The Mother of the Muses

Tony Harrison

In memoriam Emmanuel Stratas, born Crete 1903, died Toronto 1987

After I’ve lit the fire and looked outside
and found us snowbound and the roads all blocked,
anxious to prove my memory’s not ossified
and the way into that storehouse still unlocked,
as it’s easier to remember poetry,
I try to remember, but soon find it hard,
a speech from Prometheus a boy from Greece BC
scratched, to help him learn it, on a shard.

I remember the museum, and I could eke
his scratch marks out, and could complete
the ... however many lines there were of Greek
and didn’t think it then much of a feat.
But now, not that much later, when I find
the verses I once knew beyond recall
I resolve to bring all yesterday to mind,
our visit to your father, each fact, all.

Seeing the Home he’s in ’s made me obsessed
with remembering those verses I once knew
and setting myself this little memory test
I don’t think, at the moment, I’ll come through.
It’s the Memory, Mother of the Muses, bit.
Prometheus, in words I do recall reciting
but can’t quote now, and they’re so apposite,
claiming he gave Mankind the gift of writing,

along with fire the Gods withheld from men
who’d lived like ants in caves deprived of light
they could well end up living in again
if we let what flesh first roasted on ignite
a Burning of the Books far more extreme
than any screeching Führer could inspire,
the dark side of the proud Promethean dream
our globe enveloped in his gift of fire.

He bequeathed to baker and to bombardier,
to help benighted men develop faster,
two forms of fire, the gentle one in here,
and what the Luftwaffe unleashed, and the Lancaster.
One beneficial and one baleful form,
the fire I lit a while since in the grate
that’s keeping me, as I sit writing, warm
and what gutted Goethestrasse on this date,

beginning yesterday to be precise
and shown on film from forty years ago
in a Home for the Aged almost glazed with ice
and surrounded by obliterating snow.
We had the choice of watching on TV
Dresden destroyed, then watching its rebirth,
or, with the world outside too blizzardful to see,
live, the senile not long for this earth.

Piles of cracked ice-tiles where ploughs try to push
the muddied new falls onto shattered slates,
the glittering shrapnel of grey frozen slush,
a blitz debris fresh snow obliterates
along with what was cleared the day before
bringing even the snowploughs to a halt.
And their lives are frozen solid and won’t thaw
with no memory to fling its sparks of salt.

The outer world of blur reflects their inner,
these Rest Home denizens who don’t quite know
whether they’ve just had breakfast, lunch or dinner
or stare, between three lunches, at the snow.
Long icicles from the low roof meet
the frozen drifts below and block their view
of flurry and blizzard in the snowed-up street
and of a sky that for a month has shown no blue.

Elsie’s been her own optometrist
measuring the daily way her sight declines
into a growing ball of flashing mist.
She trains her failing sight on outside signs:
the Church’s ‘Come Alive in 85!’
the small hand on the Export A ad. clock,
the flashing neon on the truck-stop dive
pulsing with the strobe lights and juke box rock,

the little red Scottie on the STOOP & SCOOP
but not the cute eye cast towards its rear,
the little rounded pile of heaped red poop
the owners are required to bend and clear.
To imagine herself so stooping is a feat
as hard as that of gymnasts she has seen
lissom in white leotards compete
in trampolining on the TV screen.

There’s one with her mashed dinner who can’t summon
yet again the appetite to smear
the food about the shrunk face of a woman
weeping for death in her 92nd year.
And of the life she lived remembers little
and stares, like someone playing ‘Kim’s Game’
at the tray beneath her nose that fills with spittle
whose bubbles fill with faces with no name.

Lilian, whose love made her decide
to check in with her mate who’d had a stroke
lost all her spryness once her husband died ...
He had a beautiful ... all made of oak ...
silk inside – brass handles ... tries to find
alternatives ... that long thing where you lie
for words like coffin that have slipped her mind
and forgetting, not the funeral, makes her cry.

And Anne who treats her room-mates to her ‘news’
though every day her news is just the same
how she’d just come back from such a lovely cruise
to that famous island ... I forget its name ...
Born before the Boer War, me, and so
I’m too old to remember I suppose ...
then tries again ... the island’s called ... you know
that place, you know ... where everybody goes ...

First Gene had one and then a second cane
and then, in weeks, a walker of cold chrome,
now in a wheelchair wails for the Ukraine
sobbing in soiled pants for what was home.
Is that horror at what’s on the TV screen
or just the way the stroke makes Jock’s jaw hang?
Though nobody quite knows what his words mean
they hear Scots diphthongs in the New World twang.

And like the Irish Sea on Blackpool Beach
where Joan was once the pick of bathing belles
the Lancashire she once had in her speech
seeps into Canadian as she retells,
whose legs now ooze out water, who can’t walk,
how she was ‘champion at tap’, ‘the flower’
(she poises the petals on the now frail stalk)
‘of the ballet troupe at Blackpool Tower’.

You won’t hear Gene, Eugene, Yevgeny speak
to nurses now, or God, in any other tongue
but Russian, and your dad’s the same with Greek,
all that’s left to them of being young.
Life comes full circle when we die.
The circumference is finally complete,
so we shouldn’t wonder too much why
his speech went back, a stowaway, to Crete.

Dispersal and displacement, willed or not,
from homeland to the room the three share here,
one Ukrainian, one Cretan and one Scot
grow less Canadian as death draws near.
Jock sees a boozer in a Glasgow street,
and Eugene glittering icons, candles, prayer,
and for your dad a thorn-thick crag in Crete
with oregano and goat smells in the air.

And home? Where is it now? The olive grove
may well be levelled under folds of tar.
The wooden house made joyful with a stove
has gone the way of Tsar and samovar.
The small house with 8 people to a room
with no privacy for quiet thought or sex
bulldozed in the island’s tourist boom
to make way for Big Macs and discotheques.

Beribboned hats and bold embroidered sashes
once helped another émigré forget
that Canada was going to get his ashes
and that Estonia’s still Soviet.
But now the last of those old-timers
couldn’t tell one folk-dance from another
and mistakes in the mists of his Alzheimer’s
the nurse who wipes his bottom for his mother.

Some hoard memories as some hoard gold
against that rapidly approaching day
that’s all they have to live on, being old,
but find their savings spirited away.
What’s the point of having lived at all
in the much-snapped duplex in Etobicoke
if it gets swept away beyond recall,
in spite of all the snapshots, at one stroke?

If we are what we remember what are they
who don’t have memories as we have ours,
who, when evening falls, have no recall of day,
or who those people were who’d brought them flowers.
The troubled conscience though’s glad to forget.
Oblivion for some ’s an inner balm.
They’ve found some peace of mind, not total yet,
as only death itself brings that much calm.

And those white flashes on the TV screen,
as a child, whose dad plunged into genocide,
remembers Dresden, and describes the scene,
are they from the firestorm then, or storm outside?
Crouching in clown’s costume (it was Fasching)
age, 40 years ago, as I was, 9
Eva remembers cellar ceiling crashing
and her mother screaming shrilly: Swine! Swine! Swine!

The Tiergarten chief with level voice remembered
a hippo disembowelled on its back,
a mother chimp, her charges all dismembered
and trees bedaubed with zebra flesh and yak
Flamingoes, flocking from burst cages, fly.
in a frenzy with their feathers all alight
from fire on the ground to bomb-crammed sky
their flames fanned that much fiercer by their flight;

the gibbon with no hands he’d had to shoot
as it came towards him with appealing stumps,
the gutless gorilla still clutching fruit
mashed with its bowels into bloody lumps ...
I was glad as on and on the keeper went
to the last flayed elephant’s fire-frantic screech
that the old folk hadn’t followed what was meant
by official footage or survivors’ speech.

But then they missed the SEMPER’S restoration,
Dresden’s lauded effort to restore
one of the treasures of the now halved nation
exactly as it was before the War.
Billions of marks and years of labour
to reproduce the SEMPER and they play
what they’d played before the bombs fell, Weber,
Der Freischütz, for their reopening today.

Each bleb of blistered paintwork, every flake
of blast-flayed pigment in that dereliction
they analysed in lab flasks to remake
the colours needed for the re-depiction
of Poetic Justice on her cloud surmounting
mortal suffering from opera and play,
repainted tales that seem to bear recounting
more often than the facts that mark today:

the dead Cordelia in the lap of Lear,
Lohengrin who pilots his white swan
at cascading lustres of bright chandelier
above the plush this pantheon shattered on,
with Titania’s leashed pards in pastiche Titian,
Faust with Mephisto, Joan, Nathan the Wise,
all were blown, in that Allied bombing mission,
out of their painted clouds into the skies.

Repainted, reupholstered, all in place
just as it had been before that fatal night,
but however devilish the leading bass
his demons are outshadowed on this site.
But that’s what Dresden wants and so they play
the same score sung by new uplifting voices
and, as opera synopses often say,
‘the curtain falls as everyone rejoices.’

Next more TV devoted to the trial
of Ernst Zundel who denies the Jews were gassed
and academics are supporting his denial
restoring pride by doctoring the past,
and not just Germans but those people who
can’t bear to think such things could ever be,
and by disbelieving horrors to be true
hope to put back hope in history.

A nurse comes in to offer us a cot
considering how bad the blizzard’s grown
but you kissed your dad, who, as we left, forgot
he’d been anything all day but on his own.
We needed to escape, weep, laugh and lie
in each other’s arms more privately than there,
weigh in the balance all we’re heartened by,
so braved the blizzard back, deep in despair.

Feet of snow went sliding off the bonnet
as we pulled onto the road from where we’d parked.
A snowplough tried to help us to stay on it
but localities nearby, once clearly marked,
those named for Northern hometowns close to mine,
the Yorks, the Whitbys and the Scarboroughs
all seemed one whited-out recurring sign
that could well be ‘where everybody goes ...

His goggles bug-eyed from the driven snow
the balaclavaed salter goes ahead
with half the sower’s, half the sandman’s throw,
and follows the groaning plough with wary tread.
We keep on losing the blue revolving light
and the sliding salter, and try to keep on track
by making sure we always have in sight
the yellow dayglo X marked on his back.

The blizzard made our neighbourhood unknown.
We could neither see behind us nor before.
We felt in that white-out world we were alone
looking for landmarks, lost, until we saw
the unmistakable MacDonald’s M
with its ‘60 billion served’ hamburger count.
Living, we were numbered among them,
and dead, among an incomputable amount ...

I woke long after noon with you still sleeping
and the windows blocked where all the snow had blown.
Your pillow was still damp from last night’s weeping.
In that silent dark I swore I’d make it known,
while the oil of memory feeds the wick of life
and the flame from it’s still constant and still bright,
that, come oblivion or not, I loved my wife
in that long thing where we lay with day like night.

Toronto’s at a standstill under snow.
Outside there’s not much light and not a sound.
Those lines from Aeschylus! How do they go?
It’s almost half-way through Prometheus Bound.
I think they’re coming back. I’m concentrating ...
μουσομητορ εργανην ... Damn! I forget,
but, remembering your dad, I’m celebrating
being in love, not too forgetful, yet.

Country people used to say today’s
the day the birds sense spring and chose their mates
and trapped exotics in the Dresden blaze
were flung together in their flame-fledged fates.
The snow in the street outside’s at least 6ft.
I look for life, and find the only sign’s,
like words left for, or by, someone from Crete,
a bird’s tracks, like blurred Greek, for Valentine’s.

Toronto
St Valentine’s Day