The Poet in History: Speaking Unspeakable Suffering
I’m a name they never spoke, I stepped from the ashes blind, deaf and dumb to what they saw, still a witness / by some force that drags me toward hills with nothing / but the shards of words passed on, the crumbling photographs, / the tears that slid from my father and grandfather / through the huge black eyes of paintings and into mine; / that weep when the light breaks on these imaginary cliffs.
We read these lines in the Epilogue which concludes Stephanos Papadopoulos’s “Black Sea” (2012). The poem place the speaker of the poem (“I stepped from the ashes”) in relation to family trauma (“the tears that slid from my father and grandfather”) as well as his ancestors whose feelings and experiences are irretrievably lost to him. Standing “blind, deaf and dumb to what they saw,” the speaker nevertheless is “still a witness” of a family past traced in family lore (“shards of words”), “crumpling photographs,” and paintings evoking their ordeal.
This bleak past, so distant yet so vivid in memory, refers to the traumatic experience of the Pontic Greeks who were caught in a series of devastating historical conflicts during WWI (1914-1917) as well as the Greco-Turkish war and its aftermath (1919-1922). They were targeted and ultimately forced out from their ancestral lands carrying with them memories of unspeakable loss.
How does a poet evoke this traumatic past? In his collection, Papadopoulos (b. 1976) raises the question of his role as a poet in this history of suffering. A descendant of a family defined by the trauma of the Pontic displacement, he feels the urgency to tell the story. But how can his writing do justice to the enormity of the devastation?
Papadopoulos, a North Carolina-born and acclaimed poet, seeks the answer by venturing into a journey, both physical and imaginative. One major source feeding his poetic imagination is family lore, passed down by his grandfather, a tobacco merchant in Samsun. Crucial to this quest is an old family photo album from the 1920s the poet discovered. “There were some recognizable family faces and lots of anonymous stares,” he indicates in an interview. Facing people caught in images but without having access to their voice leads to haunting questions: How did they experience the ordeal? What would they have shared with us if they could only speak?
But the initial writing felt too distant from the past he set out to portray. What was missing, he realized, was the physical connection to the ancestral places he longed to bring to life. To forge “his connection to the place where so many of his ancestors suffered and died,” Papadopoulos rode his motorcycle––a sort of pilgrimage––from Athens and though Anatolia, “along the southern coast of the Black Sea, exploring the villages and birthplaces” of his ancestors.”
Encountering a landscape of trauma triggers his memory and feeds his imagination. He writes in Voices:
Voices still rise from foggy hillsides / the drop and fade into the shore of this Black Sea, / …
Evoking voices from the past is Papadopoulos’s solution to speak about individuals caught in the cruel swirl of history. He invents these voices to convey the personal dramas of a wide range of characters––soldiers, priests, ordinary people, a prostitute. His sonnets do not reproduce a one-sided story of victimization. The historical fact is that all the involved armies committed unspeakable atrocities against civilians.
The starkness of its imagery makes Black Sea a difficult book to read. But it seems that one way to cope with trauma is to name trauma in its full bleakness. His characters are overwhelmed by the devastation they experienced, their memories dark. Take Alekos Remembers Smyrna:
You want to count the dead? One is too many. / You want the lesson history gave? / Each field furrow is an open grave.
Or, Stavros in Paris: Stavros carries the story in his veins / from Pontus Parisian steeple crosses / jutting like skeletons and cranes / …
Did the poet do justice to this unspeakable suffering? He is conscious of this responsibility. “If I ask myself whether I did justice to the memory of those people,” he shares with us, “I’m terrified.”