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Paying Homage to My Literary Hero

By Nicholas D. Kokonis, Ph. D.
           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 in the Plaka neighborhood 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 spoke to my heart. This was especially so because his poetry was written in brilliant demotic Greek (vernacular), the language of everyday people. He had fought hard to free Greek literature from its adherence to a cultivated version of the archaic Greek (katharevousa).

           Demoticist Palamas’ 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 and serving as a supreme arbiter between the past and the future, 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 that helped me augment my apperceptive mass and thus improve my understanding of the world around me. 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.

           More than anything, 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.

Author Nicholas D. Kokonis, Ph.D.

           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 and immortal symbol of Greek literature—Kostis Palamas.

           “Και θ’ ακούσεις τη φωνή του λυτρωτή,
           θα γδυθείς της αμαρτίας το ντύμα,
           και ξανά κυβερνημένη κι αλαφρή,
           θα σαλέψεις σαν τη χλόη, σαν το πουλί,
           σαν τον κόρφο το γυναικείο, σαν το κύμα,
           και μην έχοντας πιο κάτου άλλο σκαλί
           να κατρακυλήσεις πιο βαθιά
           στου Κακού τη σκάλα, –
           για τ’ ανέβασμα ξανά που σε καλεί
           θα αιστανθείς να σου φυτρώσουν, ω χαρά!
           τα φτερά,
           τα φτερά τα πρωτινά σου τα μεγάλα!”

           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—an act of personal devotion. 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. Having never visited the place before, I had no idea what to expect. 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. Time and again, I passed by a plethora of spectacular, Pentelic marble sculptures, lavish huge tombs, stone cherubs and angels of all kinds, 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 tither. 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 Palamas 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, as commissioned by Demetrios Vikelas, the first president of the International Olympic Committee?

           «Αρχαίο Πνεύμ’ αθάνατον, αγνέ πατέρα
           του ωραίου, του μεγάλου και τ’ αληθινού,
           κατέβα, φανερώσου κι άστραψ’ εδώ πέρα
           στη δόξα της δικής σου γης και τ’ ουρανού…»

           «Ancient immortal spirit, unsullied father
           of that which beautiful, great an true,
           descend, make thyself known and shine here
           on this earth and below these skies, witness of thy glory…”

           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 grave.

           The inscription etched on the plaque (two stanzas from the poet’s lengthy “Fatherlands” written in iambic pentameter) read:

           «Της ιερής ελιάς εδώ ναοί και οι κάμποι·
           ανάμεσα στον όχλο εδώ που αργοσαλεύει
           καθώς απάνου σ’ ασπρολούλουδο μια κάμπη,

           ο λαός των λειψάνων ζει και βασιλεύει
           χιλιόψυχος· το πνεύμα και στο χώμα λάμπει·
           το νιώθω· με σκοτάδια μέσα μου παλεύει.”

           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 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…”)

           Suddenly, a feathery voice stopped me in my tracks.
“Your father’s grave?”
I looked up and saw an elderly woman in uniform, apparently a cemetery maintenance employee.
“Sort of…well,” I mumbled. “You can say that.”
“Do you want me to take you a picture?” the lady said, pointing to the camera that I had laid on the ground next to the grave.
“That would be nice,” I said and showed her how to handle the camera.
“I will take two just in case,” she said, grinning. “I am clumsy with such things. I hear it from my grandchildren.”
The gracious lady did just as she said, and I could not thank her enough for it.

           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