Michael Marks International Greek Bicentennial Poetry Pamphlet Prizes
Commended Poetry Portfolios
Before announcing our overall winners, we published this note from the judges on their four commended poetry portfolios.
It was not the original intention of these prizes to have a shortlist. However, having read hundreds of submissions, we feel that it is important to speak about the breadth of response to the theme, and to acknowledge the skill of many poets who entered.
When discussing portfolios of poetry, it is necessary to consider both individual poems and the ways in which those poems work together as a whole. No two poets respond in the same way to a given theme, and it was in this space between interpretations that we found the full, international depth of feeling towards the Greek nation.
When the prizes opened for submissions, it was stated:
Our aim with this prize and pamphlet is to honour the richness and vitality of Greek culture, its complexity and continual reinvention, its many traditions, its humanist philosophy, its cosmopolitanism and its lasting impact on the world as we know it.
We have not been disappointed. Because of the scale of the response, we want to announce commendations by the judges of four portfolios, because these in particular formed part of the final discussions.
Judges’ comments on Commended portfolios
26.2 Poems for the London Marathon
by Isabella Mead
This innovative, beautifully lyrical sequence of 27 short poems, titled for the length of the modern marathon, interweaves a London marathon with the story of the original Marathon runner. When the Persians landed at Marathon in 490 BCE, Pheidippides ran 150 miles from Athens to Sparta, to ask for help. While running back to tell the Athenians the Spartans couldn’t come for a while, he met the god Pan who promised to help them instead. Then he ran another 25 miles to Marathon, to tell the Athenian general he was on his own and when the Athenians vanquished the Persians, he ran back to tell Athens the good news. Like Browning’s 1879 poem Pheidippides, this portfolio adds into the story the meaning of the Greek word marathon, ‘fennel,’ and the way Prometheus hid in a fennel stalk the fire he stole from the gods – which represents civilisation, creativity, technology. As Poem 6 says, ‘The flame never wavered, until all of Greece/ was infused with the fragrance of star-anise.’ Eliding ancient Athens and modern London, the sequence progresses through hallucinatory stages in the mind of a runner. First, little visions of growing fennel, then Prometheus’s journey, then a sudden flashback to the bronze statue of a satyr who is goat-legged, like Pan. Halfway through, the body is suffering, but when the end comes in sight, we are in both Canary Wharf and ancient Athens. ‘Pan fades into the slopes of the Acropolis/ and Westminster is for a brief second gold.’
by Elena Croitoru
The poems in this portfolio make up a monologue in two female voices, the first (and chief) speaker being the great-grandmother of the second. The two eras of the poems are the early 19th century, during the wars with the Turks, and now, when ‘the whole country is for sale’. The first woman and her husband (whom she calls ‘a running man’) are fugitives. The second woman sees desperate migrants arriving and seeking refuge in a Greece that seems to her bankrupt.
The poems are themselves fugitive, the first voice especially is urgent, hurried, its speaker being in mortal danger. Demetra, the title of the sequence, may or may not be the name of one or both speakers, but it certainly fits the first who is strong and enduring as the earth herself is. The great-granddaughter characterizes her as ‘belonging everywhere/ & nowhere, always running for her life’. Only a few of the lines are end-stopped, most topple over, hurry on. And yet, in that flux, there are staying-places – husband and wife pressed together in hiding; memories of an earlier life that was safe in a loving house and home; the child waiting in her homeless mother’s womb. Tenderness, compassion, great love, loyalty and courage, pity for others – all this is held on to as the verse exceeds its line-endings and is driven on and on.
The Companions (after Seferis)
by Harry Man
This portfolio brilliantly re-works Seferis’s sequence Mythistorema to say something new about diaspora Greek experience of 2021. In 1928, Seferis wrote ‘The Companions in Hades,’ his first poem with an overtly Homeric theme. He was visiting Istanbul, and reacted to seeing Turkey for the first time since leaving his birthplace, Smyrna, by imagining mythical characters regretting a mistake: the companions of Odysseus ate cattle belonging to the sun god, and died. Later, in 1931, Seferis discovered work that validated the way he had then turned to myth to voice his own feelings. First, T. S. Eliot’s poetry; then the ‘Mythical Method’ Eliot described when he reviewed James Joyce’s Ulysses: how myth ‘gives shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. In Mythistorema, now a chief text of Greek Modernism, Seferis created a Greek version of what Eliot did in ‘The Waste Land’. His twenty-four poems shadow the Odyssey’s twenty-four books, eliding contemporary experience with Greek antiquity. The title, Mythistorema, modern Greek for ‘novel’, combined myth, history and fiction. This new, beautifully lyrical portfolio uses Mythistorema as Seferis used the Odyssey. Transplanting mythological characters into the present, its poems offer a fragmented narrative in a voice seemingly nourished in North America on Dr Seuss’s children’s stories, which also has deep family links to Greece. The portfolio resounds with that central diasporic experience of a double allegiance to both present and past, Greece and the world outside.
by Binu Karunakaran
“Muchiri explores a lost city,” a helpful endnote to the poems explains. It also explores a lost love. It explores travelling further and further away from home, dizzyingly superimposed on the motion of homecoming. Like a dragonfly by a puddle, things in Muchiri are accompanied by their mirror images: so moving in one direction involves moving in the opposite one. Roots go into the ground, where they encounter gemstones (tear-like pearls). Gemstones rise up in the ground until they mingle with seeds. Tears were mingling with sweat once upon a time in Alexandria; now sweat, mixed with old tears, threatens to destroy the writing, a list of precious exports going from Muziri to Alexandria on a ship called Hermapollon. Yet the papyrus on which the letter is being written used to grow by the Nile, and it still remembers the river, bringing memories of love. In the meanwhile, a time traveller — who is also a space traveller — hurtles through a wormhole, propelled by a plastic button that has turned into a stone seal bearing an image of a Sphinx.
Eventually, the poet comes to Alexandria and hears the voice of Cavafy. The dragonflies reach Kerala, where their arrival announces the beginning of a festival celebrating the return of the good king, on his annual visit from the Underworld. And a slave boy on a ship called “Freedom,” caught in transit, watches the mating dragonflies and thinks of the sleepy and carefree children at home, who are about to begin gathering flowers for the festival garlands.
Lastly, we want to celebrate the totality of entries, by bringing together just a few of the voices that we loved. Here is that beautiful chorus.
Before I even have time to order/ I am informed that the table/ in front of me is made from/ the last piece of Theseus’ Ship.
…Time moves as listlessly as a cat,/ slow-swatting its tail…
…the oracle is not far/ the video resolution in our phones/ is not that great…
…We are looking for/ Byron’s name./ I take blind photos/ of the likely column…
It is dark between living/ and knowing. I open the door to the sea.
…the mountain/ a boar’s back against a darkening curtain of sky…
…obese spiders/ strung between junipers on the headland…
…Sappho’s voice flows between/ her teeth like electricity, electrocuting all…
…this unhurried lightning/ will wreck me…
…A different I, watched a different Sappho,/ stepping on to a different road, again