Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Peace of Ruins

Looking north from a tower in the Byzantine citadel of Agios Giorgos, gone wild with capers and mullein and mint
"A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples. As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of trembling thoughts and anxieties and slowly refills it, like a vessel that has been drained and scoured, with a quiet ecstasy. Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance that is painlessly replaced by an intimation of radiance, simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent and unimperious suggestion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be endlessly happy."  (From Patrick Leigh Fermor's brilliant Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, page 120.)

The old wall of the citadel of Agios Giorgos, looking east toward Mt. Ainos of ancient pine-clad fame
I have been filled and refilled over and again by our time here on Kefalonia, reminded of the simplicity of contentment. There is much to write, so many threads of kermes red and cyclamen-pink, of all the shades of sea and olive leaf and thunder, family and food and slow starred nights. 

The sea toward Zakynthos
Many words are gathering in skeins of story and essay and poem in my notebook, like the baskets of wool beside The Odyssey'queens, violet and yellow and mauve. But they aren't ready to share yet, and much of what I have learned and am learning here has to do with respecting the natural pace of things— of days, of meals, of creativity, of storms.  

However, I have finished three poems over on my Green Language poetry journal, which you can sign up for and read hereSalve, Lepeda Now & Then, and Artemis, they are called, full of olives and pomegranates, the horned moon, the way the land still seems to speak the names of the old gods.

An ancient olive press in the ruins of a monastery, where the air was full of sheepbells
My heart is full of many strands of everyday tales—the old couple who sell baskets on the roadside; the sound of dozens of sheep bells clear as wind; the sweet sea so salty you can float without effort; the violet shape of lightning in the middle of the night; the moment the crickets begin their cry at dusk; a river pool of perfect clarity adrift with sycamore leaves; the age of a name like Artemis, and how it still finds foothold in the many faces of the living land; the smell of brush burning at dawn as an old woman makes ash for her autumn garden; running on old dirt lanes with the little ones singing and yelling and skirting puddles; the amber eyes of a young black sheepdog, tied to an olive tree by an old white lighthouse, wriggling with joy to be patted—which are threading and rethreading their way through my storymaking.

I've been reading as much as I've been soaking in, from Robert Graves' The Greek Myths and The White Goddess, all of the above-quoted Mani, Martin Shaw's new and brilliant Scatterlings, and a very beautiful book called Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe, found at random at a used bookshop days before we left. These volumes too have shaped the narrative of my days here, passages falling into my consciousness just at the right moment, scraps of silver for the magpie mind. Here are some.

A Venetian lighthouse at the northern tip of Kefalonia, looking out toward Ithaki
"Two tatterdemalion and barefoot women, a mother and a daughter in antique straw hats as wide as umbrellas, their faces burnt black by the sun and eyebrows and tangled hair caked white with dried brine, were gathering rock-salt in broad wicker baskets. They worked here all summer, they said, and sometimes in the winter too, sleeping in the huge cave by the chapel of Hodygytzia (Our Lady of Guidance) where there was a little spring of brackish water for them to drink and dip their paximadia" (page 79, Mani).

The antechambers of the ancient Necromanteion, Oracle of the Dead, where the rivers Acheron, Styx and Pyriphlegethon converge on a plain looking out toward the Ionian sea
"Delphi, the home of Apollo, was once an oracular tomb of this same sort, with a spiralled pytho and a prophetic priestess of the earth goddess, and the 'omphalos' or 'navel shrine,' where the python was originally housed, was built underground in the same beehive style [...] The provenance of the beehive tomb with a passage entrance and lateral niches is no mystery. It came to Ireland from the Eastern Mediterranean by way of Spain and Portugal at the close of the 3rd millenna B.C." (page 103, The White Goddess). 

A Souliote watchtower along the river Acheron, where mountain shepherds armed to the teeth laid in wait of Turkish attack

"Mythologists watched him enter as a seed falling, the ash key turning in the wind, the kernel trodden underfoot, the grain flung out from the sower's hand. He sank into the earth until he released life. His husk rotted from him there, and white hairs of new roots crept out into the dark. A pale filament uncurled, like a question; the shoot grew. Orpheus as a primitive god of vegetation endured the cycle of the seasons from death to life, to death, to life again" (page 129). 

Heather and a smoketree and the mountain cliffs above the river Acheron

"There is a deity that rowed her boat to our very shore whilst we slept, adrift in trance from a sleeping pin. After a time she leaves and will not come back. In our era, when we believe we can be anything and have anything we want, all the time, it is disarming to hear that we cannot snap our fingers to the gods and expect them to work slavishly in our favor; that in fact it is we who need to cross nine lands and oceans, to craftily get round Baba Yaga and her sisters, to emerge at just the right moment and display enough 'awakeness' that love floods back into the equation" (page 130, Scatterlings). 

"It was a Thracian offering, the sort he would have made as a boy in the forest: finding the face of the goddess in a branch or a stone and polishing it, carefully, with his blue cloak before dedicating it at some holy spot among the trees" (page 88, Orpheus).

Walking the old Souliote path to a mountain redoubt on a hot day far above the Acheron
In a land like this, there are still words resting in the language that can hold what cannot be spoken except in praise of deity, of mystery. Artemis is the rising crescent moon, the grottos wet and thick with cyclamen, the shaded mountain paths; Zeus is the sudden thunder and the wild lightning and torrential rain; Persephone is the bloody pomegranates, ripening just at the cusp of autumn, and the river Acheron whose icecold springs emerge right out from beneath the limestone cliffs. They are still here. Their temples may be long ruined, but the stones and the trees and the hawks and the moon and the rain are as alive as ever, waiting to be sung again. 

I've been trying, in the wrong language, and clumsily, to do as Orpheus the young Thracian musician did; leaving a gift for the face in a trunk, a tide, a star. It is small, but something, at least. 

There is so much to learn,  so much to bow our heads before, so much to thank.  And so the weaving goes. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Women on the Ancient Wall of Kranea

Surely on another autumn day like this, the acorns swelling green on the trees, the earth dark red with rain, the sky elaborately patterned with the tatters of a storm, another woman stood here on the behemoth limestone wall of the ancient acropolis called Kranea, looking north across a fertile oak valley at noon.

Maybe the wife of a soldier who patrolled the wall, looking out for invaders from the eastern acropolis at Sami, came to bring him a basket of corn meal cakes and sheep's cheese and a flask of weak wine for lunch.

Or maybe his daughter, with black braids and bare feet and fistfuls of acorns to throw at imagined foes. Or maybe an old woman, despite orders, in a time of peace, wearing the saffron robes of an old priestesshood, a school from Before the wall and the acropolis and the men who could move and chisel the earth into such giant blocks.

Maybe she came to look and to think, to dangle her veined old legs until someone stopped her, to sing the songs her grandmother left her, songs for the moon and the red earth and the harvest.

Songs from before even the names of Artemis, Demeter or Kore. Before She was broken into a hundred pieces and scattered. As one name She was far too strong even for a wall of immortal limestone cut by teams of oxen and men.

And what of a woman just my age and size and temperament, twenty-seven and slight, a dreamer with a hearty appetite and a streak of anxious nerves? Did she ever walk this wall?

She would have had children, no doubt, half-grown already. A body broader and more generous for it. What broke her fast at dawn? What words did she murmur to the rising sun? What lullabies to her daughters and sons with the moon? What teas for their coughs, what fears, what hopes, what smell and warmth of her husband in the heat of the early autumn dark?

Now, the wall stands tumbled. The spines of scrub oak, soft-eared salvias, white blooming squill spires, olive trees and thyme push everywhere around and between.

Lichens spread across the stone, maps of millennia, each century's island.

Rain, two thousand years of it, has made hollows, tunnels and bowls in the limestone wall, like the underbelly of Kefalonia itself, riddled with freshwater passageways and underground rivers.

Everywhere across the dark red earth, small purple crocuses have sprung up out of the rain.

Somewhere, there are pieces of an old temple to Demeter, but nobody seems to know where, and stones, after so long, begin to look alike. We eat a picnic on the old entrance gates and talk of ancient carts and chariots, the sound of wheels, of hooves, the life of the gatekeeper.

Goats nap, belled, under olive trees beyond a wire fence. We leave dry golden grapes from a small market and a pinch of rolling tobacco in a rainmade hollow for Demeter, since we can't find her temple. The sky and its clouds talk about rain.

The people of ancient Kranea are now only the red earth, the olive, the crocus, the acorns, the chisel marks on their colossal guardian wall. We try to visit some of their tombs at Mazarakata, but the gates are closed, the lock rusted. We can see a few through the fence, full of wild thyme. There is one almond-shaped hole into the earth, womanly and dark. There, in the red earth, everything is reborn. There, the fall of civilizations is not past, but now, resting in mythtime. Right there, where Demeter walks, with purple crocuses at her heels.