At a Distance Count the Crises
‘ . . . poetry is the only place where the power of numbers proves to be nothing.’
Odysseus Elytis, In the Name of Luminosity and Transparency, 1979.
(‘Well, you know, sometimes a crisis can be productive?’ ed.)
At a distance across the inlet
the cars move as if with purpose,
there’s no sound, just the appearance of order
the other side of the arm of the sea.
Tuesday – church bells ripple at speed,
this I think is for Constantinople
the fall of the city, Tuesday an omen
sounds out to the mountains and Mystras.
The conditional – as if – hovers around
the uncased air is a wonder
and Aegean blue for Byzantium
pervades the ruins of then and now.
Sleek private cruisers, super yachts
state their case (What do you call such boats?)
Security men stare, military grade comms,
darkened windows on every rising deck.
Everywhere, abhorrence and wonder,
as if one permits the other;
the pretty child begging at the taverna
allowed by the waiters last night.
Attica burning Arcadia burning,
terraces the colour of smoke;
fire streams in the valleys of Arcadia,
grey smoke snakes over Attica.
47C in the village that afternoon,
55C recorded at ground level Athens;
waterbomb helicopters buzz Arcadia,
– you have to take the old road today.
At night above Koroni across the gulf
fires cover the hills, burn red on the water;
pine tree resin popping around the house,
– I mean inside the trunk and boughs, popping.
Waking up in ICU in Bordet, Brussels, reanimated after the haemorrhage, I read Don Juan.
Byron’s wit set against the bleeping machines, the biometric read-outs and the taste of iron
and salt trickling down my throat. Byron kept me going. The doctors kept me going.
Floating there I knew absence spoke for itself endlessly and had nothing to say.
We’ve bought your husband back to you, the doctor said to Melanie. Even as a smashed-up
bloody mess I was in the world again, seeing you standing there.
Later I was trying out breathing – Sa Ta Na Ma, just quietly trying. The young Indian guy
visiting his Polish fiancée in the next bay appeared through the curtains smiling. – I know
what you’re doing man. It’s good you know. Come on get up, you’ve got to get up, I’ve seen
your wife in the corridor, the men are lining up for her. – I was hardly a contender just then
but it helped.
We drove through the mountains westward,
dilapidated Sparti behind us, the plain a floating heat haze,
the Laconic air thick as honey reducing speech.
The story here is of near abandoned tractor towns,
two for one poverty traps in plastic and glass showrooms
left as ruins as the tide recedes around Tegea.
Spartans took to these passes to enslave Messenians,
Maniots resisted the Ottoman and defied the Nazis;
and suddenly we’re miles from anywhere in silence.
We came to a sheer wall cracked and gouged with gullies,
perfect chaos suspended and incised over us
then descended through saintly villages to the sea.
Ten years ago, I was made temporarily blind by a stroke.
There was only darkness and I knew nothing at all;
there was a man shouting – Tell that fucking man to stop shouting,
and it was only me shouting, and kicking out and screaming.
Then a complete calm descended and surrounded me.
I thought this is not human and I’ve been wrong about everything,
and I gave in to a huge and intensely kind, powerful presence;
it was all around me, breathing on my face and I surrendered to it.
Melanie sat with me through that night, doctors came and went;
months later I told her about this experience when it came back to me.
She said – I think that was when they gave you the morphine.
I’ve written about this before and can’t let it go – the god Morphine.
The afternoon softens with its pleasures,
as if there’s a way of thinking
with the slow iamb of the sea.
And the wind tries its rhythm in the pine
finding the dark shape of you there like that,
night pools in the hollows of the mountain.
(Everything Takes A Literal Turn)
The satellite dish pointing at Yannis’ has fallen out of the pine
and with next to no connection I’m sunk, adrift or free,
tap tapping away on this stupid phone Excommunicado.
On a telegraph pole by the house there’s an old message,
painted on an arrow-shaped slat tilting downward – Aphrodite,
and the garden is in riot, the sea a soft submission.
Cicadas saw at the nerves, doves swoop and coo in quotation,
the wooded hill rises like a proposal to the mountain – tap tap,
banks of oleander and hibiscus and mulberry seduce me.
Across the square Maria of the tower is sharing a soap opera,
rapid fire Greek counterpoint to slow emotion and music;
for twenty years Maria of the Captain’s Tower, alone, abandoned.
Entirely outside my invention or any expected trope, it’s her life;
in such dramas a man always returns from long absence at sea,
this is shown by seaweed draped across his face and graphic wounds.
Or by a chance sign – Aphrodite pointing, tap tap.
Kelvin Corcoran lives in Brussels. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems, For The Greek Spring from Shearsman, and most recently Facing West, 2017, the Medicine Unboxed sponsored Not Much To Say Really, 2017, Article 50, 2018, Below This Level, 2019 and The Republic of Song, Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2020, and Orpheus Asymmetric, 2020. The sequence ‘Helen Mania’ was a Poetry Book Society choice and the poem ‘At the Hospital Doors’ was highly commended by the Forward Prize jury 2017. His work is the subject of a study edited by Professor Andy Brown, The Writing Occurs as Song, 2013 and is discussed in The Return of Pytheas: Scenes from British and Greek Poetry in Dialogue, Paschalis Nikolaou, 2017. Kelvin Corcoran has also edited an account of the poetry of Lee Harwood in Not the Full Story: Six Interviews with Lee Harwood, 2008.
In addition, his poetry has been commissioned to accompany travelling Arts Council exhibitions of British modernist art. He has collaborated with various musicians and composers including Tria Kalistos and the Jack Hues Quartet, producing the CD A Thesis on the Ballad. His work has been anthologised in the UK and the USA and translated into Greek and Spanish. He is the guest editor of the Shearsman poetry magazine.