Although Karouzos is not a religious poet, God-inspired and spiritual elements play an important part in his work, argues Vangelis Xadjivassiliou. “For though God features regularly in it, he does not do so in order to reassure or promise but to enlarge and intensify the void of existence and the anguish and agony of death to their very limits.”
Reading Nikos Karouzos’s poems again, particularly the ones that belong to his first collections, I think about the important role that the god-inspired and spiritual elements have played in his work and language. I should hasten to allay any possible reactions by elucidating right from the start the exact manner in which I am using the concept of “god-inspired/ spiritual”, although I am fully aware that I am treading on slippery ground. Of course I do not believe that Karouzos is a religious poet, nor that in any way he assumes any responsibility to lead his readers to a safe place that is bathed in the comforting light of a supermundane providential presence. As a matter of fact, I believe that what happens in Karouzos’s poetry is exactly the opposite. For though God features regularly in it, he does not do so in order to reassure or promise but to enlarge and intensify the void of existence and the anguish and agony of death to their very limits. We should not forget at this point, after all, Karouzos’s well-known verse-cum-confession:
For I built my temple on three allures –
love, pain, immortality.
Even so, leaving the thematic ideas aside, God’s face appears again and again in the poet’s books in yet another aspect: featuring incarnate in the form of Jesus, God’s face is invested with the venerable garb of Christian rituals and traditions and serves as a usually effective poetic ploy that enhances the power of suggestion of his language and intensifies its emotive force.
We should, however, take things one at a time, starting at the field of thematic content. In Poems (1961), Christ appears in a fallen environment, where fundamental values and life meanings constantly retreat before the onslaught of decay and the paralysing void of existence. Without shedding any of his incorporeal erotic qualities, the Son of Man is metamorphosed into a dreamlike mist that travels beyond objective, historic reality and returns to dwell in consciousness only as a shadow and reflection of the real world. What is essential in this particular matter (as well as in the lonely deposition from the cross in Griefs of 1969) is not faith in metaphysical transcendence but the awareness of a dramatic divine death, which is repeated every day ad infinitum at multiple levels and in diverse dimensions. Karouzos continues to identify Christ with joy and the offering of love (the typical repertoire of teachings in Christ), yet he does not expect anything from his redemptive coming and sacrifice. Whatever remains, whatever gets salvaged, belongs definitively to the mythical or the idealised past, whereas the issue of salvation or exit is in its turn transformed into an inner (bitterly accentuated) condition of literature.
Our Gods are made of clay – said the first
king opening his yellow robe.
Are you still waiting then? – asked the other king
And we stood there listening as if removed from our bodies
and others that spoke
came face to face with lonely silence –
while childlike winds blew from Jerusalem
and Jesus is pending
sang the cricket in the large vine
Truly, friend, it was the vineyard that wakened
the meek breeze of ancient Palestine.
When God returns to the present, he is robbed of his retinue of angels and is buried like a common mortal. The same applies to the Doe of Stars (1962), where there is hardly any margin for escape left as long as the guilt-ridden serpent symbolises the heart-rending anguish of loneliness and the dead-end of existential desolation. Consecutive deaths of Christ are also witnessed in Sleeping-bag (1964), since the Iscariot triumphs over only a nominal Saviour who is forever entrapped in the role of victim and one way or another too incompetent and weak to take charge of Judgement Day:
So Jesus too is nothing, just spat on
just the inner flame that melts at your touch
and God barefoot, a lamb in the sky
high on the sour cherry-tree that burns far in the west
Ah how horrible is the water, a mere nothing, and the invisible
is all we got as the knife at the throat of the cockerel.
Is there at least a single chance for the slaughtered Lamb to gain his body back, when everything conspires to annihilate or enslave him, when religion and art (the hour of threat also for literature) mere blots upon the beast? We will not find the answer in the deliberately dry and ironic Band-Aid for Great and Small Antinomies (1971) but in the more conciliatory moments of Overgrown Chasms (1974):
Trotsky’s constant revolution.
I tore it down in Jesus’ constant apology.
God’s celestial City then, or perhaps a willed divine utopia? The latter, without a doubt, if we take into account the open opposition to the revolutionary political vision of History and its (untold but clearly insinuated in this couplet) distorting implications. A utopia that does not feed on corporeal life and does not foster any illusions (going against its substance and nature). A utopia entirely based on the belief of a game that is lost in advance, a futile bet.
It is time, however, to move from the God of ignorance and abandonment to the God of poems and writing. As we said at the beginning, Karouzos introduces Jesus in the laboratory of his verses in order to transubstantiate him into pure matter, into a sine qua non of his text, lighting his handed-down attributes from multiple points of view or transposing them ironically. A link between various historic periods of civilisation; an action hero or a protagonist of myth; a persona or a mask for the poet; a catalytic factor in the staging of the poem and the creation of the mood; a lyrical morsel and symbol of love and despair, Karouzos’s God remains in all cases a constant means of expression whose variations expand over a broad spectrum of revelations, disguises, or even metamorphoses.
Caught between Medea and Oedipus in Doe of Stars, or again between allusions and biblical ‘signs’ in Sleeping-bag, Jesus invariably suggests to the receptor the image of heart-rending suffering and ravage in a timeless landscape, where drama and the subsidence of present time seek and find their correspondences:
Hail cold Galaxy
paradisiac dust on faces
hail sky-trotter and hail orthodox believer
for you have sorrow like Vryennios
you have the love from above like Marcos the Gentle
you have the hair-shirt of Nikiforos Fokas the language of Chrysostomos
the immaterial sights seen by Isaac the Syrian
that black spruce in terrible wind
which ravaged darkness in thousands of sparks.
In hours of rest (when darkness retreats to the back of the stage so that the Athenian landscape may shine and the streets of a light-drenched, almost festive city may open), the voice of God is appropriately channelled to the erotic hymn and the glory of emotional fulfilment. It is emotions that the humble wanderer of Sign (1955), of Poems, and of Doe of Stars calls upon when he compares his stature to the height and size of the divine spirit, which intentionally and permanently keeps away from worldly affairs. Thus, the usual and commonly accepted model of the faithful becomes incorporated in the verse as an element of fragmentary narration and fiction to flesh out the poetic idea, whilst at the same time it appropriately stages the frame for its materialisation and implementation. Such faithfuls can be directly represented by the ego of the speaker or symbolised indirectly through a third-person hero, who, willy-nilly, ends up facing death, an exile in the gutter or wayside of History and the world:
The colours apportion women
when the sexual incense burns in the streets
Holy Thursday the sun in the morning –
who are you, lit up
with sensuous stars
In the darkest darkness in a wealth of threats
lies the blonde submerged
and John, always the wanderer
through the deaths – yet
impossible to wander into death
From the spiritual fall and the zero degree of existence to the pregnant symbolism of a purely poetic God; from the terror of void to the world-shaping order of literature, Karouzos’s course is at the same time both cyclic and centrifugal. At each of its stages, however, it has new possibilities to offer, new prospects to offer. It is time then to try them and make the most of them. And let us not forget that the work has just begun.
This essay was published in a special issue of Vivliothiki (a book-review section of the national newspaper Eleftherotypia) dedicated to Karouzos, September 25, 1998.