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Finding Troy

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The Greeks turn up in unexpected places.  Recently I found them in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.  I suppose most writers are guilty of seeking out and devouring books about writing.  We read every one that comes to our attention, even though, after about five of them, each may only provide one new idea or trick for keeping at the writing craft.  It was a quotation on a LinkedIn group which brought Bradbury to my attention.  It had been several months since I’d read a good craft book so I tracked down a used copy.

The book is a collection of essays about Bradbury’s own work, his methods, his efforts at teaching.  It is well worth reading although you may, as I did, feel a bit jealous when he speaks of being able to type out a full story in one short sitting.

The Greeks show up not among the Martians and other aliens with whom Bradbury has spent most of his time, but in one of the poems that form a sort of coda to the book, in the form of Troy.  Troy is a symbol of archaeological work, the digging and finding of treasure, as it was when Schliemann excavated there in the late nineteenth century.  For Bradbury it becomes a metaphor for his finding his own unique path in life.  Others tried to dissuade him, but “I knew my Troy.” he says. He had to keep it secret. however.   “I dug when all their backs were turned.” he says, in order to avoid the scorn of those who did not believe.  He concludes the poem speaking about what he found:

One Troy? No, ten!
Ten Troys? No, two times ten!  Three dozen!
And each a richer, finer, brighter cousin!
All in my flesh and blood,
And each one true.
So what’s this mean?
Go dig the Troy in you!

How satisfying that he can stay with and expand that one image, that Troy that has been magical since Homer.  It rings and resonates.

For me, one Greek leads to another, one archaeological site leads to another.  Schliemann, who found Troy, also unearthed gold masks and other riches at Mycenae where Agamemnon ruled.  He went looking for Pylos, the home of Nestor, the wise older advisor of the Iliad.  Like Schliemann, I cannot settle on one site.  But Bradbury does promise many Troys.

There are nine layers at Hissarlik, the site of Troy.  Schliemann was wrong about which was the Homeric Troy.  He thought Priam’s Troy was the second layer; it appears now to have been the sixth.  Layers are also metaphor: the layer of history is overlaid by the layer of excavation in the tales of the place; between what we learn and what happened there is always a big gap, but the set of tales about what was found adds its own layer to the story.

Each of us, Bradbury suggests, has our Troy or series of Troys to find, though we would be wise not to talk too much about them.  Mine is the next poem project; it always takes some searching to find what I’m after.  May you be fortunate in finding your Troy.

Happy “Exelauno” Day

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Exelauno is a good Greek word that one learns in first year Greek, reading Xenophon’s Anabasis, which chronicles the march into Asia and back of Greek armies under Cyrus in 401 B.C.E.  The text is richly redundant as the troops march on and on, day after day.  On March fourth, I celebrate my first year Greek class of many years ago:

March Fo(u)rth

Chill morning, mud season in
Massachusetts, not winter, not
spring. Freshman Greek class
starts precisely at 8 a.m. We
trudge with Xenophon’s army,
up from the coast, a day’s march
forty stadia or two pages,
as many as forty new words.

This morning, Peggy trudges
down from the dorm, up into
Sever Hall, salutes her classmates
with “Happy ‘exelauno’ day!”
savors the “Huh? oh!” as they
catch on, pick up her banner,
a signal marking our progress
across Asia, toward spring break.

March fourth as ‘march forth’ day:
Peggy’s pun assures us we will
conquer Xenophon’s long march,
survive our own, gives us
laughter and one Greek word
we’ll always remember.

I noticed as I typed this in that it is in proper Pindaric form: two equal sections as strophe and antistrophe and a shorter conclusion (epode).  Pindar wrote odes in honor of Greek athletes.  This poem is an encomium (poem of praise) for Peggy DeBeers Brown.

Archimedes, Aristotle and Earthquakes

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I’ve been thinking about the Greeks and their science, as I try to pull together a chapbook of poems on themes related to Archimedes and his lever.  Archimedes is not the only Greek scientist who intrigues me.  Aristotle is one whom I like first for his ideas on rhetoric, still the basis of many classifications on that subject, but also for the ideas described in the middle stanza of the following poem.

The Search for Order

The ancient model,
in polished brass, expressed
proportions undisturbed
by motion.  Harmonic
spheres keep turning.
Had the world such music
there would be no static
on the FM radio.

Aristotle understood:
the world beneath
the moon is set apart
from celestial, perfectly
governed spheres.
We are the spoiled core
of an ideal cosmos,
its worm-eaten pit.

Aristotle stood at
the center.  My universe
runs away at light speed,
while beneath me tectonic
plates shift, collide.
I long for balance: spheres
encircling the stillness
of mere decay.

The idea that the ground beneath our feet is unstable is not new.  I grew up in California, where earthquakes are a fact of life.  I used that as an image in an earlier poem:

Fire At The Center

My mother came home
from a course on personality
with a slip of paper:
“Your dominant emotion
is rage.”  She went on being good
and dull as plowed dirt.
Where is sure footing
when ground shifts?
The San Andreas fault
did not run under the house,
but whether it lay east
or west I could not say.
Which way would the earth tilt?

When she muttered
“Death and transfiguration!”
I heard a danger
no “Damn!” could hold.
The fluid at her core
lay ready, like crayon
melting under an iron,
to stain us both.  Her fire
never broke the surface.

And I?  The astrologer
finds Mars at the nadir,
“fire in the depth of your being.”
Eighteen years we spent
adjacent, distanced
by unacknowledged fire.
It is safer not to ask
where the fault lies.

In this poem, the shifting ground is largely metaphoric.  Although I knew about earthquakes, it was more an idea than experience: I only recall one small quake from my childhood.  I missed the big ones that later toppled the Oakland freeway and broke the walls of my cousins’ home in the mountains.  My awareness of shifting ground was not in the body.

By the time I wrote “The Search for Order” I was in a more unsteady place psychologically, a more mature understanding of grounding and groundlessness.

I decided this was a theme worth exploring further.

“The Search for Order” was published in Bibliophilos, which has published several of my poems on Greek themes.
“Fire at the Center,” first appeared in Metis, August, 1995, and is included in my chapbook, Accidents, described on the Books page.

And the Greeks . . .

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I was introduced to Thomas Lynch through an interview in <i>Writers Chronicle</i>.  He writes essays and fiction but says, “I wouldn’t write sentences or paragraphs that were worthy if I weren’t also writing poetry.”  That led me to find his book, <i>Walking Papers</i>, and I was hooked by the opening lines of the opening poem:

What sort of morning was Euclid having
when he first considered parallel lines?
(“Euclid”)

I have always been partial to Greeks because of my studies in Greek and Archaeology, but I have been fond of Euclid since I was in the equivalent of seventh grade in an English School.  There geometry was taught as a series of theorems and their proofs.  One of the first was “When two straight lines cross, the opposite angles are equal.”

It was rote learning, but I loved it.  I believed this was the way Euclid himself had presented his ideas.  I remember the small paperback book clearly, while I’ve forgotten entirely the geometry text I used when I came to the subject again as a sophomore in high school.

Lynch says little more about Greeks, but in this first poem, Euclid takes a place along with Lynch’s contemporaries, each working out their understanding of the world, and they go together well.