Helen

( - )

 TEUCER: ...in sea-girt Cyprus, where Apollo bade me live, I built
the city of Salamis in memory of my homeland.
.............................................................................
HELEN: It was not I went to Troy, but an image.
.............................................................................
MESSENGER: What? Were all our pains then for a cloud?

(Euripedes, Helen)

"You cannot sleep in Platres for the nightingales".
Shy nightingale, hidden among whispering leaves,
you bring the echoing coolness of the forest
to the sundered souls and bodies
of those who know there can be no return.
Blind voice, fumbling in the dark of memory
for footsteps, gestures, what I dare not call kisses,
and the slave-woman's sullen anger.

"You cannot sleep in Platres for the nightingales".

Where is Platres? Does anybody know this island?
All my life I've heard strange names,
new places, the latest foolishness
of men or gods;
                        my fate, weaving
between the final sword-thrust of some Ajax
and another Salamis,
brought me to this sea-coast.
The moon
rises out of the sea like Aphrodite,
covering Sagittarius, then seeks
the heart of Scorpio, changing everything.
Where is truth?
I too was an archer in those wars,
my fate that of a man whose arrow strayed.

Nightingale, songsmith,
on such a night as this by the shores of Proteus' sea
the Spartan slave-women heard your song and wept,
and among them (who would have guessed it) Helen!
She, whom we sought for years along Scamander's banks.
There on the desert's cusp I touched her and she spoke to me:
"Lies", she cried, "lies,
"I never stepped into the blue-prowed ship,
never trod glorious Ilium".

Deep-girdled, sun-dappled hair, that long body,
shadows, smiles everywhere
on shoulders thighs knees,
the flaring skin, and those eyes
with their great lashes
- all there, on the bank of the Delta.
                                           And in Ilium?
In Ilium, nothing - a simulacrum.
So the gods wished it.
And Paris embraced a shadow as if it had been flesh and blood,
while for ten long years we butchered one another over Helen.

Greece haemorrhaged.
So many bodies thrown
to the jaws of the sea, to the jaws of the earth:
so many souls
flung between the millstones like grains of wheat.
And blood bubbling up through river mud,
for a flaxen wave for a passing cloud
a butterfly's wingbeat a swandown's drift
all for an empty tunic, a Helen.
And what of my brother?
Nightingale nightingale nightingale,
what is a god? What's not a god? What falls between the two?

"You cannot sleep in Platres for the nightingales".

Sad bird,
          on sea-girt Cyprus
which I was promised in memory of my homeland,
I landed alone with this fable,
if indeed it is a fable,
if it is true that men will never again
fall into the gods' ancient snare;
                               if it is true
that in ages to come another Teucer,
some other Ajax Hecuba or Priam
or someone perhaps nameless, unknown, who yet
has seen Scamander heave with corpses,
will be spared the words
of messengers coming to say
that so much suffering so many lives
went spinning into the abyss
all for an empty tunic, for a Helen.

 

«Ελένη», από τοΗμερολόγιο Καταστρώματος Γ' (1955)
From Log Book, III (1955)
(unpublished)


Author 
John Stathatos (translator)
Original Author 
George Seferis
Published