Three fragments from Melissánthi’s book-length poem Return of the Prodigal (1936)

Versions by Joanna Grafakos and Kathryn Maris

[With an insupportable sack]

With an insupportable sack
Of death on my back
How long the unspeakable road
With no place to rest?
This trek, this terrible test
Oh Lord, this exile—when
Oh God will it ever end? 

I want a deep deep sleep
A sleep like death  
Sleep that’s obliteration 
Is every step a decision?
Is every step a psychic prison?
Please say you’re leading me
To some secret sanctuary

In the sterile sand 
Of this too-bright land
I scattered seeds from my sack
And dragged my sweary tongue
Across every arid crack
[And my anxiety
             Barked barbarically]

[My little soul got lost and fell asleep]

My little soul got lost and fell asleep

       in a fold 

of your gigantic star-embroidered jacket

O song of your invocation

                — silver sea—

how will her waves protect me?

[Who could find the nostalgia]

Who could find the nostalgia 
of my twilight-hour dreams any kind of blessing?. . .

I carried my lyre, knocked on doors, asked the way.
I was answered with questions. 

My soul flew out of me to see my Otherness
through others’ eyes, blurred by blood and 

loathing, obscured by false eyelashes 
— they saw me inaccurately every time. 

I held out my hand to everyone 
but I did not, until now, hear anyone

say my actual name. I fled 
and hid behind a lonely wall. 

I threw down the alms I’d amassed—  
The coins had no sentimental value

                & hit the ground with a counterfeit thud.

MELISSANTHI, whose dates are usually cited as 1907-1990, was the pen name of Hebe Skandaláki (or Eve Koúyia-Skandaláki), an Athenian poet, translator and critic. Her large body of work, admired in its time, is less widely translated than that of male contemporaries Yiannis Ritsos, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. 

JOANNA GRAFAKOS is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology, and Classical Languages. KATHRYN MARIS is an American-born London-based poet who has published three collections, most recently The House With Only An Attic And A Basement (Penguin 2018). Kathryn’s grandmother, Xanthippi, was the sister of Joanna’s great-grandmother, Ourania, both born in the Laconian village of Mélissa in the Peloponnese region of Greece.