Poems by N.C. Germanacos
ERGON is honored to reprint a selection of poems by N.C. Germanacos, with permission of the author and The Paideia Institute.
Born in Cyprus in 1940, from the age of five Nick Germanacos was brought up and educated in Wales and England. He moved to Athens, Greece, in 1965, where he worked as a teacher and also as a translator of Modern Greek poetry and prose. With his wife, Anne, he founded and ran a cultural immersion program for American students on the islands of Kalymnos and Crete. He now lives in San Francisco, CA, his wife’s native city, and travels to Crete twice a year, where he has a home and small farm.
I cast my line (careful
not to drink a drop) and hook
this morsel free of her:
The Germans bombed us once or twice —
or did they? One bomb fell behind our house —
or did it? I hid under the table —
or was I told later what I did
or did not do?
When he came home on leave
(in summer khakis and Sam Browne)
he was appalled — or was he? —
his firstborn (age two) had bolted
under fire — and had blond locks,
and played with dolls.
He had me shorn, and threw away my dolls —
(snaps confirm both locks and dolls) —
I’m told I bawled.
Later snaps show me (five by then)
caparisoned in regimental garb,
beret and Sam Browne.
By then the War was over.
Did he think the uniform would make
the man or was it a dress rehearsal
for the next one? I never asked.
So, with three strikes
under my Sam Browne,
how could I bat my way
to peace with him?
I’ll never know the truth
about the bomb behind the house.
All the witnesses are dead,
I never asked about the past,
they never brought it up.
But what the hell? The facts
and fake facts fit — they spin
a tidy tale. Isn’t that
When next I cast my line,
I’ll drink a drop of Lethe
and forget. By then, no doubt,
it may not count
what facts are fact
and what are fake —
it’s anybody’s take.
I’ll make a little epic
of my tale.
ORA et LABORA
You plant trees in land
where rock has deepest roots.
The further you dig, the harder it gets.
That pleases you: however much
the land resists, the tree will win,
will grow (if slowly) —
ample satisfaction for your labour.
She sets aside her stacks of books
and scripts, and asks:
“How can I help — bond with you
in labour — on the land?”
You ponder her request:
planting trees? In rocks? — No!
“Weed! Here — these are weeds —
there beets — yonder coriander —
more weeds, and here some leeks.”
Minutes pass (in labour), then she asks:
“Should I be enjoying this?”
You laugh. Your cause is lost.
Your labour is beside the point.
She goes inside, resumes her work
on books and scripts.
And you, with expectations shot,
return to script a tree in rock — and,
should you dig deep enough, you may
discover that to plant a tree
(a rite — admit — you cannot share)
may well supplant a covenant,
but not a prayer.
“When you cast off,” the pilgrim asked,
“Can you navigate the snarl of stars,
read height and heft of waves?”
“I read the abecedary of stars, and parse
the syntax of the waves. I am literate
or else I die,” the Captain said,
steering into the plunging night.
So, then, I, too,
must learn my ABC:
start with a dawn, the house,
and grains of sea-salt on the panes
after the gale. Singular things
in their singular place.
I’ll ravel dawn’s unveiling light,
trace the contours of the house,
and venerate the sea-salt in her eyes
before I plunge into the night.
DRY STONE WALLS
I build these terrace walls while I still can —
steps of earth and stone up rocky slopes
so our beloved olives climb into the sky.
My words are stepping stones for those
I leave behind. If they follow them,
they’ll find me at the bottom — or the top.
At either, I would not want their steps to stop.
High as kites on heat and expectation,
we moored between tall cliffs, the sea
blue olive oil, all the way to Asia.
We killed wild goat and lamb,
ate meat, warm bread, fresh fig.
The wine was sweet, the water cold
from a well dug deep.
The woman, white scarf on,
sang of setting out and no return,
her voice ice-pure as from the well.
The cliffs echoed all the way to Asia
and beyond. We linked hands,
danced on the threshing floor,
and Charon crept away.
Flesh felt blessed that day,
sex was easy in the sun.
The Captain, a kouros at the helm,
steered us west into the bloom of night,
three gulls wheeling in our wake.
It was a day
with no return.
Departure day has come again.
Where to? Where from? You may well ask.
Departing, arriving, staying too long
or too little — you lose track.
Cases, boxes, back-packs —
planes, trains, ships —
queueing, pacing, waiting —
always waiting (and not for Godot
or Barbarians either), just waiting
to get going, there or back.
A lifetime of leaving
and starting afresh,
of returning to finish
the unfinished something or other,
of idling verbs, coming and going
Sometimes you wish — oh,
forget it. Time to push off
with this thought for solace:
at your last exit
you go unencumbered —
ticket, bags, passport redundant —
just an obol in hand – that,
and a smile, please,
not a grimace.
The blood of the children… runs… like…
the blood of the children…
Bit by bit you lose your grasp
on things that count, worst on words.
A word slips down like a drowning hand —
once sunk you cannot retrieve it.
Then the wrong word surfaces,
an uninvited guest who will not budge.
… what are those flowers called —
the ones you planted in your other house?
The word has sunk — fuchsia —no! —
foxglove? — no! — forsythia? — no! —
forget-me-not ! That’s it!
How could you let it slip?
Then you grasp this:
a bloom washed up by last night’s gale —
a tiny corpse,
among the beach-beds and umbrellas —
a child in matted shirt and shorts (one shoe lost) —
the dead boy’s name has slipped your grasp —
fuchsia? — foxglove? — forget-me-not? —
of course not, no.
The name, his name —
the toddler’s on our beach,
that bitter night his father’s hand
let his hand slip away.
He sank —
a bloom — a boy —
There is no trope for this obscenity.
that’s not a nimbus round the corpse’s head —
those are flies feasting on his eyes —
La sangre de los ninos —
the Poet dared no simile
to grasp the dead child’s hand,
so how may we understand?
But grasp we must —
please, his name
Poems reprinted with permission of the author and The Paideia Institute © N.C. Germanacos