Friday, 30 July 2010

Excerpts from an Ionian Journal 2 - Saints and more lost beads

From Poetry in the Ionian Islands:

When you have visited the land, [of Corfu] then you can understand why their poetry has long been inspired by the glories of nature. The startling light, the magnificent vegetation, the seas which can be rough or calm, stir the soul into a state of bliss.

So wrote Dora d'Istria in the 1860s.

I take the bus into Corfu/Kerkyra town. At the bus station I ask the driver which way to go to the town centre and follow his directions. After about 10 minutes I think I could do with some tourist information i.e. a map and when I look to my right, I see a little tourist kiosk which has miraculously appeared just when I needed it. Armed with a map I head into the old town. It's pedestrian area is paved with the lovely yellow marble slabs as in Dubrovnik and Berat.

I go into the Church of Saint Spiridion, patron saint of the island and visit the little chapel, following in line behind a stream of recogniscenti, to where his embalmed body lies, in a silver casket. The people in front of me touch the casket and stoop to kiss the image of the saint inlaid on the casket so I do that too. I buy candles but there doesn't seem to be anywhere one can light them, so I bring them home. [On my next visit I notice that there is an area outside the church, for the candles.]

In Prospero's Cell Durrell gives an account of the Saint's life. Apparently buried in Cyprus, he was later taken to Paramythia in Epiros [Durrell gives a wonderful imaginative description of his journey there] and arrived in Corfu in 1456, where he has remained ever since, performing various miracle, such as routing the Turkish ships when they attacked. Apparently in 1944, when the Germans and Italians were fighting for possession of the island, many Cofiotes crowded into Saint Spiridion's church. Advised to shelter in the Italian school, they demurred, preferring the saint's sacred site. The Italian school was demolished and Saint Spiridion's church was not hit by a single shell and everyone in it was safe. Clearly, another miracle.

I visit the Byzantine Museum, which has the shape and aura of a church [and I discover from a notice outside that it is a church, though services are held only twice a year, on special days of Marian celebrations.] It is dimly lit and full of marvellous icons.
The risen Christ and Mary Magdalene.

One with three figures dates from the 15th century. The one of the holy trinity highlights the absurdity of no female presence. One has three figures named as Saints Sergius, Bacchus and Justine which confuses me at first as the middle one clearly seems to be a woman and then I realise that she must be Justine. One again [as with St. George] there is the motif of having conquered something that's being trampled underfoot but at least she isn't actively killing it and it's good to see a woman's presence, which is rare, apart from Madonna icons. But there is actually another woman in one of the icons and it's the same one as I saw in the icon museum at Dubrovnik – Jesus and Mary Magdalene, both of them with haloes. Saint Spiridion looks a little stern. Saint Anthony, the hermit, has various scenes from his life included in his icon, surrounding him. St Dimitri is my favourite.

At the harbour, I look out across the water to vague misty outlines of the mountains of Albania. Up at the north point where the island is closest to Albania, the
y would be nearer and more distinct up there, at the site of the lost pearls that would have strung a bridge across to the separated land which it has been wrested away from, the place where it once belonged. The south of Albania also partakes of the blessed quality of Greece. And it has forty saints at Saranda, while Corfu has just the one, but very mighty and powerful Saint Spiridion is, of course.

I hear the morning roosters, though it doesn't seem to be light. There's two of them. One has a rising celebratory trill at the end, the other ends on a half-choked wheeze.

Yesterday I walked up a series of winding hairpin bends to the village of Lakones. It took a long time going up, past twisting oliviers, honeycomb patterns on their trunks. The cicadas, playing their zig-zag fretwork on the air. Three old people sit outside what could be a shop or cafe, and turns out to be both – the Caffe Olympia says the sign which I hadn't noticed at first. I'm almost out of water so I head towards them. Kalispera I say, and they reply. The spokesman launches forth in English and invites me into the shop which he says has been there since 1944 – there is a sign on the wall saying this. Come in he says, sit down. He invites me to take a photo of the owner – the other man – and the shop. I wonder if it's the same man who opened the shop in 1944. It would make him quite old – but then they are quite old, so it's just about possible. I ask the English-speaking man, saying surely the present owner isn't the one who opened it in 1944, he's too young? And the way he laughs in response to this is as if I've been paying them a compliment.

The shop is crammed – there are little bottles of unidentified sun-coloured liquid, larger bottles of wine which are over 20 years old, I'm told, jars, packets, boxes – it's like a shop from one's childhood, where every jar, packet, tin and earthenware container could be examined, lingered over, touched, fingered.......
In the only available space in the centre there are two small tables with chairs. Both tables and chairs are made of solid, walnut-coloured wood.

Have I mentioned that it is very hot? I wear my wide-brimmed straw hat all the time, and slink along in the shade, scuttling back into it if there are shadeless stretches of road. Sitting out on the balcony – which is in the shade - I notice the arrival of a long-whiskered green creature with six legs, striding haughtily across the tiles, then up the green door-shutter. I'm so excited I breathe carefully, not to disturb it. Its two back legs – greenish, veering into brown, are hinged, jointed, powerful. With one of its front legs it brings down one of its long [about two inches] magnificent antennae, strokes it thoughtfully as a man might his beard or moustaches, releases it and it springs back up again. I look away for a moment and when I turn back, it's gone.

Meanwhile, the figs ripen. The percussive cicadas tune up their instruments – or laugh – or swing their bows, like a trapeze.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Ionian Journal - The Lost Pearls

I am in Paleokastritsa, Corfu. Edward Lear described it thus:

'at this beautiful place [Paleokastritsa]...the sea perfectly calm and blue stretches right out westward unbrokenly to the sky, cloudless that, save a streak of lilac cloud on the my left is one of the many peacocktail-hued bays here, reflecting the vast red cliffs....the immense rock of St Angelo rising into the half seems to me that such life as this must be totally another from the drumbeating bothery frivolity of the town of Corfu....Not that it will last. Accursed picnic parties with miserable scores of asses, male and female are coming tomorrow and peace flies – as I shall
too ….'

That's how Lear described it in a letter he wrote in 1862 when he lived in Corfu. He's right about the colours of the water – from deep blue to purple to green, they fill a blue gap in me and I can't get enough of the sea colours. I can't imagine what Lear would think of the many 'picnic parties' who are here now but I suspect he would find somewhere more remote, a place perhaps like the bay where Lawrence Durrell and Nancy lived, in 1938-39 up in the northeast part of the island, closest to Albania. Durrell wrote Prospero's Cell when he lived here, which I've brought with me to read. But despite the restaurants, supermarkets and souvenir shops, the two-storey holiday apartments that line both sides of the road, although they're set back and mostly camouflaged with trees - and a couple of very large hotels - thought and planning has gone into what's been built, and it isn't over-developed and ugly. Of course there isn't a lot of room for building, for the mountains and the red cliffs that Lear mentions rise up just behind the bay.

20/7. Sitting on the balcony. A spectral half-moon shaped curving pale white cloud has just appeared from behind the hill, which I'm facing. It drifts, a transparent balloon. It seems that I can almost see it moving, as if it has pushed away from the hill. If it is the same as what I saw last night when I arrived in the dark, it will turn orange and rosy. But I don't see how it can possibly be the same one – its purposes seem quite different – its direction for one thing – it seems to be both rising and heading out to sea. Cloaked in an air of secrecy it seems to have abandoned its jewel-trappings. But we are complicit, Moon and I for it has shown itself to me, despite its half-draped garb, its light slipped from one shoulder so that it merges into the blue-ness of sky. The little cypresses could be made of green rock, they are so straight and so unmoving. But they are all pointing at the curved silver wraith that's sailing towards definition, to its rosy orange beacon that it will become.

It's thought – I think I read this in Durrell's book – that this curving island was formed by a volcano and it's a rim or part-rim of something greater, circular. So close to Albania at the north it's clear that it was once attached to it, a loose string linked by a flurry of now-sunken beads. And perhaps the southern pearls have fallen too far down into the ocean to be found again – yet the eye, looking at the map, can almost see them, adds little ocean droplets, little gem sparks, to complete the rim of this volcanic crater or paste in the missing pieces of its peak. Like a ripple frozen in time, then kneaded by hot fingers, this rough-handled crescent dips northern fingers into that green sea that marks the place where it was once united with the mainland. It once belonged there. It's not the water that has snipped the string lin
king the pearls, the islands, to the peaks of Acrocernia – but the human hand that likes to prise apart and to define, that delights in boundaries, perimeters, and claims nature's tousling hand running its fingers through particles of necklaces and jewels as it might through sand – as working in their favour, as being in league with them.

The Ionian islands – rocky jewel-remnants of a volcano's fruit. Like the sun, this beaded fruit, these lava contours, these black basalt gems, are inexhaustible. The sun gives out endlessly, its light and heat, the lava licorice of minerals feeds air and atmosphere and soul. Its minerals feed us, like hive honeycombs. Whether this is the secret of this land's blessedness, apart of course, from sunlight, I don't know.

The gods are still here, well of course they are – the cicadas, the near-blue olive trees, the spindle-cypresses, the wasps and ants and that filling curving sail that's turning white now high above the mountain. But the mountains these threaded pearls were pulled
from, what of them?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

More on Miklós Radnóti and the acacia tree

Calendar - July

Fury, up there, cramps the cloud's belly -
The cloud pulls a face.
Showers of rain run about barefoot,
Wet hair all over the place.
They get tired, creep into the ground, and then
It is evening time.
And the heat, its body bathed, hangs over
The trees, whose faces shine.

Miklós Radnóti

I first read about Miklós Radnóti last year in Fiona Sampson's On Listening. It made me want to read his work but as is the way of life, other things crowded in and I forgot to look him up. The circumstances of his life – and death – were as compelling as his poetry - when I read it recently - turned out to be. He died at the age of 35, while on a forced march, as a prisoner during WWII, from Serbia to Hungary. His last poems, written while on this march, were discovered only after his death and there were intimations in these, that death was not far away. Mixed with the lyrical beauty of his descriptions of nature. The title of the collection is Forced March.

Calendar – June, which I put in the last posting, struck me particularly because of the lines ...and all/the acacias by the roadside are in bloom. It immediately reminded me of a particular acacia tree in the garden of the residence at Vauvert, near Nimes, where I was fortunate enough to spend two months, in 2007. Both the tree and remembering the tree, while I was in a train coming back from a few days away in Carcassonne and Foix, were particularly potent. I don't know why. Sometimes images just reach into some place in memory that feels original and expansive, without limits, way before words arrived with their packaging energy, their brown paper and lengths of string, their scissors and their sorting. This glimpsed place is not our familiar self, it's not our worldly address, it is vast and wild and sometimes – longed for. As if we have continents and worlds of memories that we don't remember in our daily lives but every so often, they are touched by something and though they remain a mystery, it feels quite wonderful to be touched by a mystery.

'In the corner of the garden there's a singing tree. It hums, and if one listens, one can detect different notes, different threads of sound. It's a large tree, and it leans over the wall. Its creamy flowers, adored by bees, are small, but form huge clusters and the tiny petals fall on the road beyond the garden sprinkling it with pale golden dust.'

Such was the acacia tree in the garden of the writers residence near Vauvert.

During this residency, I read with Le Scriptorium writers of Marseille at the Coudoux Festival. Dominique Sorrente created le Scriptorium group of writers, and I met him when we were both reading, along with others, at le Marche de la Poesie Festival in Paris earlier that year. We were both residents again at Les Avocats du Diable near Vauvert last year, where we translated each other's poems. When Dominique was on a brief visit to Scotland last month we met up and visited the Poetry Library in Edinburgh together. As I was browsing idly through the shelves, not looking for anything in particular, I came across Miklós Radnóty's collection and so finally got to read his marvellous work. And that's where I came across '...and all/the acacias by the roadside are in bloom'. Which immediately took me straight back in my imagination to Vauvert....

I don't have a picture of the acacia tree but this was the landscape that I woke up to every morning and, when I was not writing, explored during the day, particularly in the evenings, when the temperature had cooled down.

And, in another part of the world -

I travelled overland to Dubrovnik and when I finally arrived at the bus station three or four people pressed forward to offer rooms to stay. I spied a very small old lady at the back, and chose her. Her name was Roza, and she lived very close by she said, just a short walk up a hill from the bus station. But, as the hill was quite steep, we should take a bus, she said. She indicated that she had a coin to pay my fare. ......
You can read the rest of this article at
Balkan Travellers

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Times, Tides and Saint Trillo

Calendar – June
Just look around and see a miracle.
Its brow quite smooth, the sky is bright. It's noon.
There's a gold crest, now, on the stream and all

The acacias by the roadside are in bloom.
With diamond body a big, devil-may-care
Braggart of a dragonfly is writing
Signals that flash on the bright summer air.
Miklos Radnoti

I was going to say that for the past month or so I've been living in a very different time, but there's something innately absurd about such a statement, even if when I thought it, it seemed to be truthful. How can we live in any time other than now? Our thoughts, feelings and imagination may not be concerned with what is happening around us, but that does not mean we are somewhere else – or does it? In the grip of some summer fever, with the chill of autumn bedraggling the nasturtiums, just when they're about to burst into glorious reds and oranges, my mind is not too sharp right now. Time seems to have many scenes and acts, characters and centuries, and when a friend of mine said years ago that he dreamed that time was a sphere, that felt profoundly right. So much can be within a sphere, not just in terms of right or left, north or south, perimeter or centre, but all the 'places' in between. So many layers of it.

Nestled in between the surf
ace activities of watering plants and watching them grow, of watching cats watching mice,

of short journeys into a sunny city, [where I had a rare sighting of the famous headless seagull ] I've been editing a book that describes the years of the Hoxha dictatorship in Albania, hence the 'different time'. There's not a lot of humour in it, so I was glad of a bit of light relief when the writer, Fahri Balliu, described the mourners at Hoxha's funeral.

'The mourners were paid out of the state coffers. They were paid up to 200 old leks if they scratched their faces and tore their shirts, 150 when they sobbed, and in some special cases they were paid more if they managed to break into the queue of weeping mourners. …......[These] scenes full of various plaintive and mournful characters would have been the envy of Dante's Divina Commedia. '

Between the end of the editing and the beginning of the fever I took a train to Wales, where I saw a preview of F's film about Albanian immigrants in the UK. It will be shown in Albania first, and then translated into English when it will hopefully find an outlet here. But all this will take some time. It was a gloriously sunny week-end, and I caught the last performance of Re-Act Theatre Company's hilarious Charity Begins, written by Sylvia Jenkins. The following day M and I went to Colwyn Bay, strolled by the water, and discovered the Chapel of Saint Trillo, said to be the smallest church in Britain. It is built over a Holy well, which is still there, and is said to have healing properties. St. Trillo apparently came from Brittany, but apart from that, I haven't been able to find out much about him.