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December 05, 2007

My Illumination

Since we've receive the illumination assignment I've continued searching for a piece of poetry that truly illuminates me. Its been a struggle, because I was able to find many different pieces of poetry which have meant something to me, but nothing that sticks out above the rest, until now. My illuminating poem is In Harbor by Constantine P. Cavafy. The translated version is below:

A young man, twenty eight years old, on a vessel from Tenos,
Emes arrived at this Syrian harbor
with the intention of learning the perfume trade.
But during the voyage he was taken ill. And as soon
as he disembarked, he died. His burial, the poorest,
took place here. A few hours before he died,
he whispered something about "home," about "very old parents."
But who these were nobody knew,
nor which his homeland in the vast panhellenic world.
Better so. For thus, although
he lies dead in this harbor,
his parents will always hope he is alive.

To better understand why this poem means so much to me, I need to share a little bit about my family history.

Family Origins

There is so much that I can say about my families origins, I'm going to try and keep this history to the point, and not get sidetracked too much. My family is of Greek descent. (My fellow student Henry is also of Greek descent, which may seem like quite the coincidence since we both went to high school together, and come from the same hometown, until you know more about the Greek community in Canton, Ohio. Many Greeks settled in Canton and the Greeks within Canton are a very close knit community, which also can help to describe Henry and I's great friendship, on the basis of similar cultural and family backgrounds.) The Greek side of my family is my father's side, which helps to explain why I am so close with this side of my family. My both sets of great-grandparents on my father's side of the family immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, from what is now modern day Turkey. Now when is say this, most people think 'How can you be someone of Greek descent if you're from Turkey?' Well, up until the early 1900s, when my family moved, Greeks were spread all throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Greeks lived amongst the Turkish people in Asia Minor, until the Turkish government decided to start persecuting the Christian Greeks and either killed them or forced them to leave their homes. My family, and many of the Greek people in Canton are of Pontian descent, and originate from the Pontic Mountains on the Northern Shores of Turkey, along the Black Sea. Because of their location so far into the mainland of Turkey, and so far away from Greece, the Pontians were persecuted harshly. Many stories of my childhood were about how all the people in the villages were forced to leave their homes and everything they knew, and find a new life where ever they ended up. Many times family's were split apart, sometimes being rejoined, other times not. I heard stories of how certain family members would take all that the family owned to sell and come to America, that whoever had the best shot at finding a way to make money to save the rest of the family was given all of the items a family possessed to make that happen. One specific family that my grandmother still tells to this day, is of how her father traveled back to Greece after he had settled his family in America to find his brother, but when he went back to his old village it was completely gone, and never being able to find his brother.

When I first read the English form of this poem, I knew that it resonated with me, and had meaning. It is the story of a man from Greece that is trying to do better for himself. But bad luck falls upon the man and he becomes ill and dies, and those who he is around when he dies has no idea who his family is, or anyway to let them know what has happened. This poem represents so much more than the words that are written on the page. For me, it reminds me of the history of my family, and the history of the Greek people. It brings to mind that along with the struggle and success there was also failure.

The man comes with rich dreams to a land which is unknown to him, but to which he has journeyed for the promise of hope. His dream ends abruptly, and since he has come with nothing, he is recognized in a quick and cheap, an almost anonymous burial. But even though this man has the anonymous burial, he is being mentioned in the poem, as a representation of many people who have suffered similar fates. As the man is dying, he speaks of his family. The poem shows the futility and hardships that some people experienced when they left their homes by leaving the names and locations of his parents anonymous. Even though their son has died, the dream lives on with the parents that he has come to something better, so regardless of their knowledge of their son, they are able to go about their lives more peacefully without knowing that he is dead.

This poem was originally written in Greek, and although I am sure it is much more eloquent in the native language to someone who has a solid grasp of the Greek language, the words of this English translation are what mean the most to me. It reminds me of the pride that I have in where I have come from, but also helps to not let me forget all of the sacrifices that were made so that I can be where I am today.

Posted by ndjames at December 5, 2007 04:39 PM


A very touching post that reminded me of a week spent in Provincetown with Olga Broumas (do you know her poetry and translations? of Odysseus Elytis and of Osip Mandelstam?), before and after tempestuous seas, waves like painted hooks, spines from hunched backs --it was spectacular

but years before I was as prone to documenting interactions outside of the gallery of interactions housed in my brain
so the event is only reconfigured there

--thank you for providing a connecting tine that brought this layer of my experience to the front;

I am also reminded of the thoughtful and pained print poam work of Shirley Kaufman whose poetry has often dealt with consequences of chosen displacement, the efforts to become part of a system to which there is some embedded link that perhaps will be activated by a decision to be immersed in the culture and country strongly associated with the embedded link.

The print book in which she deals directly with the marginal location between allegiances and associations (such as the "harbor" of your illumination) is "From One Life to Another."
This link: http://coppercanyonpress.org/catalog/dsp_poem.cfm?Book_ID=1188&Poem_ID=277 will take you to one of her print poams from "Threshold," a more recent collection.

I can understand why the print poam you quote and discuss is tethered with so much meaning.

Posted by: thyliasm at December 22, 2007 02:21 AM

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