The difficult life of the sailor, the daily grind of work, but also the freedom of the eye to travel over new horizons opened by the increasingly longer and bolder voyages he undertook mark Nikos Kavvadias’ entire poetic output.
The poet constantly transforms external observations of the environment into a subdued, internal drama, often of a deeply existential nature. Indeed, critics described him as the ‘poet of internal exile’, and were not slow to identify in his verse and in his imagery the tendency to displace straight realistic description with scenes of reverse images which represent, in a particularly eloquent manner, the poet’s journey from the open seascape into the closed and dimly lit realm of the conscience.
Kavvadias was greatly inspired both by Baudelaire and the poetes maudits and observed his marine environment from precisely this viewpoint. His characters frequently descend into apathy, decay, decadence and self-destruction, and the space they inhabit has a suffocating effect on them. Kavvadias also enjoyed the cosmopolitan life (the constant journeying from port to port, country to country, ocean to ocean) which was equated with the pleasures of opportunistic love and the paralysing effects of hallucinatory substances.
From these kinds of motifs emerged his overwhelming passion for travel, which he identified as the fate of the absolutely free yet totally defenceless artist. A poet who, as mentioned, deliberately wrote little, Kavvadias directly addressed the metrical tradition, but always managed to take liberties with its strictures. He exploited tradition for his own purposes, adapting metres and rhyme schemes to his own linguistic and musical codes. In ‘Yarra Yarra’ all of the aforementioned is on display and is thus a fitting introduction to the poet’s work:
When you fell asleep last night, the cape was on watch. You left your amulet at a home a few days ago. You laugh and yet I sold you in Rio for two centavos, and bought you back at a price in Beirut.
Nikos Kavvadias, thus, is a representative of a poetry of introverted exoticism, which projects the agony and spectres of a permanently restless and wakeful conscience onto alien and often mysterious seascapes. A committed seaman and writer, he encountered some extremely difficult moments, facing them with the courage that is the preserve of those rare individuals who have absolute faith in what they do. He was in every sense a poet of the sea.
Hold fast the rigging ladder. Coffee for the pilot. You turn tail, chained by longing for the land. And you, who I won in an evening game of chance, Merge and leave with the smoke of the grey river.
Things rarely turn out the way we want them to. Life is like that. And Kavvadias’ life was anything but unexceptional. He was born in Ussuriysk in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia, close to the border with China, part of the historic region of Manchuria. This fact, according to him, linked him emotionally to the Far East, expressed in his short story Li. He returned to his homeland of Cephallonia as a child.
After graduating from high school in Piraeus, Kavvadias took the entrance exams to become a doctor in 1928. His father fell sick that same year and young Kavvadias was forced to get a job as an office clerk in a shipping office to help his family. He lasted only a few months there and after his father’s death, he went on board the freighter ship ‘Agios Nikolaos’ as a sailor.
This is how the poet was born, He worked for a few years on freighter boats, coming back home always wretched and penniless. Experiences of this nature can either make or break you. While reflecting on the no-nonsense, unromantic Yarra river, tamed in the service of wider causes, Kavvadias probably found a parallel and kindred spirit when he wrote:
I command you with a porphyry shell on my lips. Your falcon on my arm and the hounds loosed. Wipe off the sea that drips from me And teach me to walk on land correctly.
More vicissitudes would follow. During the German occupation of Greece, he was stranded in Athens. When the war was over in 1944, he embarked and travelled continuously as a radio operator all over the world until November 1974, having the opportunity to get to know the sea and its exotic ports. Through his experiences in the sea he collected material for his poetry.
Returning from his last trip and as he was preparing the publication of his third collection of poems, he died suddenly from a stroke on 10 February 1975, after only three months off sea. Kavvadias’ poetry was popularised in Greece, partly because some of his poems have been set to music by Thanos Mikroutsikos in his very popular albums Σταυρός του Νότου (Southern Cross) and Γραμμές Ωριζόντων. (Horizons’ Lines).
Tonight, we will provide you with some local interpretations and musical extrapolations of some of the best of the great man’s work. That work is multifaceted. His first collection of poems, Marabou, was published in 1933 when Kavvadias was in his early twenties and carries within it the spirit of a romantic young man, impressed with the marvels of the world. Most of these poems tell half-fictitious stories that happened on the sea and the different places he visited.
The collection begins with a poem about the catastrophic love for a young wealthy girl that ended up a poor prostitute that he could barely recognise. Other events recount the stories of a Norwegian captain who died homesick watching a ship sailing towards Norway, a dagger carrying the curse that whoever carries it shall kill someone he loves, and an African story-telling sailor who rescued him from a brawl only to die of fever in the Far East.
The Greek saying “Η θάλασσα τα τρώει” – “the sea devours all”, applies to hopes and dreams as well. Take the skin of the snake and give me a handkerchief, he writes in ‘Yarra Yarra’. I, who stripped you before old man Titian. Raise anchor Cephallonian girl and set sail the votive lamp. The last one sleeps on the Japanese hill. Continued next week….
Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer.