Cleft of Light
By Thanassis Valtinos
Translated from the Greek by Joshua Barley
THE “Waters of Saint Barbara” public gardens in the city of Drama contain high-trunked trees, mainly of beech and plane. From time to time the sun manages to penetrate the deep shade of their foliage, creating the meteorological paradox called photombria. Etymologically the word denotes “lightrain”. This paradox, unparalleled throughout the world, has been exhaustively studied by the local researcher and editor of the Elysis newspaper Comnenos Isaakidis.
According to Isaakidis, the phenomenon occurs roughly once every ten years, without warning, but usually following the Drimes, those portentous August winds. As an approximate equivalent he cites the Cretan Drosoulites, though these occur on an annual basis. Regardless, he connects this ‘lightrain’ to the gust of wind in the given moment, the density of the greenery, and the penetrative impetus of the light, which is often – though completely erroneously – confused with the well-known speed of 300 thousand kilometres per second. He also refers to eye-witnesses. One of these, Georgios Maliangas, a 93 year-old pensioner, former public servant (street sweeper), describes the power of the light streams that inundated the park’s gutters. It was difficult, he says, to sweep up the solidified foam left from its splashing, caught on thorns and bushes like transparent sponges.
IN the Erotokritos it is a “lightning stone”. In Abraham’s Sacrifice a “patience stone”. Then there is the expression in folk parlance “to make your heart of stone”.
Various saints whose feast days are in September sanctify stone, making it gush water. Stone is linked to water also in the opposite way: not gushing water, but punctured by it. The power of the drop. This is confirmed by its use as a means of torture for extracting confessions: water is dripped onto the head of the interrogated captive. It’s an old method of the gendarmerie, as powerful as boiled eggs under the armpits.
“Upon the patience stone / you sat in the growing dusk” – the first two lines from George Seferis’ “The Sorrowful Girl”. “Dusk” rhymes “with your eyes’ blacks”, which is the whole of the third line. As is well known, the human eye has only “whites”. The rest of it being the colours of the iris.
In the Bible story, which Seferis is evidently drawing on, the timing of events is completely different. The barren woman who desires fertility sits on the patience stone, naked and exposed to every passerby, from sun to sun. From sunrise, that is, until sunset.
The characterisation “patience stone” arises from a transfer of meaning. It is the woman who is patient, enduring her day-long trial.
THE Unfathomable and Unapproachable
as an experience of the uncreated light.
An aesthetic experience.
Here are the relevant references: Maximus the Confessor,
Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas.
The opening spans eight centuries.
“Heart on fire” lasting a moment,
in opposition to the same Mystics’ “forever walking a tightrope”.
A non-visionary experience, whose exit
is described as death.
A fraction of a second dilating almost to breaking point.
The gulf in time and the undoing of history,
like the undoing of skin, according to Marx.
According to Beckett too.
At the game’s end there is a refuge.
The only point where the flow of reality,
its helical repetition, ruptures.
Everything converges and everything blooms there, and we want to forget.
To stop the interplay of wounds.
Which create the memory of words.
“THESE days a south wind is blowing hard.
Could it really have come all the way from Greece…”
This fragment belongs to a painter
and the homesickness it conceals is pervasively clear.
The same homesickness,
we observe in his paintings:
portraits, interiors, still lives,
dramatic nocturnal scenes.
No light source
reminiscent of Greece.
The sensuality even of gutted watermelons
in “Oriental man with fruit” has been tamed.
A correct reflection of a brash
middle-man’s point of view: “We had
created a small monopoly
in the field of art auctions.
We made money. But
we couldn’t keep it up.
Gyzis doesn’t interest a single Japanese or American buyer.”
ON the 14th of September 1923, the feast of the Holy Cross, the poet Angelos Sikelianos was in Skaramangas. Skaramangas then was a desolate expanse where the only building was a shabby joint built of dry stone. A thousand metres closer to Athens there was of course – and still is – the Daphni Monastery, and the Dromokaiteio Psychiatric Hospital just beyond.
Angelos Sikelianos, 39 years old and already married to Eva Palmer, was chaperoning the young lady Alexandra G. This Alexandra G., in accordance with the morals of the time, was in turn chaperoned by her younger, still adolescent sister Ria G.
It is from this younger sister that we know the scene that followed. The three of them had sat beneath the club’s vine to enjoy the sunset. Angelos Sikelianos, shading his broad brow with his right hand, was gazing in silence at the Geraneia Mountains, behind which the horizon was ablaze in a deep red. Suddenly, and without interrupting his divine silence, he turned to the young lady Alexandra G., stretched out his left hand and pointed to his wrist. The young lady Alexandra G. was startled. There was a deep incision in the skin of the poet’s wrist, as if from a razor. Blood was welling up there, about to burst out. Panicked, she ran into the café to ask for some cotton wool or a bandage. Neither the young lady Alexandra G. nor her little sister had suspected that this was one of the poet’s tricks. The young lady Alexandra G. returned waving a clean, check towel. But she didn’t need it. The poet was holding his hand stretched out still, the razor line gaping wide, but the blood had receded. He had driven back – and for some minutes continued to drive back – the light that, from this open wound, was coursing through him.
“The sun is flooding me,” he said, in a kind of suspension, eyes closed.
His trance was interrupted by a gypsy woman who appeared from nowhere and stood in front of him with all the audacity of her race.
“Let me tell your fortune, mister.”
“I know my fortune,” he replied and showed her his wrist.
The gypsy woman was horrified.
“This is the wound of my fate,” the poet said, dismissing her.
“Go back to your bears!”
Chased away, the gypsy woman disappeared in silence.
The sun that entered the poet that 14th of September travelled in his body for 28 years, to crystallise at last in a ruby that, around 1950, wedged itself into his brain and, a year later, killed him.
FERNAND Léger, the French cubist painter, made a silent film in about 1920. Its subject was simple: an old woman climbs the stairs of a city street. Before reaching the top, the painter brings her down to the bottom – and it starts again. A Sisyphean task. Regarding the stairs, some details clearly testify that they are those on Didotou Street in Athens. The painter evidently chose the place at the suggestion of the neighbouring French Institute.
The stairs at the time of the film were larger, width-wise. Almost twelve metres wide. They were narrowed later, in 1925, to eight metres twenty, serving private interests. This sleight of hand was carried out through a deliberate misinterpretation of the order of Theodoros Pangalos’ dictatorial government on the height (from the sole of the foot) of the hems on women’s dresses.*
Léger’s film – black and white of course – is shot in 18 frames per second, as were all the films of his day. Showing the work today, by necessity in the 24 frames per second of non-silent cinema, results in its well-known jumpiness. This adds, a posteriori, an anguished quality to the already laborious effort of the old woman.
The role of randomness in art is generally accepted today. But the inspired idea of this repeated, unending ascent is negated by the fact that in order to function to its most extreme implications, it must be shown for eternity – which, practically speaking, is impossible.
IN the fourth dimension everything flows.
It’s like Heraclitus’ river.
Everything is liquefied there – time too
only to solidify immediately – in space.
Crossing over is difficult.
Saint Anthony was asked how one can twist
through the traps with which earthly life is littered.
“By crawling,” he replied.
What leads to sin is material.
The substance of humanity is spirit.
And the opposite tendency inclines towards the centre of the earth.
This isn’t about Physics.
Mass is the material that is turned into energy.
So it degrades,
but with the speed of light.
In the fifth dimension everything is in perfect harmony.
You die in this crossing.
THE first camera obscura
was a barn for hay and dried peas.
A shed attached to a stable.
Unplaned, nailed planks
blocked the only window, and from the hole of a missing knot
a cylindrical bundle of light filtered through,
in whose path
endless motes of dust came alive.
Beyond and beneath this bundle time was running,
outside gravity’s strictures.
Galloping of epic proportions,
but mainly acts of impudent intercourse
were carried out in there.
The woman-crazed pre-adolescent
could practise with the inner-tube of his ball,
but its elasticity
and the curves that it suggested,
resisted his touch and frustrated it.
The explosion, of course, came quite late.
Preceded by the volcanoes of acne on his face,
those badges of sexual glory.
GEORGIOS Vizyinos died in the Dromokaiteio Psychiatric Hospital in 1896, aged forty six. A poet and prose writer, he is considered the founder of the modern Greek short story. He was also an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Athens. His burial place is unknown. In one of his poems he laments the blonde and blue-eyed and heavenly light, whose loss altered within him the rhythm of the world. It is, of course, a metaphor. Undoubtedly it refers to his sudden love for the fourteen year-old daughter of his housekeeper in the Athenian district of Neapoli. The little girl often used to climb the wooden steps to the sunroom to hang up or take down the washing. During one of these ascents, the poet was thunderstruck. His eye, captivated by her slender thighs, became transfixed higher up, in the budding cob of her chink, which had just become visible beneath her loose, mother-made underwear.
Lament is provoked by rage. As for the “blonde and blue-eyed and heavenly light”, it is precisely that light of the sun which, permeating the cheap cotton of the little girl’s skirt, lit up and glorified her porcelain interior.
THE shade of the fig tree is heavy.
Its milk unsuitable for suckling.
Heavy too is the shade of the walnut tree.
Its leaves contain
a variety of pigments and essential oils,
whose effusions profoundly affect the microclimate.
Where there are many walnut trees
sleep becomes compact
and is carried out without dreams.
In the old days women used to rub
their lips with walnut leaves,
giving them a deep,
dark, sensual colour.
On the other hand an olive tree’s shade
is exceptionally light,
made of the sounds of cicadas
and percolated drops of sun.
An embroidery on the skin of summer.
Despite its age, the olive tree never burdened the earth.
Carob trees cast a similar shade.
THERE is the True Vine of the Bible.
Become a symbol, we see it climbing on the old, wood-carved iconostases,
taking over the world.
In the Song of Songs,
the same vine is presented in a personal fashion
and functions metonymically, emitting a refined but clear eroticism.
When I was young I was tormented by the following image: several vines,
ransacked by a hasty harvest, and three kilometres beyond,
in a mound of earth a broken water vein.
The fauna between the vine and the water was varied.
Wasps covered the three kilometre distance in three minutes.
Tortoises in twelve hours.
At some point I met a sprinter hedgehog there.
Surprised, it curled up inside its spines and remained still,
pretending to be asleep.
The question arose immediately: what can a hedgehog dream
at the edge of the vine?
There is no answer.
The answer presupposes another question: do hedgehogs dream?
THE last open-air photographer in Greece works in the aforementioned “Waters of Saint Barbara” public gardens.
Public Gardens, Drama
Three verses. This is his address, written like that. He is 74 years old and suffers from deforming arthritis, making it difficult for him to handle his ancient machine and tripod. He needs to work for two more years to cement his right to a pension from the region’s Revenue Office of Craftsmen and Small Traders.
“I was foolish,” he announced of his own accord.
Three times in his life he went after the lightrain, without managing to imprint it on photographic paper.
“I needed a modern device,” he tells us. “One of those that run at the same speed. 300 thousand kilometres per second.”
He believes that the torments of his arthritis stem from that time, from his splashing around in the watery light. He talks to us of the impetus of its torrents and how once he was almost dragged away by them.
“My camera saved me by its weight. I was carrying it on my back.”
His camera served as ballast and saved him.
He photographed us on the 26th of April, 2001, with that same camera. Lambros on the right, deep in thought. Maria in the middle, me on the left. The two of us are smiling. And in the background, suspended between the trees, a marble statue of Liberty.
*‘Hem’ and ‘verge’ are the same word in Greek.
Thanassis Valtinos (b. 1932) is one of Greece’s most revered writers. Much of his prose has been translated into English, including most recently the novel ‘Orthokosta’ and a collection of his ‘Early Works’.
‘Cleft of Light’ is published in Greek as Σχισμή Φωτός, Olkos Publications 2001.
Joshua Barley’s translations of the poet Michalis Ganas (with David Connolly) were published by Yale University Press in 2019. An anthology of Greek folk songs in translation is forthcoming from Aiora Press in 2021. He lives in Athens.
Stonehenge X; Cleft of Light
22 15/16 × 18 1/8 in. (58.2 × 46 cm)