In June 1944 the steamer “Tanais” sunk in the Aegean waters between Crete and Santorini. The Germans loaded the ship with 299 Greek Jews (of which 99 were children). They all perished. Poetry is related to death, since both, poetry and death, employ the ultimate authority and potential of the edge of time and the end of space. In Maurice Blanchot’s words, “if death is this before which we lose everything we do and do not have, if it is what we cannot contain, then death deletes the words from the edge of the pen, it cuts the word. The writer does no longer write, he yells, and this is an awkward yell, a chaotic one, which no one hears, no one is touched by.” The writers’ experience of death unravels the purpose of writing still in the 21st century on the personal experience of racial violence. It is not only past time that penetrates the present, but it is also past space included in the present spatial experience. The “literary space”, whose map the poem Tanais uncoils, is a region of extended cultural memory. In parallel, the voyage of the steamer “Tanais” explores history and culture reaching towards the ultimate knowledge of personal and collective identity.
Joseph Ventura’s poetry strives to discover a multi-leveled area of real and imaginary destination, which is not only the place of death, or the maritime cemetery of innocent victims. Further, it is the very space of writing that Tanais as both, a sunken ship and a fragmented poem surveys, the very point where dead and living, sea and land, song and written word, poetry and narration connect. Having shared his childhood with the drawned children, the poet returns back to time and deep into the sea. Looking for the “motherland” of his early years, Ventura finds himself lost in the other side of that imaginary land. As a mature, grown up man, he also explores through poetry his symbolic fatherland into a different, yet fully reminiscent world.
This twofold parental quest doubles the poet’s sight. He is looking back and forth, collecting emotional and mnemonic details in order to construct what Walter Benjamin calls “an explosion of the continuum of history”, the “messianic cessation of happening”, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. The poet reconstructs his “space” upon imagination and aesthetical perception of the present. This is the space of writing, “chora, as the moving mechanism of expression full of cissures and openings, voices and movements. The language of Tanais is occupied with meaning, reversals (overturning, capsizing) silences and absences. Missing letters, cracked images, blurred faces, and heterogeneous dimensions transform the testament of the Cretan Jewish community into a literary text also letting Aegean water overflow the beloved neighborhood.
From real to imaginary, from rationalized memory and tradition to the fluidity of a vital culture (its contexts, histories, languages, experiences, desires, hopes) the edges of time and space are transgressed. Open spiral of Greek Jewish hybridity invigorates the schema and metaphor of the Diaspora (as the eternal quest of its terra, different histories, nuances and narratives). Spaces borrowed and spaces regained are acquired by Tanais. The bodies under the sea become permanently indigenous and familiar as forever productive of memory and the symbolic. If you lack your own space, you have to construct an ark, a ship to move along, a platform of transgression from the symbolic to the semiotic. That is the essence and ultimate quality of poetry.
The challenge and lure of translating Tanais is much due to the wish of reproducing the linguistic experience of reading the original text. The Greek sounds, fluid and melodic, had to be regained in English thus multiplying meaning and expanding allusion. Yet, the translation would be much more awkward if the poet himself did not offer me his own version of certain difficult points. Many thanks are also owed to Philip Ramp whose own translation of Tanais, indeed a work of experience and potential, was of enormous help to my attempt.
Professor at "Panteion University", Athens
Confirmed as Drowned: THE STORY OF THE SHIP TANAIS
Published in the Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2022
By Mark Glanville
On December 14, 1906, a cargo steamship built at the Sunderland shipyards in the northeast of England was launched under the name Holywood. She was then purchased by a Greek shipowner in 1935, who renamed her Tanais, after the ancient Greek colony founded by Milesians. On May 26, 1941, during the Battle of Crete, the ship was sunk by the Luftwaffe, only to be raised and repaired by the Germans, who then deployed her as a cargo ship in the Aegean. In early June, the Nazis filled the holds of the ship with about nine hundred prisoners bound for Auschwitz, among them Cretan partisans, Italian prisoners of war, and the entire Jewish community of Crete, which comprised 299 souls, 88 of them children.
On June 9, the Tanais was torpedoed by the British submarine Vivid, killing all but a handful of passengers. This was the end of the Cretan Jewish community, which had thrived on the island for more than two thousand years. (Jews are said to have served as guards at the palace of Knossos, where King Minos had Daedalus build the labyrinth with his son the Minotaur at its center.)
The poet Iossif Ventura is now the only living Jewish male born in Crete. “All that remains of the Jewish community of Crete is a very old synagogue—a Venetian building—that bears the Hebrew name Etz Hayyim. . . . This ‘tree of life’ is orphaned now, as all its children were lost,” he told Adam J. Goldwyn in an interview. Ventouras—the family name is thought to have started life as Ben Torah—was born in the Cretan city Chania in 1938. His family, like many of the Jewish community of Crete, was of Venetian descent. They escaped the island after a friend warned his father that “things would not go well for the Jews,” fleeing to Athens on a fishing boat.
In a 2009 poem called “Kykloniο,” (modern Greek for “cyclone,” but also an allusion to the poisonous Zyklon B used to murder Jews at Auschwitz and elsewhere) Ventouras writes elliptically of his family’s escape from Crete:
With two oars
and two sails
in heaps of carob beans
Soon after arriving in Athens, the family was betrayed by Nazi sympathizers and had to go into hiding. Iossif was separated from his mother and cared for by a nanny. Although the nanny, who was named Athina, was devoted to Ventouras, the separation was traumatic and confusing to him. In “Kykloniο,” he quotes some personally resonant lines from the great Holocaust poet Nelly Sachs:
My mother held me by the hand
Then someone raised the knife of parting.
Although he had been reading and writing poetry his entire life, Ventouras’s first poetry collection, Ygros Kiklos (Liquid Circle) did not appear until 1997, when he was almost sixty. Four years later, he published “Tanais,” the title poem of this volume, and, eight years after that, “Kykloniο.” It had taken him more than half a century to write about the war, as he did in “Tanais”:
pedlar of spasms in my stammering tongue
How shall I utter dystocic consonants
The Greek word “dystocic,” which is occasionally also used in English, means “to give birth with difficulty.” Before writing the poem, he returned to Crete, visiting the old neighborhoods in Chania and the house where he was born.
“Tanais” and “Kyklonio” are, I believe, two of the most important and devastating poems written in the wake of the Holocaust, and they are now finally available in an English translation in this volume from the small publisher Red Heifer Press.
In A. B. Yehoshua’s novel, Mr. Mani, a Jew-hunting soldier named Egon Brunner is intoxicated by Crete and the ruins of Knossos where his Jewish target, Mr. Mani, is a tour guide. “Crete, this most wonderful place that has been from the start . . . the true grail of our German soul,” he declares. But where Yehoshua’s Nazi celebrates a fabricated connection between German and ancient Greek culture, Ventouras is a true heir to two ancient traditions, Jerusalem and Athens. In “Kykloniο,” he writes:
‘Question: what is your name?’
‘Answer: My Jewish name, or . . . ? My Greek name is . . .’
The poem opens with an epigraph from Jeremiah (1:13): “I see a bubbling pot / and its spout is facing north,” which the poet adopts as a description of the German invasion of Greece and Crete. Ventouras’s other great Holocaust poem, “Tanais,” opens with Homer:
There do thou beach thy ship by the eddying Oceanus,
but go thyself to the dark house of Hades.
These are the words of the sorceress Kirke from Book Ten of The Odyssey. And Odysseus will go down to Hades to encounter the spirits of those he has fought alongside at Troy. Ventouras continues his poem with the names of all eighty-eight children who were drowned and then revisits them in the empty Chania streets where they once played together on Purim:
and you Esther were a child
a child dressed in a queen’s costume
you wore a paper crown and threw confetti
and Baba brought Haman’s teeth to the feast
without a compass and
the bodies freeze
your hair will take the color of seaweed.
Ventura frequently invokes the names of the children who drowned, both memorializing them and dramatizing their tragedy:
into the mikvah
Victoria Rosa and Leah
waterplants in the sea
Among Ventura’s publications is a still-untranslated work of prose, Ibbur: The Jews of Crete 1900-1950. “Ibbur,” Ventura explains, “denotes the state of a dead soul that migrates to a living person to perform a task.” On a number of occasions, he has claimed that he felt possessed while writing the poem. “I often felt my hand being led into writing by someone else as if it were, in a way, an automatic writing.” His lines often take on an incantatory feeling:
If you look into the night
you see my nights
they sow grey scales and rust
they corrode the sarcophagi of the deep . . .
if you look into the night you see genies
they seal the bones of children in chambers of steel.
Ventura draws his reader into the world he reimagines with arresting, graphic images:
I was walking a tightrope
for whatever glows
when sunlight curved
towards the abyss
and then back again
where I arose a tree trunk
His lyric voice also lends itself naturally to music. The Cretan composer Marielli Sfakianaki has written a powerful cantata, setting verses from “Tanais”.
In her introduction to this volume, Elisabeth Arseniou describes the poem as “replete with meaning, reversals (overturning, capsizing) silences and absences. Missing letters, cracked images, blurred faces.” Ventouras writes in “Tanais.”
fissures in narrations
wings of birds
ι ι ο ο α α ε ε υ υ
ουαι αει alas forever
He roots his poem in a long Greek tradition with words from the ancient language, while at the same time evoking the shattering of a world that will never be restored.Ventouras, like Odysseus, survived, but he is harrowed by guilt. He writes:
I returned . . .
here are the taxes we pay,
It would have been a meddling
to let the scar heal.
Although the prescience of his family allowed them to escape Crete, in his poem Ventouras declares:
I am here
confirmed as drowned.
Ventura has acknowledged the influence of modern Greek poets, including Odysseus Elytis (winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature) and Giorgos Seferis, but has claimed that “for the two elegies . . . I was taught by Paul Celan.” In a Zoom chat, Ventouras plunges to one side of his desk and reappears with a pile of books by Celan in parallel Greek-German editions. Foremost among them, for him, is the collection Die Niemandsrose, in a version by Christos Lazos, whom he describes enthusiastically as “a genius translator. I don’t know German, but I can smell the translation, how it is done. Very, very good.”
Die Niemandsrose is the collection in which Celan draws most frequently on Jewish themes, but though Ventouras’s work is also peppered with Jewish scriptural references, he is drawn to Celan especially because “his poetry is like a broken language. Like a person who suffers and articulates words that come out of his pain and problems.”
In places, the powerful imagery of Venturas’s Greek recalls the early Celan of the famous “Death Fugue.” Take these lines, for instance, from “Kyklonia”:
Nobody noticed the flesh
kissing the chimneys on the mouth
These are more shocking still than Celan’s famous image (in John Felstiner’s translation): “You’ll rise up as smoke to the sky / you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped.” The concluding lines of the opening verse of “Kyklonia” read:
and his word was a wound
and his wound a word
This reminds one of Celan’s claim that he was “Wirklichkeitswund und Wirklichkeit suchend” (wounded by reality and seeking reality). Yet, Ventouras’s Holocaust poetry, particularly “Tanais,” contains an optimism not found in Celan. Witness that poem’s concluding apothesosis:
in a cup I will gaze into the future
faint footprints of shapes that will return
ethereal and winged will descend
dressed in clothes
on weird machines that travel . . .
salt is life
grains of salt.
Ventura also evokes the everyday lives of the Cretan Jewish community in passages that are laden with tragic irony:
Sereno whistling down Kondylaki Street
the Eve of Sabbath and Olga
would be dressed
in Florentine lace
the Bride cometh
and he has longed for Her warmth
Her blessing spreadeth through the neighbourhood
. . . vayekadesh oto ki vo shavat mikol melachto
Olga, who was once Sereno’s Sabbath Bride, has drowned.
Having subjected himself to the experience of the children drowning in “Tanais,” in “Kyklonia,” Ventouras uses an acrostic of the Greek alphabet to frame an unflinching description of the gas chambers:
Sound of blood clotting
Scaffold upon scaffold
And they totter Kyrie
They melt . . .
They are baking
I chant Kyrie
It is interesting that Ventura chooses to “chant Kyrie” rather than invoking one of the Jewish names for God. Kyrie eleison is the Septuagint’s rendition of
Haneini Adonai (Lord, have mercy) in Psalms and is commonly used in Christian liturgy. It is as if, at this moment of particular horror, he is impelled to draw on elements from all the cultures into which he has been born.
“Kykloniο” concludes by invoking the great seventh-century Byzantine Jewish poet:
I chant your hymns Eleazar ben Killir
You have forsaken us Kyrie and the soul cries out in agony
No one translator is identified on the title page of this volume. In his Acknowledgments, Ventura recognizes a number of versions and concludes by expressing his “gratitude to my publisher, Peter Gimpel, for his enthusiastic support of this project and his meticulous care in editing the English text.” Anglophone readers certainly have every reason to be grateful to Gimpel and Red Heifer Press for making this important Greek Jewish voice accessible. But earlier, unpublished translations I have seen of “Tanais” by Elisabeth Arseniou and “Kyklonia” by Helen Dimos and Giannis Goumas, which were apparently the basis for the translations in this volume, suggest that there has been considerable and rather inartful meddling from the publisher-poet Peter Gimpel. Even an indubitably great poet such as Ventura, with a nose for translation, can sometimes be led astray in another language, and I am very much afraid that this may have been the case with Ventura here.
Thus, following a list of the Cretan Jewish children murdered by the Nazis, Ventura opens his poem: “Me-sto-ma igro / Nero-ponti / To fyllo-ma pnigmeno.” In her unpublished translation, upon which the published version in this volume is apparently based, Arseniou sensitively renders this as:
the foli-age drowned
But in the book, we read:
With gushing mouth
waters in flood
the foliage but drowned
The missed hyphenation, which Arseniou keeps, is crucial, retaining the gaps that, as Arseniou has explained in her introduction, are key, particularly at the start of the poem. One can go further. The Greek nero-ponti, which in the book is rendered, “waters in flood,” Arseniou correctly translates as “down-pour,” again retaining Ventouras’s hyphenation and using one word instead of three, while the redundant conjunction “but” in the book version’s third line lends Ventouras’s poetry an unneeded, archaic quality. Elsewhere, the book renders I foni katakleinei / astheniki pou vythidzetai / anatolika tou pelagou as:
the voice fades
into the Aegean
Why translate “astheniki” with the obscure English medical term “asthenic”? Arseniou’s “infirm” renders the Greek accurately and comprehensibly.
Peter Gimpel ought to have let the great poet’s voice fade and plunge without interference or embroidery. For now, however, this is the Venturasthat English readers have, and there is much here for which to be grateful.
TΗΕ POETRY OF THE SACRE
by Alexis Ziras
Iossif Ventura’s poetry has a wholesale structural element discernible at once, and as per poetry written in recent years. The majority of people who have read it confined themselves to its morphology, its abstract or symbolic genre. And this, because even as ordinary literary readers, in the last decades we have undergone a severe twist vis-à-vis our opinion concerning whatever is sacred beyond politics. We have raised politics (i.e., their current practicality) to sacredness, thus eliminating and/or barring what emanates from a thousand sides in poems such as these, and which resembles an inexhaustible effluence, trying to stop its flow being pointless. For me, what emanates is a feeling of everyday sacredness, the sacredness of life, transcendent revelation. Mind you, not sacredness in the ritual sense, resulting from a ceremonial development of a dogmatic religious manner as imposed by the hierarchy for instance, Judaism or Christianity or Islam but more as ceremonial development of a temporal sorrow, guilt or pain, issuing from what a man becomes conscious of when he feels lacking morally and banished from the action of hieratic history; from its dogmatic irrationality which, beyond a certain point, the difference between political and religious sacredness cannot be distinguished, as is the case nowadays.
When we resort to such notions, correlating them with modern Greek poetry and dipping into the especially sensitive nature of sacredness, we don’t think of the few poets who wrote at great length on religious themes and created in the shadow of the overall Greek poetic canon, such as Joseph Eliya, G. Veritis, et al. As though coincident, our thought goes to Odysseus Elytis, Nikos Gatsos, D. Papaditsas, Nikos Engonopoulos, not to mention left-wing lyric poets: in particular Yannis Ritsos and Tassos Livaditis or, as expected, Nikiforos Vrettakos. True enough, only little has been written, if not on the fringe, regarding the function of the transcendent element in modern poetry; and this because the mechanistic inflexibility of education withholds permission an education that for decades has been moving with unrealistic slowness between the legacy of Voltaireian enlightenment and that of socialist virtue. However, the transcendent element, the expectation of incarnation through someone dear to us or through the state of the future, is manifest, whether we like it or not, in a series of 20th century Greek poets, such as Yorgos Vafopoulos, Takis Varvitsiotis, Nikos Karouzos, and not least Ektor Kaknavatos, Lefteris Poulios, and other descendants. Relatively speaking, of course, I find that transcendent revelation traverses the poetry of Iossif Ventura, but with this emphatic difference that I note here: sacredness and the feeling of sacredness in a number of poets of Hebrew descent do not rise to an abstraction, to an idea of boundlessness and inconceivability, but are impressed on fact, on the historicity of mass experience, on passions and myths that compose the safety net of poetic conscience against the prevailing decadence of the age we live in.
Ventura’s latest book, Cyclone, begins with an address or invocation to a figure that symbolizes this diachronic Jewish refugee, Yoseph ben Malkah, exiled from the sea/the desert in his mouth/ who /mourned for a wellspring/his word a wound/and his wound a word […] And his voice was the crack of centuries. Indeed, in this book’s prefatory verses, as well as in other poems from Ventura’s earlier collections, he employs a number of symbolic words and phrases of biblical content; only now, in his poetic narration, he includes horrific stories of Jews who survived after being held in German concentration camps. Which means that the sacre of the Bible icons, the diachronic sacre, is embodied in the sacredness of concentration camp suffering, thus grounding it to the human condition: Meadow gone to rack and ruin/The moon’s blood on the steppe/Your wounded feet Samuel/Your frozen feet Vita/Memorials that lengthened/the night with bitter almonds. Bitter almond refers to the smell of cyclone gas used to exterminate captive Jews during the few months of the Holocaust.
This retrogressive movement between the sense of traditional sacredness and the conscience of the sacre of the historical moment extends throughout Ventura’s poetry, besides giving it a certain rhythm, a musical movement interwoven with biblical rhetoric. I take the opportunity of noting here that the rhythm of said poetic language was not so overt at the outset of his poetry. Rhythmic-wise, Ventura was influenced by the poetry of the Occitan troubadours, the ballads of François Villon and Bertrand de Born. In Moist Circle (1997), his first collection, whereas his speech is solemn, already drawing on meanings-cum-symbols from the Hebrew tradition (_sword, ark, land of Nod), abstraction was more acute, thus creating a feeling of metaphysical levitation: The sacred horn trumpets forth/the secret egg that begets me/like a frightful bell/like an aqueous sphere. In his next book, Arithmetic memory (1998), the poetic scene changes, though not morphologic-wise. The poems continue being expressively profuse, a lyrical nostalgia, but dubitable if nostalgia of an erotic reminiscence or nostalgia of a reminiscence that through the characters comes to draw out of the sanctum of conscience pictures of a diachronic genealogical calamity: Leaning on the table’s swing/with snowy bodies and fork stuck into our cheek, they annunciated us “bread for eating”. So here, as everywhere in this poetry, arises biblical language with its lovely lightning metaphors. But if we view Ventura’s successive poetry books: Tanais (2001), Comments in Black (2006), and the latest Cyclone, if we view them as a unity of lyrical passion, we’ll realize that they constitute points of entry and exit onto a dramatic culmination: the Holocaust. In this drama converge personal and collective fates, and where the genocide story is repeated via its diachrony. Jewish tradition, the Old Testament, is tightly knit, like ivy, around such legends which nonetheless comprise small and large holocausts. And in this sense, the ode that glorifies, praises, and at the same time mourns the blood that was shed, I’d say that the solemn oration in Tanais and Cyclone, whether or not the poet knows it, is not that far from the solemn dithyrambs of Andreas Kalvos’ Odes.
Of the ethics that govern Ventura’s entire poetic universe, here too language maintains its elegiac and ritual trend, as in the 19th century romantic hierophant poet: Andreas Kalvos. But in suchlike writing, the audible voice is all the more stripped of its personal pomposity and becomes a plural voice: the I remembers names, places, and scenes of a life at a certain period in time. However, in their poetic metaphor, all those pieces of personal genealogy acquire another dimension and cease belonging to I. They are inscribed on a universal headstone, or become new branches of a tree whose roots are lost in time. And what is really wondrous is that in the end time ceases in poetry:
And if those times are buried in oblivion
their final breath will salute us
And if the ashes-cum-silences sink
you’ll be the selfsame pedlar