Sunday, 3 May 2015

Sailor on Horseback

When the readership of the blog shoots up, it's often because I've posted one of my translations of the poems of Nikos Kavvadias.  You must like them I suppose. So here's something of his you probably haven't seen:

To My Horse

Nikos Kavvadias

Writing to a person is, I suppose, something a lot of people find easy. Writing to an animal is unbelievably difficult. I’m afraid to try. I shan’t manage it.

My hands were hardened by your harness, my soul by other things. But I must do it. I feel the need. Yes, I’ll write to you.

To begin with you didn’t take to me. You thought me unskilled, clumsy. You were right. It was probably the first time I’d seen a horse up close. The horses I’d seen were ridden by Cossacks in the circus, or bet on by people at the race-track. I’d never liked that. You weren’t made for such vulgarities. But … that’s another story, as Kipling said, who loved you and wrote of you.

I know how much I tired you. Unevenly loaded, obedient, you followed the night marches. We soon became friends. You got used to me. I stopped losing you among the other beasts of our unit; I learnt to recognize you.

If I start on the ‘D’you remembers’ I’ll never finish. I like brevity. I’ll just remind you of three of our nights. (I’m surprised at myself tonight. I’ve never spoken so fondly of any person.)

D’you remember the night of the downpour? Both of us totally drenched, we were walking through the night. Alone. Was I leading you, or you me? My sleepy eyes tried to stare through that night’s curtain as they’d never stared searching for lights in the North Sea. It was your sense of smell that saved us. A stable gave us asylum. We cleared a space in the straw and lit a huge fire. ‘We,’ I say. You gave me courage. I lay down and listened to you champing. Then I started talking. I’d never agreed with people as I agreed with you then. We fell asleep talking. Me lying down on the straw, you upright. How many people have fallen asleep upright, as they walked? How few have had your judgment? But anyway …

The second night: when we went, with many others, into battle. We were able to carry away some of the wounded. Together we heard the sound of battle and got used to it. We picked up the boy with the wounded leg, and left. I’d never seen you move so carefully, with such a gentle gait. You’d forgotten your nervous habit of bucking the pack-saddle. Maybe you’d understood the situation before I had.

And now, the night on the mountain, in the mud: Overloaded, exhausted. Unbelievable the wretchedness and sorrow of seeing animals, people, everything, deep in mud; of knowing yourself to be among them.

Our way was blocked by fallen horses and mules. We tried to get through. Suddenly you fell. We fell, I should say. Two of your legs broken, your head buried in the mud. You remember the efforts I made. I couldn’t manage. You must surely know it wasn’t my fault. I’d never tried harder. I stayed with you all night. Just beyond us, a dead Italian. Above us the Great Bear, the Pole Star, and Orion shed their faint light.

I’ve never seen how people die. I’ve always turned my eyes away from death. But I imagine …

No. I’m afraid I might say too much.

I still keep your brush and curry-comb. And if the time ever comes to give them away, I shall still remember you.

The callouses on my hands from your reins mean as much to me as those I used to get during my sea voyages. I shall write to you again …

Koúdesi, March 1941.

Translated by Simon Darragh.



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