Falling asleep in Greece

Posted in Ancient, Poetry, Stories by Alex L. on August 10, 2010

Inside my paperback copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems there is a yellowing bookmark. The book itself is rather plain: a Barnes & Noble publication with a faux-marbled cover and many sentimental poems, all rhyming. Nevertheless, the editor of the collection had taken great care in elevating this rather drab idea for a book into an endearing compilation of verse. He had even written his preface as a contemporary poem, meaningful line breaks and all. It ends: “It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, / encourage. And for man, who has learned to love / convenience, it is hardly larger than his concealing pocket.”

Maybe it was for that portable quality that I had decided to take the book with me on my three-week study abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2006. It went halfway around the world with me and returned to the United States with a new bookmark: a receipt of purchase from an Athenian cafe. The receipt-bookmark, as I mentioned, now looks aged, and the ink has smudged deeper into the paper and lightened to a gray in the process. The top of it has creased where it protruded beyond the dimensions of the book, and on that portion is written in Greek letters the name of the establishment from which it came: *DIOGENES*.

Diogenes Cafe is located in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, just below the base of the Acropolis, and its name strangely fit the purpose of my visits during that summer. During the trip, I lived with a group of about twenty American students from my university. When I felt like being as reclusive as the famous philosopher Diogenes (who lived in a tub in the marketplace of ancient Athens), I would walk from our hotel, then meander up the cobblestone alleys of the Plaka to the Diogenes Cafe, order a small cup of strong Greek coffee and a delicious local dessert of yogurt and honey, and read, sometimes from the small book of poetry that I had brought with me.

Reading poems in sequence, one after another, from a collection compiled by an editor is somewhat like watching a movie where every scene is acted by different characters in new settings and portraying unique storylines. Luckily the poems of this particular compilation were arranged with heart and style, so the expectations created by one author’s verse would be fulfilled by the emotions evoked in the next. The rhyming words ebbed and flowed from poem to poem like the waves of Homer’s wine-dark Mediterranean Sea, which wasn’t far away from me at the time.

In the middle of this cycle is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled “The Day is Done”. Its words are gentle, and almost made me want to burrow myself in the warm Grecian sands by the sea not a day’s walk away from Diogenes Cafe and fall asleep. The poem is a kind of lullaby as musical as a mother’s evening song to her child. Like some rare works of art, this short set of words meets the reader in a lonely place, and as a co-participant leads him to a better one with the nudge of melody’s sleight of hand.

Longfellow’s poem is about falling asleep, a process everyone at some point takes for granted. We come back home from a long day of working or studying, fall fully clothed onto our bed, close our eyes, and effortlessly stop thinking. We say to our brain without even speaking a word: “This world is enough for me for right now. I’m ready to enter another, to see the familiar people and symbols and places processing before me in combinations that I never expected. Imagination will draw from the cistern of memory and, finding the waters unappealing, will dilute those brackish contents with drink from the wellspring of fantasy. Let me dream.”

And so we do, but sometimes this letting go of the real world is not so easy. An unresolved argument with a friend may be festering in our conscience, and we can’t imagine how to resolve it. Or, on some occasions, I find the opposite is true. We are so excited about the prospect of an amazing day to come – a birthday celebration, a date, a public ceremony – that we don’t want to rend ourselves away from the thought of this impending happiness. Exhilaration and worry can keep us awake, but so can other things.

I’m thinking of one type of sleeplessness in particular, but I don’t know a name for it. I guess it happens when everything in life – health, work, relationships – seems in its proper place. The day that has ended has been vanquished and everything that had needed to be done and had needed to be said was so. Atop the peak of Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America, one surveys the land below as if reality itself were now a map, small, and a feeling surfaces that is not quite dread but something close.

“The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

“I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o’er me
That my soul cannot resist:

“A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.”

A hundred miles northwest of Athens, Greece, up the misty mountains of Sterea Ellada, the ruins of the ancient city of Delphi hover above the Gulf of Corinth and a valley filled with olive and cypress trees. Delphi was host to one of the four Panhellenic Olympic games and housed the Temple of Apollo and its famous oracle-priestesses. Perhaps because of these things, or maybe since it sits in the very center of Greece, Delphi was known as the “navel of the universe” to the Greeks. Every four years, the people of diverse city-states would gather there and stage athletic and musical competitions, crowning the victors with laurel and glory before the eyes of the civilized world and the god Apollo, to whom the games were dedicated.

The stadium at Delphi

It is highly unlikely that the modern Olympics would ever be staged in Delphi. Unlike Athens, no one lives there anymore and there are no other towns for miles around.

When I visited Delphi with my study abroad group, driving up there from Athens on a coach bus, we walked around the ruins of the athletic stadium that was cut into the same hillside as the Temple of Apollo and the Delphic theater, only high above them.

The stone bleachers around the long oval track remained and so did the grooves chiseled into rock at one end of the stadium, which marked where the ancient runners would line up to begin the race. The track itself was sandy gravel, and young grass grew there in uneven splotches. All around the buildings and pathways of Delphi, like water surrounding an archipelago of islands, were laurel and pine trees – green life hugging the dust.

The girls in our group, wearing tank-tops and capri pants, posed at the  runner’s starting  blocks for photos, right legs raised and arms poised to assist a forward lunge. Their faces, though still smiling, contorted into an imitation of athletic exertion, a theater mask.

Delphi itself, the sight of it today, wasn’t enough. Imagination was needed, and the details of what Delphi, as the symbol it represents, should be, were conjured up like in a dream.

“Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

“Not from the grand old masters
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

“For like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life’s endless toil and endeavor;
And tonight I long for rest.”

The wind strokes the leaves of the laurel trees, fanning their seeds over the Delphic stadium. But they are beaten back. Over the lush valley of olives looms the corpse of the ancient marble city, preserved.

And a terrible idea emerges: what beauty must die in us tomorrow so that we may go on living?

“Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

“Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

“Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

“Then read from the treasured volume,
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

“And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”

On the island of Santorini, the beaches are ashen. Fine-grained though grittier, the black sand is a deposit left over from previous eruptions of the Thera volcano, which rises out of the sea and is clearly seen atop the mountainous heights. Night comes there like the stillness of dark waters following the passing of a lighthouse beacon, after a blazing sunset.

2 Responses

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  1. revbillcook said, on August 17, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Just wanted to let you know I read through some Larkin today including the poem you addresses. I remember reading it before. Thanks for sending me back to it. – Bill

  2. Alex L. said, on August 22, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Bill, I’ve only read a bit of Larkin myself, but I love his writing. Glad I could bring you back to it, though. Cheers, -Alex

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