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Cypresses

An Incendiary Ground
— Encounters with Greece

with drawings by Ron Sandford

  1. The Cypresses of Athens
  2. Insistent on Yellow By the Theatre of Dionysos, or Visions
  3. My Father’s Shade at Delphi At the World’s Center Amid the Ruins
    Above The Olive-Swaddled Valleys
  4. The Bees of Mt. Hymettus
  5. Who is Glaring at Me? The Gross, Perfect
    8500 Year Old Venus of the Benaki Museum in Athens
  6. Absence in Ithaka

The Cypresses of Athens

Tourists haunt placarded groves as though
immortals puzzled equally by loss
and what endures in this ruin rich ground.

Longer acquaintance might let me name
these sparse, rain-starved trees:
there Agave, blinded by a god,

who tore her son apart with her revelers
when he spied on them, unable to believe
reason could not conquer passion:

there Plato, followed by students
who fail to see how all these are copies
of one perfect Cypress no one can find

that yet embodies seedbud to mature tip,
withered tree to one wrapped in the green
flag of its foliage:

there Oedipus, who died holy though
his children were his sisters and brothers,
buried nearby under streets where taxis

cheat the unwary,
his crimes all efforts to avoid his fate,
that force we make come true.

That cypress whose green is nearly black
is a priest who beheaded old gods:
that a Turk who holds his robes against the wind,

while next to him Byron
who died, despite his irony, for Greece
twists upwards below this severe light.

One day a descendant of mine wandering here
may name some cypress in turn:
‘Ah! there’s Lance! He always wanted

to balance passion with reason,
desire with desire’s loss,
his life with his death in a tense balance

like one of these cypresses
who thrust out green shoots against their withering,
defiant to the end’.

I wander in their shade as the light pours down;
its brilliant rain ignites a newer jet of green
to replace each that fails and falls

to this parched, incendiary ground.

Insistent on Yellow by the Theatre of Dionysis, or Visions

The watchman stirs on the tower
and the audience stills, shivering
under its blankets in the pre-dawn chill:
rose touches the sky then
a lip of red lifts over the near ridge:
when the sun elbows into view
he surges to his feethe shouts
“There
The beacon! The war is over!

Our men are coming home from Troy!
Rome is sacked! The Turk has taken
Constantine’s city! Home, from Verdun,
the bleeding done! Saigon has fallen!
Bagdad is ours! The Marines are leaving
Kabul!”
I shake my head,
the vision fades, the sun beatsbeats...

A god stirs in the cypress grove
where I seek shade, who dies and
returns in every hero:
he shakes his staff, the ground quakes...
“Leave in an orderly way”
first Greek, then English over the PA:
“stand away from the trees.”
A rush towards the entrance...

“Sleep dreamless in the parched earth,”
I say: “forget your temple, the goats,
the thick-shouldered oxen, the bulls
burned in your honor...”
The ground stills.
No one has noticed.
There is no PA.
At my feet lies a cracked, earth-colored
capitol, a cypress cone to one side:
a tiny daisy whose blooms
insist on yellow as though
there is no other color
roots under its curve.
Once a chorus of Furies danced
into this theatre so like the real thing
the great and gifted vaulted
over the first row to get away:
it was all in their heads.

Everything is in our heads.
This daisy stays in mine
after I renew familiar dreams
in Los Angeles,
unable to forget its insistence
“Look! I am far more here
than all the history you imagine
in this place, not blurred
with vision or dream, unable
to separate self from other,
like you!”
I know if I had torn
it up by the roots and ground
its flowers into the dirt
it would still go off in sunbursts
behind my eyes, so adamantine
so evanescentso real.

My Father's Shade at Delphi Amid the Ruins at the World's Center Above the Olive-Swaddled Valleys

I cannot bear so much loss.
A few stones, fewer columns,
some tiers of seats, a ruined
arena, a thousand years of faith
gone with the temple where
they carved, “KnowThyself”
over the entrance. That command
still lives in my blood.
I remember the old ritual
and let some fall from a cut
for any shade to drink
and take body from for
an hour, but it is my father
who surprises me here.
“Why have you neglected me?”
he demands. “Why are you
so far from Los Angeles
where your ashes lie?”
“All places are the same in death.”
“I loved you,” I answer,
so many years of anger
spent to let me say that:
“but you hurt us all so pointlessly
and shrugged your guilt away.”
He goes away angrily as
the hot air warms these stones...
Below, groves of olives
paint the valleys graygreen.
Their fruit is too bitter to eat
unless soaked and steeped
until like the hardest memory
we forget their native state,
and eat. I douse my head under
what’s left of the muses’ spring
and shake the droplets off
like a dog when I stand.
What is the world?
that this place, once its center
was so forgotten we had to
dig out it out
to find what we charge
tourists to contemplate?
What is time?
Just now, the water still cold
on my face as I take in the heights,
the olive-painted valleys,
I know: time is nothing.
My father, nothing
but what I make of him, then
and now. Myself, nothing
but what I make, then and now.
I don’t need a sibyl’s fumes
to give me a madness
for others to mine for sense:
the world is empty of everything
but this constant remaking.
Know thyself.
It is almost more than I can bear.

Delphi, 2013

The Bees of Mt. Hymettus

I have lost my way,
in my memory and this place’s
where fallen hives once sweetened the ground
and bees hummed flower to flower
and the muses dance was sparkles of light
on rippled water.
The honey was famous.
Now silence alone hums as the sun leaps hotly
into the Athenian day:
the slopes are bare,
a military base crowns the heights,
the remnant wood thins to the north:
the years have stripped this mountain
as surely as they strip time from me,
and the bees!
the bees die everywhere in our poisoned air.
I could lie down and wither here
but wonder does it matter if the slopes are bare
or flowery beneath olive and cypress,
the bees single-minded in their dance
to gather nectar, or gone?
For somewhere one man murders another
even as somewhere a child is conceived
as lovecries fill the air,
while here the muses still dance,
shades of light within the noon-time brilliance,
who remember, and celebrate, and lament it all.
Change is our illusion...
To say the sweet yet bitter honey of old wisdom,
Plato’s, or Homer’s, or Sappho’s, or ... is solace,
is to lie. Instead
I let the sun beat on my head until I fall,
until strange lights dazzle my eyes
as they dance the path to self-knowledge
I cannot understand, however artful;
until my ears fill with the sound
of humming rolling down the ages,
obstinate, here,
for that hunger to transform
even the bitter to the sweet
is the one unbroken constant in all our hearts.

Who is Glaring at Me? The Gross, Perfect 8500 Year Old Venus of the Benaki Museum in Athens

I know you...
At your touch the hive-queen
bears and bears until her heat melts
the wax and honeycells readied for her eggs:
birds collide in the woods to a union
that tumbles through the air in ecstasy
while coyote and wolf forget their rivalry
and race to she who yowls her hunger.
Not for you ‘Know Thyself’ but ‘Let go,
be swept away, no one exists separately’.
I remember your flood in my blood, how
you trembled in my woman who received me
so eagerly, both of us sliding
on sweat-slicked flesh: even tonight
my breath grows short as my hand
makes her tremble sliding shoulder to
waist to swelling hip and down the slope
of her thighs, though we are no longer young...

Bound book and ring, made a thing of fashion,
decorous, not grotesque, a beauty queen
to parade and crown and possess in every
nuance of fashion, make-up, dress, neglige,
your swollen hips, your bursting womb
banished, your face made porcelain
so we can treat you like a pretty tease
to please or hurt at will, anything
to avoid your force that at night or high noon
makes us cry out uncontrollably,
our will nothing to yours who throw us
into that union where not love but life abides.
Fail your need, and you toss us aside.
Then self-knowledge is more bitter
than a stone’s who hungers for life,
for what he would know we have known
and lost.
Come, sweep me into your madness,
let me forget once more everything I am.

Absence in Ithaka

If this island belonged to me, I would bury
all my books and never go away. –Byron

There are more tourists than rain
on more famous islands,
for the centuries sleep in Ithaka,
with no trace of its famous past.
Profuse clusters of grapes hang over
the balcony above the closed
Communist Party office
a block from the harbor
which the town bends its U around,
the houses that climb the hills flashing
in this light,
that light, this water and air

sharp and clear as an edge of broken glass.
I feel as odd in this waterside taverna
as I felt the first night I spent in London
when I walked into Sloane Square’s
King’s Head to the tune of Hotel California,
a Los Angeles boy whose home follows
him everywhere.
Ithaka could be Catalina
with the same chapparal-clad hills,
the same light half a world away,
my head full of stories, like Odysseus’s,
always tempted to think at each landfall

‘I could forget everything here and be
something new’,
yet who stayed himself everywhere
until after twenty years
of wading through blood
he stood again beside his Penelope
and only then remembered
he never wanted to go.
What holds one forgetting to another,
one story to the next, one strange life
to another,
each departure to a return

through and above or below
all the upheavals that make their way
into our histories, stories, dreams?
As I puzzle,
a young couple stroll along the harbor
hand-in-hand,
fresh from love made
in a cool room before the sun
could turn their caresses to sweat-soaked
gropings and groans.
Did they walk this way after Odysseus left,
when the Romans came, and Byzantines,

and Venetians, and Turks, and again the Greeks?
Because their serene walk beside the water
in whose sparkle Aphrodite still dances
gives all those histories, stories, dreams
their ground:
love anonymous except to lovers,
not when swept away
but in those moments when they know
they will share themselves again
to heal the heart’s harms, and complete
the world— love standing
however absence piles on absence
against the tides of oblivion.