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literature

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Greek Literature: Modern  
 
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Throughout contemporary Greece, men are being "clubbed down for their ideals," while Christianopoulos is still "mindlessly running off to make love in the meadows." The poet is distressed by his ennui, his inability to participate in social causes, which "disturbs me / like an imperceptible splinter that won't come out."

Guilt concerning sexual preference is present in the works of both poets. Unlike Cavafy, Christianopoulos's regret is magnified in his early works by his religious feelings (his chosen pseudonym, Christianopoulos, means son of Christ), and later by the pain his lifestyle generates in the people he loves.

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"Remorse" is a tender confessional of the poet's continual slide into nightly debauchery, made all the more personally agonizing by "my mother's face / when I return late at night and find her / waiting for me with a book in her hand, / silent, sleepless, pale . . ."

Christianopoulos's collection Small Poems (1975) strips his poetry to its bare essence, removing all decoration, extended descriptors, punctuation and capitalization, leaving the briefest epigrammatic images to surface and leap from the expansive white of the pages, like concentrated kernels of thought, into the mind of the reader. These poems are startling, sometimes brutal, yet unapologetic, sketching in bold simple strokes the onerous life of the gay man in contemporary Greece.

The poet has moved from personifying a sexual seeker to a serious sexual outlaw: the prostitute. He has become limited to "the night below the navel," where even the smallest request for tenderness, a kiss, is refused, for "you won't entrust your lips to a cesspool." The life of a hustler is a sorry one, despised by others who "can't possibly know / how much i struggled / before i gave in," where even other groups of oppressed people "persecute us too."

Christianopoulos's Small Poems are energized by isolation, repression, negation, and the fantasy of the quest. The poet warns his reader, "do not unbutton your flap / the poem will fall to pieces."

The Cosmopolitan Poets

In the early part of this century, the movement known as The Cosmopolitan Poets (1915-1925) arose in Greece, primarily as a reaction against the Symbolists. The Cosmopolitans were escapists, seeking travel and exotic voyages to far away places; they recorded the odd, exotic, different, and amazing (whether real or imagined).

The first of these poets was Kóstas Ouránis (born Níarhos) who lived from 1890 to 1953. His works, especially Spleen (1911), exhibit the influence of Baudelaire.

The most celebrated of the Cosmopolitan Poets is Níkos Kavadhías (1910-1975) who took to sea as a cabin boy at nineteen and remained in that milieu for most of his life. Kavadhías's poetry brings alive the exotic, tough, marginal world of sailors, with its rough bars, whores, tattooed mariners, drugs, and the occasional gay tryst.

In "A Midshipman on the Bridge in an Hour of Peril" (1931), a boy-sailor, fearful for his life during "cyclones and hurricanes," sweetly asks God for forgiveness for his sins, which include the knifing of a stranger over a young Arab girl, the stealing of "a roll of bills" from a poor prostitute, "And still more Lord . . . I blush with shame to think of it, / (ah but his lips were so rose-red and moist . . .) / I slept with a young Jewish boy one night in Seville."

Not all the Cosmopolitans took to sea. Some were armchair travelers, vicarious voyagers who revered the works of Cavafy, concocting their wild adventures in the smoke-filled coffeeshops of Athens.

Alexander Baras, born in 1906 (named Menélaos Anaghnostópoulos) produced poetry that spanned the globe, from South America to Ethiopia, from Trieste to Asia. Cavafy's influence is clearly visible in his magnificent images of the male form.

In "The Asiatics Pass" (1930), the poet describes "the Grandees of Asia," who pass by him, mounted on pachyderms, as they "kept in balance their sunburnt, / their voluptuous, indolent / and handsome bodies."

"Centaur" (1935) is truly an encomium to male beauty. In one long and one short stanza, Baras envisions the playful ride of a nude man-boy on the bare back of a stallion.

The boy is described in details worthy of Phidian sculpture: "supple body . . . overbrimming health . . . lightning in his eyes . . . desire on his lips . . . head high . . . muscles tight and well-knit . . . exquisite folds of his ribs . . . sleek thighs . . . smoothly shaped knees . . . perfectly cast calves . . . delicate ankles . . . his sex not deliberately hidden." The horse remains undescribed, whereas the boy, as the title suggests, is granted mythical perfection.

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