Oedipus is Innocent

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

Sample Poems

Demonstration

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.

Imprisoned

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.

Revolution

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.

Who Speaks?

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.

Reviews

‘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.’

Odysseas Elytis