“I am not a professional poet,” Manolis Anagnostakis (1925-2005) declared in an interview. Poetry for him was a craft he practiced occasionally; one means of expression. Anagnostakis was also a publisher of a journal, an editor of prose and poetry collections, and a public writer and speaker. He published book reviews and translations, using his wide-ranging writing to speak about the social and political issues that confronted post–World War II Greece.
“Epitaph” (Επιτύμβιον), the poem that I discuss here, belongs to the collection The Target (1969-1970), published during the Greek junta (1967-1974). I chose it as an example of the moral and political concerns that Anagnostakis brought to the forefront of his work, and also because it showcases his irony and prosaic style.
You died and you, too, became: the good one.
The brilliant human being, the family man, the patriot.
Thirty-six wreaths accompanied you, three homilies by vice presidents,
Seven resolutions on the wonderful services that you have rendered.
Ah, Lavrenti, only I knew what scum you were, What counterfeit, your whole life a lie.
Sleep in peace, I will not disturb your serenity.
(I, living a whole life of silence will pay a king's ransom for it, not the price of your sorry skin.)
Sleep in peace. As you always were in life: the good, The brilliant human being, the family man, the patriot.
You won’t be the first or the last.
The choice of the title, Επιτύμβιον, in purist Greek (katharevousa) is not accidental. This register is connected with the official language used by the state and the elites until 1976, when it was abolished, and a contrast between public and private.
Indeed, the title introduces us to the formal state event described in the first stanza: the state’s recognition of a deceased citizen. Accordingly, the language reads like a pompous official announcement. “Seven resolutions” affirmed the determination of the state to honor this individual. “Three homilies by vice presidents” extolled his virtues.
In this formulaic farewell, the speaker of the poem directly addresses the deceased, allegedly concurring with the homilies. The deceased was brilliant, an esteemed citizen who embodied the virtues of two veneered institutions, the family and the nation.
But the second stanza brings about a reversal. The speaker abandons the second-person “you” and instead turns to the confessional first person “I.” As the speaker moves away from the scene of public recognition into his own private thoughts and feelings, his language loses its formality and becomes every day, ordinary, and true.
The speaker’s revelations paint a picture dramatically opposed to both the deceased’s public image and his opening becomes ironic. The deceased, Lavrentis, was not the honorable person the state ceremony wants him to be. In the eyes of the speaker, he was a scum, a counterfeit, unworthy of public honoring.
Of course, Lavrentis stands as a symbol of the deceitful everyman. He “won’t be the first or the last.” The speaker doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his indictment. This is not what interests him. Instead, it’s the revision of history.
The speaker aims to expose ethical and political hypocrisy, to challenge the promotion of “ideal” social norms (patriotism, family values) for personal gain. He criticizes state officials who join in this game of deception, individuals and power structures who blatantly mislead the public.
The poem’s sharp irony exposes what the speaker sees as hypocrisy, alerting citizens to show vigilance about the truth of official public memories. Let us attend, the poem instructs, to the knowledge that is at odds with official accounts, to the valuable counter-memories to the statements enshrined in an Επιτύμβιον.
Yiorgos Anagnostou, Director, Modern Greek Program, OSU
Note: Translation of poem into English by Neni Panourgia.