Nicolas Calas (1907–1988) was a truly international poet, critic and polemicist. He wrote in Greek, French and English. He designed a chess-set with André Breton, wrote an anthropological study with Margaret Mead, appeared in a film by Hans Richter and first translated Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret and TS Eliot into Greek. One of the early Greek Surrealists, he tried to combine avant-garde poetics with Trotskyism, Freudianism and Marxism, first in Athens, then in Paris and New York.
Oedipus is Innocent is the first collection of Calas’ poems in English translation, a selection of his best work from 1933–82. From Futurist and Surrealist experiment to harsh satire, revolutionary fervour to dispassionate mockery, Calas’ work employed shock, paradox, surprise, alienation and transformation to lay bare what he regarded as the falseness of Western society and the dishonesty of capitalist morality.
Author photo copyright the Nicolas and Elena Calas Archive, Nordic Library at Athens
Osram bulb candles at night on healthy streets plenty of candles in the churches radio transmitters equal in the eyes of God and the rest of them but now at two in the afternoon with the power of thousands of candles the voices of the masses of demonstrators expand the street the flames are castrated no more they castrate in churches and palaces but here they burn the commands of courts and from their ashes the hopes of the workers – it has not been in vain then the copulation of so many plans ‘Forty centuries have their eyes on us’ the great and victorious General said to his troops Bonaparte we, on the other, hand, don’t know how many years that are watching us how could we know it since we have no emperor what we feel is that we have fetters that must go because they hurt because they are too tight, squeezing like the fingers clenched together in the shape of a fist the empty palm must cover its nakedness squeezing the crowds are squeezing like the cat before jumping as soon as we jump – but listen up now from behind your closed windows closed in honour of us the erotic mewing: we fell in love with power. The streets have grown narrower like our exhilaration which has widened its cries filling the sky smothered with aeroplanes which we now lift up high with our enormous body – the crowd grows larger and the masses of people like a sewer where the water of others is poisonous because it burst making their anger explode their anger our anger and that anger that anger now flows it flows slowly forcefully swiftly it flows and no one stops to ask where it will take us. And sweeter still than the sweetest flesh is the scent of our demands hurled with the battle cries at the masses from the mouths of the speakers the canons watching us like cyclops inhale their echo before the rocks tumble down Suddenly nobody knows why yet we are running as a waterfall we run up the streets we kiss their shape black and white from all directions black and white and our long body licking the white walls – against our will the crows are flying low now. The streets are calling us they swallow our anger the long streets are shouting and this barking surges horribly into our ears toads, crows, dogs together with sirens – how it skins our life all this hearing of the voices from the scurry in the street inconceivably horrifying the voices carrying unfriendly deadly kisses – the ghost of death throws a ghastly light on the rash faint-hearted people in flight. Everywhere all around us we see only streets in front of us and then to our right and left are streets broad streets, narrow, with tram tracks with asphalt and without asphalt everything in the city is indifferent the harrowing grin the sarcastic smile of a mouth its voice can now be heard by our ears alone. We try in vain to escape the companionship of bullets arrangement of horizontal lines streets, lead, people whoever said that parallels meet in infinity here they are joined and here is not infinity but the works of man even if they are so horribly disguised nobody notices their masks anymore in the dance of madmen they sometimes fall the music is enough and the street organ of those with money plays a mad game with us to its sound we jump newly fallen bodies forever fallen. Where is the police constable in order to regulate the circulation of blood on the pavements of arteries? The blood the red mark of a city that coquettishly tried to kill us the red mark the make-up concealing weak streets after the dispersal of the workers’ demonstration. After the dispersal of so many workers how sweet the air is slowly slowly doors are opened and windows look, even Juliet on the balcony with her mother ‘order has been restored’ and as for our own agitation the blood-letting that took place will appease us. I remember a child’s head that had been trampled afterwards it took up a lot of space the brain, the eyes, the blood strange I wonder if it takes a lot of imagination for someone to understand the dimensions of the dead. The usual voices of the street can now be heard again how great the silence must be for all of this to be heard once again. But in truth sometimes the crowds are easily dispersed like water turning into a river evaporates with the rain and the bullets open drop by drop the hearts and yet, it is no indiscretion in times of censorship it is better more drastic for them not to write at all to spill their inkstands as for the stains you simply blot them afterwards with a few flowers in the graveyard.
I’ve grown weary of the books around me and my many notebooks the walls surrounding my room I want to immobilize them with words of concrete. The walls are alive turning around and around in my room the walls are alive turning until they reach deep inside my mind the walls are alive and will not allow my words to spread out branches they prune them and the corpses of my words are left behind shrivelled up beings spread out on unlined paper their smell cannot be heard even by the light of the lamp obscuring all that I say underneath stones the walls are alive while I live within walls their touch makes me shudder their endless gallop crowns my dizziness they were perhaps more beautiful motionless stagnant but they are more truthful when running with the speed of light from Eden and beyond until now and even farther I’m afraid. Faster still than the words the walls are raised stopping the ink and making a pool out of the black surface of the words while it should be gushing forth with the force of a waterfall flooding the tyrannies hidden in masses with Byronic notes tearing them down to their foundations nowadays the poet cannot but envision Bastilles that fall entire forests of towers even adorn the bottom of vast calm waters with the anchors of despair innumerable prisons are erected from the Sing Sing rocks of America to the blue seas of Greece to the fortress of Izaddin and from the Thames and the Danube and the Vistula and from the lagoons of the Venetian canals still hot the spray of sighs blows in cultivated in the greenhouses of freedom. Within infamous walls large numbers of soaking wet bodies rot away where are you my Christ in this overflowing water that encircle so many prisons will you supply the dark colour of wounded bodies? Only at nuptial parties the drunkenness of miracles is not worth it we want no wine but black ink and red words which colour the paper let it drink the desires of those whose every syllable rhymes with stone let the rhyming be destroyed with a mad but deeply human glance and this psalm now sprout freely and unsuspecting in street corners where the wind defies the walls carrying the fragrance of flowers far far away to gardens not yet cultivated. That great day has not yet arrived though and with machinery the penal servitude continues to enclose the earth with snake-like walls fruit poisoned with gaols the trains drag the convicts from prison to prison and stop at stations of the world where Pelasgic yesterday and with iron now grind down our desires. From the pyramids graves for the hopes of slaves from the hanging gardens where thorny blossoms sweetly smell for the slaves the thorns from the Roman palaces prisons for those who are left outside from the Great Wall, from the embankments of China the grievances of the damned rise up as a giant roar – and today in the war underneath the earth and at sea gigantic walls offer new tears the walls cover the sky with endless tears the walls of Babel which supplements the cypresses of the New World graveyard guards where the poor are living with an electric chair for their throne and from these infidel summits the voice of Zephyrus now gushes forth singing with marble gateways on keys of synchronous structure unbelievable stories – the work of people slaves of the stone telling us how they lifted it high in pain for it to breathe freely in the skies of time while its enslaved poets breathe the tuberculosis on their slow walk. See how the walls are racing racing smashing the horizon flooding the earth factories, palaces, theatres, museums, warehouses, clinics London, Rome, Peking, Tokyo leave me indifferent the walls are racing racing with wheels of dollars and petrol from Mosul leaving oil-stains – stages in the work progress a rare sight, an international meeting I wonder if my song will be able to set fire to the hearts in time before the walls of my study will be covered in mould the mouldiness of prison the prison which locks up bodies or the other one even more horrible with walls of despair? I write so slowly and the readers pronounce so badly the ideas that I am afraid to grow tired of seeing the others still being stationed. No, the prison walls will not hold my words the wind will grab my papers and throw them to the streets scatter them and even if they live far away from my soul and I remain naked I will have for a voice my fist.
The entire world of the eye, the entire world – crosses and the world of other eyes crosses as well from within the earth the dead warm bodies of soldiers. From the earth crosses shoot up crosses on graves at weddings and crosses before and after. And in the two wreaths lemon blossoms now unwithering blossoms for the veiled brides of the crosses. Tightly, tightly, their snow-white veils painted black – upon the same bodies, the insatiable body of the bride hurled to the ground, the erotic call of their tears and in other beds, the other weddings. The kisses of a sister for her brother and of a daughter on her father’s cross the tragic wedding, the kisses of a mother for her son the other weddings, brother with brother the wailing of the veils, the call of the night the black sheets of a night’s orgies, the secret erotic kisses the kissing of the dead and the crosses, the entire world of the eye – crosses the earth the sky and up there the angels dressed in moonlight half-moons and angels and songs as in heaven so on earth, and the stars descend and the half-moons move rhythmically each of them above its familiar cross cutting the cross as if it was the ear of corn, oh, if only it was corn and the black dry wood was weighed down with straw and the women’s eyes were flowers of the field and the women’s weeping was bird song and their prayers were kisses and the kisses were feast-days for children, oh what joy my heart is beating, it is beating like a hammer. I would like to make my own sky so that I would have a firmament to look at now when night has fallen I would make it big, full of stars with strange shapes instead of just one, I would place two different moons there one small as a child, the other big as grievance. The two of them would not always follow each other the first would go to sleep up north and the big one would pass over my clock to chime midnight. At times when they would walk side by side like a pair of blue eyes – the eyes of blindness they would see all which fear has created they would see tossed away close to me words – the words from the day and the moons would chase me and their moonshine would nail me down and one would quietly speak the language of regret and the other would passionately run through the firmament in new orbits and so the new order of the two-mooned sky would look like madness and my eyelids would close and open from the incense of their harmony. A double game of circles now covers the sky melodies in pairs heard by my ears for the first time born by the invisible chords of the moons eternal motifs for mandolins and serenades and while the numbers of moons increase – a full wreath of white balls the sky bright wheels roll and rise and lift up the sky. Before sunrise kisses can be heard it is the sound of the moons falling and getting hurt. When I wake up, I wake up from fatigue my body looks as if it has suffered. And the green fell into the blue and it turned grey that eye a light grey a simple shadow across the expression it turned the eye everywhere – left and right, up and down now that it has been set free from its unbearable body a planet big and bright star for the steps of a miracle-worker – but the miracle-workers have died and I drag my feet in their aimless walk in the city on the mountains on the coast to my inhospitable naked bed and the eye wanders like a sphere in chaos like a brilliant sun – which sweet light, the slight light of the moon – like a burning sun, that you gaze upon, that you cannot see like a sun like a divine eye the eye of love endows sleep with sleeplessness and my dream with nightmares dawn remodels its colour before erasing it like the caress a beautiful opal in the sunbeams turning it blue with some rose-coloured lines reminiscent of coral afterwards that emerald green prevails which wanders in dewy grass the green comes after the unbearable yellow traces of a weary life. When I wake up – I wake up feeling tired the eye wide open still watches me playing with the colours painted by so many loves playing with the colours unfolding the furrows of the other eyes the beloved eyes of foreign bodies eyes full of hope and were closed shut so as not to see but they saw eyes that loved and now they no longer know which is preferable to stay open or shut.
Did your eyes cross swords with your mother’s? And did the mirror break you? Who speaks? The fool who said ‘nothing is’ or the other who says ‘there is nothing’? Who speaks? Images were given to us the way trees were given the wind and the rocks running water. From the subdivision of visions where do we go? I believe that which is absurd. Athens or Jerusalem? The voice of the owl stuck in my throat. The road to Moscow was blocked. Paris, the Mystic Babylon. ‘We shall transform the world and regenerate ourselves.’ Jeanne D’Arc is dead, ‘Vive Violette Nozière’ Violette who? Once again ink flows in my veins and I can look with astonishment into the eyes of others of the woman with the Spanish laughter framed by the first wrinkle of sorrow of the Nordic with the stage voice and the too silent audience of the Berliner stroking her cheek with the caress of a dove while plotting the death of Hitler I gazed into the eyes of young poets with their dreams of incest and chocolate guillotines. Tomorrow we celebrate the death of Louis XVI. We shall send a letter to Leon Trotsky. Refugees from Spain pour into France. The City of Potters with its Maginot Line dreams of umbrellas and telephone calls. Now comes the exodus – of Picasso’s paintings, of the mistress of a Balkan king of the antifascist poet and the Freudian analyst. Wanderer, what is your destination: Jerusalem or Babylon? I am for the city of towering towers, of streets like canyons I am for dreams of five cent cigars that taste like Wall Street of electric chairs with the smell of van Gogh, of giant hamburgers atop Hamburger Hill, of mushrooms taller than Hiroshima of a paradise as big as a refrigerator and with enough gold to armour the teeth from the cold of ice cream. I am for birds with too many leaves and for trees with too many feathers. I am for Manhattan and Satan, for the Mad Hatter and Lucifer, for a voice that comes from the Steppes, for my Moonbeam, murmuring sweet things with Russian vowels and Georgian consonants, for the trust and doubt in her loving eyes in the game I was to play after, during and after the Revolution. On the alchemy of words, of beauty and the beast, the confrontation of love and will, the complexity of the Sphinx and Oedipus. The fool hath said in his heart, that is secretly, and metaphorically, ‘there is no truth.’ Beyond Oedipus and Freud there is the riddle, the searching eyes, the veil of Ambiguity and enchantment the magic of surprise.
‘But who is he, anyway, and what exactly does he do? Does he write poems? Revolutionary essays? Lampoons? Does he write in Greek, in French, in English? Does he play a leading part in new movements? Does he discover new artists? Does he take on the people in power? Nothing and all of this. An almost impenetrable person, a bit like Jacques Vaché and a bit like Marcel Duchamp, he is above all rebellious. Everything else comes second.’
‘a delight from cover to cover. Full of puns, non-sequiturs, allusions, tenuous associations, dream impossibilities… a scathing, oblique attack on the injustice, brutality and boredom of modern culture. Unlike anything you’re likely to read from most of the UK’s timid and conformist houses, this is an uplifting and joy-making collection of superb work.’
Mistress Quickly’s Bed