A Poem by Katerina Iliopoulou


Katerina Iliopoulou

The song of the little swimmer

His feet clutch at the cement
His breath is huge
An appeal for duration
Organized along the length of his vertebrae.
Now the little construct of bones gathers itself
His immobility contains something of the lizard
(as if it were always there
but then in an instant invisible
the sight cannot get enough of it)
And now all of a sudden he falls
Upright like an angel
Likewise the birds hurl themselves in the sky
Every flight is a fall

Falling he wears a flower watch
Threaded on a string
He wears a necklace of bitter oranges
He often pierces things
He tests their resistance with a pocket-knife
Now himself a needle he penetrates the wind
This type of intervention is an act of:
It never ends
What has no inside doesn’t open.

Falling he takes with him
The burning in his hand
In the center of his palm
Caused by a black insect
The pain is a visitor from the future
It passed through the unwritten map of the hand
Read it with the greatest scrutiny.
Weeping now
With the hand open
Showing it to the wilderness
He was entirely the subject of a thing which
For lack of a more precise term
We will call: touch.

And falling he takes with him
The eyes of animals
And the invisible horses
Every day they ride them and love them
They squeeze them and caress them
Because of what they are:
Two cold rocks covered with moss.
There for the first time he will taste the vertigo of matter
That the abyss is not the black void but the impenetrable

And falling the tips of his toes finally
Will touch the water
And then he himself will sink at once
Without managing to grasp the boundary
And with closed eyes
He will see with every pore of his body
He will be uninvited in a foreign world
Completely spellbound
He will be frightened
He will want to stay there forever
He will want to make it last
He will emerge into the light defeated
He will try again
And he will relive this one day unexpectedly
He will be defeated
He will try again
And he will bite into the tissue of the proposition
“It’s never enough”
And he will dance.

– translated by John O’Kane


This (apparently appropriate for July, though not altogether quite summery) poem appears in K.I.’s third book, The Book of the Soil (Melani Editions, Athens 2011). As often occurs in her work, an image in nature—but a nature where human artefact is already, clearly, and not insignificantly present: here, the cement quay from where the swimmer dives; elsewhere, the car in which friends drive through a landscape—sets in motion a cascade of other images and meditations not only on nature and humans, but existence itself, time, and other ‘grand’ themes. Grand the themes may be, but their treatment is subtle and grounded: reflections alternate with original but immediately appropriatable experiential ‘snapshots’. The interrelationship between human identity and specific localities, the interpenetration of life and art, the interplay between boundaries and peaks, whether literal or metaphorical, are some of the main concerns that K.I.’s work consistently questions and probes. Her sharp poetic eye and her tempered style weave a sober canvas οn which bold archetypal images or strikingly original observations, with the occasional lyrical outburst, blend in to strengthen the clearly thought-out overall design of each book.

Katerina Iliopoulou, born in 1967, is a poet, artist and translator, who lives and works in Athens. She is the author of four poetry books: Mister T. (2007; first prize for a new author by the literary journal “Diavazo”), Asylum (2008), the aforementioned Book of the Soil (2011), and Every place only once, and completely (2015); a book of poetry and photography, Gestus, together with visual artist Yiannis Isidorou (FRMK Editions, Athens 2014); a book of short stories, It isn’t yet (Melani Editions, Athens 2019); she is also one of seven authors of A Conversation on Poetry Now (FRMK Editions, Athens 2018), a collective book of essays on poetics. Her translations in book form include extensive selections from the work of Sylvia Plath and Walt Whitman, while she has also published translations of Mina Loy, Robert Hass and Ted Hughes, among others. Her own poetry has been translated and published in literary reviews, journals and anthologies in several languages, and she has participated in numerous international writing and translation programs, festivals (including the “Poetry Parnassus” held in London in its ‘olympic’ year 2012) and biennials. Mister T. and The Book of the Soil have been published in French, while the former has also been translated in Turkish. She is the editor in chief of “FRMK”, a biannual journal on poetry, poetics and the visual arts, and co-editor of the bilingual web platform greekpoetrynow.com. She also writes essays and poetry reviews.

More by K.I. in English online:


Image caption: A photo by Eleni Arletou, from the series Urban Swimmers. Arletou participates in the Young Greek Photographers exhibition, part of Athens Photo Festival 2019.