CYDONIAN spring with her attendant train,
Maelids and water-girls,
Stepping beneath a boisterous wind from Thrace,
Throughout this sylvan place
Spreads the bright tips, 5
And every vine-stock is
Clad in new brilliancies.
And wild desire
Falls like black lightning.
O bewildered heart,
Though every branch have back what last year lost, 10
She, who moved here amid the cyclamen,
Moves only now a clinging tenuous ghost.
E s’aprono i fiori notturni
nell’ora che penso a’ miei cari.
Sono apparse in mezzo ai viburni
le farfalle crepuscolari.
Da un pezzo si tacquero i gridi:
là sola una casa bisbiglia.
Sotto l’ali dormono i nidi,
come gli occhi sotto le ciglia.
Dai calici aperti si esala
l’odore di fragole rosse.
Splende un lume là nella sala.
Nasce l’erba sopra le fosse.
Un’ape tardiva sussurra
trovando già prese le celle.
La Chioccetta per l’aia azzurra
va col suo pigolio di stelle.
Per tutta la notte s’esala
l’odore che passa col vento.
Passa il lume su per la scala;
brilla al primo piano: s’è spento…
È l’alba: si chiudono i petali
un poco gualciti; si cova,
dentro l’urna molle e segreta,
non so che felicità nuova.
And the night jasmines open their corolla
in the time of day when I think of my dear departed. Twilight butterflies
among the viburnum.
For some time now the cries of the birds have ceased:
only there, in a house, can they hear the whispering of human voices.
The little birds are sleeping under the protective wings,
as the eyes rest under the lashes.
From the open corolla of jasmine comes
a scent like red strawberries.
In the living room you can still see a light on,
the grass rises above the tombs of the dead.
A late bee wanders around buzzing
because all the cells are already occupied.
The constellation of the Pleiades is wandering
through the threshing floor, rendered blue by the night sky, with a chirp of stars.
For the duration of the night
the scent of the nocturnal jasmine fills the air, carried by the wind.
The light in the house moves up the stairs,
then goes into the nuptial chamber on the first floor, then goes off …
The dawn arrives: the petals of the flower close
a little withered, but inside the ovary soft and hidden
in depth, grows a feeling of happiness
never felt before.
And where the wild Danube throws up its yellow sand,
and where vast Thracian Mount Rhodope touches the sky.
There they keep the herds penned in, and no grass
is visible on the plains, or leaves on the trees:
but the land far and wide lies formless under mounds of snow
and heaps of ice rising seven metres high.
It’s always winter, always North winds breathing cold.
There the Sun never disperses the pale mists,
neither when he finds high heaven, carried by his team,
nor when he drenches his chariot headlong in Ocean’s red waters.
Ice-floes form suddenly on the running rivers,
and the water soon carries metalled wheels on its back,
once greeting boats and now broad wagons:
Everywhere bronze cracks, clothes freeze as they’re worn,
and they cut out the liquid wine with axes,
whole lakes turn to solid ice, and bristling icicles
harden on their straggling beards.
OR IN THE ORIGINAL LATIN
At non qua Scythiae gentes Maeotiaque unda,
turbidus et torquens flauentis Hister harenas, 350
quaque redit medium Rhodope porrecta sub axem.
illic clausa tenent stabulis armenta, neque ullae
aut herbae campo apparent aut arbore frondes;
sed iacet aggeribus niueis informis et alto
terra gelu late septemque adsurgit in ulnas. 355
semper hiems, semper spirantes frigora Cauri;
tum Sol pallentis haud umquam discutit umbras,
nec cum inuectus equis altum petit aethera, nec cum
praecipitem Oceani rubro lauit aequore currum.
concrescunt subitae currenti in flumine crustae, 360
undaque iam tergo ferratos sustinet orbis,
puppibus illa prius, patulis nunc hospita plaustris;
aeraque dissiliunt uulgo, uestesque rigescunt
indutae, caeduntque securibus umida uina,
et totae solidam in glaciem uertere lacunae, 365
stiriaque impexis induruit horrida barbis.
A serviette, a glass of champagne taken outside a fish restaurant in the open-air Viktualienmarkt in Munich, all taken to celebrate the first day of spring, prompt Cees Nooteboom into Proustian reverie. Upon the paper napkin is written in blue capitals the word POSEIDON, the Greek god who has preoccupied Nooteboom’s thoughts for several summers. The blue colour reminds him of the sea viewed from Mediterranean garden of his villa in Menorca. Taking this prompting as a moment of benign synchronicity, he later begins a correspondence with this sea-deity. He seeks to inquire how this somewhat unreliable ancient Greek Olympian sees aeons of time and sends him letters and legenda; meditations and stories to be read, both poetic and tragic, from the arts and the contemporary world. He is not expecting a reply.
In the Odyssey, Poseidon is renowned for hating Odysseus who had blinded the Cyclops, Polyphemus who happened to be the god’s son. This is Homer’s view. Ovid would have known the god as Neptune and wrote about him in the ‘’Metamorphoses’’. Kafka wrote an essay in which he imagines Poseidon constantly submerged. So, Nooteboom wonders, in a notably poetic passage, how would he have viewed the first passage of the first boat on the surface above him. How does he feel about the decline of those very Greeks who worshipped him? Is he melancholy about his timeless vigil already an old man beneath the sea with only occasional excursions pulled about by tiny sea-horses, nature’s experiment in trans-gender parturition? Fascinated by the rhythms of animal behaviour and curious plants, Nooteboom’s meditative writing is enlivened by his close observation of the natural world.
Letters to Poseidon juxtaposes thoughts which are essentially theological with ponderings on inexplicable tragedies in the contemporary world from the Challenger disaster to the Arab spring. Uncomfortable topics of puzzling cruelty are subject to persistent interrogation which is addressed to an ancient deity- often depicted in statuary with his face turned away. However, there is also an interesting wrestle between belief and doubt beneath the surface. Here is an attempt to figure the Christian deity in relation to the ancient gods. It is almost that the averted gaze of the sea-god makes him more accessible to questioning. Dante and the early-German Christian mystic, Seuse are invoked and discussed whilst the reader is provided with routes to his own investigations from Nootebbom’s well-stocked mind.
The author is prominent as a novelist, art historian and as a traveller. Successive pieces are situated in, for example, in Seoul Museum of Art, a Zen garden in Kyoto, back in his study in Menorca, an island of the Dutch East Indian company in Nagasaki and back once more to Menorca to watch a blood moon. This continuous movement appears to have given rise to a certain Weltschmerz and in particular to a fascination with time and memory. This connection between time and space fascinates him as do geological aeons. He uses the Poseidon figure as a means to attempt to grasp the manner in which rocks are metamorphosed and ground to sediment over aeons. This is done in a leisurely discursive style that produces its own poetry. It requires that the reader find the patience to enjoy such digressions.
Here is a small example:-
‘’The curlews begin to call. I know they are close to the sea, but I have not yet seen them. Their Dutch name ‘’griel’’ is a much better match than ‘’curlew’’ for that drawn out, pleading sound they make. The owl I can hear nearby is another member of the secret service; it wears the darkness like a uniform and makes itself invisible.’’
The relaxed and tentative tone of the writing is at times penetrated by an image carrying anxiety which frequently refers to contemporary concerns. This is shown above where even an owl might appear as a Stasi interrogator. Despite its metaphysical tone, the prose mostly remains vivid. The issues addressed are the concerns of a man, possibly an elderly man, in search of a soul.
An unexpected feature of this book is the fifty or so pages at the end which provide photographs and reference material. I was some 30 pages into the book before I discovered these. This brought to mind the work of W.G.Seebald whose elegiac tone, Nooteboom’s travel memoir sometimes resembles. There are touches which reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘’The Alexandrian Quartet’’ and of the mysterious symmetries of Anne Michael’s ‘’Fugitive Pieces’’. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, as by nature, it is inconclusive but thought provoking. It asks fundamental questions about human behaviour ‘’’sub specie aeternitatis’’’-Baruch Spinoza’s term for the eternal perspective.
Reading Edith Hall’s book on the Ancient Greeks, develops a deep respect for the power of poetry. No poet was more effective in this regard than Homer recounting the sea adventures contained in the ‘’The Odyssey’’. It shaped the self-definition of a nation and engendered self-confidence. The mariners set out in their beautiful ships across the Aegean and established colonies to the West, in the Mediterranean as far as the Pillars of Hercules, to the East as far as the Levant and built trading cities in natural harbours along the fertile edges of the Black Sea. They were, as Plato wrote in the Phaedo, “around the sea, like frogs and ants around a pond.” They were encouraged by Delphic oracles and inspired by the company of diving dolphins.
The structure of Hall’s account is clearly set down at the start with a useful chronology from the Myceneans in 1500 B.C. to the close of the Delphic oracle in 395 A.D. providing a clear context for the following text. It also gives a framework that neatly conveys the interaction between individuals, resources, military conflicts, the arts, sports, social upheavals and importantly the contributions of recent research. Anyone reading this book will discover how much our understanding of the Greeks has developed currently from new excavations, discoveries and recent scientific techniques. The first four strongly interconnected qualities that Hall ascribes to the Greeks are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring. Further, they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in people of talent, were exceptionally articulate and were also addicted to pleasure.
This is, perhaps, an ideal book to take upon a Mediterranean cruise. Reading it is arguably a cheaper but comfortable substitute and it will certainly improve your geographical understanding. Some of the ancient names may well be unfamiliar to us today. Most will have heard of Knossos on Crete where back in the early Mycenean period the cattle were called by ironic names like Swift and Talkative or ‘’Oinops’’ which means wine-dark, just as Homer describes the sea. Then there is Massalia where the Greeks imported the vine and thus founded the French wine industry. Sicily, however, provided the setting for particularly notorious tyrants. Olbia, on the Black Sea, which is situated in Ukraine today, was difficult to colonise but eventually provided a sanctuary area for the worship of ‘’Apollo Delphinios’’, a sea-god of music, healing and prophecy.
In an interesting chapter on the Spartans, Edith Hall writes of the famous battle at Thermopylae where the courage of 300 sacrificed warriors, led by King Leonidas, created the conditions whereby Greece was saved from the influx of marauding Persians. The excellence of these Spartans consisted in their stern self-discipline and their blunt and pithy sense of humour which is therefore referred to as laconic. In a similar manner, the admiration of the Spartans is called Lacophilia after the area of Laconia which these Dorian Greeks subdued in the eighth century B.C. Spartan women appeared to have attained a degree of independence from their men folk and cultivated the worship of Artemis and festivals involving hyacinths. However, when you read of the treatment meted out to the wretched helots (slaves), recorded by Plutarch and also from Xenophon and Herodotus of the vicious clash of the armoured scrum that constituted hoplite battles, the reader begins to understand why the Spartans are summed up by the author in one adjective-inscrutable.
The adventurous Greek mind appears to have exerted its strength when the kingdom of Macedonia fell to Roman power after AD168. But as Horace wrote, ‘’Graecia captum ferum victorem cepit’’ –captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive. It was the fluency of the Greek which made it not only the language of business but dominated both rhetoric and prose. Hegemony is after all a Greek word. Recounting these later times the account becomes even more vivid. The writings of the self-assured physician Galen were influenced the development of medicine for many centuries to come. The touching story of rhetorical superstar, as Hall terms Aristides, the inventor of the personal memoir but also a hypochondriac, has a contemporary appeal. It is nice to know that his faith in the benevolent healing deity, Asclepius, quieted his inner turmoil.
Reading Edith Hall on the Ancients is a stirring adventure; a contemporary correspondence to what Keats must have felt when he opened Chapman’s translation of Homer. The experience is reminiscent too of a poem from the classicist Louis MacNeice who in his poem about the maritime mercenary Greek cry ‘’Thalassa, Thalassa’’ penned the following:-
Even on an overcast day, walking along Lambeth Walk is a pleasure. Just along from the slumbering elegance of the St Ives Arts Club are the reinforced portholes of the Porthminster Gallery. Currently among the many interesting and varied pieces on display here are the intriguing ceramic tiles of the Austrian artist Regina Heinz. http://www.porthminstergallery.co.uk/ The sea has always drenched over Lambeth Walk in Spring Tides, but dull or in the early Spring sunshine, the turnstones are a welcome sight. They seem to have appeared during the time that the seagulls have become more aggressive when swooping indiscriminately down to snatch the lunches or suppers of unwitting and hapless tourists. The turnstones are currently abundant and closely related to sandpipers.
Currently the Tate Gallery in St Ives is closed although, of course, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is open. Details are available at http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-st-ives/admission-opening-times. A worthy alternative to the Tate Gallery is the Penwith Gallery where at http://www.penwithgallery.com/about/ it is stated that,”In 1960, the present site, then a pilchard-packing factory, was acquired and converted into a gallery, with artists’ studios above. In 1970 adjacent property became available, and the artist members, assisted by Barbara Hepworth, sought funds to create the present group of galleries, studios and workshops. To take on the task of maintaining its buildings and workshops, to arrange the programme of exhibitions and execute the gallery business the Penwith Galleries Ltd. was created.” Just opposite the Ropewalk where, of course, rope was manufactured, it was here that Troika pottery had it’s workshop and showroom.
The current exhibition runs until April 19th and visitors are likely to find it various with many works to catch the eye. There are the well-known and established favourites like Antony Frost, John Piper and Noel Betowski (whose work from a previous exhibition is shown on the clip above) as well as painters who have recently joined such as Jessica Cooper;mentioned previously on this blog. In addition to the paintings both pottery and sculpture are on display in this well-lit environment.
Two works caught my attention and set off trains of thought. The first was a small work by John Emanuel, who moved to St Ives in 1964 (his work is often to be seen at the charming Belgrave Gallery just off Fore Street-http://www.belgravestives.co.uk/) and is a delightful classical head. Hearing the sound of the sea in the distance might prompt us to these lines of Homer from “The King of Asine” in the Illiad:-
And the poet lingers, looking at the stones, and asks himself does there really exist among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows, and curves does there really exist here where one meets the path of rain, wind, and ruin does there exist the movement of the face, shape of the tenderness of those who’ve shrunk so strangely in our lives, those who remained the shadow of waves and thoughts with the sea’s boundlessness