THE BLOG
03/03/2016 02:44 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2017

Have Ithaca Always in Your Mind

Homer has been one of my teachers. I studied the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" in my high school ancient Greek classes. I came back to Homer in college and later in my own studies of Greek history.

I was also born in Odysseus' kingdom, Cephalonia, the large sister island to Ithaca, homeland of Odysseus. In fact, half-jokingly, I used to tell my daughter, Corinna, when she was very young that I was the first cousin of Odysseus.

Palamedes, a great inventor and friend of Agamemnon and Menelaos, brother-kings who led the Greeks against the Trojans, tricked Odysseus to join the other Greek kings in the Trojan War. Homer's "Odyssey" recounts the struggle of Odysseus to find his way back to Ithaca.

I left Odysseus' kingdom not to fight a war but to go to college in America. And, yet, without suspecting it, my departure from my own Ithaca and my struggles to return home, became my Odyssey. I faced all kinds of Laestrygonians, Cyclopes and angry Poseidon. Despite the danger, I made America my second Ithaca. I had a family and indulged in my greatest passion of writing about things I loved and thought important.

My anguish, however, remains: how to return to Ithaca. I visit often but the pleasure of walking in my own olive grove is always short-lived. And despite my ceaseless efforts to maintain my Greek culture, erosion continues.

I remember the story of the Poseidonians told by the second century Greek writer Athenaios - and I shudder. Poseidonians lived for so long among Romans they lost their Greek culture.

Some people call America a melting pot, and perhaps it is. Migrants to America struggle with their traditions. Some embrace America immediately and, like the Poseidonians, erase their culture. Others try to marry the two traditions.

A telling example of saving the phenomena of both cultures comes from the poetry of Thanasis Maskaleris. His book, "My Life on the Ragged Paths of Pan" (Zorba Press, 2016), is testimony of a life in perpetual struggle.

Maskaleris came to America in the 1950s from Arkadia, Peloponnesos, home of the gods, especially Pan, beautiful villages, countless olive trees, and mountains. He studied literature and taught comparative literature at San Francisco State University where he was also instrumental in the creation of the Center for Modern Greek Studies.

But Maskaleris is fundamentally a poet speaking in the often-illuminating language of poetry. "My Life on the Ragged Paths of Pan" includes original poems and poems he translated from some of the most insightful of Modern Greek poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Like me, Maskaleris faced a strange and determined empire in America. This was not Arkadia or a culture shining with Hellenic virtues. In 1966, he wrote "Hecuba in Vietnam," a poem full of anger against the violence of America in Vietnam. Like Euripides in his "Trojan Women" denounced the Greek victors of the Trojan War for using primarily their spears," Maskaleris denounced America for putting all its strength in bombs:

"What were your eagles are now carriers of death.
Strange loves twitch in your sermons.
What fear turns to this terror? -
to drive people into trenches and tunnels, to poison their land.
What fear makes you kill the children of Vietnam so savagely,
pounding them to pieces with your bombs?...
The wail of Hecuba is rising against you, America."

In another undated poem, Maskaleris sees "Lucifer writhing" America's "entrails."

The rest of his original poems are not so straightforward. They are metaphors primarily of his American experience decorated with Greek lipstick. Pythagoras becomes "that celestial besieger of harmonies."

Maskaleris sees himself as one of "Argonauts-builders - with the golden fleece hanging from the middle mast of our souls - a growing vine of liberty." He is also sensitive to the natural world and some of his poems are paeans to the beauty of wildlife and Mother Earth.

The same is truth of the few Modern Greek poems Maskaleris translated so clearly and included in his poetic autobiography. These poems and their creators are extraordinary voices. They, too, draw from the Homeric past and the complex and hostile world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The choices of Maskaleris include Constantine Kavafis, the Alexandrian poet of sensuality and Hellenism. He authored the immortal poem about "Ithaca," rightly saying that it's not so much Ithaca that counts but the journey to reach Ithaca: "Have Ithaca always in your mind," he advised.

Maskaleris also translated fragments from Nikos Kazantzakis, Angelos Sikelianos, Kostas Varnalis, Zoe Karelli, Yannis Ritsos, Nikos Engonopoulos, Nikiforos Vrettakos, Odysseas Elytis, and Nikos Gatsos.

In his "Letter to Charlie Chaplin," Nikephoros Vrettakos speaks as "a friend from the land of Homer." He speaks on behalf of all suffering humanity, "the miners who have a taste of darkness on their lips and night in their souls as they ascend to the sun?"

"In a century when man has grown mad, when the machines humble us, and we are nothing next to them," Vrettakos says to Chaplin he, Chaplin, has become "the universal mailman."

Nikos Gatsos bemoans the barbaric transformation of the ancient sacred land of Eleusis that worshipped Demeter and Persephone to a modern trash heap and oil refineries.

Read "My Life on the Ragged Paths of Pan." It's a short, enjoyable, and thoughtful book. Its poems are full of lyricism, being the songs of travelers seeking the road to Ithaca. They come from Greeks who lived the examined life. Their poems give a different and refreshing vision of the world. These poets draw from Homer and the incomparable Greek cultural tradition in ways that enrich our Western civilization.