Tasos Leivaditis (1922–88) was one of the best-loved Greek poets of the twentieth century, part of the heroic generation of Communist poets that included Yiannis Ritsos, Nikiforos Vrettakos and Manolis Anagnostakis. The author of more than twenty books of poetry, many of his poems were set to music by his close friend Mikis Theodorakis. During the Second World War Leivaditis joined the Communist Partisans to fight against the Nazi Occupation of Greece. During the Civil War he was arrested and imprisoned on the islands of Lemnos, Makronisos and Agios Efstratios. Eventually released, he was charged in 1955 with ‘incitement to rebellion’ for writing subversive poetry. After the US-sponsored Fascist coup of 1967, he was forced to write under pseudonyms. But when Leivaditis died he was given a state funeral.
Autumn Manuscripts was Leivaditis’ last book, comparable to Brecht’s Buckow elegies, Aragon’s Les Adieux and Ritsos’ last poems. Published shortly after his death, it’s a book of sly fables and strange dreams, farewells and departures, migrating birds and autumn leaves, embers and ash. Reflecting on the political defeats of his generation, the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, the bitter divisions inside the Greek Communist Party and the wider demoralisation of the European left, Leivaditis contemplates the relationship between belief and doubt. ‘The old comrades have not died but reside now at the far end of the roads – whichever one you take you will run into them.’
The garden railings are wet from the rain like the poor who are left outside but as night falls a flute somewhere or a star pleads for all humanity – when we were children we would hide under the stairs and whenever we came out we’d leave behind a royal destiny silence makes the world bigger, sorrow makes it more just and later in youth we embraced the first tree and told it about the past joyless days: you went away and yet you left behind a moving memory and I who was mad about the future now look anxiously at the advancing hands of the clocks. One night meanwhile someone walks along the street singing. Where have you heard that song before? You can’t remember. And yet the nostalgia for everything you had dreamed trembles within the song. You stand by the window and listen spellbound. And suddenly at the turn of the road the song vanishes. Everything disappears. Silence. Now what will you do?
Oblivion has covered the past, the unknown besieges the house phantoms of things we loved and lost and now only spiders know what comes next – but nostalgia for the unknown had won us over since childhood, and loneliness had promised us great distances. Oh the children we were with those long neckties for a childhood so short! And the evening breeze blew away the ribbons in Maria’s hat to other constellations – we never reached her. And I loved with passion all things I was not destined to know. And I lived all my life in a dream and immortality in a few cognacs. One morning a bird sat on the tree opposite and whistled something. Oh, if only I understood what it wanted to tell me, perhaps I would have found the meaning of the world.
Who knows what will happen tomorrow, or whoever learned what happened yesterday? my years were lost here and there, in rooms, in trains, in dreams but sometimes the voice of a woman as night falls resembles the farewell of a part of life that has come to an end and the days you lack, oh February, perhaps they will be returned to us in paradise – I think about the small hotels where I scattered the sighs of my youth until in the end no one escapes, but where would they go anyway? and eros is our mad hope in the face of the impossibility that one person may come to know another – Lord, you have treated poets unjustly by giving them only one world, and when I die I want to be buried in a pile of calendar pages so that I might take time with me. And perhaps whatever of us remains will lie by the edge of our path: a small forget-me-not.
But now it’s night. Let’s close the door and close the curtains because the time of review has arrived. What have we done in our life? Who are we? Why you and not me? For some time now no one has knocked on our door and the postman hasn’t shown up in centuries. Ah, so many letters, so many poems swept away by the November wind! And if I lost my life I lost it for trivial things: a word or a key, a yesterday or a tomorrow but my nights always have the aroma of violets because I remember. So many friends left without leaving an address, so many words without any response and music, I think to myself, is the sadness of those who never had the chance to love. Until in the end nothing remains from the past but a hazy memory (when did we live?) and every time spring arrives I cry because in a short while we will leave and no one will remember us.
The clocks strike the lost hours, but no one believes them, ah the endless danger signals I sent and still no one has replied – but someday I will try to remember, to remember how I got here, everything happened so quickly, friends went their separate ways, some were lost in the war, others at the turn in the road lovers got married and now grow old next to strangers at times in the afternoon a wind arises, the shutters are battered like pangs of remorse – for what beautiful blunder, I wonder? and childhood: a heavenly gloss on the enigma that we exist. And when I leave someday I won’t take anything with me other than a little violet from the twilight and a star from some fairy tale.
The old comrades have not died but reside now at the far end of the roads – whichever one you take you will run into them.
‘clever, disciplined writing… a fine antidote to the lunatic optimism abroad in the world today.’
Mistress Quickly’s Bed