By Nick Stamatakis

A few days ago I took in my hands the latest poetry collection by Sevasti (Sevi) Boutos, a daring endeavor on her part, as it is written in English.  To those of us who have deeply experienced the powerful ways of thinking, speaking, and writing Greek, attempting to write poetry in English is quite a task; To me personally, it feels as if something is always missing. Why? The answer does not simply have to do with the “mother tongue” experience; after a few decades in New York, much of it spent in reading and writing, this is certainly not the main issue.

It might have to do with the emotional energy one always invests in writing poetry… But it has mostly to do with having been taught ancient Greek in school as teenagers, (along with Latin, at a time when these two languages were basic requirements in many European countries, as an essential part of a well-rounded education). But for us, ancient Greek was still alive in the words we were speaking and some of the literature we were reading, and it was even more alive in Church.  Parts of the biblical language used in Church were deeply felt as it was recounted in ancient (“Alexandrian” or “Koine”) Greek, even by people with very little formal education… We also drew from centuries of Greek folk poetry, with its myriad idioms, folk poetry very much alive still today.

And so any concept we would use either in everyday communication or in literature had a number of linguistic versions and invoked a variety of “shades”, coming from every corner of Greek life, literature, and history over a span of 3,000 years… We could pick among at least four main words for “the sea” (and even more secondary ones), and among at least three words expressing what in English we are able to fit under “Love”. If we were to express the concept of “falling in love”, the choices would be even wider and infinitely descriptive and colorful…

But Sevasti Boutos seems to have gone well beyond the pain of translating her thoughts, straight into directly expressing her feelings and experiences and thoughts by leaving her native Greek in the background. And occasionally bringing it to the fore when there is no other way to say it…  The result is a shine of potent Greek light and a painting of a summery Greek island, Aegina… An island that seems to have condensed all Greek mythology and history in a few square kilometers of pistachio orchards and olive trees drenched by reflections of the sun… On this most beautiful and mythical part of the Aegean Sea, the Saronic Gulf, where Aegina is centrally located, dominating the map, the landscape, its mythology, and history…

It all happens in Aegina, “a place where the primordial God Uranus met with his mother-wife Gaia”… Where “the eyes embrace the serene pelagos...” Aegina is the island where Sevasti has spent many summers of her life growing up among generations of family members.  A wide Greek family, each member with a unique personal story, coming together in Aegina… An Aegean island typically dry, with very little water left in the water tanks, to the point that “… the couple next door might need much of it to put out their fire…”

It’s impossible to escape the eroticism in Aegina’s landscape and it is equally impossible to escape history, ancient and modern…  The local prison was used by the military junta of 1967-74 to detain opponents… And it is also impossible to escape life’s bigger questions under the penetrating Aegean sun: “Do theologians care if God was walking on Aegina before giving the order to Let there be Light?” asks Sevasti – a few pages before reflecting on her days of seeking relief by visiting the local monastery of Aegina’s patron-saint, Agios Nektarios…

All these reflections have stayed with Sevasti and are carried back in New York: “Every morning in New York, a sunbeam passes through the cracks of her window, reflecting on as a souvenir…” Memories in Colona, at the ruined temple of Apollo…a remnant of Goths, Alans, and Theodosius…

By the time you are halfway through the book, you are already swimming in the azure waters around Agistri and watching Aphroditi (Venus) cross the star-lit night sky… wondering whether it was fear that gave rise to questions about the divine…

For most of us who had the experience of life on a Greek Island, to read Sevasti’s poetry is a nostalgic but pervasive experience…  For the rest of you, there can be no more enticing invitation to “Visit the islands of Greece at least once”, as the title of one of the closing poems (p.128) goes…

To order the book please follow the link to Amazon.com.

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