Saturday, February 27, 1943
I WISH I COULD have been in Nazi-occupied Athens that Saturday evening to witness the renowned poet’s sorrow-stricken close friends, as they gathered in his apartment to cover with fragrant almond tree blossoms his lifeless, feeble body. And the next day, as the church bells tolled mournfully and the ancient city trembled with grief, to join the procession of the doleful massive crowd to the Α’ Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών (First Cemetery of Athens), to the amazement of the occupiers.
KOSTIS PALAMAS (1859-1943), Greece’s coryphaeus poet and inspiring figure of Hellenism, nurtured my eager youth lavishly. During my last two classical-gymnasium years and beyond in Arcadia, I spent long hours in the one-room public library of Tripolis delving into his poetry, extensive in both number and meaning.
Brimmed with vibrant life and feeling, infused with wisdom, abundant with allusions to Greek history and folklore (λαογραφία), his poetry, written in brilliant demotic Greek (vernacular), the language of everyday people, spoke to my heart. His talent as wordsmith and his gift of weaving his verses with a wealth of compound nouns and adjectives amazed me.
His iambic pentameter, creating a rhythm that had a natural speaking cadence, touched my very soul, triggering enthusiasm and determination.
His lyrical expression of Greece’s sufferings and aspirations awed me. Celebrating Greek Orthodoxy and Hellenism, he had audaciously espoused a vision of contemporary Greece that enthralled my adolescent mind.
Dazzled by the poet’s scholarly erudition, I searched for the meaning of words within words in his every poem. I took copious notes. I was motivated to pursue my dreams, no matter how small, and do something worthwhile with my life. Born and raised in the dusty poverty of an Arcadian village, I could not hope to do it alone. I needed an inspiring mentor.
Palamas made me feel proud of being Greek. I would memorize a short poem of his and recite it fervently, as if it were a prayer. And prayer it was! Earnest prayers and solemn anthems of the then newly-independent Greece was much of the poetry of polymath prolific Palamas. It inspired me to further labor on my Ποιητικά Γυμνάσματα (Poetical Exercises) before I had them featured in local magazines and newspapers.
And when my autobiographical novel ‘Arcadia, My Arcadia’ in its Greek edition (Ελλάδα Μου, Πατρίδα Μου) was awarded a coveted ‘Special Prize’ by the prestigious Academy of Athens in 2008 and was presented at the Parnassos Literary Society, my immortal hero was on my mind.
Humbled as I was, I mentally traveled back to the modest public library in my hometown and saw myself pore over ‘Ο Δωδεκάλογος του Γύφτου’ (Twelve Lays of the Gypsy), New Testament of sorts for the young faithful, and I felt my heart overflow with a most profound sense of gratitude to my mentor.
THEREFORE, paying tribute to the exemplary poet, worthy of a high place in the pantheon of illustrious men and women, in the Α’ Νεκροταφείο Αθηνών was a sentimental pilgrimage for me. It happened on a sweltering day in the summer of 2007.
With no map of the expansive burial ground, only with some baffling oral directions I managed to get from a cranky old man at the office near the entrance, I had a hard time locating the grave; I kept losing my way. The cemetery went on for kilometers, it seemed, with many short walkways and long avenues as far as my eyes could see. How could I find what I was so ardently looking for in the hallowed grounds?
Dreading to ask for clearer directions, and with nobody around to help, I kept going in circles, passing by a plethora of spectacular marble sculptures, lavish huge tombs, and eye-catching ornate gravestones bearing touching epitaphs – impressive evocative symbols of Greece’s collective past.
Birds were everywhere. Colorful, noisy jays darted hither and thither. Pigeons, perched on the finials of monuments, stared at me with beady eyes, while from the branches of old cypress trees came bird lullabies to the buried. A black cat swaggered down a path like a warden. The pungent aroma of incense burning from some graves accosted my smell, causing me to reflect for a brief moment on the nature of human ephemeralness.
When, to my utter relief, I finally happened upon my hero’s grave, I felt disappointed.
In this prestigious resting place of the wealthy and famous, I had expected to see a grand monument, a real sepulcher, distinguishing the celebrated poet’s grave from the others nearby. Had he not greatly influenced the intellectual and political climate of Greece during his brilliant poetic career that spanned several decades? Had Athens not been for him an object of great affection and an endless source of inspiration? Had he not penned the lyrics of what was destined to be the official anthem of the modern Olympic Games?
Yet, only a plaque, so dusty and covered with so much dried overgrown brush as to be hardly recognizable, identified his grave. I tried to assure myself that, maybe this is how the iconic poet, yet humble man, had wanted it.
While gregarious sparrows were tweeting in the branches of wild orange trees, as if to keep me company in the dreary stillness of the vast necropolis, made quieter by the merciless heat, I knelt and cleaned the white-marble plaque with my bare hands as best I could. I wished I had brought with me a few carnations from my mother’s flower pots to put in the dusty white vase that stood empty by the side of the grave.
I wondered what it would have been like to be in the cemetery on that sad Sunday of 1943, in the midst of the brutal Nazi occupation, with the grieving crowd gathering since the early morning hours to pay their last respects to the man who had helped them strengthen their national identity, and to witness his apotheosis as virtually a national hero.
While venerating the old grave the way I had done with icons in the modest church of my Arcadian village, I was so emotionally affected that I thought I heard lyric poet Angelos Sikelianos, Palamas’ close friend, rouse the multitude of mourners as he recited his elegy of the departed:
«Ηχήστε οι σάλπιγγες… Οι φοβερές
σημαίες, ξεδιπλωθείτε στον αέρα!
…Σ’ αυτό το φέρετρο ακουμπά η Ελλάδα…»
“Sound the paeans! …Awesome
flags of freedom unfold in the air.
…On this coffin hangs all of Greece…”
And, then, the defiant mourning crowd started singing Greece’s outlawed national anthem, daringly defying the dour Nazi officers present.
Feeling as if I had unwittingly slipped into a fictitious world, I began humming: “Αρχαίο Πνεύμα αθάνατο, αγνέ πατέρα…” (Ancient immortal Spirit, unsullied father…)
AND HAVING thus paid homage to my literary hero, something I had so much wanted to do since my last gymnasium years, I carried myself with a sense of pride, for having been so fortunate, out of the labyrinthine place, headed to the office of the Ένωση Ελλήνων Λογοτεχνών (Greek Writers Union) to receive my long-awaited membership (applied for months earlier), before taking the day’s last bus back to my home in Arcadia.
Note: Author Nicholas D. Kokonis Ph. D. is a retired college professor and clinical psychologist. Born and raised in Arcadia, he made his professional career in Illinois. He is the author of the award-winning autobiographical novel ‘Arcadia, My Arcadia’ and its sequel ‘Out of Arcadia’. Www.MyArcadiaBooks.Com