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Afterword to Time on Water by Robert Gibbons




Smyrna, Delphi, Heliopolis, Hades, Gloucester



Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens. Walter Benjamin

I'm in my Greek mode, reading Seferis's journal, thinking about heat, warm water, Retsina, olives, Homer, etc. So if I write, it may be laying foundation stones, not necessarily anything finished. I return to this little book on occasion. It is, it's like gathering things words phrases for a future work, one Rilke refers to in one of his pieces. In that way it's expansive, the moment I thrive in, because it is intent on a future creative modal it extends out there in space, & because it's the Greeks also reaches back, sifts up the past like an archaeology, to be examined first-hand, like an old stone implement. Look at how that damned thing was fashioned, what technical skills, what precision, what a love for time.

7/03/02 Heat rose up quickly, tactile before the sun, like her under sheets, out of dream. In the house she's the center of attention. Fans swirling, coffee on, weather report, computer booting, shades lifted, hands washed, it's still her skin, her body, her mood which carries anything of significance: the body's language, furrowed brow, languor, vigor, intime, vocal, silent, internal. . .

Sun through skylight contains a similar, if substitute presence.

I've always been fascinated by the laconic honesty of George Seferis especially in his Journal: Days of 1945-51. It's refreshing. “Friday, October 18 Yesterday after lunch I cut wood. The body functions more easily; the animal is more relaxed; no elation. That's it. The head is empty, emotion settled down. Not at all in a poetic mood. It doesn't matter; for the time being it's better so. Don't forget that you must leave & return. Shut up rooms warp you with bad habits; the room I lived in recent years was stifling. I think of nothing now… I don't want to be anything today, tomorrow, we'll see.”1

He's as fascinated by small boats as I am, their sculptural/functional appeal. “This morning: wood, swimming. A fisherman passed & offered fish; [just this morning I sent someone in CA a copy of Olson's “The Company of Men,” with its lines

…the generosity
can come only

from those
who have fish'] 2
his boat is a kourita. Here people do not know these boats. Those I asked said 'something like a gondola.' I, too, ask him; 'What do you call your caique?' 'Korita,', he answered. I understood that he was from Asia Minor. 'Without a keel do you use leeboards?' 'These don't need leeboards; with the sail, their side serves as a keel… From Smyrna to here?… This one went to Egypt in 1913 with four or five others; she's the only one that came back. They took them to the Nile and sold them. Look at her warped planks.' I looked. I was pleased with the workmanship. The beautiful old wood. The carving on prow and stern recalled icons from my past. I observed this boat with much joy.” 3

Yesterday I attempted a poem of renewed desire. It didn't work. Failed at the end, (perhaps from the beginning), when what I wanted to do was turn the object of my desire (my wife), symbolically, into the image of a small boat, her ribs into those of a canoe, say. But I couldn't construct an image that would account for the way a man rows a boat, without counterpart in sexual position. But this ancient image, where the construction of the kourita is based on the sculpting of stone kourai, the sails the carved chiton lifting her body, the sailor riding the image of the memory of the woman until he returns to the real thing… She's nine minutes late ten twelve fourteen with the goods, the food, her fruit, her good. I've got my Greek sense of patience on. I'm waiting out Darius.

7/4/02 The rose I picked for her with one flower, three buds, nine leaves, dancing on its stem in the water of the Spanish rosé bottle in front of the circulating fan is a bad actress, mimicking her every move, missing her lines.

Down to the shoreline before 11:00 A.M. Take watch off. Step into the 5th century BC with my canvas shoes, the ones I got married in, the ones with rawhide laces, & Herodotus.

7/5/02 On my brief vacation I've had time, merely, to delve into Herodotus. Nothing in depth. In a cast of thousands it's difficult to ally oneself, identify the true heroes. If I tried to identify any, surely Themisocles, with his ability to interpret the Delphic oracle, in order to plan strategies to defeat the Persians at Salamis & Thermopolae. & the oracle herself.4 The choric honesty there, colluding with the deepest resources of the unconscious. The two remain today the most powerful forces in the world, not Persians, nor Greeks, but the expression of the unconscious, & the art of its interpretation.

“In essence, the poet has one theme: his live body.” 5

7/6/02 Dream last night: party, lots of friends & relatives in a vast house, during which I introduce most to all, but my mother thinks I forgot about my cousin, so I drag him around re-introducing him to everyone. At some point exploring the rest of the house I reach a floor where a whole section is boarded up tight, (a host of nails, wood fragments, shutters, some metal, a veritable artwork), I assume for renovations of the addition behind it. When I wake up that's what I decide to do. Embark upon a renovation project. Less wine, for a change, more exercise, a renovation project for the body.

I took my notebook along on my new walking regime. There, piled up between the Caterpillar & the Bucyrus-Erie cranes, an Olsonian congery of stones, dolmen, & hieratic heads ready to shore up the seawall against Boreas, in-law of the Athenians. North Wind, alias Hellespontine, which sunk 400 Persian ships during a four-day blow off Magnesia. 6

At the same time, across the street, perched in the branches of the staghorn sumac, the red-wing blackbird practicing singing keeping his timbre strong.

7/7/02 Out before sunrise. Rain overnight helping the birds & flora back to life. Mountainous grey cloud over the horizon, some of it burning from the star underneath, burning the way Arizona & Colorado wish things burned, metaphorically. Take along my little telescope to get a closer look. Many fewer boats, in fact a lone skiff. Alone, too, on land with only previous civilizations insinuating themselves in tracings. Phalanxes of cormorants. Sun fully up by 5:17. I can't help thinking of Ra, knowing it's such a cliché, but when I walk back home, past the morning glories, the doves, the street sign where I live has somehow dropped its “S,” it's “E,” its “C” & “D,” leaving only “ON,” the Egyptian name for what the Greeks called Heliopolis, City of the Sun.

7/8/02 Last day of vacation together, facing the threat of chores put off: inspection sticker for the car, trash to dump. Somehow, in-between, we manage time to get the little fiberglass boat we bought two years ago down to the rocky shore & OUT ON THE WATER! The shore stones baking, & today humming with flies, we escape! Oh, Aegean, Seferis, whom we read together to each other, “Clashing Rocks – those stones that strike you, now on the head, now in the heart, now in the kidneys. Ultimately they never finish you off. You rise half-dead and keep going, a foolish visionary in the golden light of the sea.” 7 In the meantime, I've let my fishing line rest in the water, which bogus lure at the end of it couldn't trick any fish. But wait, as I reel it in, “I've got something,” something long before any sign of the plastic lure, a crab, holding on for dear life to the 40-pound nylon test. “Look,” she laughs,“ he's a trapeze artist!” At night I can't let go of the Greeks. Go to Book XI. Odysseus speaking with the dead: Elpenor; Anticlea; Tiresias.

7/9/02 Back to work via ferry.

7/10/02 I recall Book XI has a special reference for the blood ritual of speaking to the dead, but I can't recall it. Knowing Olson referred to it I go to the index of George Butterick's, A Guide to The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, under Homer. But there are only two references, one which astonishes me. Butterick says it's a story Olson either recalled or invented, but that it was written on a notepad just ten months before his death. “…I'd like to live to die as Homer did – or at least as I have that story of how [he] did die at Smyna, I mean the story of his last day, that he got so interested watching two boys fishing he was careless abt taking care of himself, and fell out after the chill of evening where he [found?] himself on the road and was found there in the morning wrapped out [inadequately] in a rug for his sleeping…“ 8 Story contradicting the legend of his blindness.

I'm struck by the reference to Smyrna, where the boat Seferis was in awe of came from. Seferis watching the fisherman. Of course, while reading this, I recall the Greek word for the rite of blood given to the dead of Hades in order to speak to them, Nekuia, which isn't indexed here, & recall the dream last night in which a bunch of us were looking for someone reported dead. The only evidence we could find was his hat. The only sentence I wrote down: “They found the hat in the mud.” I thought of it as Adam's, or some other ancient civilization's “first man.”

When I lived in Gloucester I heard stories of Olson in his last years just as he described his vision of Homer, “in his own Zarape or whatever heavier roll or blanket he did have wandering as it seems he was…” 9

7/11/02
How Far Back does Desire Reach?

Onshore wind producing excavating waves revealing stones unseen for years. Desire & light. Ancient desire. Desire reaching back to the oldest image of boats on Aegean seals: high prow forging over spiraled water, low stern, keel projecting beyond. Square sail. Vessels capable of voyages from the Cyclades or Crete to Syria & Egypt. A world washed in new light. From the beginning I wanted to turn the object of my desire (my wife), into the image of a small boat. Lacking technical skills, but not desire. How far back does desire reach? Desire born of the marriage of Night & Day. Not excessive desire, which kills desire. The image of a small boat, her ribs into those of a canoe, say. Then one morning in 1946, the year I was born, George Seferis, after chopping wood, swimming, watched a fisherman pass, who offered fish from his boat he called a kourita. He was from Asia Minor. The boat originated in Smyrna. The beautiful old wood, the carving on prow & stern recalling icons from the past. He observed this boat with much joy. Poem of desire. A small boat, her ribs. This image based on the sculpted stone kourai, whose sail is the carved chiton lifting her body. The sailor riding the image of the memory of the woman until he returns to the real thing. Ultimately reminding one of the other stone boat: the foundation plinth for Nike of Samothrace!

7/14/02
History of Tragedy
I'm moving on, slowly, from my Greek mode. Stepping away from Homer, Herodotus, Seferis, Elytis, & now, Cavafy. But not without a final reference, a goodbye. I was out on the deck of the Nora Vittoria, not the usual side, I got there late & had to settle for the less crowded, unsunny side. I'm telling you, there was a monologue of a conversation in progress that almost killed me. She went on & on. The two listeners were prisoners. I had to bear to overhear the tone, excruciating, babbling, mindless. Caught only fragments, & the tone, repeated first person pronoun, & constant references to “all my friends, my best friend,” etc. The captive audience's reaction was telling. “You went through all that for that?” I couldn't help it. I yelled into the wind, “Come up for air! What a saga! A real sea story!” I don't know where my words went. But hers intruded on the unsunny side of my being, just as I was trying to read Cavafy.

Docking, I moved away from them into the light. Reading his “Ancient Tragedy,” in the light, away from her inane noise. His praise of the great dramatists, no need to mention them, & their characters, the ones who fought death to the death. I loved so much the retrieval of Alcestis from the realm of the dead by Heracles, who arrived upon the scene at an opportune moment! Cavafy's poem purged the evil American spirit of meaninglessness soiling my head. I needed this ancient reminder, when later that morning I read in the newspapers the postmodern reenactment of Tragedy by ancient characters in Srebrenica. Over a hundred buses, like Roman deus ex machina, delivering mourners to the site where 8,000 were killed seven years before.

On stage: Alija Camdzic & his wife Hava, who lost two sons, a pregnant daughter-in-law, & a five-year-old granddaughter in the largest massacre [in Europe] since WWII. His lines: “I have lost everything a man can lose. But that's not the biggest tragedy. The biggest tragedy is that I'm still alive.” Enter: Mujo Berberovic, who seven years ago, fleeing Serb Army forces through the forest with his wife, Mina, & their five-year-old son, Aldin, knowing the enemy searched to kill men of fighting age, decided to separate from them. His lines: “What a mistake that was. I keep cursing the day we separated. If I could have just a cup of coffee with my Mina. Just once.”

7/15/02
How to Get it Out!
Take Euripides down to the sea. Horde of Bakkhai, wind swirling around waves & stones like a wild animal, choric utterance welling up with what it finds down there under the surface below the rational. That's just it: getting the words down. Down to where the blood is, the viscera, one must follow in the footsteps of the Maenads, follow Dionysos down to the temenos, where Karoly Kerenyi got it right, saying the god of the irrational will always do the one thing required of him when he sets foot on sacred ground: commit sacrilege! The only greater desire for her is desire to praise her.

7/16/02
On the Dock, in the Distance, a Woman
Stomachs churning, brows furrowed, armpits sweating, the male-dominated financial world out on deck the Nora Vittoria. Just not enough estrogen on board! Wars of competitive glances, little body language skirmishes, & wrath of ego battles. So much so I turn my back on all of it & read Cavafy's allusions to third-century BC satiric verses of Horodas, seven of which were found on papyrus just over a hundred years ago. It cheers me up! Really, my thoughts are giddy at all these weak testosterone levels, these bald guys taking up so much space outside, when I'd prefer powerful estrogen stimulating this ship into estrus, heat!

Look, suddenly the sea is on fire! Rimbaud's paradise! Remember when he demanded men set Woman free? He called men abominable. I let all the abominable no men disembark before me. The pilot's afraid I'll stay on for the return trip. I go slow. Never rush to work. On the dock, in the distance, a woman descends the stairs leading down from the Atlantic Avenue Bridge. Her visage & gait & regal fashion are thousands of years away, a princess, or king's courtesan. The chains tied to steel pillars mark her stages of arrival, where at each point she ages before my eyes, until right in front of the bench I'm on, she is present. In her secret, ageless beauty, which I understand.

7/17/02
Today I Want to Shape it a Bit Differently
I love the new reconstruction of the seawall. Two cranes at it all summer. Shoring up the wall with huge glacial erratics, a few indigenous to the area, but you can tell most have been trucked in from points North & West. I love the niche I've discovered, where I can disappear to an entire continent, & stare out worshiping, studying the sea. My first thought when I saw it was, “It's a mihrab,” the single alcove built into the walls of churches in Byzantium. That would be a cool thing to do, wouldn't it? To write down everything that goes on all the time, it's so filled with life. The tanker balancing on the horizon line, the two diving cormorants in the foreground, the spider underneath me mapping the labyrinth. Motors & wind & waves. I suppose it would end up the New York Times. I equate myself with the brick maker. The prose poem of mud & straw & blood. Quite simple. Reliable. Useful in numbers, & formidable when thrown through a plate-glass window. But today I want to shape it just a bit differently. Still humble, but elevated. Knowing full-well this medium was not held in high esteem, & that Origen, or Apollonius, put down the chosen material as crass in comparison to gold & ivory, today I want to leave the equivalent of a terracotta figure here in the stone niche. I'm gathering clay with a spade & hod from one of the numerous beds around Crete. I know that during the Mycenaean Period the industry was so vast that each statue sold cheap. That suits the prose poem, the brick, for that matter, just fine. After molding it in my margins, & adding some tempera colors: black red yellow blue green, all I have to do is fire it to between 750 & 950 degrees. Have you felt a poet's desire? Cool down, my little Sapphic Aphrodite, cool down in this contemporary wind. Humble image of Love, rise out of rhythm in these waves, stand straight, & tall, try not to crack a smile in clay at the recollection here, of Sappho in the ecstatic verbal ejaculation of her ardor, promising to sacrifice a white goat at your altar!


1 George Seferis, A Poet's Journal: Days of 1945-1951, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974) p. 50.
2 Charles Olson, The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, ed. George F. Butterick (Berkeley: University of California Press) p. 423.
3 Seferis, p. 60.
4 Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Robin Waterfield (Oxford; Oxford UP, 1998) p. 453.
5 Seferis, p. 62.
6 Herodotus, p.471
7 Seferis, pp. 74-75.
8 George F. Butterick, A Guide to the Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) p. 735.
9 ibid., p. 735



Beginning of Time on Water