This was commissioned for From the Small Back Room, a festschrift for Ciaran Carson’s sixtieth. Well, when I say ‘commissioned’, I was invited by the editors to submit something, asked if an unpublished but already completed poem would be acceptable, and was told that no, they’d prefer something brand new. The only problem was, I was about to head off on holiday.
So the piece was put together while enjoying the sybaritic delights of Zakynthos/Zante (by which I mean wine and food and sun) and unimaginatively took the form of a series of short postcards that weren’t, of course, actually posted. Although I did buy the postcard referred to in the poem.
The poem intends no comparison between Mr Carson and the outrageously if affectionately caricatured Greek national poet.
Oh, and many of the other contributors appear to have had permission to use material they’d prepared earlier.
Postcards from Zakynthos
for Ciaran Carson
Why would anyone post a postcard, when in the time it takes
the postmen of Europe to pass this photograph
of Solomos Square from hand to hand, from here to there,
my week’s break in Zakynthos will be over?
Better to put it into your own hand, like this, in person,
with a duty-free gift of harsh cigarettes and ouzo.
What did I do on my holidays? I drank a beer called Mythos.
I swam and took the sun. I passed a glum taverna
called Nemesis, and had this vision – table upon table
of the under-the-weather sipping local wine and wincing.
Oh how, they groan, are the mighty fallen, who whooped
it up, God’s gifts, last night in Café Hubris.
Dionysos Solomos, national poet of Greece,
finished two poems only. After his death a disciple
gathered his odds and ends and made an oeuvre.
I think I will take this incompletist as a brother, sing
his praises in bursts and snapshots, bits and pieces.
Shore his fragments against my ruins.
The guidebook says Artemis, goddess of wildlife,
favoured Zakynthos. Janice breaks bread on our balcony
for finches and sparrows, feeds, against all advice,
the skinny cats, and swims while finches and sparrows
and skinny cats all sip together from the water
lapped over the edge of the pool with every stroke.
The statue of the poet in Solomos Square
is a statue of a sober gent, like Harland’s statue
at the City Hall back home. A tobacco baron like his father?
That’s the wisdom hinted at in Solomos, but
balanced by the firebrand, caution-to-the-wind forename.
How could he not be a dilettante, a dabbler?
Zante, fior de Levante, was earthquake-flattened
in ’53. Pharmacist, scholar, Nikos Varvaris,
rescued whatever was left of old Zakynthos – icons
and stonework shaken from churches, Italianate furniture, books.
For this he was christened the Knight of the Ruins.
There’s someone else knew the value of salvage.
Below our studio door, the olives groves that,
as the guidebook says, abound with owls,
are prowled this morning by an urgent cockerel and his dam.
Swallows take turns to skim the swimming-pool,
each insect-kill an event horizon spreading through blue,
an aftershock shuddering across the tiles.
O biodiversity! The loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta
lays its eggs on beaches where us tourists
are forbidden to plant our parasols or build sandcastles.
One of their dwindling number, Paola, swims
with a radio beacon glued to her ancient shell.
A satellite picks up her bleeps: I’m here … now here … now here.
In the Museon Solomos the famous Zakynthians
have had their portraits painted by the same local artist:
unhandy, provincial, well aware of his limits.
Six notebook pages of the ‘Hymn to Liberty’ show
the poet skittering from Greek into Italian, back again,
dancing around the old fear of the demotic.
Shingle like lorry-loads of butter-beans on Shipwreck
Cove, the water turquoise and bitterly cold.
The eponymous wreck’s a rustbucket smuggler –
unsalvaged monument to hubris. Better, it warns,
to work in a small way when the mood takes you,
than to go for one big score and run aground.
When the overweight man with the noisy children
belly-flops into the pool, the splash obscures
the name of the hotel tiled on the bottom. It means,
they tell me, ‘Welcome’, but monoglot that I am
I translate it as ‘Stranger-love’. O etymology –
remind me again that we’re all kin and all just tourists.
And so to the postcard: the tripod’s set up on the northern
corner of Solomos Square, and a small crowd
of frock coats and curious hats squints at this oddball
recording nothing in particular for posterity.
How should they know that the earthquake is coming?
In fifty years, all this will be rubble.
Janice breaches the prohibition on kindness
to cats with a pinch of feta, and tells me to send you her best.
The famous Zakynthians add their good wishes.
Dionysos Solomos reminds me that poetry’s secret
is architecture, architecture and perseverance.
Many happy returns, he says. Wish you were here.