On the 5th July 2015, jubilant crowds poured into Syntagma Square in Athens to celebrate an end to the austere conditions which had stagnated Greek society since the 2008 economic fallout. The celebrations were short lived. Only seven days later, the same prime minister who had just pulled off a stunning victory against an autocratic European elite, officially conceded defeat. Yielding to Europe’s demands, Alexis Tsipras signed off a fresh batch of austerity measures, plunging the country into an indefinite period of economic hardship that it has been in ever since.
20 months on, Greece is struggling to stay afloat. Yet from a backdrop of austerity and hardship, a cultural renaissance is blossoming. Karen Van Dyck, professor of modern Greek literature and editor of the poetry anthology Austerity Measures, remarks that despite a shortage of almost everything, there is a particular abundance of one thing: poetry. ‘In all of the misery and mess, new poetry is everywhere, too large and too various a body of writing to fit neatly on either side of any ideological rift,’ she writes in the anthology’s introduction. Poets are painting their words on the streets, posting online, joining forces with artists and musicians; literary magazines are flourishing, both old and new.
Austerity Measures gathers the various strands of contemporary Greek poetry, weaving them together to form an image of a nation plunged into an identity crisis. Through the medium of words, the poets chart the complexities of a modern Greek identity, drawing on themes of time, mythology and geography, all of which form a rich cultural landscape. The anthology explores what it means to be Greek post-2008, juggling past and present notions of a national ‘self’. As journalist Kate Kellaway points out, metamorphosis is a recurring theme, where the body itself becomes the suffering landscape:
Her White Utensils (extract)
By Dimitris Allos
‘… and I who feed on memory
like a Cycladic monument…
I no longer remember her name
Her face perhaps
A precipice, now refugees
Electricity cut off…
To dirty my hands
With the civilization of her body
Down to the innards
Of the clouds
While many poems draw on grand themes of history and mythology, others hone in on the smaller details of daily life, delineating a stark portrait of an austere domestic reality. A focus on desolate interiors underscores the fusion of the personal and the political, where the external seeps into the internal. For instance, Dimitris Athinakis paints a melancholy image of the domestic interior as the remaining vestige of order:
A Semblance of Order (extract)
A tidy house is what I have left.
I continue with the corners of the house. I forage in them.
I look under
the beds, under the plates piled
In a semblance of order.
First the deep plates, then the
I don’t go anywhere – I’m just sad.
Whenever I remember to, I sew some pockets shut
– as if to lock up whatever I can.
Yet it is heartbreakingly clear that any semblance of order is just an illusion, as the poetic persona knows. Even the haven of the home is stagnant with a mood of desolation. As contributing poet Elena Penga remarks in an interview with the Guardian, ‘we are all shaken up and blinded by the shock. We have lost perspective and see no horizon’. Yet fellow poet Thomas Tsalapatis is more optimistic. When asked what gives him hope, he replies: ‘The work of small groups, the creativity of small artistic cells. The never-ending conversations between a group of friends about art, politics or whatever. And of course the help given to refugees from volunteers (Greeks or non-Greeks) and common people every day in Athens and the islands.’
Tsalapatis would like to be remembered as ‘a small handmade ark of a feeling and an era’. Few words could better describe Austerity Measures as an anthology. Bringing together the sentiments of a society beset with difficulties, the collection is a testament to the lived experience of the Greek people.
Word Monday (extract)
By Thomas Tsalapatis
Boiling water, always boiling water
Learning that what is scarce is what takes charge
Learning how Π and T lose their flat roofs
How ζ and ξ dry up at the roots
How vowels get murdered
How language bubbles up
An offering of the silent
For those who grew silent.