Rethymno and the Aegean from the University

Letter from Crete


Dear Ms. Manasiadis

Looking much forward to meeting you.

All the best, L.A


Dear Vana (if I may) Angela and I will both be on campus this coming Monday, June 27.

All best, L


If you plan to come on Monday, please do come as my guest to dinner.

All best, L


Excellent.  I think I’ll be at my office earlier, around 18.00, very near to the amphitheatres.



I lived on Crete for nine years until eighteen months ago, but in Heraklion, home of the university’s Science Faculty, not in Rethymno, home of the humanities. But I’d visited, and remember the first time – twenty or so years ago – when my sister and I turned up at the youth hostel, put our packs on the bunks in one of the smaller rooms, and were gently asked to move into the larger hall by the sole occupant, because there was a naked young guy asleep on her bunk; because she was running her business out of that small space. She said something about love and asked our names. (Then, what’s your’s?/what day is it today?/Sunday/then my name’s Sunday). This was an early example of translation, I think. An early example of surprise and shift.

And no doubt there will be others. Because here I am again, having arrived to translate poems by Greek contemporary poets; to be disorientated again by the various rituals like the locals who disappear each midday, and then reappear each night to perch on stools like owls; like the elderly woman who greets me everyday until I feel I’ve lived here thirty years, and the grocer who takes off his apron and hops on his clanging bike to deliver my bottles of water leaving his store unattended. And then there’s my room – high ceiling, mysterious cupboards, showerhead in the corner of the W.C – in a composite complex of old village houses, with a deserted mansion across the street: open windows, powdery walls slipping into piles onto the floor, staircase bending, heavy doors shut against the decades (centuries?) of presence and absence.

And I think: presence and absence might be a way to describe all this activity. Because after waiting across from markets that take over the municipal carpark on Thursdays, under the huge tree on 25th March Square that shelters all the waiting passengers before they vanish, and after flagging down the bus, (gruff driver tearing my ticket in two and handing me back a scrap), and riding up the hill to the campus, which is really a labyrinth, and walking to my office camouflaged by bougainvillea, I sit down and try to collect myself in the physical space: resume my spot opposite the sea, against the wall of books, focus on the poets and their immaterial company.

Vassilis Amanatidis, Theodoros Chiotis, Phoebe Giannisi, Lena Kallergi, Patricia Kolaiti, Katerina Iliopoulou. I contacted these contemporary Greek poets months ago with a request for a poem I could include in the first Seraph Press’s Poetry in Translation series, launching – hopefully – in October. And I said: In 1863, the Orpheus became the largest shipwreck in New Zealand’s short history; in April 2015, a shipwreck off the coast of Rhodes became a symbol of the growing refugee crisis; and in other years, 2007, 1999, ancient shipwrecks were (re)discovered in deep Mediterranean waters. So wrecks then, (and reefs), are informing the form, or vessel, or body of the Greek edition of the series.

The idea had come during an afternoon at Huia Beach, after coming across a mast from the Orpheus shipwreck, recycled as an exhibit, memorial, totem. Here was Orpheus, singer, poet, musician, who’d survived trips to the underworld and grief, naming a warship carrying troops in the middle of the New Zealand Wars. Why did he do that, and then make the ship go off course, hit a bar, and sink with 189 of its human cargo? That afternoon, walking down Huia Road, I felt sadness at the whole, sorry, futile story. But, a few days ago, during a visit to the Rethymno’s Archaeological Museum, I came across the finds retrieved from the Aghia Galini shipwreck in the south – 3rd century CE sword hilts, coins, lamps, statuettes of ineffectual Gods – on their way to be recycled but miraculously saved by storm. And I thought: navigation, recycling, gale, they must also be iterations of translation; and that as notions, calculation, provocation, and energy, could surely inform the rhythms, fidelities, elasticities of my own.


Finds from the Aghia Galini Shipwreck.

Finds from the Aghia Galini Shipwreck.


Then, there’s this: one of the goals of this project is to try to translate the Greek into New Zealand [Engl]ish, or ‘Aotearoian’. But what does that mean, or should it mean, in practice? Because personally, (and isn’t language always personal?), I think one of the things it should mean, is Te Reo. Where Greek words and phrases resist English identities, I want to seek out meeting points in Te Reo instead; and I think there should be at least one poem translated into Te Reo Māori. And then this question: should the Māori be translated into English? Because in fact, I don’t want it to be, feel like saying: hey if we’re New Zealanders, why don’t we understand this? Why is translation a one way street, has been so for over150 years. Is this our bi-culturalism, is this our bilingualism?

I ask these things as an immigrant’s daughter for whom multiculturalism is crucial, who can’t help but recoil at the idea of borders, restriction of the freedom of movement, refugees floating in water or limbo, or purgatory or hell; as in Nauru, or at the refugee centres in a Greece left to its own devices by its wealthy neighbours to the west. But really, in our case, shouldn’t we be a little more bilingual by now, in this country we think quite lovely? (You know: pristine nature, a country of healthy homes, and families and teens; if we don’t apply the magnifying glass too close; if, after working with teens in South Auckland, you don’t blame me when I don’t sing the country’s praises too loudly).

But let’s keep it simple. Obviously, knowledge of language grants membership, fosters franchise. When I teach [English] academic literacy, I tell my students that learning it is like learning a new language, a key to a door that seems tightly locked. But the terrain of language acquisition is slippery. At the Rethymno markets I’m a fluent dealer of everyday Greek, of various Cretan variants that give me entrance; but then, with the university staff, I attempt, (really embarressedly), an intellectual tone – a version of academic Greek maybe – and am mortified at my various gaps and self representation.  I feel frustration, constraint, a kind of un-power. When a group of academics from all over Europe, (Italy, Germany, Austria) get together over dinner/a museum trip/lunch and swim the next day, and the lingua franca is not English, but Greek, and I am stunned.

White mountain vocabularies, Waitakere grammars. Communication can feel like an uphill climb, an exhausting backwards and forwards crossing into and out of self. For example, when Angela Kastrinaki, the Head of Philology, finds one of my poems in English difficult, and asks me to translate it into Greek, I find that I can’t really do it; and not because I find it particularly untranslatable, but because the act itself feels transgressive – as in I can’t relate to it in Greek, as in the deliberate disorientation in the English version, will be lost in the Greek. That it will become an unintended thing. But in this I lack courage, because communication is of course something to aim for, to work hard at, like community, commonality, communitatem, fellowship; connexio, connectere, I join together.

Yes, there are many ways to get it wrong, (if there is such a thing in the first place), but also quite a few to get it right (or quite a few ways to approximate ‘rightness’). One night I go up to the fortress theatre to see a production of Socrates’ Apology performed in Ancient Greek, with surtitles in modern Greek and English. The staging is Beckett-esque: spare, desolate, a bit bleak, and Socrates stands in the centre of a dark stage (stars above, town and lights reflected on the water below the fort), dressed shabbily. Meanwhile, the klepsydra drip-drip-drips, and the language –  that is, language as sense – recedes. (I find reading the Modern Greek too confusing, because too similar, and the English too jarring). So, I experience language as sound primarily, not as semantics; as chant, not as flagged meaning. Which is why when I walk back to my room afterwards, children playing and yelling still, Greek ‘hybrid’ music playing out of the anarchist collectives, coded syllables caught from under darkening doorways, Russian hitting the sides of the souvenir shops in the tourist quarter, all I want to do is respond with a long note of my own, a karakia, a psalmodia. It is then, simply a case of joining in.

What language did these people speak? Professor Alex Politis asks, after our visit to the archaeological museum at ancient Eleftherna: not Greek. Linear B has been deciphered, Linear A not. But in the Rethymno town, just along from the Historical and Folklore Museum, whole walls are covered in graffiti, some in other languages, most in Greek, and all those, lines of poetry that point to love and revolt. So I feel I want to leave the taxonomy to the linguists and focus on this beautiful disobedience: script, defacement, memoir, mark. When I tell Alex I’ve taken photos of the walls, it’s not the fortress ones I’m talking about. I try to translate the signatures, but leave the syntax intact.


Poetry walls on Vernadou St.

Poetry walls on Vernadou St.


Nights with moons Ι’ve liked


What are you thinking?

If you were here to see

πως         περνάω,

looking for you wherever

I go         αν ήσουν εδώ

νύχτες και μέρες με σένα

uninterrupted rhythms

in the beehives του

μυαλόυ μου          the favelas

I can love you without

your help               έχω ελέυθερη

καρδιά και της επιτρέπω

να κάνει οτι θέλει


I’m a little cross as you can make out


the most accurate thing

to ask is: how many times

you         loved another,

πόσες φορές ο άλλος αγάπησε

εσένα και               how many

times the two collided

δεν κλαίμε πια μεγαλώσαμε

so consider: that roots exist

so we might          βγάλουμε

κλαδιά                    not so we return to them


I photograph the graffiti on campus as well, and the posters urging political action. Not this road, that; no to bankruptcy, debt. With half the population of under 25s unemployed, and most people unable to pay rent, utilities, medical bills, the fury’s justified; and kōrero is the only thing that keeps regenerating, that still permits agency. Because there is a lot of speaking, writing, singing in Crete, in Greece – traditionally and currently. People talk back. There is momentum in the visual and performance arts, in the country’s New Wave Cinema, in poetry, in the emergence of independent publishers and grassroots writing festivals (such as the Festival of Sand launched by Rethymno publisher Strange Days where writers read their work on tiny Gavdos island, whose inhabitants shared all their stores when boatloads of refugees came to shore. (Sharing, the breaking of bread. Is that what translation looks like?)


‘Generation Crisis. You can cut all the flowers but you can’t stop the spring.’


In Heraklion, my friends Australian artist Mathew Halpin and Greek writer Antonis Tsirikoudis, have moved into three adjoining dilapidated houses in the poor  central area of Lakkos (condemned space where refugees from Asia Minor – like my grandfather – and Greek blues players and dealers set up residence in the 1920s). And they have a plan.  Over the next five years they intend to restore the structures, run artist residencies, host street artists, and paint the facades of the area’s derelict homes in bright colours. Then, in Athens, I have dinner with Laura Preston at a repurposed-as-tavern old school. Art curator, expat New Zealander, alert and open, she is working on Documenta 14, Learning from Athens, in a city with many of its post-apocalyptic shop-fronts boarded up, and its people on the streets until the wee hours. We talk about transition, acceptance, forgiveness.  I wonder whether the heat is the catalyst, she says. And I wonder whether translation is about forgiveness plus heat, as in heat transferal, as in the movement of molecules from stasis to action, from me to you.

It’s true that back at the university, the heat makes everything seem unsteady: asphalt, olive trees, water laid out below, a sheet. I think: it’s all up for grabs, the my, the yours, the fixity of language, of sequence. My collection of poetry years ago saw my mother reincarnated as Penelope, and here Angela Kastrinaki gives me her Versions of Penelope to read, her own contemporary, irreverent translations of the archetype; and she herself ungraspable, unpin-pointable; ironic or generous and direct. She immediately gives me several of the books I show interest in, from her second office – for the time being my office – a space all art exhibition and book launch posters, framed cards and prints, including one of Cavafy – poet, polyglot, iconoclast – on the floor.


Looking west from Rethymno.

Looking west from Rethymno.


These people I meet, are they at least expressible? Will I find words to reflect their layers? Come on, the sun is falling into the sea, and everything is becoming less distinct. The borders over here have been crumbling and reforming for centuries; and when I join Alex and Angela in the water, at dusk, their features become less clear, less sharp. She thought ‘Shipwrecks’ a bad idea, and I was relieved when Dimitris Chantzopoulos, thought it a good one. Every day he provides the political cartoon for Kathimerini, the country’s biggest newspaper. Every single day he translates noise into image. Imagine that, says Angela, the diligence required. Dictionary, brush-stroke, dialogue, imperfection, attempt, offering. I keep using lists of words, but perhaps what I’ve been getting to is this: exchange, and also negative space, as in the space that opens up after the fact. Because shipwrecks can become reefs too – like the sunken frigate back home in Island Bay – and translations can build new places to stand; and what about Dante’s idea that, the endings of last verses are most beautiful if they fall into silence, into that space where language is finally able to communicate itself – in Coral, in Water, with one eye open. Speech and pause.



είμαι κλεισμένη στη σπηλιά του Κύκλωπα.

το ένα μοναδικό του μάτι με φρουρεί.

εγώ αγρυπνώ.

– Κύκλωπα, άνοιξέ μου την πόρτα!

– Κύκλωπα, άφησέ με να φύγω!

ο Κύκλωπας χαϊδεύει το τρίχωμα της ράχης μου.

ανάβει φωτιά

τρίβει τα χέρια

τρώει το κρέας το τυρί το κρασί μου.

κοιμάται ευτυχισμένος

ενώ με φυλάει


με το ένα μοναδικό του μάτι ανοιχτό.



Ruru iho au ki te ana o te Karutahi

Whakamau tonu mai tana karu kotahi

Noho ake au

Karutahi, huakina te kūaha!

Karutahi, tukuna au kia haere!

Ka morimori a Karutahi i ngā huruhuru o taku tuarā

Ka tahu i te ahi

Ka kōmirimiri i ōna ringaringa

Pau katoa te mīti, te tīhi, taku waina anō hoki

Au ana tana moe

I a ia ka tiaki i a au

Ka tokopuaha

Tuwhera ana tana karu kotahi



I’m cooped up inside Cyclops’ cave.

his one single eye watching me.

I sit up.

Cyclops, open the door for me!

Cyclops, let me leave!

Cyclops strokes the hair on my spine.

he lights a fire

rubs his hands

eats the meat, the cheese, my wine.

he is sleeping happily while he guards me

he burps

his one single eye open.


1 – from Chimera, by Phoebe Giannisi

2 – Māori translation, by Hemi Kelly


Vana Manasiadis on campus.

Vana Manasiadis on campus.


Vana Manasiadis is the author of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves (Seraph Press 2009), which draws, wrote Dame Fiona Kidman, on Vana’s ‘personal experiences as a Greek woman growing up in New Zealand, her family heritage, and mythic elements of Greek lore and culture’. For more on Vana’s work, visit her website.











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