Three Poems

Aris Anagnostopoulos

Recommended citation: Anagnostopoulos, A. (2021). ‘Three Poems’, entanglements, 4(1): 13-23

Abstract

These three poems were written as part of a long term ethnographic and archaeological engagement in central Crete. They respond to the sense of history that people and place create, as well as the affective aspects of sharing this historicity in the field. They draw inspiration from the themes, wisdom, stories and maxims of the mostly elderly inhabitants of the communities I worked with, but do not claim to represent them in any accurate way. Conversely, it aims to lay open the sediment of affects left by these successive strata of experience in the formation of the writer’s self.

Keywords: history, memory, material, archaeological ethnography, poetry

The monstrous time

Four-hooved panting breath

falters up the hill

cling of iron on the rocks

upsetting in its path

the remains of aeons of footprints

the young shepherd takes his eyes from the vulture that transfixed him

sees the horse

it is not an animal any more, but a sign:

Master is here

his father owes the Master

quite some heads of cheese

rendered black from the moss

of the cave it’s been stacked into

it’s been a bad year

the Master, Andrea Cornaro

is not as lyrical as his distant cousin

whose fame is already rising abroad

for his idyllic imitation of Italian epics

in the local language of his native Candia

the Master’s tongue sings the adage of the whip

he lives in the great city, he is nowhere to be seen in these parts

but as you turn your head for a while,

to look at a passing cloud,

or hear a distant commotion in your flock,

and the ants take over your loaf of bread

so does the master appear uncalled

in the middle of the day

the master’s time is the monstrous time

-(+)-

to whistle 

a simple feat

just put your rounded fingers under your tongue, like so

and blow

blow

but no

to whistle is not as simple as it sounds

his head grows dizzy as he puts his nine years behind his breath

blow

nothing

no sound, just a growing unease

like the first time he found a used cigarette butt on the floor and lit it

outside the coffee shop

the mockery was a branding iron just out of the fire

but no

the clutter he hears is not his beating heart

rushing towards his neck

but something else

something

not heard before in these parts of the world

it resonates a low growl

must be a ghost, an apparition like those

he has been warned against

in stories told at night

he stays, heart panting,

his fingers still covered in saliva, forming an O

like his lips now,

as he sees it

a black

heavy

menacing

thing

rounding the corner

no

eating it

and spitting smoke

the sheep scatter everywhere, he falls face first

lifted by the dirty hem of his shirt amidst the world falling apart

he has forgotten the only prayer he learned at school

now regrets his father took him off it, to mind the sheep

and dreams of the teacher’s punishment as his saving grace

a splendid scene, this

the road workers holding a young shepherd by the neck

rock scattered everywhere by dynamite

the birds have taken to the heavens

the animals have vanished

the silence holy like before, broken only by laughter and lewd comments

the tarmac road comes in sudden blasts

like the thunder that suddenly opens the sky above you

amidst the damp fatigue of rain

unheeded, uncaring

development has the surprise of thunder

the time of the road is the monstrous time

-<^>-

She comes out from behind the stone wall she has been using for cover against the wind

more timid than cold

as the men approach the top of the hill

to the remains of the aborted new church

what is she doing here?

she lost her goat

it is probably on someone’s table already but

she had this last hope, now as lost as her goat

that the animal may have come here

to eat the tiny yellow flowers that are said to cure anthrax

she says as much to the foreign men

so sure of themselves and so cocky

with their axes and spades on their shoulders

if it weren’t for the president she would not have revealed herself

but just roll on her heels down the hill

and then take the long way home

having to salute so many farmers on the way

and pulling gossip behind her

by the long leash of her lost animal

all better than this foreign man

this cranium of a head

on the president’s side

asking her for local expressions and words

who leaves, impatient at her silence,

to egg the men on, as they spit in their palms, ready to dig

he keeps a notebook against the wind and occasionally draws something in it

he looks at stones with great interest

he may be crazy, or a man of great powers

or both

October is raw up here, he needs the hot coffee before he heads back to the city that once was

Candia

he talks, slowly lost in reverie

of an ancient time before anything the village can remember

before the oldest woman still alive

before the great heroes of the Cretan revolutions

he puts his two fingers together

like he is about to whistle,

but no, he shows how an ancient clay figurine was made

like so

you press the wet clay, pinch it rather

and you have a head

give it two eyes and it will see you to eternity

afterwards, the fire will do the rest

sometimes he wonders whether it is not

the figurines themselves that made the man

now lost forever

– his bones tiny splinters in the dirt –

and not the other way around

I wonder, he said, if the thing makes the man

and not vice versa

but then he was gone

as fast as he came

and nobody ever heard of him again

he was an archaeologist

the men in the coffee shop remembered

and then they decided

that the time of archaeology is the monstrous time.

The process

I too came up that hill

many times but only once realized there was a village there

unwittingly following the footsteps of the poet’s cousin 

and his words, lip-synching to a local radio station

whose name, straggling the portentous and the parochial,

drew on that vast epic of love

its writer half-effaced by use

like a coin that has left its heads and tails on the hands of so many patrons

the road is not the road he showed me

in ballet poses, jumping over fences, crouching behind walls

one hand pointing to the ground the other to the sky

trapped inside his leather jacket in a mist of spray

the road cannot be shown

he tried so hard, almost punching the rounded cobbles with his bare hands

kneeling on it, close enough to kiss it in a gesture of supplication

to its enormous past

to its unendurable presence

but I 

I never saw it

I could never picture king Minos escaping his idiotic fate

his monstrous family and their depraved kinks

their invention of boredom long before the fact

to make the long process to the mountaintop of Ida

to reclaim his father, a god, everyone presumed,

or some moments of silence inside a hidden cave

I could never picture his bare hand

stooping to pick a thorn out of his hardened sole

his teeth trying the surface of the stone

as he lay half asleep in a forced midday pause

I saw only ottomans,

people as strange as any Minoan king

dragging the metal rings of their cart wheels

in between the cobbled surface of the road

that was once an avenue and now is only a cascade of frogs

lizards

crickets

living their everyday dramas

perhaps as important than any human story

and equally incomprehensible

disbelief you see

is an empty casket

where once was the corpse of a precious stone

and now is replaced by a price tag

a flimsy whiteness

washed in a back pocket

insignificant, unenchanted

prosaic

yet the real jumps mockingly at you

a stoop, a balletic pose, a naive inquiry

a stone in his hand

pray tell me what kind of stone this is then

what kind of stone

a neolithic tool

an egg-shaped accident

that becomes a something in an instant

acquires a name, 

a price-tag,

geographic location system coordinates

but it will never be a kind of stone

the path the king took, the path of the master and the distant cousin

the path of so many barefoot migrants

is blocked by an iron fence

and guarded by a leontine german shepherd

the smell of vulture all over it

you better take the dangerous detour through the gorge

I too came up that hill, 

unwritten, washed off by disbelief

stretching my umbilical cord from the city that once was known as the world capital of candy

looking through the rearview mirror

to crossing paths of drunkenness, migration,

and dead-end masculinity horse-powered by Japanese machinery

in four-wheel drives able to scale any mountain.

Once, driving down the road

the driver’s door flew open

an invitation to escape

while there was still time

while time was still there

The trap door

you see I grew up in this house, the house below this house was not always a keep for animals or a storage room for useful materials. although it was always cold as a freezer, as cold as it is today. it is jammed between other houses, their stone walls are the walls to this house, nobody owns a wall, unlike what is in it. i grew up here, in the company of animals, jammed in between and below us, we slept above them on wooden platforms, we exchanged breaths on countless nights. they kept us warm, we kept their warm memories. then my father built the room on top, the house moved upwards. it was the thing to do if you could afford it. not for size, most had a large family but not the means to expand. they stayed put, we moved up. we kept this, a hole on the ground, a prone door to the world below. i gradually got unaccustomed to the smell – i realized when i first noticed that there was one. a trapdoor to the underworld. To the way the past smelled. may god preserve this trapdoor. It helped us forget our past. It helped us build surprise. maybe it would open one day with a sudden bang, and you would stop weaving on your loom to turn your head in half-expectation, half-horror, to see the face of your future husband – flustered, maybe angry, ready to lift you off your feet and carry you away if you refused to follow. so functions love, by denying to underwrite the already written. or maybe you would expect the purple sign of dusk to sneak unnoticed below, groping in the dark to see the face you once saw reflected on the waters of the well, when you carried the soundless water inside your mouth; fruit-scented, loaded with premonition, so heavy on your teeth, boiling with deliverance. what a strange animal is man, how different does he react when you touch his skin. Violent and tame at the same time, he belongs under this trapdoor, for eternity. 

Tracing the lips of the void, or writing poetry in the field

To be perfectly frank, I do not know where these poems came from. I know, or at least I can claim to remember, where and how they were written. I can also show some of the tassels hanging from their frayed edges to hint at the connections they may have with ideas, hopes, and perspectives in the field. Whether this is of import to other anthropologists, poets or interested readers, I am not certain. But here goes: these poems were written during, and after, a long stint of ethnographic research in the mountainous region of central Crete (2011 to 2019). The research was part of the archaeological project “Three Peak Sanctuaries of Central Crete”, a small-scale research project aiming to study and publish the findings from past rescue excavations, in the area of Malevizi, on the island of Crete. Peak sanctuaries were (quite possibly) ritual spaces at the tops of hills or mountains during Minoan times, several millennia in the past. It is probable that such sanctuaries overlooked quite populated and busy human settlements in their time. Today, the feeling they give to the visitor is one of desolation: windswept places with majestic views and perhaps some stone constructions or scattered finds that retain their silent mystery, even to professional archaeologists. 

The villages that exist around this area were, at some point, bustling communities of several hundred people; today, they are mostly occupied by a few elderly inhabitants. The feelings that mark these poems arose from perceptions I was faced with during the first seasons of fieldwork: solitude, abandonment, and time running out for the living. In subsequent readings, I have revised this outlook by offering the idea that abandonment is not the only aspect of urbanization that decimated this local population, and that spreading out from a local place might be a more optimistic way of seeing it—and one closer to the heart of its younger generations. Steeped in the outlook of the local place as I was, however, these poems evoke the perspective of the “friend of the desolate” (philerimos), as one peak in the area is called. In this, I was much influenced by local poets who make absence, distance and abandonment a central motif of the distichs (mantinades) they compose, in their own collective way of working through large social transformations and personal fates beyond their control.

Much of the collaborative work the research team did in the area was guided by the community’s insistence on recording and preserving ways of life, thought and expression that were slowly disappearing as each elderly inhabitant passed away. This demand attributed a sometimes oppressive urgency to most relations in the field: an interview could very well be the last, and I was, at times, entrusted to save pieces of local lore from oblivion, using the technology at my disposal and my persuasion as a researcher. These poems are the recovered fragments of a motif that repeated itself semi-consciously in my mind throughout these occasions. They do not record or document my thoughts or feelings with accuracy;  they are more like responses in writing to an invitation to face powerful absences in the field.

Ethnographic writing is perhaps an expression of the very Janus head of modern consciousness. It preserves, in paradigmatic form, the tension between two extremes: the flash of consciousness as a fatum, as the pure and extreme necessity of human experience of the world, and its temporal duration as the nostalgia of purportedly unmitigated access to immediate experience. Aspects of this contradiction, which represents both sides of the same coin, can be traced in most writing that positions the experience and recounting of alterity as the privileged space that sets anthropology apart from all other social sciences. It is as if the experience of radical alterity secures, for anthropology, the prerogative of that visceral sense of real-life that is absent from the contemporary metropolis. So anthropology has fought a bitter struggle with its twin tendencies of recounting and explaining, of assuming the position of the other qua other, or subsuming the richness of ethnographic dwelling into a series of dominant, in every sense of the term, signifiers—society, culture, economy, structure, and so on. Yet one cannot help but wonder if the real division here lies elsewhere, particularly in language itself—more precisely, in the way western modernity has thought about language, at least ever since Hegel, as a condition of the spirit that guarantees the death of the Thing.

Yet, as late Lacan was to point out, there is a remainder in language, in the act of speaking itself, that has to do with the enjoyment of saying. This enjoyment is supported by the auditory aspect of language, embedded in speech. I understand this as a return to musicality—musicality as a rhythm and variation in intonation that can be felt even as a piece of writing is typed on a computer screen: the tug and pull of words and expressions in my second language—English—as they are silently pronounced and anticipated as I write these words. 

Poetry shares this emphasis: it does not claim to convey experience but is in itself an experience. It has the ability to convey what is left out when experience is turned into words, simply by pointing to this gap, by tracing the lips of this absence, by invoking it. As such, yes, ethnographic poetry can perhaps never become a substitute for other forms of ethnographic description, simply because it cannot be subsumed to description. Yet this is not the point here. The point is the fleetingness of experience as it is caught in the double bind of living and nostalgia. 

I wrote these poems because I felt something was missing. After several years of research in the area and after the resulting publications, talks, presentations, conference panels and post-conference imbibed discussions,  the oppressive sense of a void, of something left unsaid, always persisted. Much like the negative space in painting that has a shape of its own, this absence was pushing its way into a palpable presence. 

If this came out in a nostalgic mode, this is simply because I am already positioned by my personal history on the side of nostalgia, leading me to identify this mode in the field and keep it inside me: the sediment of unsaid words and inexplicable feelings. But also, it comes in the way of a working through of very palpable losses felt while in the field: my grandmother, who died during the fieldwork season of 2016 some kilometres away from where my research mind was, and Christos, perhaps the single most important interlocutor in the village, who passed away in 2019 after he had well outgrown the century. The myopic fixation to the end of living, encrusted in the nostalgic tone of these poems, was rectified, in a way, by two things: one is the ability of these persons to live the everyday, in an extended temporality unaltered by the obvious shortness of their remaining time. The other is the ever-receding horizon of a deep past, materialized in the presence of clay figurines and other vessels discovered in the Minoan peak sanctuary near the village, dating several millennia before the present.

It was during the close observation of one of these clay heads, pinched at the nose with the fingers of a human now long dead, that I had a strange thought: at time scales so large, is it possible to begin thinking that it was the figurine—durable, persisting, present—that shaped the human hand that made it – perishable, moldable, absent – rather than the other way around? Perhaps. in the same way, the materiality of these texts is what really traces my contours and brings me to where I stand today as a palpable absence.

Aris Anagnostopoulos is an anthropologist, historian and writer. His research focuses on the poetics and politics of the past. He has done ethnographic research in several archaeological projects in Greece and has published extensively on Ottoman heritage in Crete. His experimental fiction invents writer personas to investigate issues of memory, archive, gender, science and artistic production, in collaboration with visual artists.

ORCiD: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0358-991X

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