door panels of my mind.
“Sometimes before Easter I remember a fellow named Lambros. Coming back at night from the services to the Virgin Mary he would put a flashlight up under his chin. The rusty wells of his face would light up; he would make a scary face; my friends and I would run away in fright. In the middle of the street, imperturbable, he would sing: ‘They’re a-cryin’ over you, Astero, or maybe they’re a-cryin’ over me.’
“Today Lambros is floating. He was lost in a shipwreck. No one saw the corpse. They say that way out in the open sea he forgot to turn his flashlight off, that ever since then it has stayed on like that, a marker for his wandering tomb.
“I’m sick and tired of attending funerals for objects.
“My senses have turned and vomited into the sea.
I expect, when the summer is over, to find at least a rampart for the populace.”
Outside his family keeps hopes, ruins, aflame. They cry out.
The captain took three or four steps across the room, raised the trapdoor, went down into the cellar to busy himself with his magic arts and with the other occupations he discovers when he is distressed.
THE PEOPLE HAVE A ROAD TO GALLOP OVER,
BUT HORSES THEY HAVE NOT
Once again astride the people’s head, astride their sweaty temples, the thought of death is riding.
Heavy they become, the scales tip.
O tyranny, tyranny, the day bright yellow in a bathing suit, with every blow you give them they suffer but you die.
And he who thinks of resurrection candles lit in the cellar is the same one whose cleverness once struck an entire army.
The people regret the bastard, but a murder can’t be taken back. Then bandits get wind of the outraged and that they carry rivers inside them. Machinations are contrived so that the questioning will not look like an interrogation.
A handful of night has fallen in front of me.
Ashes from the bones of the Greek poison my soul.
Nothing comes of continual tombs.
Wellsprings of political chitchat abound. Other sidewalks must be found.
HE FAILS TO FIND A SOLUTION
A sky overcast, on the verge of snowing. He searches, searches, thinks, but cannot find a rampart for the populace. He approached the beam, in the middle of the cellar, from which the meats were hanging; plunged his hands into the kidneys; with his fingers then twisted the ends of his mustache, several times, until his mustache was waxed and shone most brilliantly.
He went over to a clay wine barrel, filled a wooden mug, sipped away, over and over again. To the calamity of his stomach he then surrendered—captain, down in the cellar, drunk.
He fell asleep, thus slipped away, while outside the populace waits, unresolved to go by two’s and three’s, to organize itself into small groups; two’s and three’s which, from way down low, could try to see what’s happening to them.
He found himself in a storage room full of bones soft like willow switches and he picked them up and knit them into a rope. He heaved the rope onto his shoulders, walked down a blind alley, came up against a wall which looked like aimed rifles. He threw the bone-rope to the top; flash up the wall fast; it hit the coping, a bending orange tree; down it he climbed into an orchard.
There bandits captured him.
“Your cistern of a mind leaks,” they said.
They bound his little hands in irons.
“Your fatherland is making love with an old evzone,” they said. “You won’t get anywhere climbing the wall with the past only. The wasteland will remove your hat and be mimicked by the forgotten dead.”
They went down a wide chandeliered road leading to the tortures. For three whole hours they marched. He forgot himself among the bandits and, though tied up amidst the glittering candles, began to row.
At one point they said: “Praise God! Be thankful nothing worse has happened to you!”
He shriveled like a raisin in the sun.
Bearing arms the cliffs the crags stabbing the darkness.
He fell on his cheek, in a well. A smidgen of light. His mind ignited, became a brightness in the heavens. His heartbeats were located on inexplicably damp grass.
His breath came out like mastic. Slowly but surely it imprisoned him.
He shrieked. His sobbing foamed. The bandits stopped standing. The mountain at their feet split into an abyss. They wrapped the hooves of the horses in cloth so that they wouldn’t be injured when stepping into ditches.
He then brought down the swallow, the millstone, and ever so finely ground his brain.
In front of their rifles, a desperate hare. Everything sank. Then he was living, a hermit, in Tartarus.
The sea suddenly filled with white women. Double squalls clashed together above his boat. They battened down the hatches, bulkheads, locked themselves in the hold. He would up in Piraeus on Good Friday with two other roughnecks. They had gorged themselves on grub, booze; the Epitaphios procession passed with its chanted psalmodies, crosses, devotional hymns. In the fever of the alcohol, they played flares for money: would or wouldn’t they burst open?
But a tempest followed the etesian winds. Once again he found himself in the mountains, the bandits threatening him. Fear was wearing its cape; they remained together in the watchtower till dawn. The bandits were talking about how most people wanted one man they could truss their destiny to, tossing it into the sea.
He reflected about swords never being cut to our measure.
THE STARFISH OF BREATHING, LOVE
Early evening with the face of the sun drowned inside the red rays of the daily fire; into the mauve water of the open sea the captain goes.
Again, a dream.
Black stains in the steam rising from the walls, as if a priest had been put into the oven. On the radiator a pair of female panties set out to dry. Lightning bolts spark on the horizon.
No fortress today, in its indignation, is pure white inside. Dark connoisseurs weep.
For ages the road of the people has gone through caves. A thick woods their prison, a thick woods their freedom.
At the hour of dawn, in dark crimson times, the brightness of woman beats itself up and down.
Half of the mirror, love.
Monastery bells lick in the circles of the quartz little rooms with light.
He lights the incense of his sleep; it lingers above the globe, burns the islands, which sink like shells to the gloomy sea bottom with its many-hued red seaweed.
And the summer inflames his stocking cap.
A copper mushroom hangs from each tuft of armpit hair; he chases away the man-eating fish that rush upon his frozen limbs.
The hands of the watch, the assassination of the leaders, the suicide of the heroes. The black coasts are near.
Be ever on the lookout. His sleep dawns with his death.
GOODBYE LIFE, NIPPLE OF THE ABYSS
Captain Super Priovolos rolled on the ground, stained it with blood, then stood up, bled on the air, finally collapsed—dead. He took up several square meters in their field of vision.
His jugular vein was swelling; they were afraid it would burst.
One of them drew his knife, stabbed the neck so that the blood would run out, chill, so that power could no longer be read in it. A river of blood mixed with mud formed. The house darkened.
Over the white walls spread shadows. Once again the light washed itself in the cruddy eyes of the iniquitous.
Later, inside the peasant house, the sea came into being. His soul bobbed on the waves.
The bandits were stunned.
One of them hung a hand grenade from the ceiling; they beat the doors down, dashed, crouched behind a heap of stones. The explosion sounded. The little house was blown to bits. Under the roof beams, dust, and smoke, the corpse was buried.
They spit on it with fury.
They went over to the horses, untied them.
They formed a cavalry and in single file rode off, afar, for other signs were now appearing in the atmosphere.
Memories burglars of souls pass outside Ai Yiannis the Wooden and links of voices mount horses and say to peace:
“To your health!”
On the white line of joy upon a lake the dangling stole of the priest.
At a given moment every captain says “Goodbye Life, Nipple of the Abyss,” and disappears in the asphyxiating corridors of wood.
We break the same rings. . .
The black smoke of the steamship ceilings the clouds;
Something always takes you out for a stroll in the big wide world, but at last you are imprisoned by death.
You go a stallion into the murky river and come out a green Virgin Mary in mourning.
Man has gone mad; he eats and runs.
My fate is that of one whose anxieties have been housed for him by the winds.
And all day long melancholy is on duty in my hut.
I drink the fear of the hanged man, vomit it back up.
Quadrangular, malicious men drag us by the ears. They forbid the young to cry, to sprinkle rosewater on the tiny garments of the fire. Then they vanish: the bandits, dead Priovolos, absolutely everything.
O mountains dipped and dirtied in milk! O fatherland! Thousands and millions I seek.
—Manolis Xexakis, Captain Super Priovolos, included in The Death of the Cavalry (1977 / Thessaloniki: Barbounakis, 1980).
— translated from the Greek by John Taylor.
Some of these texts appeared, in earlier versions, in Asylum, Ninth Decade, The Bitter Oleander, and Righthandpointing.