An Unknown Beast Feigning a Horse

Joshua Barley on Michalis Ganas

If Hardy's poems are 'Moments of Vision', then the poems of a rather lesser-known, though equally homey poet, Michalis Ganas (b. 1944, Greece) are chance coincidences: the meeting of eyes across a candle in a village church on Easter Sunday; a pattern in the leaves blown by the Thracian wind under his feet in his home town of Yannena (Ioannina) in north-west Greece; a small fish brought up by one of the great crested grebes that grace its lake. And the morsels he offers you are swallowed whole and delectable as the fish down the bird's gullet. In an interview twenty years ago he was asked how his poems come to him. 'Expectantly,' he replied.

Yannena is a town that rings with the bleating of bells (to use Ganas's image), beaten by its famous coppersmiths. There are two minarets, both silent. It has a lake, dark as the pupil of an eye. Mountain upon mountain rises with the dawn and falls away to the west down to the Ionian Sea. This is the town I had visited many times before I saw it depicted by Ganas, 'glimmering and golden', while I was idling away my time in a crumbling old library on Rhodes, a far cry from the snow and wild weather of Yannena. The next time I was happily brought to the island on the lake, I stood at sunset and saw the town glinting as if made of glass. Glimmering and golden like a chandelier—mythical and fleeting as Thebes, built by music.

Greece in Ganas is not Pericles' Athens, nor the deep blue of the Aegean, but the low walls of a sheep pen, the nasal ring of a Byzantine cantor, and an old woman dressed in black, bent double, walking up a cobbled village street with a candle in her hand. The Acropolis has no place in Ganas's poetry. 'The clouds came down until they leant on the roofs, licked the walls to their foundations, the slaughtered cockerels crowed and each house sailed alone, while the village stood still', is one of the memorable scenes from a set of prose poems, 'The Wild and the Tame'—one that rings true to anyone who has seen the mists swirl around a Greek mountain village.

Ganas has lived in Athens since he was eighteen, but cannot shake off his homeland of Epirus—still one of the poorest regions of Europe. Its mountains and forests go through his sleep; its clarinets render the transistor radios of 1970s urban Greece lifeless and impotent; its folk songs course through his veins with juggernaut-like force while he pedals his bicycle furiously in the inside lane, ever in danger of being swept away. For it is with the fear of God, he tells me, that he approaches the folk songs. Yet they have remained his most constant source of inspiration ever since the days when he heard them sung in village squares on a Feast of the Virgin Mary, or on the knee of his mother, who would recite him the ballads like a rhapsode.

Direct connection with oral tradition marks out Ganas from other contemporary Greek poets: a direct line to that thread of Greek sung poetry that stretches back to Homer. He is fearfully aware of this tradition and never attempts folkloric reconstruction. Traditional meter and snippets of folk songs intrude into his poetry like disembodied voices: an epigraph here, a half-line there. In the third poem of his first book, he describes his 'musical' homeland as 'unburied in all my songs', programmatically alluding to the ghost of the folk song in his work. And the word 'songs' is more than programmatic—the poet is also one of the most established lyricists in Greece, his lyrics having been set to music by numerous composers including Mikis Theodorakis. At the end of one poem, 'Christmas Story', he rewrites a famous lullaby so that it applies to father: 'Sleep which takes away the children,' so the song goes, 'now take the father with them,' continues Ganas, and the rest of the poem resolves itself in the traditional fifteen-syllable meter of Greece, only with the lines inverted, as he sings his father to sleep in the topsy-turvy lullaby.

It is no surprise that in this most traditional of poets—who is currently engaged in rendering the Odyssey into modern Greek—we see the signs of the end of the same tradition: 'I see the fabric of the world tearing apart, / Invisible the hand that tears, / And I tremble lest the thread be cut,' comes at the beginning of what is perhaps his most successful collection, Ballad (1993). And it is not merely the thread of folk poetry that is at risk of being cut, but the whole fabric of traditional society. For Ganas has witnessed the transition from the world of arranged marriages and underwear made out of old sacks of sugar to one where people can fall apart as easily as the clothes they wear. And as his most recent collection Wormwood (2012) suggests—the title of which comes from the book of Revelation—this change is of apocalyptic proportions. 'These people here, they don't / know don't love / know only to demand / moreandmoreandmoreandmore—/or-less thus our future is written,' he laments.

Blackness fills much of Ganas's poetry: 'Wounded blackbird / from branch to branch. / As its blood / drips on the snow, / the black grows and grows,' goes “Founding Colour,” the first poem of his second book, Black Stones (1980), in its entirety. But the lamentation is tempered, and the blackness that creeps into Ganas is not vast and overpowering as in Beckett, but soft and tactile as velvet. It is the same process that in Greece brings funeral dirges into festivities, or clarinets to be played on tombstones of old friends. And so in both Ballad and Wormwood the poet draws close what he knows and loves in order to abate the blackness: in the latter, the apocalyptic first half of the book modulates into a love poem to his wife, a homage to a recently dead poet, and a memorial to his mother, among others; in the latter, the loose and broken strands of the 'fabric of the world' turn out to make up a polyphonic song by the end of the book: a type of music indigenous only to Ganas's region of Greece. As is often the case in his poetry, the threat posed by the loss of tradition is saved by tradition.

Aside from seeing the era of traditional life come to an end, Ganas has reason for imagining his homeland slipping away. When he was four, in the thick of the civil war (1946–1949), he was uprooted from his village and taken to live in various communist-held countries, among them Hungary, for eight years. The inevitably disappointing nostos back to Greece further complicated the young poet's sense of belonging. He described his experiences in his prose work StepMotherland (1980), where the Greece of his return becomes a pale imitation of the Promised Land. It is a crisp narrative with sparse language—a frugality that he believes is endemic to writers from Epirus. And just as this work slips into poetry, so does his poetry occasionally take on the quality of a storyteller, clipped and evocative as Chatwin: 'Years ago, on a night like this, / a man walked alone, I know not how many / mud-mired miles./ Clouds and starless nights. / At dawn he came to Yannena...' begins another section of Glimmering Yannena (1989).

There is always something slippery in Ganas. Even the mountains, traditional bastions of Greek freedom since the era of the klefts, have something fickle and superficial about them: '...paper mountains in the frost / blown by the biting Thracian / torn here and there and shuddering...' Nature is not a comfortable refuge or a place of observed beauty, but a chaotic and treacherous mess with a polished facade, another devious stepmother. And what a relief this is! After centuries of dithyrambs on the thyme-scented hillsides of Greece, the deep blue sea and roughshod fishermen enchanting dolphins from crystal waters, what a relief to see Greece in all its starkness. Balkan, wounded, proud, abandoned, resigned. 'Now it's army boots grating gravel / in this great ginnery of the rocks...' comes in one of his earliest poems, 'Greece, you know...' The consonants clash, ground down under the boots of the young men going out to fight. And just as nature slips away and becomes mechanised—the cranes that stacked the apartment blocks of 1970s Athens are perceived as a sinister version of cranes building their nests—so the poet can fashion anything into the shape of an animal, tame it under his pen: 'Whatever corner you go to,' he says of an old house in the poem 'Shipwreck', 'the things turn to look at you, / unwatered cattle'. Anything, that is, apart from the great untamed and unknown animal of death: 'A galloping in the water. An unknown beast feigning a horse...It jumps the ditches, the navigable rivers, sets alight the sleeping crickets.'

There is no lost paradise in Ganas. There never was a paradise. There are various shattered pieces being cobbled together, sheep rounded into a pen. One or two are lame, one or two slip away. 'One moment, Nasos, don't leave,' he begs in a poem from Wormwood dedicated to a recently lost friend, 'now everything around me is leaving'. The poem turns into a lament for old Athens and the friend's favourite haunts, now slipping away too: 'they leave without their patron saint, / more distant than the distant seas of your eyes / into the little green lakes of memory.' Ganas has come to love Athens as a second home. That is where he fell in love, had children, and made a name for himself. 'Make me my tomb down in Haftía', goes one of his early sonnets (Haftía is the most central part of Athens, around Omonia Square), 'I've paid you rent for twenty years', the resigned admission. His homeland is as protean as his poetic form.

The resignation of accepting Athens as home is concomitant with Ganas as a poet of the everyday: in among the shattered pieces he finds luminous examples. 'He'll go round and round in the night / and if a woman should appear, will flood him with light'. His voice is not that of a sage who bestows divine grace on the world through his words (Greece has had its share of Whitman-like figures, a recent example being Nobel laureate Odysseas Elytis), but of a workman to whom divine light occasionally pierces the gray day. 'The sky which just before was streaked with lightning / returned to a white and sodden sheet,' is the setting in 'Christ is Risen' before he sees a vision of a dead friend: 'He turned to look at us and the land lit up / like someone taking our photograph at night'. It is this same light that one can almost see in the poet's eyes when you read his shortest poems—one, two, or three line epigrams with which his collections are sprinkled, and which in turn became a book of their own (in 2000). A particularly delectable example, tinged with characteristic irony, is 'National Road', from his first book: 'By this way left / half our homeland / for foreign parts.'

'I have no idea where that came from!' he laughs. We are in a café in Athens and I am asking him about his poem 'At the River', where a huge and invisible presence haunts the idyllic scene: 'I just managed to close my ears / the moment he broke into laughter.' There is often this unknown presence lurking in Ganas. Our conversation moves on to Leonard Cohen’s song 'Alexandra Leaving’, his adaptation of Cavafy's 'The God Abandoning Antony’ from his album Ten New Songs (2001). I conjecture that Cohen's debt to Greece is substantial. We get up to leave. It is midday in July and we are sitting outside in the shady, fountain-cooled courtyard of the café. Outside the sun pours down like honey. Suddenly from all around, above the babbling of the fountain, the first notes of 'Suzanne' emerge from the café’s radio, dropping like pebbles into the water and leaning softly on the heat of the day. Ganas looks knowingly at me. There is a glint in his eye. And for a second I feel that unknown beast lurking in the shadows of the planes and the oleanders. And then we both break into laughter.