Polygons

Tony Harrison

Dionysius of Halicarnassus once likened
Aeschylus’ poetry to this Cyclopean
wall beneath Apollo’s temple before us,
this wall I always gaze on whenever in Delphi,
blocks shaped like continents pre-early Jurassic
where capers cascade down landlocked Pangaea,
polygonal Gondwanaland, in tasselly swathes.
Unspaced Greek capitals cross all the cracks
keeping blocks bonded with alphabet tack-stitch,
manumission inscriptions that seal all the junctures.
So when from below the seismic shocks happen,
and the crack-rooted capers brandish their berries,
and bees, for some moments, stop browsing the basil,
and pebbles in the bay reflecting Parnassus
bunch then release in buffing abrasions,
and the brown bauxite spoil-heaps bristle like anthills,
these blocks lock against underground shudders,
a Cuba block, a Lesbos lock shorelines and stand
when even Apollo’s own temple can tumble.
The tectonic soul-shift that tragedy comes from
can shatter most lyrics but leaves Aeschylean
anapaests uncollapsed, coping though quake-wracked.
That’s what Dionysius seeks to imply.
The limestone/flysch such masonry’s carved from
can crash down as boulders in rockfalls like those
Herodotus tells us crushed Xerxes’ Persians.
Twenty-ton blocks cause clobbering bounce tracks.

Now falling rocks signs keep the stadium closed.
This stadium was where my clog-dancing satyrs
with phalluses upright had their world premiere,
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Sophocles fragments,
as inspiring to me as a whole intact corpus,
a papyrus (most missing) I made into a play
25 years since here where I’m standing
hearing rocks echo with my chorus’s clogs.
It’s now bombarded by boulders and public forbidden.
I hope, though, my survivors will sneak a way in,
or make a formal request to the mayor,
to scatter my ashes, say, ten years from now
if I manage to last another decade –
though I woke up this morning feeling more mortal
with Dunbar’s word ‘bruckle’ (of the flesh) in my brain,
this climb we make most days at least helps my heart!

The site below’s also closed where each year I’ve been
to run my pen finger over Byron’s graffito,
his name, carved on a column I can’t now get close to.
For the last thirty years I’ve witnessed it fading.
Each year it gets harder to find and decipher,
illegible nearly from decades of neglect
since he carved it with Hobhouse in 1809
below and alongside other British graffiti,
sailors on shore leave with ships in Itea.
The b of byron is under the e of one hope
with the o of hobhouse below byron’s b.
And to puzzle all out needed Castalia water
which I’d pour from my bottle all over faint letters.
Sun shone on them wet and made them much clearer
before disappearing back into the marble.
His lines would haunt me as I’d peer at his name.
His Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage line on Parnassus,
the mountain seen snow-capped walking down here:
‘And thou, the Muses’ seat, art now their grave.’
And from Darkness the whole earth gone with the Muses:
‘seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless’.
A landscape to wait for Melpomene in.
No Deucalion’s ark escaped Byron’s Darkness,
or flood with no solid safe peak on Parnassus,
or big bomb finales begotten from fennel
Prometheus, Deucalion’s father, filched fire in
as a boon to the creatures he’d formed out of clay.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk I on the Deluge
has Deucalion surviving the great inundation,
finding dry land on the slopes of Parnassus
we’ve been looking up at for most of the day,
as Noah found his on Ararat’s summit.
Deucalion recreated Flood-doomed Mankind
by casting the sort of boulders we’ve clambered
backwards over his shoulder, ‘Mother Earth’s bones’,
his wife Pyrrha with the same fling refashioning women,
the flysch they flung backwards transformed into flesh,
the flesche I felt bruckle in my body this morning
to quote Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars
with its timor mortis conturbat me.
Makars, ailing or hale, I’ve met with in Delphi,

Plane leaves, slippery still smeared with old Flood-slime,
made new humans slither on the ground where we stand,
and from the sun-heated sludge came all other creatures.
From the blaze of noon, like now, on soon-waded ooze,
from those elements, those opponents embracing,
this discors concordia, says Ovid, came life,
quoting Empedocles who leaped into Etna,
the volcano I read poems on some ten years ago,
a great venue like Vesuvio I’ve read under twice,
and both with great vineyards from ancient extinction.
Both matched by Parnassus with Delphi beneath,
where I’ve read my poems often and directed my plays.

There’s a huge plane tree here whose first yellowing leaf
drifts on the surface of the Castalian spring
whose water for me has become an addiction,
and we come every day to fill up our bottles.
Dodwell wrote: ‘Castalia forms a great beverage
and one draught can convert its drinkers to poets.’
Ten years after Byron declared they were dead
a slurp turned one Jacob Spon to the Muses.
Babis, Delphi’s cabbie, for years my good friend,
knows this and always, when he comes to collect me,
brings a bottle he’s filled with Castalia water.
He watches, I sip. He exclaims: ‘kalo poima!
A good glug ‘kala poimata’ plural.
I took a good draught to doodle this draft
(though wordplay like that shows one glug too many!)

Can quaffing Castalia help crisis survivors?
When we went down today to top up our two bottles
a man came with a car full of more than two dozen.
(I’m surmising he might be another Greek poet
with an epic on the go that needs gallons to glug from!)
I wait and watch, though he offers to let me go first
and not hog the spring’s spigot, but I’m intrigued
so I stand by and watch. He talks. I’ll translate:
‘the best water in the world and it’s going to help me
to save money on beer in these difficult times.
With Castalia I’ll survive the present Greek crisis.’
I still call ‘kala poimata’ after his Peugeot.

Melpomene the tragic Muse of suffering’s survival,
had her male actors, masked but not buskined
(that’s always been bollocks!) tread polygons too
in that marble orchestra we stood in today,
and always stand in, centre stage, when in Delphi.
With a full-lunged Prometheus or mad Ajax on stage
or a clamorous chorus with 15 strong voices,
the Phaedriades peaks could echo the verse pulse
and bits of marble could crumble causing a rockfall
from the precipitous cliff face and crush the cavea,
cramming decapitated spectators together,
an ekkeklema unscripted with real actors’ corpses.
Twenty-ton blocks cause clobbering bounce tracks.

Tragic declamation needs one eye on the mountains.
Hyampeia, the eastern peak some eight hundred metres
Aesop was pushed off by priestly opponents,
now has a wild stag we glimpse on its summit,
and above the wild stag the stranger cloud creatures.
A disintegrating dolphin-shaped cloud
dives into a sea that flashes with blood-flecks.
A cupid cloud kisses a gold-haloed coney
that gets itself gelded to a candyfloss Crete.
A hare with camel humps, a wallaby foetus.
Clouds shaped like creatures unevolved or extinct.
Cloud creatures, cloud continents in wispy great drifts.
An Iceland of burning coals, a flame-flaring Faroe,
the northern hemisphere’s remotest regions created
in seconds of cloud then inundated in darkness.
An evolution shadow-pIay that ends in extinction.
The bay’s copper breastplate dulls down to lead.

‘And the clouds perish’d: Darkness had no need
Of aid from them – she was the Universe,’
wrote Byron in Darkness. And Giorgos Seferis,
great Greek poet, senses that darkness in Delphi:
‘The powers of darkness are the leavens of light.
The stronger the darkness, the deeper the light.
Delphi of all places has been the most kneaded
by the chthonic power and the absolute light.’
Once filming here the Greek on the Steadycam told me:
‘Here even shadows have light in their darkness.’

We refill our bottles and start walking back
under the now stagless Hyampeia peak,
and past fire hoses in new red containers
installed since the olives caught fire in the valley.
Fire down in Amphissa did for whole groves.
Now cicadas rehearse a united ignition
scratching their matchsticks that don’t quite reach flaring.
Their pace is picked up by the flapping of flag-ropes
against metal flagpoles that curve round Prometheus
carved out of bronze and bearing his flame
(these days protected from scrap metal merchants!)
The flapping flag-ropes are echoed by goat-bells
as herds sensing autumn start descending Parnassus
where soon the ice and the snow on the summit
will give no firm foothold to the shivering Muses.
Melpomene’s the only one who doesn’t need thermals
but goes round Parnassus like a Newcastle lass
on a pub crawl at Christmas with bare legs and arms
as though out for the night on the Costa del Sol.
And beer bottles clink together in street kiosk fridges,
echoing the flapped flagpoles surrounding Prometheus,
Amstel and Heineken, AIpha and Fix
in the throbbing tremble of the ice cube machine,
more tintinnabulation than a solemner tolling.

A hanging newspaper clothes pegs keep open
on the kiosk across from the shut, smashed hotel
has a whole half-page picture of a poet I know well.
The headline’s ‘Seimous xini, Seamus!’ No need to read
the efuge or pethane that follow to know
Seamus Heaney had died. Some years back we’d dined
in the hotel that’s now derelict just behind.
His eyes from the picture stare into the ruin.
It was there that I gave him my Oresteia
with its Egil-like kennings I thought Aeschylean,
where I’d sweated to find a style Dionysius
might find like polygons though hewn out of English,
and Seamus gave me his Greek tragedy versions.
My coeval heart judders with lurches of scree fall.
Instinctively my finger touches my ribcage
with my heart’s irregular tempo beneath it.
I’m wearing my Kazantzakis black T-shirt
I have at least five of and wear every day.
There’s a quote from the Cretan in cursive stitched Greek:
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,’
and I feel the eleftheros (free) on my nipple,
though the tipota (nothing) is pretty close too.

We see the sun begin setting over Ghiona,
and go for an ouzo in an old bar, the Apollo,
next to the hotel I’d dined in with Seamus,
to watch the sun set over what’s called here ‘the sea
of olives’, a metaphor now hard to maintain
seeing so many billows below us so blackened,
discors concordia, where a sea has charred waves.
A drop of Castalia clouds both our ouzos.
With our first sip we toast that great Irish spirit
and Parnassus above us whose pathways he trod.
With the next sip I take my anti-coagulant
and toast you who’ve loved me into survival,
I say: ‘o femina sola superstes, love,’
quoting Ovid’s Deucalion glad I’ve survived
to come here to Delphi the 35th time.
Carpe diem but don’t translate carpe ‘seize’.
Think of a day as a fruit or a flower
and ‘seize’ at once sounds too grabbing, too rough.
The verb carpo goes with flores, violas, lilia,
in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and in Virgil
with rosam, poma, violas, papavera.
Once you’ve taken the sense of snatching away
you can simply, less desperately, savour the day.
Karpos, the ancient Greek word for fruit, and the word
still on the brown paper bag of ripe apricots
we bought on our way down to Castalia’s spring,
must be the root of the Latin verb carpo:
carpe diem, carpe noctem, carpe solem, carpe lunam,
even carpe mortem in this spring-clouded toast.
The spring we always drink from and fill bottles with
has no Deucalion Deluge salt in its savour.
Melpomene’s breast-scent stays in the snow-melt
and lasts till it’s sipped from Castalia’s spring.
I wrap a litre of Castalia in a towel and socks
in my hold baggage for the flight back when we leave.

I sip Castalia and cook in my Newcastle kitchen
and use it to take my anticoagulant,
to keep on surviving the slopes of Parnassus
though Melpomene’s the last Muse up on the summit.
All my Kazantzakis T-shirts are hung up to dry
on the rack I hang washing on over the stove,
all of them folded so the ‘I am free’ shows.
Above the stove also two posters are framed,
one from thirty years back, my NT Oresteia,
whose text with intro I gave Seamus in Delphi,
and one forty years back from the Festival Hall,
a reading with Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and me,
Tony Harrison, sadly the only one still alive.
Both those I’ve read with have been in this kitchen.

Along with the makars I’ve already mentioned,
Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Egil, Byron,
Seferis, Kazantzakis, Ted Hughes,
I move towards an in memoriam, maybe,
with Seamus Heaney, makar, duly lamented,
but without the timor mortis conturbat me
William Dunbar’s refrain keeps repeating
but Seamus’s own last words: noli timere.

I look out of the window at my Newcastle figs
ready for gathering, (carpe ficos), not seizing,
and the mulberry planted to remind me of Delphi.
When I’m up on my ladder they’re lovingly gathered,
almost caressingly or they’ll get crushed,
and my clumsy hand indelibly mulberry-dyed.
I’ll freeze some for summer pudding in winter.
Always when cooking I go on composing.
I cook. I compose. I remember, lamenting.
I’m cooking a rabbit like I’ve eaten in Delphi.
The Greek for the dish kouneli me kanella
with its alliterative relish almost Aeschylean
that ‘rabbit with cinnamon’ doesn’t quite match.

I cook with fire and water, (discors concordia,)
and drop into the rabbit a handful of capers
we gathered together from Gondwanaland.