Interpretation of “I wonder my Swallow” by Alessandra Caiulo

For this entry I have picked a traditional song from Southern Italy, performed by Alessandra Caiulo at the 2022 edition of La Notte della Taranta festival: Its original title is Aremou or Aremou rindineddha mou.

[ In my collection, I have the version of Aremou performed by the Ghetonia band, in their album Per incantamento. The male voice gives it a different feel. ]

On first reading, this poem is about a bird, though we can draw insights from it that apply to our everyday life. Below are the original lyrics in Griko, my Greek and English translations, philosophical commentary, and some final notes on the applied language.

Aremou rindineddha mou (Griko (Italiot Greek))

Aremou rindineddha mou
plia talassa se guaddhi
che apute ste che ftazzi
m'outo kalo chero

Vasta to peton aspro
mavre vasta tes ale
stavri kulor de mare
che i kuta en diu nihti

Kaímeno pros sti talassa
ego se kanonó
lio gherni, lio kaléi
lio ghizzi to nero

Ma sou tipo mou lei
ya posa se rotó
lio gherni, lio kaléi
lio ghizzi to nero
Άραγε χελιδόνι μου (Ελληνικά)

Άραγε χελιδόνι μου
ποια θάλασσα σε φέρνει
και απού'τε (πώθε==από που) στες (στω==στέκομαι) και φτάνεις
μ'ούτο (με τούτο τον) καλό καιρό

Βαστάς (έχεις) στο πέτον (στήθος) άσπρο
μαύρο βαστάς στα φτερά
πλάτη σε χρώμα της θάλασσας
και η ουρά στα δυό ανοιχτή

Καημένος μπρος στη θάλασσα
εγώ σε κανονώ (σε συλλογίζομαι;---δες σημειώσεις παρακάτω)
λίγο γέρνεις, λίγο καλάρεις (πέφτεις)
λίγο γγίζεις το νερό

Μα σου τίποτε μου λέεις
για πόσα σε ρωτώ
λίγο γέρνεις, λίγο καλάρεις
λίγο γγίζεις το νερό
I wonder my Swallow (English)

I wonder my Swallow
which sea brings you
and where you stand and reach
in this fine weather

[You] Hold (have) white on the chest
black [you] hold on the wings
back in the colour of the sea
and the tail open in two

While grieving I stand by the sea
I canonise you (I contemplate you?---see notes below)
[you] tilt a little, descend a little
touch the water a little

Yet you say nothing
on what I ask you about
[you] tilt a little, descend a little
touch the water a little

The song speaks of a migratory bird’s struggles as it crosses the Mediterranean in hope of building its nest under the appropriate living conditions. Each year, the arrival of Swallows heralds the start of Spring. We admire the bird’s exuberance and what it signifies for the changing seasons, though we seldom pause to ponder the perils it goes through.

Every flight may be the Swallow’s last. Sometimes the bird drops, touches the water more than it can afford, and drowns amid the waves. Yet life continues: more birds will keep flying to find the temperate climate that is suitable for their survival; more Swallows will come to tell us about the end of Winter.

The poetic “I” is sensitive and attuned to this small bird’s experiences. This alone teaches us that we have more in common with other forms of life than what our inconsiderate colonialism over nature wants to admit. I need to migrate and find a place to call my own and so does the Swallow. I must proceed while taking care that my next move is not the last and so must the bird and, indeed, every other form of life.

This poetic first person shows a level of compassion that inspires us to be more refined in our disposition. There exists a whole world outside our private space and our instituted reality; a world that envelops and determines us, despite our anthropocentric pretences to our exceptional status. We cannot live without this world.

Why is the person grieving? I think it is because of the understanding that not all birds cross the sea. For some, the otherwise minor tilt is a free fall into their demise. Such is the natural course of things. No-one wants it, but it happens regardless.

As for why the bird does not answer the person’s questions, I believe it is due to its own grief over the loss of its loved ones. It cannot stop flying, though it at least remains silent in memory of those fellow travellers who could not make it to the end of the trip.

The song then turns into an epic where the humble bird embodies what each of us has to deal with in this life. If our little hero can rise to the occasion, then so can we. I too can navigate those waters, reach Salento, and cross paths with this poetic “I”. Whether I will be in a mood to answer any questions remains to be determined: the journey must continue.

Translation notes

I generally find Griko intelligible, although Aremou has lots of Italian words, probably for stylistic purposes (e.g. it has talassa (sea) but also mare). I surmised that every unknown word is of Italian origin and then proceeded through trial and error to find the root meaning:

  • rindireddha is a variant of the Italian rondinella, which is the Swallow.

  • guaddhi is a variant of the Italian verb guadare which means “to wade”.

  • cali is an Italian verb: calare. We have its conjugation in Greek as καλάρω. It most likely is a loanword and probably comes from sailors as it is related to dropping the ship’s anchor (from what I can tell). The Griko kaléi is a Hellenised version of cali: καλέω, καλέεις, καλέει.

  • ale is a variant of the Italian ala which is the word for “wing”.

  • stavri probably is an allusion to the Greek word for cross (stavrós (σταυρός)—yes, my surname is the second person of the name Stávros (Σταύρος)) and is a shorthand for “to carry the cross”. In the poem, we thus find [to carry the cross] colour of the sea, which I interpret to mean that the colour is on the bird’s back.

  • kuta is a variant of the Italian cuta, which is the “tail”.

  • Words such as sou (you) and lio (a little) are also found in Cypriot Greek. Same for the pronunciation of che (and) chero (weather) and ghizzi (touches), which in Cypriot Greek are τζιαι, τζιαιρό and γγίζζει, respectively, although the latter’s double z sounds like zee, not chi.

  • I am unsure about kanonó, though I read it as the verb for canon as in establishing something as the norm. To canonise is to consider things in a certain way. In the context of the poem, it may thus be read as “I contemplate you”.

  • I could not find the root for aremou. I based it on the context, as άραγε (I wonder) makes perfect sense.