Soon we will be leaving our little Greek island. Looking at the horizon from our neighbourhood beach, I already feel nostalgia. I already miss the vastness of the blue sea just as I already miss the night time sky. Often we spend evenings on the terrace where the Big Dipper can be seen. Sometimes we go on the roof to see other constellations, as well. But even then, not all the constellations are visible.
Once upon a time the Crux was visible to the Greeks. But the Earth’s axial precession began to migrate and by 400 A.D. the Crux became invisible to most of Europe. The Crux is now visible only in the Southern Sky, that is, south of the celestial equator. For this reason it’s known as the Southern Cross.
I’d first heard of the Southern Cross from the Stephen Stills song. Well, it wasn’t totally his song. It was first sung by the Curtis Brothers. Stills had expressed an interest in recording it but was busy with so many other projects that he never did. Then his girlfriend, French singer Vèronique Sanson, broke up with him. The break-up left him feeling wilted and worn. Friends suggested he distract himself by sailing to Papeete. It was here that Stills saw the Southern Cross for the first time. Inspired, he modified the original lyrics:
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be running from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise of a coming day.
The Southern Cross also inspired the Greek poet Nikos Kavadias. Born in 1910 in Manchuria of Greek parents, in 1921 his family moved back to Greece. When his father died in 1929, Kavadias was forced to work in his uncle’s shipping office in Pireaus where he trained as a wireless officer. But Kavadias already had two main desires: to write poetry and to be a sailor.
In 1922, the Turks marched into the Greek zone of Smyrna and began burning it down. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks were killed and those remaining were left homeless. So in masses these Greeks escaped to Piraeus bringing with them the sorrowful sound of rebetika. It was the music of the poor, the displaced, the victims of social injustice and love gone sour. It was the music of exiled souls. Rebetika could be heard in ouzeri, hashish dens, coffee shops, and any other place frequented by the marginalized. They were places that Kavadias no doubt frequented so it’s easy to assume that his poetry was influenced by the lyrics of these heartbreaking songs.
Kavadias was a loner, an observer, and a collector of stories. His home, the sea, provided him with stories of irreclaimable people and faraway ports, stories of loneliness and longing. Like that of the wealthy young woman he’d fallen in love with but couldn’t be with. Many years later, quite by accident, he saw her again on the streets working as a prostitute.
To redeem one’s suffering you must turn it into a poem.
In the late 1970s, Greek composer Thanos Mikroutsikos discovered that Kavadias’ poems would provide the perfect lyrics for his compositions. His first album using Kavadias’ poems was Σταυρός του Νότου (Southern Cross).
To be honest with you, maybe I like the idea of poetry more than poetry itself. Often the meaning of a poem seems to be so hermetically sealed within the poet that reading the poem is like being in a foreign city without a map to guide me. And I feel lost. But, determined to get something out of Kavadias’ “Southern Cross”, I’ve read it and reread it several times and this is what I’ve understood:
The winds are blowing and the waves are hot. One man narrates the other. Bent over a map, the other says that he is heading to another latitude. A declaration of love is tattooed on his chest. But although the love is gone, the burned skin remains.
The Southern Cross behind them indicates where they are. The other rubs his worry beads and chews bitter coffee beans.
The narrator lets himself be guided by an azimuth compass whereas the other warns of the stars of the southern skies.
The other had learned to navigate that same sky thanks to the captain’s mulatto girl. The other had also bought a knife on an island near Madagascar. The knife glittered like a lighthouse beam.
But now, says the narrator, the other has been sleeping for years on an African shore far away from the lighthouse, far away from Sunday sweets.
The Southern Cross has a special meaning for Australians and New Zealanders. So much so that the constellation’s four bright stars are shown on their flags. Because the Southern Cross acts as a compass for night time navigators. And, as we all know, without a compass it’s easy to get lost.
Related: Crux + Stavros Tou Notou (Live) on youtube + The Earthly and Celestial Meaning Behind “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash + Seven League Boots~Curtis Brothers on youtube + “Southern Cross” with Michael Curtis background info + Crosby, Stills & Nash – Southern Cross + Greek rebetika and rebetiko songs + Warwick Thornton: racists have ruined the Southern Cross for everyone + Precession of the earth animation + Smyrna 1922: A complex legacy +
Nazim Hikmet, poet with a cause + I’m nobody and so are you +
Bibliography: Holst-Warhaft. The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias. Cosmos Publishing Co. Rivervale, NJ. 2006
I miss seeing the Big Dipper which was visible in our clear Canadian skies. Now, I live under the Southern Cross.
I’ve never seen the Southern Cross…is it magical?