The Unpossessed Country:
In the early autumn of 1969 I spent a month on Kythera, an island off the southern Peloponnese. Here, with my wife, Lili, I wrote my first play while Lili translated a novel by Anais Nin. I was in flight from an America in the throes of the Vietnam War and under the grip of Richard Nixon. Greece itself was in the third year of a CIA-sponsored military dictatorship. We traveled afterwards around the Mediterranean, a journey that forms the remainder of The Unpossessed Country. Robert Zaller
The embarkation for Kythera. With L.’s big German leather survival kit and a black doctor’s bag full of books, we stand dockside where the good ship Marilena is supposed to be, but isn’t. A few minutes after departure time the Marilena pulls into port, looking hard-used since I saw her last. A crowd of peasants gets off, a few members of the International Commune among them like bright languid flowers in a barleyfield. The kids hoist their duffels and pass by, slouching toward Charon’s next ferry with that peculiar resigned joylessness of hippies who travel.
We board. Ten o’clock passes, eleven. A few vendors are still hanging around with bread, cheese, and dramamine. A thick, meaty dockwalloper with no right leg is trying to hop onto the cab of his motorcycle. He puts his stump on the seat and tries to hoist his huge belly over. The stump grinds on the seat, the thick arms grip the side of the cab, the chest and leg go up together. It is obviously hopeless. He can’t get halfway. But the man is not in the least discouraged. Again and again he hoists, like a mechanic with a motor that won’t turn over, with a mechanic’s dispassion for a faulty machine. Until he understands that the machine simply won’t work. Then he leaves it alone. He forgets about mounting the cab, straddles the seat, and rides away.
At half past eleven, the Marilena turns around and steams out of Piraeus harbor. We sun awhile on the topdeck, and have coffee with an Australian Greek. He is making his first trip home in eighteen years, to see his mother and shoot birds. Partridges, pigeons, and quail migrate from Roumania to Egypt in October, and, when the weather is right, they pass over Kythera. And Greeks come from all over to shoot them, even from Australia.
All day the islands spawn and vanish, apparitions, unreal. Already the sea has asserted its mastery. Even the long coast is enfabled, all land a dream of water. At seven we have reached Monemvassia. It is already dark. The sea has gotten rough, the waves are slapping hard. There is tremedous tumult and gesticulation as the caiques load up under the hard glare of the lantern, but for once the Greeks do not seem to be exaggerating. It looks difficult.
Now the sea is in earnest. I eat a dinner in eerie solitude, but at last I too am driven below. L. is suffering terribly, spitting up bile, blood, anything, the cabin littered with shucked lemons. I stagger to bed myself, and watch waves climb the porthole. The gray-faced steward comes in to shut it. He has been growing grayer every hour, he is gray now as a ghoul, but he is still shutting portholes, gliding ghoul-like among the bunks of second-class sufferers.
Mercifully, I fall asleep. It is nearly midnight when I wake. I climb the topdeck. It is very calm, I am alone. We are retreating from a low dark shore, out towards the open sea. Behind us we leave an unsteady row of candles at the fringe of the dark; for a moment I imagine we have lit them. This is Aghia Pelagia: thirty-five candles. The shore is Kythera. The moon is shining very brightly on the sea, which has a pale, terrible radiance, its sheen like a night-skin, a bridal skin. The bright steady moon shines down, this silver luminescence its answer. It is the naked splendor of courtship, the primal element of earth wooed by the cosmos, a ceremony as old as existence. It is literally unbearable. Quickly I go down,
We arrive at one. It is warm and calm. I look up at the high wild hills, the few remote lights of the Chora. But we will spend the night in Kapsali, the harbor. The inn is close by; we are the only guests, the only foreigners on the island. The proprietor is a wolfish-looking man, with a withered left arm and a fingerless hand. The room is bare but clean. On the wall hangs a picture, a primitive: it is a bird-shoot, two men in hunting jackets on a green plain, firing little white puffs at the sky.
We wake, make love, and set out for the Chora. I look around me dazzled: it is far more beautiful than I ever dared expect. The harbor is bisected by a pair of rocks into two connecting hemispheres, and divided again by the spur of the lighthouse and the eastern cliffs, so that it has a fascinating complication, especially seen from above. But there is better to come. As one reaches a certain point, the harbor becomes a tight double loop, while the ribbon of road executes the same double loop at an exactly parallel angle, but several tiers above. Further up, the harbor reappears in the shape of a clover.
Straight above the harbor, veritably printed into the sheer cliff, is a chalk-white monastery, consisting of two tiny, blank-faced buildings, one above the other, connected by a catty-cornered embrasure and stair. It looks completely inaccessible, and, indeed, it takes more than one look to convince oneself that it is not merely a ghostly illusion on the mountainside. But as one passes by on the high road to the Chora, a tiny path forks off toward it. Just above, on the other side of the road, is another trompe d’oeil: a portico, all alone, that seems to have no back to it. Closer inspection reveals it to be a small villa, with a flat sun-roof and a sharp-angled wall tucked away out of view. The place is completely isolated, halfway between the port and the Chora, with a splendid view of both. I possess it immediately. “Come,” I say. “Let’s knock.” But no, says L.; what’s the use? We’ll only break our hearts. And we trudge on.
The road turns steep now. Filling our view, and governing the entire landscape, is a hill topped by a mighty outcrop, crowning which with absolute certitude–man like a spread-eagled monster on this wild crest of rock–is the vast ruin of a Venetian castle, pressing the antagonism of its symmetry into the brain of the mineral, forcing its rule into the rock, the very symbol of human will. The Chora lies half hidden behind it, the visible remnant white and mortuary in the sunlight, a remote, spellbound necropolis. A line of white benches appears along the roadway, but I can imagine no one sitting on them, unless pharaohs come at night. There is not a sound–finally one, the clatter of a single hammer. Not until we pass the school do we hear a voice: the drone of a pedagogue. And on that tenuous evidence I allow myself to be persuaded that the town is, after all, inhabited.
We present ourselves to the proprietor of the general store, whose name we have been given. It is Petrochilos, in other words Stone Lips; and, in truth, he is a man of few words. But the wheels of hospitality are set in motion. We are shown rooms in the town. It takes twenty minutes to find them, and they are wretched–airless, cramped, a sty. What else is there? Our guide shrugs his shoulders. So back to Petrochilos, who is waiting mildly for us to capitulate–he owns the town hotel. A last throw: What, I ask, about the little porticoed villa outside town by the roadway? A phone call, and, a moment later, the house is ours–how much?–a thousand drachmas for the month! L. and I can hardly keep straight faces. For the first time in our lives, we have exactly what we want, exactly where we want to be.
Our landlord comes to install us. His name is Viron Da Ponte, and there is something indeed Italian about him, a suavity not at all Greek. He is only forty-two, but looks older, sad-featured and balding, his face etched with troubles. He is also missing the lower joint of his left thumb and forefinger, but I have already seen so many lopped limbs and digits that it is hardly a surprise. At once, though, Viron Da Ponte does two things that are very surprising. On hearing that L. is a poet, he breaks into a torrid declamation–his own verses, and not, L. says, bad at all. Next, he fixes our toilet box, which is eight feet high, by jumping in one bound from the bidet to the top of the shower wall–a leap of about five feet onto a ledge not the width of two fingers–and landing completely erect. I stare dumfounded at him as he coolly deals with the machinery, as if scaling walls like a human fly were all in a day’s work. Clearly, there is more to Mr. Da Ponte than meets the eye.
We rise and start at seven a.m.–L. on her translation of Anais Nin, I on this book. We share a table lengthwise on the veranda, and in front of us the sun slowly trickles gold into the sea. L. works with a will, her breasts swishing under her nightgown. She wears her nightgown till noon, not breaking stride.
Viron’s jumping proves better than his fixing. The bathroom is flooded.
Later I walk the narrow path that leads from our house to Viron’s villas. They are set on either side of a steep gorge that runs to the sea. The farther one has a winding concrete stair that goes down to the bottom of the gorge and thus creates a private beach; there is no communication between the villas and no other way to get down. My side of the gorge is absolutely sheer.
The villas are unfinished, work abandoned. I walk amid rusted machinery. Inside the nearer walls, through blank windows that frame the sky, I see beams that hold nothing up, stairways that halt in midair. In a room with a padlocked door, three bathtubs are lying upside down, like coffins. Below the house is the huge bricked mold of a swimming pool, and the beginnings of another, smaller house. All of it seems magically suspended, as if stopped by a single gesture. And so, more or less, it was. Viron had a contract with an American company to build up the entire coast–bungalows, villas, hotels. The land was his, the capital theirs. Five years of planning had gone into the project, and these two villas were the beginning of it. Then in stepped the Junta, with a flat No. But why? It seems very unlike the colonels. Someone not properly paid, perhaps.
Began on my play, The Mayor of Nagasaki. A good running jump–four pages.
I walked around the sie of the gorge to Viron’s other villa. It is a wonderful site, splendidly set over the sea; and the waves roll from where I stand unbroken to the shore of Africa. (This is the geographical peculiarity of Kythera: dangling like the wayward point on an exclamation mark from the triple-pronged Peloponnesus, it extends in all other directions–east to Asia Minor, south to Africa, west to the Atlantic–hundreds of miles without meeting land.) Indeed, the great sea-thrust to Africa seems to gather from the land itself, for behind me, directly perpendicular to my line of vision, the ramparts of the castle join at a right angle, the axis of symmetry continued brokenly by the rock below, so that it rears over me like the prow of a great ship riding the crest of a colossal wave.
Viron invited me to a game of chess. He tells me the story of the villas. It is little less than the history of land tenure in modern Greece. In 1864, when the Heptanisa were united to the rest of the country–the seven islands that straggle down the Adriatic from Corfu and end with Kythera itself–it was agreed that the public domain of each island was to be administered by local communes. This (to pass much by) remained the case until May 1967, when the Junta suddenly claimed complete and exclusive control of the entire public domain of the Heptanisa, and threw every legal title on the islands into question. An avalanche of lawsuits resulted–three thousand in a year. The upshot was that in January 1969 the colonels retreated, and returned all the islands to their status quo ante: all, except Kythera. Here they redoubled their attack, claiming more than three-quarters of the island, including all land to a distance of 3000 meters from the coastline. They sent bulldozers to knock down the peasants’ stone boundary fences, to which the latter retaliated by burning the land claimed by the government.
But why Kythera? Here the subplot begins. Among the lands administered by the commune were all churches, chapels, and monasteries. The Church, of course, had long carried on a war against this. During the German occupation, the Bishop of Kythera managed to get a seat on the commune, splitting it into pro- and antiecclesiastical factions. Two years ago, the Bishop wrote a letter to Athens (“full of lies,” Viron says), charging that the commune had totally neglected the lands in its care. The Junta then used this as a pretext to intervene. (Later, the Bishop backed the King in his abortive coup, and the colonels retired him.)
Yet all this really explains nothing. For the island is utterly dilapidated–four-fifths of the population has left–and it could only have been a question of time before the national government, or some private entrepreneur, had to step in. Why then should the Junta have discouraged Viron? Why should he not have been the one to save the island, the native son, the born builder? If the colonels had had their own plans–to build a military playground, or a private spa–one could understand it. But they have done nothing (there is not a soldier on the island, not even one of the regime’s ubiquitous posters, except for one in the the baker’s shop). So then, why? “Because they are tyrants,” says Viron. “They do it because they do it.”
Perhaps Viron’s politics are unsuitable? But he says no more. In the meantime, he has harried my queen down like a thresher chasing a daisy. Checkmate.
Viron took us to the monastery of Myrtidiotissa, a few miles away near the western coast. We passed through half-empty and deserted villages, a burnt and desolate countryside. Stone fences still standing, but the land laid waste between.
The monastery is likewise uninhabited, except for the old woman who cares for it, and the priest who comes to say the service. But it is well endowed, and well cared for: there is property in Athens. Its glory is the usual wonder-working Virgin, who is housed under a canopy of marble confectionary–an immense birthday cake of angels, doves, and so forth. Around her is a great array of tribute, small effigies of crutches, hands, hearts; and two giant phallic guardians, wax candles five feet high. At a discreet distance is the bishop’s throne. This is a different matter, a fine, elegant piece of carving with a pair of long-necked swans for armrests: in fact, the only spark of life in the place. But I could not get as close as I would have liked. The old priest was chanting evening service with a couple of weary choristers. Can it be, O Lord, that you are not yet bored with Christian prayer?
An old man committed suicide today in Fatsidikia, five miles north of here. He left a note to his wife saying that he knew he had cancer but no one would tell him (he did not), and hanged himself in his courtyard. “Don’t come and see me alone, bring neighbors.” It is the first suicide in many years on the island, and people talk of nothing else.
L. has finished a quarter of A Spy in the House of Love. She is working passionately, savagely, with a kind of remorse. “Discipline, discipline,” she mutters, “for the first time in my life I have discipline.”
Useless to try slowing her down. When her eyes rebel, she lies down and covers them with slices of egg white. An infallible remedy, but we run short for lunch.
I work on the play, which inches forward. I write in darkness, not knowing where it is going from one word to the next; but, slowly, the words keep coming.
For the first time, we had to work indoors. The north wind, which sprang up last night, is still blowing.
We work till noon, and, full of virtue, break for lunch. First, thick slabs of the baker’s tough, good bread, with butter; then a salad of tomatoes, eggs, onions, and cheese, drenched in oil; a tin of octopus; grapes and chestnuts; coffee. Then we make love, and fall asleep.
Later, a walk around Kapsali, up the cock-crested hill behind the harbor. Almost blown off my feet, but a fine, free sea running westward before the wind. I came down, and took a fresh path past a deserted farmhouse with an overturned table and tourists’ signatures inside. The field was level, a small desolate plain of cracked earth, stone and thistle, and ancient donkey plops dried to the consistency of leather and spread out shapelessly. Beyond was another cliff, sliding down to the sea like a huge arrested landslide, a great sucking hollow worn in its side by the strain going Ca-a-rr-rack!
In town, we ran into Viron. Today he was talking about archaeology. He has (of course) a small museum of pieces he has dug up over the years. Last year he virtually kidnapped G. H. Huxley to look at the cities of Skandeia, where Aphrodite rose from the waves and one of Lord Elgin’s treasure ships sank. I like the idea of Kythera ringed by sunken statues. Once, a dredging expedition was got together. It was about to haul up a big piece when the cables snapped. That was in 1865.
Viron gives me the chronicle of an old priest to read. I quote (as best I can) from the entry of September 5, 1802:
An English ship [the Mentor] bound from Athens anchored in Avelemona
with a cargo of marble statues stored in crates. Because the crew was sleepy,
the ship struck a rock and was split in two. The statues in their crates went
to the bottom of the sea. Only one man survived, but naked. The owner of
the statues was the bailiff[?] of Constantinople [Lord Elgin], who was the
guest of Mr. Emmanuel Kalontzis. My lord sent divers and they recovered
some of the crates. He gave for each 500 grossia, 40,000 grossia in all. He
had a slave ship to take care of the marbles and various caiques and feluccas.
A peasant from Aloezianika came to take a crate at night, [but] the slaves
killed him. He [Elgin] went to Malta to bring a ship with tools to take up the
rest of the statues . . . . He gave great thanks to Kaloutzis and made him
A long, long walk into the country. I feel like that character in one of James Hanley’s novels who was imprisoned for fifteen years, for fifteen years never to touch a woman, never to walk a straight mile. He gets out, and finds a woman first. Then he begins to walk, walks all day, every day, a compass spinning in all directions, long radial lines of flight, fleeing to see how far freedom goes, if there are walls again, not satisfied until he can go no farther, exhausted in a field, surrounded by space. That is how I feel, after years trapped in cities: New York, St. Louis, New Haven, Santa Barbara, Athens. Walk this island pillar to post, all one can meet is the sea, and what could be freer than that?
I stop and turn back in the middle of the road, having reached nowhere in particular, just a surfeit of the road. I walk home, the sun a ball of melting gold in my path, the town and castle like a medieval miniature, small and far, set in the darkening profile of the hill. Sheep pass, their fleece lit, and a solitary hunter with his dog.
Sun gone today for the first time–one silver streak on a gray sea. Roughed out the new poem. Agony of an idea whose armature is complete in one’s mind, but only half fleshed in lines, like an abacus with all the beads on the upper rows.
Spent the rest of the morning climbing the castle by the path from the villa. Clutched and clambered the last fifty yards, lost the track coming down, and came home exultantly late for lunch.
The castle at noon. Angles of masonry. Cannons sunning in the grass. The freak sculpture of ruins–the frantic, demented look of objects abandoned by man to the vengeance of nature. Blasted turrets in Promethean agonies, ironically molded into shapes of heaven-storming defiance, monsters that seem to eat the air instead of being eaten by it.
Three years–joy of this day–so perfect a happiness that we hold in wonder between us.
Finished the poem and gave it to L.
Poems and ideas all day. Finished “Demolition,” started four others.
Dinner: We invited Viron and Koula to the taverna, where Vangela presides, a marvelous maternal creature whose vast, marsupial belly–a thing, like the universe, of infinite dimension but no particular shape–proceeds toward us, sagging, swishing, lurching toward us beneath her triumphantly lifted arms. We were joined, willy-nilly, by Mario, the town vet, a round, stocky, fair-haired man with a limp, who, enveloped as always in some private gloom, refused to share our food, and Pandelis, the town cop. “With my uniform and my gun on, I am fearless, I can tackle anything,” Pandelis says to us, “but without them, I am lost.” Only a man of the Mediterranean could make such an admission, and in front of strangers, too.
The Marilena, docked all day yesterday, set off this morning. But the wind immediately started up again, and blew two smaller craft into the harbor. At least one thing: it’s bad weather for shooting birds.
Viron, en famille. He has three daughters, aged five to ten: Chryssa, the oldest, a thin, spectacled schoolgirl, serious and reticent, always watching the grownups as if absorbing her future from them (and it is clearly foretold: the good student, good girl, shy, difficult to match); Stella, the youngest, an uncomplicated muff of fun; and Zoe, who is about eight, and by far the most interesting of the three: a little Lauren Bacall, demure, mocking, aloof, a fully developed female with the casual swash of a child, the skip of the girl-seductress slipping blithely back into childhood, dropping that game for the time being. It is just this that the grown woman loses, the skip that erases the game, the mocking retreat through the looking-glass of innocence (and this is the whole point: the mockery is there, oh, it is there).
Viron in his office, showing us plans, blueprints. Elaborate charts on everything–wind patterns, topography, population density, rates of emigration–bar graphs, percentages, prisms. He plans new ship routes, ferry service, an airport, new links from Leonidas, Monemvassia, Napolis, Gythion. I am torn between admiration and dismay. For I like the island as it is: backward, unprosperous, dilapidated, inconvenient. Moribund, even. I like the battered, craggy castle, abraded by time, but still free of paper and beer cans; I like the desolate Chora; the sad, unfinished villas. And yet I agree, I sympathize with Viron too: and trust him. He has no airs, and he loves the island–a developer, not an exploiter. And he is popular and respected in the town, a downright civil engineer and entrepreneur with just a touch of the poet. I wonder what will become of him. A glance around the office: tools: a miner’s lamp: two broken outboard motors: a giant brown sponge: the memoirs of Anthony Eden (Facing the Dictators): a broken bicycle.
Gale winds–whitecaps scrolling toward Gibraltar–great sweeps of spume. Yet brilliant skies.A pile of grapes on the table. The ripe round hardness, yet exquisite delicacy of them: ruddy as apples on one side, lemon-transparent on the other, the pit visible like a baby’s lung through the pale flesh.
But these grapes only exist against the blue of this sky, can only be remembered so–
Viron must leave Monday–property matters in Athens. L. and I are very sorry. We met his brother, Manolis, on the road, not knowing who he was. “I work at the electric company,” he said. “Oh, you must know Viron then,” chirped L. (Viron had founded the electric company, of course). “More or less,” Manolis replied, without humor. “I’m his brother.” Only once had Viron mentioned having a brother: “You probably won’t meet him.” Yet they work together, and live not a stone’s throw apart. But this coldness between brothers is not uncommon in Greece, L. says. The inheritance laws make for fratricides. Manolis himself is a tightknit, wiry, angular fellow with large face, large hands, a gravelly voice. He is pleasant and affable apart from this subject, far less care-beset, less driven than Viron.
Shooting star tonight–the knife-clean track of silver.
Finished Nagasaki. One clean burst of writing from 7:30 a.m. to 12:00–the last period exactly on the stroke of noon. All problems solved themselves, everything fell into place: hardly an erasure, hardly a counterstroke. Almost pure dictation.
Triumph. Deliverance. Joy. Nothing like it.
On a less exalted plane, our war with the ants. The hopeless housekeepers. Throwing out half our food, poisoning ourselves with Aerosol. And the ants, strict Maoists, keep winning. Protracted warfare, guerilla tactics, nullification of enemy technology by superior numbers, etc.
Still windy, though not as bad as yesterday. Four ships sheltering in the harbor. A mocking white gull riding the air currents from one to another and turning lazy somersaults.
Went to Livadi to get back the copy of L.’s book from the Australian Greek, which we wanted to give to Viron. The Australian looked a wreck. Got a glimpse of his mother: a fierce ancient harridan. Living in a hut with for her two weeks.
The great sight of Livadi is a twelve-arched bridge–the largest stone bridge in Greece, they say–that goes from nowhere to nowhere. A British governor built it over a small river in the nineteenth century with forced labor, so that he could get to see his girl friend on the other side. L. thought this very romantic.
A calm, bright, warm, joyous day. The sounds of things again after four days of wind.
A butterfly: two yellows divided by a strip of green. Yes, slightly uncommon. But what a yellow, elemental yellow, a chip of pure color, as the red starfish in the aquarium at Rhodes once was red, the fierce nakedness of color stained right through matter. Then a quieter lesson: bright green of pine saplings against the metallic blue of athanatos against the blue-silver-green of olive trees: and all resolved in the sea below.
Viron came by at lunch to introduce us to a philosophy student named Yorgos who teaches English here, an agile, animated young Cretan–exactly two days older than myself, in fact. He showed us a manuscript of poetry that had been rejected by the censor. I had never seen an honest-to-goodness piece of censorship. It was like reading about torture, and then seeing one’s first real truncheon lying casually in the corner of the police chief’s office. The poems that were ‘approved’ were stamped with a red seal in the right-hand corner, with a black scrawl through it representing the censor’s initial. The rejected poems had their right corners torn off, and the work oxi written beneath. That mild, simple, final word, quite without rancor, almost without judgment, like a piano teacher scolding the fingers of his pupil, or a foreman correcting an assembly worker. No. That one pallid syllable, the one-word, one-sound vocabulary of an idiot, that modest, apologetic stammer, the godlike inanity that can erase a universe. Miraculous that a mere paranoid clerk working for a third-rate Punch-and-Judy dictatorship could have mustered the courage to utter it.
Five of the poems were rejected, enough for the officer who handed back the manuscript to tell our new friend (laconically? officiously? playfully?), “You ought to go to jail for this.”
Six a.m. Rocks waiting for dawn. Steady red pulse of the lighthouse. The morning star hangs alone, like a pledged jewel of arrival. A formless cloud in the east, suffused with pale cream light–another plunging dramatically over the abyss of reddening light of the horizon. Water at high tide, calm and full, the bay like a plate of soup filled to the brim. And in a moment it is all gone, a yellow light replacing the red, blue-gray clouds the purple-rose, the sea receiving its first illumination. The sun comes up briskly, waving aside all foolish pomp. Yet until its first rays pass the shoreline, before it hammers the sea flat with gold in that first sovereignty when its power is greatest, that is the best hour…
After lunch, a young beekeeper took us up to his hives. A little fellow, all smiles and bubbling, almost tender friendliness, with the sadly inappropriate name of Nikos Haros, Nick Death. (But worse for his father, who is a priest.) We put on asbestos-like white suits, complete with face mask, gloves, and boots, that made us look like down-at-the-heel astronauts. Nikos removed the top of one of his little gray boxes, blew smoke down from a bellows to keep the bees quiet, and lifted, barehanded, a comb of five thousand insects. He held it up for us between his fingers like a dentist with a fresh x-ray plate. We looked down at the chaos of perfect order. The workers secreted honey, or brought food in pouches under their wingtips, or swarmed over the dark circle where the queen lays her daily quota of between one and twenty thousand eggs. (Remember that efficient if slightly appalling system: the queen chooses one of her sacrificial suitors and annexes his genitals, which, alive in her, continues to produce life. I am reminded of how Lawrence calls Frieda “the queen-bee” throughout Sea and Sardinia. Not a very flattering reflection on himself.) When the queen ceases to lay eggs at a satisfactory rate, the hive simply stops feeding her; but she is not otherwise molested, and retires more or less in state. This contrasts with the treatment of superfluous males, who are expelled from the hive to starve.
But the end of all this is the honey, and Kytheran honey is the best in Greece. This is due, says Nikos, to the abundance of the thyme the bees feed on. Whatever the reason, the honey has a wondrous purity and color, and every morning L. and I wind a spoonful out of the jar, and lay on each other’s tongues the most regally delicious taste in the world.
At three we went to the harbor to see Viron off. Kapsali has some life–not much–when a ship is in port. The gray trucks and taxis scurry up and down the road to the Chora, performing exactly the function of ants carrying a morsel of bread to their hill and (granted the difference in scale) rather looking like them too. Viron drove down alone in his car and parked it in a ruin. He sat forlornly with us beside the harbor shelter he had built, recalling how he had wanted to turn it into a bar and restaurant. We talked a bit more, rather vacantly; he hailed a few friends; and finally with a swift wave to us disappeared into the side of the ship.
A walk along a ravine. The entrance is very curious: the two mountains meet in an interlock of stone, like knuckles meshing. From this, two paths diverge, and the ravine descends. The mountains are deeply eroded: caves, outcrops, boulders everywhere; holes, pits, hollows. The stuff they are made of hardly seems to deserve the name of rock. I can split stones against each other, even break pieces in my hand, like brittle chocolate. Lawrence has a diatribe against limestone somewhere: “I hate limestone, to live on limestone or marble or any of those limy rocks. I hate them…” Yet the beauty of these islands is their making.
Finally the path gives out, and I make my way through the spiky, green-gold shrubs that give off a shrill metallic tinkle in the wind, and soft boulders so stone-encrusted they look like fruitcake. Water lies ahead, a quiet, shallow-looking bay. But on closer approach, I see it send two long, nibbling, turquoise-green probes into the rock, like fingers into sightless eyes. Bleak, ancient erosion; lost folds of matter. This is what Kythera is really all about, this solitude untouched and untouchable. Here in the ravines, the ancient, unreachable silence. Kythera–Cythere–Cerigo–Porphyrousa, as the ancients called it: I like a place with many names.
Yorgos and Manolis took us today to the Palaeochora, the old capital of the island, which was called Aghios Demetrios while it stood. Strictly speaking, it is inaccessible; we rode halfway on two wheels, angling over a precipice. The site itself is unique. An immense, flat-topped rock rises from a valley floor, surrounded on all sides by palisades that cut the valley into nothing more than a connecting corridor of boulder-strewn chasms. The only approach to this rock is a narrow waist of stone, not more than thirty yards wide at the critical point. On this pillar sits the town: a fragile gray rampart, cut off in midair; various house remnants; and a series of squat, open dugouts that hug the edge: the churches. There were seventy-two of them, says the guidebook, among a population of 7,000. Competition for space must have been fierce; some of the dugouts project onto the downward slope, at the expense, it might be added, of the first requisite of any medieval town: its wall. But what better place to build churches than right over the abyss?
Nothing further from the spires of Chartres could be imagined than these churches of Aghios Demetrios. The Gothic cathedrals, so the art historians say, were great, joyous thrusts at heaven. That may be, though I can just as easily imagine them conceived as at the bottom of a pit, trying desperately to build out. But Byzantium was unquestionably a different matter. No one else, not even the Egyptians, would have built on this spot. Yet for four hundred years the city stood, breeding generation after generation, its inhabitants never more than a hundred yards from perdition at any spot, and surrounded by the vast walls of a natural prison. Imagine a cloudy day in Aghios Demetrios! Yea, Byzantium dwelt in the pit.
The end of the town was suitably apocalyptic. It could look to its enemies by sea, for though at a distance the mountains seem to hem it in solidly, there is actually a hidden defile to the shore, and from here warning could be given of pirates or invaders. (No doubt the inhabitants of Aghios Demetrios were pirates themselves, having no other visible source of income.) But from the other side, the way we had come, it was defenseless, and anyone caring to make the trek overland could have it for the taking. In or about 1537, a renegade Greek named Barbarossa, who with a fleet of thirty-five ships had ravaged the entire Ionian Sea, did just that. After a brief struggle, the town fell. As Barbarossa entered it, there were mass suicides, mostly of women who pushed their children over the precipice and then leaped after them. Their bones were found centuries later. Barbarossa took his pick of the survivors, and put the rest to fire and sword. In one church we came upon stones still charred. They are all that remain of that violent day. We turned back along Barbarossa’s road, and a dozen falcons (buteos, actually) wheeled slowly above us, spreading their black wings against the sky.
Demonstrations in America–the middle-class conscience voiding its bowels. And even here, one cannot wholly escape. Even here, the drone of politics tracks one down, demands a police report on one’s happiness. The presumption to be happy, in times like these! The gall of it!
How does one resolve it, the call of one’s work and the claims of one’s fellow men? The poet wholly committed is a politician, the poet wholly uncommitted an aesthete. And in between he is both. Then when is he a poet? Only outside all categories of commitment. Old question: is political poetry poetry? Yes, if it is poetry, i.e., written out of a poetic response to the world, which includes grass, trees, smoke, evening, tigers, whales, and the town dump, as well as wars, histories, utopias, calamities, and marching songs. The evil of politics is its insatiability. Like God, it allows nothing else. And another thing: it is unbearably cynical. One’s freedom is a bourgeois illusion, one’s happiness is callous indifference. And the end of all this is retribution: the concentration camp. For which one is, naturally, oneself to blame, for writing love poems, tree poems, and whale poems while fascism was on the march. All in all a perfect theology, complete with an unattainable heaven and a real and present hell. Look at Kafka, paradigmatic writer-sinner, condemned (and self-condemned at that) for the sheer presumption of existing, put on life-long trial, and meanwhile (the supposition of guilt being the only principle of the Court) turned into an insect, sent to the penal Colony, etc.
Kafka was the first victim of modern politics, which has done him the honor of making his dreams come true. I mean not only the obvious totalitarian sort of politics, for the true saints even more than the evil prelates have laid their claims to the writer, the latter to his body but the former to his soul. They want his all, his whole self. And it is not even to a cause or an ideal or a great single truth that he is asked to give himself up. Politics disdains to give reasons, scorns to convert. It simply arrogates all right to itself, as a matter of right. But it is precisely this that cannot be right, that truth will prevail for others if one gives it up for oneself, that one makes others more by making oneself less, that the achievement of genuine selfhood for others (which is the only true goal politics can have) requires the sacrifice of one’s own, requires (which is what this means) the sacrifice of everybody’s. No. I will not submit to this. It is the very sickness of the century itself. No. No. No.
Went to Mylopotamos with Yorgos, to see the church ruins. The dilapidation and neglect were very depressing. Maybe Elgin was right about the marbles after all. No need to pretend there were masterpieces in every church. But in at least three we saw frescoes of the highest order, living faces of saints and angels, slowly disintegrating under sunlight, dust and damp. Miserable descendants of genius! Save them or burn them, but don’t leave them like that!
From here Yorgos took us down a mysterious flight of steps: a surprise he said it’d be, and so it was, a tropically verdant valley, almost jungle-lush, watered by a hidden mountain spring. Here, secluded from wind, grew oaks to their full height, fantastic ferns, flowers of every kind. There was a restaurant, whose owner, having lost a small fortune in the place, mournfully turned on his colored lights, and invited us to raki and olives–the olives were wonderful, small and dark brown, the best I’ve ever tasted.
On our way back, we were waylaid by a peasant couple whose son was a pupil of Yorgos’. They treated us to a staggering bout of hospitality: kithony, koulouria, a big plate of marithes, wine, more raki, eggs and lemons and wine to take, and a splendid bouquet of flowers. Let this be said: when Greeks bribe, they bribe in style. Then we stopped in the café for a bit more raki, and rode back to the Chora in merry oblivion.
There are two political exiles on Kythera: a rightist general and a liberal MP. The General, in civilian clothes, is a soft, portly businessman with an air of radiant stupidity. He listens to opera on his German radio and is always exquisitely primped and shaved. His politics are simple: King and Country. The Greeks, he explains, are temperamentally unsuited for self-government; they need strong authority, a “high archon” to use his own quaint term. In theory then he is in perfect agreement with the present rulers of the country. But the General is a legitimist. The Greeks can only obey their rightful monarch, not a bunch of junior officers. One day King Constantine sent the General a telegram, a reply to congratulations on the birth of his third child. The General was in seventh heaven. He read the telegram aloud in the taverna, chiefly for the benefit of the dour-faced police spy who eats alone in the corner. Such are the joys of exile.
Tonight we dined with the MP. He is a tall, spare, distinguished-looking man, about fifty-five, with shrewd, senatorial features, and a fringe of white hair: in short, the perfect prototype of a liberal politician, say a Roman conspirator in Julius Caesar, or the lead in Fulbright of Arkansas. He sat most of the evening with his head propped between thumb and forefinger, a bold, inquisitorial pose that raised (as he doubtless knew) some attractive wrinkles on the brow, nodding and laughing politely from time to time. Needless to say, he was impeccably dressed, gray suit and dark tie, agreeing with the General, if in nothing else, to present a united front sartorially to the natives.
From Yorgos, who lives next to him in Petrochilos’ hotel, we got the following account of the MP’s daily routine: he rises at seven, listens to the BBC at eight, prepares breakfast, takes a walk, goes to the café, eats lunch, listens to the afternoon news, reads, goes back to the café at four, has dinner at eight, listens to the evening news, and reads again till bedtime from his own library: a prohibited man reading prohibited books.
Good climb up a cliff, above Kapsali: a promontory below, with two little hornlike projections of rock sticking up. I think of the horns of Moses, for some reason. Brisk sea
A great day for the island: its first shipment of Coca-Cola arrives. All stores display it immediately, like a prize champagne. No doubt a priest on hand to bless the first case at the dock.
Two Americans have also come, a young blond couple, Californians, the boy with a sly horse-face, the girl’s like a block of cod. No contact yet.
Gray, windy morning–kept the shutters closed and made love.
Collecting stones from the beach below the villa–found lovely ones in a cave, the subtlest shades of mauve. Every island’s stones are so different. I must have spent an hour bent over them, marveling, aware of nothing else. When I looked up, everything was new-washed and brilliant, even the gray limestone, my color sense as sharp and alert as if I’d just stepped out of the Metropolitan again, and looked at Fifth Avenue with Titian still daubed on my retinas.
Slurred clack of the tide over stones–tried to imitate it by drawing saliva over my teeth.
How the foam hangs an instant between the rocks, and then vanishes.
Tanguy made a career of this.
From here, framed by canyon walls, the Chitra is particularly grand. Chitra is the great harbor rock that is the focal point of the whole seaward landscape. It juts up hugely from a tiny froth of waves, rising steeply on the left hand and descending in a sort of broken profile on the right, anchoring the bay, pulling one’s vision like moonstone. From the first it fascinated me; I can watch for hours the tiny distant waves die against it in little white leaps, like the flicker of little fish around a huge and imperturbable whale. And that is what it was for me, a great granite whale, whose majestic solidity was an article of faith. The only thing I could not understand was its name, which means “the casserole.” Of all things it might resemble, how that? But Yorgos has told me now. The great rock is hollow. What I see from the land side is pure façade; the back is a cave with a sand beach that tunnels almost clear through. Now that I know this, I burn to see it. Manolis has promised to take me out in his Chriscraft. But the wind must drop first.
Eight bombs today in Athens.
Worked up Leviathan, sketched the dawn of the 12th from sleep. L. says it is my best poem, better than “Mannequins.” There are still rough spots though. I read So This Is That Country for Yorgos–he was delighted, taped it up on his wall, said he must show it to the MP.
Yorgos and I went out to Cape Trachila, the southernmost point of the island. We started from the Chora, following a narrow path that skirts a big ravine. The path was built by the Germans with forced labor in 1942, and at the end of it, on the plateau that overlooks Trachila, are their ugly remains: bunkers, barbed wire, tin cans, spent bullets, an anti-aircraft emplacement, the ruins of huts. Yorgos calls it the German Parthenon. Westward, around the point of the cape, was a wide curved bay: bare ancient hills and a brilliant young sea. I had the conceit I was the first man ever to see it, partly because I had wondered for so long what was on the other side of Trachila (I always imagine that what is just out of eyeshot is Ultima Thule, and when I see it, it is always a vivid surprise, as if it had only that moment been created, as if I had just annexed something new to the world), partly because it was so wonderfully still andoutside, the blind side of the island, a coast without a port. But of course it was just here that the Third Reich, that connoisseur of landscapes, set up its observation post on the British fleet, and where now, nightly, the Russians patrol, to cheer us in our solitude. Poor Germans–how tedious empire must be, you must even rule Kythera–and kindly Russians, who break up the monotony of our nightwatch, come so far to make the ocean less lonely.
Trachila was directly below us. It looked like an enormous iguana, with a dragon-crested pumice-gray back. From the side, from Kapsali or Viron’s villa, one could see the tiny head, where a groove is worn at the end of the rock, and a triangular boulder plunges the last few yards into the sea. From where we were, at the rear, this head was invisible, hidden by the dragon-scales; but only from there could one see that the beast had a tail too, another sudden depression that linked into the mainland in a thick gnarl of rock. We climbed down over what seemed–before, during, and after–an absolutely sheer cliffside. My legs were stiff with fear, but Yorgos, the island-born, leaped lightly from chasm to chasm, gaily calling me to follow. I did, somehow.
Trachila was another world. Dead, cratered ground, a lumped, kneaded substance, pocked with eerie green tide-pools. Not rock. Not rock as we know it. A shapeless, barren crust, degraded from the mineral, or perhaps left over from something more primitive. Sea-substance, at any rate, not belonging, not pertaining to the land. Salt crystal grew here, the sole accretion. We walked as if on another planet. And it is another planet, these places that have nothing to do with man. (Doxiadis: “The Earth cannot reasonably expect to contain more than 48 billion people.”)
The tide came in–green jaws snapping; we were nearly at sea level. The wind sprang up. We started back.
L. has finished her translation of A Spy in the House of Love. She ran to me with a shout of triumph (a trifle muted by exhaustion) as I came up the path, and jumped into my arms, the air, all over. Nineteen days. Not a break.
Am thinking of a book of personae; will call it Lives of the Poet. It would include the poems on Neruda, Pasternak, and Rilke (already written); others on Jeffers and Campana; historical figures (Saint-Just); perhaps fictional ones too: fourteen or so should do. Very excited about it; couldn’t sleep. It pulls together a lot of what I’ve been working on without knowing why.
Every day we come to Petrochilos’ store, and though we come to buy, and we always need what we buy, it is not really for that. It is the store itself. One must come many times, buying one or two things each trip, to savor it fully, properly. The first time, a bit of cheese, some bullets. The second time, a suitcase and a bathtub. The third, a nargileh, a grammar, and a plastic doll.
Don not try to grasp the contours, the dimensions of the store all at once. Feel your way into them.
Begin with details. Jars of nails. Bottles of perfume. Palisades of candles, in ascending order of height: one drachma, three drachmas, four, eleven, seventeen, twenty, the last as big as bell-chimes. One does not come to the huge walls, the celestial ceiling until later, and not as observation but surmise. For, secure in the knowledge that everything you could ever need or want is here in this room, you feel a vast envelopment, a snug, elemental peace. It is the very womb of commerce, extension without dimension, eternal, enduring, cosmic, a petrified forest of merchandise, a pharaoh’s tomb, laden for every contingency in this life or any other–Sloan’s Liniment, panty stockings, loving cups, paints, rollers, padlocks, hammers, hairbrushes, featherdusters, globes, censers, searchlights, ribbons, stationery, miniskirts, Dutch butter, radios, charms . . .
It is always open: Sundays, holidays, Christmas, Easter. Petrochilos is there, plump, white, featureless–a whiff of cologne as you pass him–; his wife and twin, albino-ageless together; his terrifying mother, who at eighty-four works a fourteen-hour day, counts all the bills, checks all receipts, and is often taken for her son’s wife; and the father, Father Petrochilos, the founder of it all, a shriveled white mummy dozing under a cap and blanket (once, I saw him raise his head and utter a single, tiny, plaintive cry), a snail lost in the shell that survives him. Yes: for what has grown here is something wonderfully snaillike, organic, the unique outcome of a stubborn internal logic (and what else is genius?), not a plan carried out but a vision pursued. First, no doubt, old Petrochilos meant to have a store (he was a barber, and got his money–no one knows how–during the Occupation; to become a shopkeeper must have been the dream, the consummation of a lifetime); then, as the vision unfolded, it became more, a temple, a museum, a tomb, the end term of Marxist economics, the final stage of monopoly capital, the ultimate triumph of the bourgeois spirit, at once a work of art, an appeal before the bar of history, and a splendidly going concern. But at last it grew beyond definition, for one knows, casting glances toward the dim, silent corners (at night, only the cash register is illuminated, and even by day, there is a cavernous gloom among the yarns and fabrics, regions of inventory unexplored for years), one knows it is, somehow, the world, a thing not of use but of wonder. Fitting, indeed, that old Petrochilos should enter the realm of object-life, the order of things absolved, that the creator should enter his creation. It is the fate, some say, of gods themselves.
Mail–our first in three weeks on the island. It took nine days to cross the seventy miles between here and Athens; I could have walked it faster. Spent much of the day answering it; all these letters are immensely old.
L. is sick: only to be expected after three weeks of nonstop work.
Tasos, the tavernkeeper, home from a week in Athens, scared by a bomb.
Description of Kythera by Riemann (1887): “Vue de la mer, l’ile de Cerigo presente l’aspecte le plus desole; de quelque cote qu’on l’apercoive, ce ne sont que cotes abruptes, nues et rocheuses, brulees par le soleil.”
It is said of an Argive king who tried to rule Kythera that he wished the island might sink into the sea.
Chillon declares, “It would have been better if Kythera had never existed, but since it does, it should be destroyed.”
So much do the history books tell us.
Hugo, Verlaine, and Albert Samain wrote poems for Kythera. “Like an aged man the rock remains / that once was Kythera, morbid and alone . . .” “The sea is pink / the summer breeze is stirring / in Kythera the moon sweetly rises . . .”
Dinner with Reese and Jenny, the Californians. Reese unbent a little. He was in Soledad on a five-to-life for selling marijuana. “I really enjoyed it the first month. I had a lot of time to think about things, to get my head together. But after that it was . . . jail.”
How quickly it all comes back, everything you have left, like a bad smell you have just begun to forget.
Reese took me to Aghia Ioannis, the whitewashed monastery on the cliff opposite us, to show me something I had missed.
Aghia Ioannis has the quality of so many Greek holy places: a wonderful severe linearity, bedecked with the tasteless, the sentimental, and the bizarre. The exterior is so clear and hard and stark, with its white zigzag of angles. The guestroom, too, with its spare furnishings (bench and table and–almost painfully elegant in their simplicity–two small rush chairs) and blue-timbered ceiling; and the deep cistern, which gives back one’s reflection sharper than any mirror. But the chapel, which is built into a cave, is, except for the masses of overhanging rock, gaudy and provincial, with mediocre icons, a chintzy chandelier, and, on a peg, a workman’s cap: as if whatever called up purity and austerity in the Greek character also called up the vulgarity that annulled it.
But it goes deeper than that: a kind of flagrancy. This is what Reese wanted to show me. Outside the chapel was a little cave, fissure really, just above eye-level; you could only reach it by hoisting up with one leg on a little stirrup of rock that protruded from the cliffside. Reese swung up, and, with his grinning horse-face above me, held out a human bone: tibia, I think. The cave was filled with bones, an ossuary, with the remains of two complete skeletons at least. How and why, there is no one to say. The caretaker of the monastery, in Kapsali, denies there are any bones at all. But there is no need to make a mystery out of it. It is just the sort of thing the Greeks would do, and just what one expects, by now, of this sepulchral island.
Last dinner with Yorgos, all of us sad and depressed, and L. miserable with her cold. It is so hard to leave. We have never been so happy as on this island, and perhaps we never will be again. I do not know: but such things, I think, are granted only once.
We left Kythera on a beautiful calm day. Viron had not come back from Athens, but Koula saw us off with the children, and Reese and Penny–who inherit our villa–helped us carry our gear (which includes twenty-five pounds of honey, oil, fruits, and sausage) down to the dock. The ship finally left half an hour before dusk. The hills and ravines I had wandered, the Horns of Moses, went by; Chitra changed shape; the coast I had studied from inland until I knew it as well as my hand, went through a prism of new angles.
We passed Cape Kapello, and Kapsali was lost; now began a stretch of jagged, cave-raddled promontories, before entering the long scythe of Avelemonos Bay. The day flared into a crimson rectangle, as if trapped in a box, and slowly ebbed behind the hills. The island faded into featureless outline, conjectural shapes. Then that too was gone, and Kythera became a dark anonymity, akin to memory. I went in.
Poet, playwright, critic, and historian, Robert Zaller has written, edited, and translated more than twenty books. A regular contributor to Boulevard and the Broad Street Review, his work has appeared in many national journals, and his verse has been translated into Greek, Italian, and Bengali. He has long been active in opposition to the death penalty, and has served on the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He also serves on the Steering Committee of the Friends of the Barnes Foundation, an organization devoted to preserving the Barnes Foundation in its historic home in Merion, Pennyslvania, and he appears in a forthcoming documentary on the subject, “The Art of the Steal.” A founding member and past president of the Robinson Jeffers Association, he has also been head of the Department of History and Politics at Drexel University, where he is currently Professor of History. He lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania with his wife, the Greek actress and author Lili Bita.