The Wave of All Waves

Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, 2021, photograph: the author.

Giorgos Seferis, “Thrush” I, Poros, ‘Galini’, 31 October 1946, trans. Edmund Keeley

The house near the sea

The houses I had they took away from me. The times
happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile;
sometimes the hunter hits the migratory birds,
sometimes he doesn’t hit them. Hunting
was good in my time, many felt the pellet;
the rest circle aimlessly or go mad in the shelters.

[…]

I don’t know much about houses,
I remember their joy and their sorrow
sometimes, when I stop to think;
again sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own,
watching the evening spider, I imagine
that someone is getting ready to come, that they dress him up
in white and black robes, with many-coloured jewels,
and around him venerable ladies,
grey hair and dark lace shawls, talk softly,
that he is getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or that a woman — eyelashes quivering, slim-waisted,
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna Rhodes Syracuse Alexandria,
From cities closed like hot shutters,
with perfume of golden fruit and herbs —
climbs the stairs without seeing
those who’ve fallen asleep under the stairs.

Houses, you know, grow resentful easily when you strip them bare.

Τὰ σπίτια ποὺ εἶχα μου τὰ πῆραν. Ἔτυχε
νά᾿ ναι τὰ χρόνια δίσεχτα πόλεμοι χαλασμοὶ ξενιτεμοὶ
κάποτε ὁ κυνηγὸς βρίσκει τὰ διαβατάρικα πουλιὰ
κάποτε δὲν τὰ βρίσκει- τὸ κυνήγι
ἦταν καλὸ στὰ χρόνια μου, πῆραν πολλοὺς τὰ σκάγια-
οἱ ἄλλοι γυρίζουν ἢ τρελαίνουνται στὰ καταφύγια.

[…]

Δὲν ξέρω πολλὰ πράγματα ἀπὸ σπίτια,
θυμᾶμαι τὴ χαρά τους καὶ τὴ λύπη τους
καμιὰ φορά, σὰ σταματήσω-
ἀκόμη
καμιὰ φορά, κοντὰ στὴ θάλασσα, σὲ κάμαρες γυμνὲς
μ᾿ ἕνα κρεβάτι σιδερένιο χωρὶς τίποτε δικό μου
κοιτάζοντας τὴ βραδινὴν ἀράχνη συλλογιέμαι
πὼς κάποιος ἑτοιμάζεται νὰ ῾ρθεῖ, πὼς τὸν στολίζουν
μ᾿ ἄσπρα καὶ μαῦρα ροῦχα μὲ πολύχρωμα κοσμήματα
καὶ γύρω του μιλοῦν σιγὰ σεβάσμιες δέσποινες
γκρίζα μαλλιὰ καὶ σκοτεινὲς δαντέλες,
πὼς ἑτοιμάζεται νὰ ᾿ ρθει νὰ μ᾿ ἀποχαιρετήσει-
ἤ, μιὰ γυναίκα ἐλικοβλέφαρη βαθύζωνη
γυρίζοντας ἀπὸ λιμάνια μεσημβρινά,
Σμύρνη Ρόδο Συρακοῦσες Ἀλεξάντρεια,
ἀπὸ κλειστὲς πολιτεῖες σὰν τὰ ζεστὰ παράθυροφυλλα,
μὲ ἀρώματα χρυσῶν καρπῶν καὶ βότανα,
πὼς ἀνεβαίνει τὰ σκαλιὰ χωρὶς νὰ βλέπει
ἐκείνους ποὺ κοιμήθηκαν κάτω ἀπ᾿ τὴ σκάλα.

Ξέρεις τὰ σπίτια πεισματώνουν εὔκολα, σὰν τὰ γυμνώσεις.

From Prinkipo Palace to the Greek Orphanage

Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, 2021, photograph: the author

When the building was finally abandoned, or rather, forcibly dispossessed, on September 14, 1977, the truth is that it had never been lived in to its fullest grandeur and it had enjoyed only a short period of luster, under headmaster Hristos Mavrofidis. That era, or the grace of buying time in between historical ruptures, coincided with the two events that would seal the convoluted fate of Istanbul’s Greeks, the Romioi — the pogroms of 1955 and the expulsions of 1964. We are talking here about the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, erected on Hristos Hill in 1898, one of the two peaks on the island of Büyükada, called Prinkipo by the Greeks, since at least the time of Emperor Justin the Younger, in the 6th century AD.

The story of the orphanage is more or less well-known and it has been chronicled often, due to its protected status as a cultural site for being the second largest wood structure in the world. A long legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights between the Greek community and the Turkish state over its ownership resulted in the building being returned to the Greek Patriarchate in 2010. This was, however, a pyrrhic victory, for the deterioration of the building was advancing quickly and sections of the roof have completely collapsed in recent years, since the small community, now numbering in the thousands, is unable to meet the costly repairs. Every once in a while you hear an official pronouncement that restoration is about to begin…

As we learn from the book “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage,” the itinerary of the orphanage begins not in Büyükada in 1898 but in Yedikule in 1853, when the first orphanage was established within the Balıklı Greek Hospital, subsequently destroyed by an earthquake in 1894, and then transferred to an old building in the back of the hospital in such terrible condition that it came to be known as the “place of fleas” (Των ψύλλων). In parallel, around this time, in 1897-98, begins the grandiose history of Prinkipo Palace, a one of a kind luxury hotel, a gigantic wooden structure built by the renowned French-Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury, a building as majestic as its future would be contested.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

The 206-room hotel, extending into 20,000 square meters, was designed to be a hotel and a casino, for there was high demand for luxury hotels at the end of the Oriental Express, and it was owned by the same train company. Vallaury, known as Mimar-ı Şehir (architect of the city), who was born into a Levantine family in Istanbul and was the mastermind of traditional landmarks of the period, such as Pera Palace Hotel, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Ottoman Imperial Bank. He conceived Prinkipo Palace, the world’s first modern multi-story wooden structure, as a combination of traditional Ottoman architecture and European styles of the period, using local timber to recreate ornate neoclassical interiors.

But this hotel was never to be. When Sultan Abdülhamid II banned gambling, the building entered into a legal limbo and it was then sold for a fraction of the price to Eleni Zafiropoulos-Zarifis, the wife of a wealthy banker, who bequeathed it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and in 1903 the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage opened its doors. But the joy was short-lived. After the outbreak of World War First, the building was confiscated, first occupied by a military school, then by allied German soldiers and finally by Russian migrants. The orphanage was severely damaged in the process, and when it was finally returned, the school had to operate in those conditions.

It was only until 1955, under the direction of Mavrofidis, that the orphanage operated at its fullest capacity (even though large portions of the enormous building were never used), according to the most up-to-date educational methods of the time. This period, however, would coincide with the pogroms against Greeks in Istanbul (which the school weathered out) and would culminate with the resignation of Mavrofidis in 1964. This year would spell fresh troubles for the Romioi, after the Famagusta incident in Cyprus between the Greek Cypriot militia and Turkish Cypriots, with measures aimed against Greeks living in Istanbul, and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, including deportation orders, and expropriations of buildings and capital.

On April 20, 1964, an evacuation order was sent to the orphanage on the pretext of a fire hazard. The 1974 Cypriot coup d’etat, initiated by the Greek military junta, followed by a Turkish invasion five days later, would signal even further losses for the Greek community, with more and more departures and restrictions — Cyprus has been a divided island ever since. On September 14, 1977, the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage was officially closed. Pupils were transferred to other schools and monasteries, lacking facilities for bathing and heating; teacher appointments were suspended ,as were books coming from Greece, and it was forbidden to renovate the schools and buildings they were housed in.

206 Rooms of Silence

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

What is the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage if not a permanent incompleteness, serving as a grand metaphor for Istanbul’s perennial sense of historical discontinuity with itself? In 2018, artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, a Greek-Armenian from Heybeli, called Halki in Greek, an island adjacent to Büyükada, told me about the project of making an exhibition about the orphanage, in light of its dismal condition then, and the necessity to highlight this building, in order to preserve a fragment of its memory, of its unfinished history, before it was too late. And then it was perhaps a little too late: Although the exhibition was to take place at the orphanage, it was no longer safe to enter the building.

In October that year, the exhibition “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage” (eponymous with the aforementioned book, published a year later), opened at the Galata Greek Primary School, also a former school of the Greek community closed down in 1988 due to a lack of pupils, and then permanently in 2007, now a prominent cultural center where Büyüktaşçıyan runs the cultural program. Büyüktaşçıyan, as an artist (and curator) was joined by three Turkish artists, Murat Germen, Ali Kazma and Dilek Winchester, to intervene on different aspects of the orphanage’s history and memory, from drone photography and film, to acoustic mnemography and material archives.

If you think of the parallels, the Galata Greek Primary School could have suffered the same fate as the orphanage, which is not an unlikely event in Turkey; demolitions, expropriations, bureaucratic limbo, abeyance (the orphanage escaped demolition due to its status as a historical landmark because it was a Vallaury building). As an artist, Büyüktaşçıyan has been actively engaged with the memory of dispossessed places, from the Princes Islands’ history as a place of exile since the Byzantine period to Hezekiah’s Pool in the Old City of Jerusalem barred to Palestinians by the occupation; in the book for 206 Rooms of Silence, she begins by telling us what one would see today if he stood on Hristos Hill, gazing sidewards and downwards:

“Elegantly rises on a hill growing from the
depths…
and gives the feeling of a flying building
that overcomes the gravity
…to those who stand at the peak and look
down.
Faces one side to the city and Heybeli, the
other to Sedef Island
And the other two…
North and south ends
are at the service of all the wild winds.”

The Wave of All Waves, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Galata Greek School, 2018, photograph: the author

The reference to nature’s physical presence is uncanny but yet not an attempt to aestheticize a ruin; instead it aims to let it speak in all its dimensions, through the contours of what is absent, and has been emptied out. Summoning of a ghost, of a building-as-a-ghost, resulting from political events against Turkey’s minorities, whose absence is not a clean break, but a visible interruption in the flow of being-there; “Hâlâ burada” (“Still here”) as Turkish artist Ali Kazma notes in the book, and whose delicate filmography of an orphaned orphanage, presents the juxtaposition between the rotting wood of the lonely building carcass and the lush forest, flanked by the ebullient life of the city across the sea.

The eerie silence of the rooms, at the summit of the hill, visited only by the forces of nature, both accelerating decay and withholding real presence, is summarized by Büyüktaşçıyan in her writing: “The only things that filled the rooms were: the winds of the island, the rustling of pine needles touching the windows, the deep but heavy, strident movements of the breathing wooden body. It all became the silence of countless voids within.”(*) Her installation, “The Wave of All Waves”, placed on the fourth floor of the Galata Greek Primary School, at the foreground of Murat Germen’s monumental photography of the collapsing roof, resembles not only an extension of the roof itself falling down, but a passage-way, a transition point.

(*) Translation edited.

A structure of moving planks, completes the idea of a transition between physical and imaginary spaces, recurrent in Büyüktaşçıyan’s previous works, “When Things Find Their Own Cleft” (2016) and “Docks” (2014) both of which also reference the predicament of Greeks and Armenians in Istanbul’s modern history, pointing at the condition of instability, and the perilous journeys of forced displacement. The safety of the ground under our feet can disappear at any moment; there exist everywhere uncanny waves from the past that can suddenly demolish the present moment, without warning. The artist turns to a cryptic poem by Seferis, to articulate the passage of the ruin from the mere degradation of an artifact to a historical condition.

Giorgos Seferis, “On a Winter Ray”, V, Three Secret Poems, 1966, trans. Vrasidas Karalis

Which murky river conquered us?
We collapsed at the deep.
The current runs over our heads
Winding inarticulate reeds;

The voices
Under the chestnut tree became pebbles
And children throw them away.

Ποιός βουρκωμένος ποταμός μάς πήρε;
Μείναμε στο βυθό.
Τρέχει το ρέμα πάνω απ’ το κεφάλι μας
λυγίζει τ’ άναρθρα καλάμια·

οι φωνές
κάτω απ’ την καστανιά γίναν χαλίκια
και τα πετάνε τα παιδιά.

Transcending the empirical reality of time, always moving in the direction of a line leading from past to future, Büyüktaşçıyan is seeking in poetry — not in poems as aesthetic objects but in poetical thinking, access to simultaneity, or rather, to multiples (any position that is not the singular or the whole) where interruptions can be traced as larger than merely events. As a model of temporality, currents and waves have always been part of her lexicon, since she began investigating the aquatic memory of cities, beginning with Istanbul’s water sources and cisterns. The wave of all waves, however, points at a larger kind of permanence, or endurance, through interruption, that the ghost-building of Prinkipo shares with the broken statues of Seferis.

Ali Kazma, Orphanage, 2018, photograph: the author

Reading Seferis: The Apocalypse

The crucial achievement in Seferis’ poetry, a qualifier of both his modernism and his rearticulation of “Hellenicity” (the larger cultural Hellenic space with its diasporas rather than a Greek national poetry) is a sparseness of language, counterintuitive to the archaizing influence of Katharevousa, precisely because of how rooted it is in the close reading of ancient texts, particularly Homer and Aeschylus. These are not “Classics” in the traditional European sense, referring to Greek texts as the genesis of a Western consciousness anchored in historical or mythological battles, but the direct experience of a timeless Aegean: Rocks, the cruel sea, black earth and the scorching sun. It is about the sparseness of the landscape.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

In Mythistorema (1935), the most famous of his poetry books, when he reaches his mature form as a poet, an undecipherable tale of desolation unfolds; it is laden with familiar characters; Odysseus, Orestes, Andromeda, Astyanax. But the exact moment and location of events remains elusive: There are shipwrecks, asphodels, horses, burnt pines, corpses. Sometimes, these could be the burial mounds of the Odyssey, but some other times, we might think of Seferis’ grief after the loss of his grandmother’s house in Urla in 1922 shortly before the Asia Minor catastrophe (that house is the theme of The House Near the Sea, above this essay) that sent countless refugees from Turkey to the shores of inhospitable islands or languishing in the port of Piraeus.

Giorgos Seferis, Mythistorema, XX, 1935, trans. Roderick Beaton

In my breast the wound opens again
When the stars go down and become kind with my body
When silence falls beneath the footprint of mankind.
These stones that sink into the years, how far will they
Drag me with them?
The sea, the sea, who can ever drain it dry?

Στο στήθος μου η πληγή ανοίγει πάλι
όταν χαμηλώνουν τ’ άστρα και συγγενεύουν με το κορμί μου
όταν πέφτει σιγή κάτω από τα πέλματα των ανθρώπων.
Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα στα χρόνια ώς πού θα με παρασύρουν;
Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιός θα μπορέσει να την εξαντλήσει;

Here Seferis translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken by Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death: ἔστιν θάλασσα, τίς δέ νιν κατασβέσει; (There is the sea, and who shall drain it dry?). The dramatic overtone of Aeschylus’ recurrence was for Seferis nothing like a mere aesthetic strategy. In his famous statement against the Greek Colonels’ junta in 1969, Seferis evokes the dramatist: “Everyone has now learned and knows that in dictatorships the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy always awaits, ineluctably, at the end. The drama of this end tortures us, consciously or unconsciously, as in the age-old choruses of Aeschylus. As long as the anomaly lasts, evil will advance further and further.”

He didn’t live to see the end of the military junta, but after he died in 1971 his funeral became an enormous, impromptu public protest, where the crowds began to sing his poem “Denial” (1931), set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, then a popular song in the Plaka district of Athens until it was banned. As Büyüktaşçıyan notes in the book, “The wave of all waves is a reminder of the unexpected mighty wave that shakes our present reality and swallows it if need be, with the accumulated oeuvre of years of history.” Seferis couldn’t have been aware at the time of the (under)currents that would bring down the junta three years after his death, through events that are still a matter of dispute, through events that perhaps he influenced.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, When Things Find Their Own Cleft, 2016, photograph: the artist

Giorgos Seferis, Mythistorema, XXI, 1935, trans. Roderick Beaton

We who set upon this pilgrimage
Looked at the broken statues
Consoled ourselves with thinking that life cannot be lost
So easily
That death must have roads unexplored
And its own kind of justice.

Εμείς που ξεκινήσαμε για το προσκύνημα τούτο
κοιτάξαμε τα σπασμένα αγάλματα
ξεχαστήκαμε και είπαμε πως δε χάνεται η ζωή τόσο εύκολα
πως έχει ο θάνατος δρόμους ανεξερεύνητους
και μια δική του δικαιοσύνη·

But the central metaphor of Mythistorema are stones and broken statues. According to Liana Giannakopoulou, however much glorification of Western ideas of Hellenism revolves around the study and representation of classical statues, for Seferis, the broken fragments, represent mutilated corpses, “haunting a desolate landscape, threatening nightmares which persecute the viewers”, reflecting our modern experience as being no longer whole: The fragment of stone is a symbol of a lost wholeness, of disorientation, exclusion and despair. The persistence of the Orphanage atop the island summit, as symbolized by Büyüktaşçıyan’s intervention cascading towards the present, is a ghost of this kind: No longer whole and yet not altogether absent.

Yet, Mythistorema, in spite of its Odysseic desolation, ends in a note of reconciliation, or hope, in which the ghosts of the past can be resurrected in some form, even while the journeys of Odysseus to the underworld, tell us otherwise. The Asphodels still believe that rescue from the wheel of time will come when the past is made present by memory. However, Seferis’ “On a Winter Ray”, written in his older age, belongs to a different order of poetic resolution: Three Secret Poems is a collection of apocalyptic, elegiac songs for the end of the world, a world corrupt and degraded (Beaton), in which “there’s no palliative care for the pain of physical dissolution, and no escape for the soul into an afterlife.”

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Docks, 2014, photograph: Mustafa Hazneci

Let’s turn for a moment to Elpenor, the youngest companion of Odysseus, who became drunk while on the island of Circe and decided to spend the night on the roof. In the morning after, he slipped on the ladder, fell, and broke his neck, dying instantly (Hom. Od. 11.51). In Seferis’ poem “Sensual Elpenor” (1946, part of Thrush), written at the height of the Greek Civil War, after his return from exile, when he happened upon the wreck of a naval supply ship in the channel between Poros and the Peloponnese, there’s a conversation between Circe and Elpenor, recounted by Socrates. I imagine a version of the story in which Elpenor falls drunk from the roof of the orphanage and a distraught Odysseus couldn’t find his body to perform the ritual of burial.

Büyüktaşçıyan would then listen to Elpenor’s tale, not alive but also not buried, as in the appearance of Patroclus to Achilles in a dream, wandering around the silent rooms…

Giorgos Seferis, “Thrush” II, Poros, ‘Galini’, 31 October 1946, trans. Edmund Keeley

Really, those statues are not
the fragments. You yourself are the relic;
they haunt you with a strange virginity
at home, at the office, at the receptions for the celebrated,
in the unconfessed terror of sleep;
they speak of things you wish didn’t exist
Or would happen years after your death,
And that’s difficult because…’
— ‘The statues are in the museum.
Good night.’
— ‘… because the statues are no longer
Fragments. We are. The statues bend lightly… Good night.

Ἀλήθεια, τὰ συντρίμμια
δὲν εἶναι ἐκεῖνα- ἐσὺ ῾σαι τὸ ρημάδι-
σὲ κυνηγοῦν μὲ μία παράξενη παρθενιὰ
στὸ σπίτι στὸ γραφεῖο στὶς δεξιώσεις
τῶν μεγιστάνων, στὸν ἀνομολόγητο φόβο τοῦ ὕπνου-
μιλοῦν γιὰ περιστατικὰ ποὺ θὰ ἤθελες νὰ μὴν ὑπάρχουν
ἢ νὰ γινόντουσαν χρόνια μετὰ τὸ θάνατό σου,
κι αὐτὸ εἶναι δύσκολο γιατί…
-Τ᾿ ἀγάλματα εἶναι στὸ μουσεῖο.
Καληνύχτα.
-… γιατὶ τ᾿ ἀγάλματα δὲν εἶναι πιὰ συντρίμμια,
εἴμαστε ἐμεῖς. Τ᾿ ἀγάλματα λυγίζουν ἀλαφριὰ … καλή-
Νύχτα.

Τhe Light of Homer

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

In a letter, dated December 27, 1949, from Ankara, while he was posted at the Greek embassy in Turkey, Seferis writes to his friend George Katsimbalis, attempting to explain the content of Thrush, and why he had exchanged Tiresias for Socrates in the dialogue between Circe and Elpenor. He doesn’t say much by way of explanation, except for talking about his impressions upon having encountered the shipwreck in Poros and Socrates’ feeling about ceasing to exist, but he concludes with this phrase: “We could go very far; but I shall stop here. We arrived at the light. And the light cannot be explained; it can only be seen.” After which he quotes from the Odyssey, the last words of Anticleia to her son:

Homer, Odyssey, XI, 222-224, trans. Emily Wilson

The spirit flies away and soon is gone,
Just like a dream, now hurry to the light;
Remember all these things, so you might tell
Your wife in times to come.

ψυχὴ δ᾽ ἠύτ᾽ ὄνειρος ἀποπταμένη πεπότηται.
ἀλλὰ φόωσδε τάχιστα λιλαίεο: ταῦτα δὲ πάντα
ἴσθ᾽, ἵνα καὶ μετόπισθε τεῇ εἴπῃσθα γυναικί.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

Jennifer Kellogg recounts how during the Nobel acceptance speech, Seferis commented upon the sense of overlap between Homeric Greek and the modern language, in relation to φάος ἠελίοιο, the light of the sun: “I experience a familiarity that stems from a collective soul rather than from an intellectual effort. It is a tone, one might say, whose harmonies reach quite far; it feels very different from anything a translation can give.” The light of the sun in Homer, is a metaphorical place in the sun-scorched sparseness of the Greek landscape; it is a formulaic expression that conveys a sense of life to Achaean heroes, but conversely its absence, darkness, is also a signifier of death and the underworld.

According to Letoublon, most appearances of φάος ἠελίοιο in Homer, refer to death or the possibility of death. This metaphor was certainly not lost on Seferis, who saw the appearance of light and the sun as a symbolic metaphysics of existence and persistence. There are three poems of Seferis that are identified with the Homeric light, φάος ἠελίοιο: “King of Asine” (1940), “Τhrush” (1946) and “Agia Napa I” (1955). Hera Büyüktaşçıyan is no stranger to the reading of Seferis light poems: She paraphrased a line from the King of Asine in a long English poem of her own, as the background of her earlier project “Neither on the Ground, nor in the Sky” (2019), an investigation into historical transitions around the city of Pergamon.

But it is in Thrush, according to some, Seferis’ masterpiece, with the uncanny description of the afterlife of statues, where we can best pinpoint the narrative meeting point between Büyüktaşçıyan and Seferis as both readers of epic, engaged in the mythologization of contemporary events for the sake of a permanence of memory that will fill discontinuities with historical content. In Thrush, at the height of the Greek Civil War, and severely disheartened, Seferis returns to the τοπος (place) of Mythistorema X, “Our country is a closed place, all mountains roofed over by the low sky day and night”. His usage of metaphysical topos as a country is highly idiosyncratic and stepped in the νοστος (homecoming) of the Odyssey.

A famously cited work by Gregory Nagy insists that the nostos of Odysseus in the Odyssey means not only a return or a song about a return, but even a return to light and life. However, Büyüktaşçıyan’s brief but very precise engagement with Seferis’ “On a Winter Ray”, as a part of “The Wave of All Waves”, led me to believe that the poem has been vastly overlooked as one of Seferis’ poems about φάος ἠελίοιο. The fourth stanza, immediately preceding Büyüktaşçıyan’s choice for illustrating the waves and currents of subterranean histories emerging forth, introduces, retrospectively, within the condition of the apocalyptic imaginary, a break with the past that masquerades as nostalgia, but is yet a substantial present.

Giorgos Seferis, “On a Winter Ray”, IV, Three Secret Poems, 1966, trans. Vrasidas Karalis

Years ago you said:
“Deep down I am a matter of light.”
Even now as you rest
On the broad shoulders of sleep
Even when they drown you
In the lethargic bosom of the sea
You search for niches where blackness
Frays and does not endure
You grope for the spear
Destined to pierce your heart
And open it to light.

Είπες εδώ και χρόνια:
«Κατά βάθος είμαι ζήτημα φωτός».
Και τώρα ακόμη σαν ακουμπάς
στις φαρδιές ωμοπλάτες του ύπνου
ακόμη κι όταν σε ποντίζουν
στο ναρκωμένο στήθος του πελάγου
ψάχνεις γωνιές όπου το μαύρο
έχει τριφτεί και δεν αντέχει
αναζητάς ψηλαφητά τη λόγχη
την ορισμένη να τρυπήσει την καρδιά σου
για να την ανοίξει στο φως.

By a substantial time, we refer to possibilities of temporality incisive enough to suspend the ebb and flow of history as a teleology where events are unavoidable and human actors, mere passive spectators of a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that the power to change history resides in literature or art — this would be folly — but that narrative gestures can elevate the present moment to a status of timelessness before it has solidified as a past over which we have no control. Anthony Zahareas wrote of Seferis: “He speaks of fragmented men who yearn for completion, of wanderers who long for the home that constantly recedes into the future, and of being mired in the injustice of time, who search for timelessness.”

In this injustice of time, Büyüktaşçıyan is holding conversations with distant friends, across eras and seas, visualizing myths, waters, statues, fragments of stone, or a ruined building, in the same way that inhabitants of a small village in Ottoman-era Eleusis, saw the Ceres caryatid, that they didn’t want removed by British looters in 1801; it was their belief that these are real people that will return to life when the time comes. But for the time being, the artist must serve the role of a witness: “A present that has sunk into the past… A past that cannot bear with the painful truth of the present… Disassembles itself, piece by piece, from the inside out…”

“Ceres of Eleusis”, 50 BC, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

*

The exhibition “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage” ran from October 9, through November 10, 2018, at the Galata Greek Primary School. The eponymous book was released a year later. The book is available only from the bookstore of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. A limited number of copies is available to scholars and researchers from the Galata Greek Primary School.

Bibliography

Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Hera Büyüktaşçıyan”, in SFAQ Issue 24, 2016
Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Unfinished Centuries”, in SFAQ Issue 21, 2015
Roderick Beaton, “Introduction”, in George Seferis: Novel and Other Poems, Aiora, 2016, pp. 11-19
Thomas Doulis, “George Seferis and the Erosion of Memory”, in The American Scholar, Vol. 37, No. 2 (spring, 1968), pp. 336-346
Liana Giannakopoulou, “Statues and Stones in the Poetry of Seferis and Ritsos”, in Kambos, Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek, Vol. 10 (2002), pp. 37-64
Yannis Hamilakis, “Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece”, in Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914, ed. Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik & Edhem Eldem, SALT, 2011, pp. 49-70
Jennifer Kellogg, Seferis and Homer’s Light, The Center for Hellenic Studies, 2020
Vayos Liapis, “‘The Painful Memory of Woe’: Greek Tragedy and the Greek Civil War in the work of George Seferis”, in Classical Receptions Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 2014, pp. 74-103
Anthony N. Zahareas, “George Seferis: Myth and History”, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, 250th issue, (spring, 1989), pp. 200-205

Acknowledgements: Nektaria Anastasiadou, Gregory Buchakjian, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Theo Chiotis, Musab Daud, Nikolaos Dervisis, Joana Hadjithomas, Etan Nechin, Felekşan Onar, Afroditi Panagiotakou, Natalya Vasilieva.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.

Leave a Reply