The Children of Leonidas

Nicholas Graspias
ISBN 9781740275378 $22

Dark, impassioned, violent, Nicholas Grapsias’ The Children of Leonidas, a sequence of narrative poems, tells of Greece in the 1940s. The first half is about the German occupation and the resistance. Vignette after vignette depicts the cruelty of both sides. In ‘Athens, 1941’:

in a circle
the SS officers eat quails
sharing jokes

a mother in a black scarf
gathers the bones they flick

placing them
in her children’s mouths
she weeps         whispering
eat them          eat them

The most memorable character is ‘The Butcher’, leader of an anti-Italian squadron that re-groups as a resistance cell after the surrender. He gets his name because ‘He made us hold down/ Italian prisoners as he cut their throats,/ explaining as he did so/ the importance of saving bullets’. ‘The Butcher’ connects ancient Greek epic and historical legend, The Iliad and Alexander and the story of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, with twentieth-century warfare. ‘Every liberty you own today is soaked/ with some patriot’s blood.’

The free verse of this book is at times magnificent; its voice – based on the poet’s grandfathers’ diaries and oral stories – can be devastatingly strong. A little plain prose historical horizon-setting might have helped, particularly with the second half, which is about the civil war of the late 1940s. The carnage – nearly every double page spread offers a new atrocity in graphic detail, including axe murder, dismemberment, impaling, rape, disembowelment and point-blank execution of one family member by another (‘Don’t let them torture me!’) – accumulates in a way that produced, in this reader, a slight feeling of hysterical dissociation. This near-great book has affinities with splatter movies. But so does a lot of history.

Kerry Leves

Kerry Leves (1948–2011) was a poet and critic who regularly contributed to Overland before he recently passed away. He composed this poem for the ‘Sydney: Endless City’ reading of the Harbour City Poets group at the Sydney Writers Festival, May 2011.

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