By Tom Willis
This is the third part of the loosely plotted series We Other Greeks. The second part, ‘Athens, Still Remains’, can be found here.
into ash. Ash
Made out of death yet
sort of offhand.
In Leucippus, the outer band of atoms in a cosmic vortex catches fire. Cinders and ashes: signs of the once-has-been. Warm cinders; cold cinders. Testament to object and event.
Cinders and ashes erase themselves totally, radically, in an all-burning, aching despondency. Only the memory of the flame and the blaze: dust and remainder. No cinder without fire. A foretaste of mourning.
Cinder: old grey word. Gone in a puff of smoke. Mourn. Pure luxury. Pure effusion.
Nothing composite can escape division.
Henry had no great love of cats, but when an Athenian stray, skinny and sickly, crept into his apartment through an open window and set about purring among his collection of arcane and Greek instruments, showing off its musical satisfaction, he softened, and started to leave out a saucer of milk on the windowsill. Occasionally, as the cat lapped at the milk, he crooned to it, strumming a lyre or guitar. He played it originals and Bob Dylan covers. Its presence made my allergies go all haywire and helter skelter.
At a party in Henry’s flat there was the tug of a room full of beautiful, broken people. Think of a low-rent Fitzgerald novel.
They smile for a moment and then turn back to their charming companions: little exiles in Athens, from islands or continents, sitting on sagging sofas, staring out of windows, groggy because time was all messed up.
Glasses of Greek sparkling wine are laid out on the kitchen counter. The final glass to be filled overflows. The gas expands, falls, breaks, and the bubbles turn to fluid. Henry moves fast, like a good boxer, gliding past arms, distributing the wine.
The names of Oxbridge and East Coast colleges fly through the air like darts. But they fail to pierce anything, let the air out.
We drank the wine as we prepared the last elements of supper. Chunks of scorpionfish [softshellcrab / seaurchin / softboi / Smyrna / burn / softheart / saffron / seawater / milk / milt] floated to the top of the pot, disturbed by convection currents flowing through the water. Henry the carnifex had cut up the aquatic animals earlier, like lines in verse. A guest stirs snaffled codeine tablets into her lemonade out on the balcony. We hear the plop pack pock of the pills into the fluid, then the hushed fermented fizz.
After two glasses of the wine I felt the desperate urge to drink to oblivion.
Voices blend and fuse in the clouded, conditioned air. The light is smokey. An eyelash had fallen into my drink.
‘Superb wine, Henry!’ someone shouts.
The odour of patchouli lingers, until an interstellar breeze wipes it from the air. There is a good smell of hot coffee from the stovetop where people are percolating espresso for their martinis.
‘Café au lait παρακαλώ... with gin.’
A lemon-half is pressed against a stainless steel cone and twisted. Delicate fingers dent its skin. The pulp is collected in a sieve, and the juice falls into the collection vessel below. Particles and oils from the lemon’s broken cells spray up into the air. On reaching their maximum possible height these tiny specks stay suspended like dust in the sun until they fall. A burning cigarette-end coated with lipstick lies in an ashtray. One of the watery specks lands on the paper of the cigarette creating a tiny patch of dampness. When the fire reaches this spot it will hiss, perhaps inaudibly.
A flyspecked travel brochure is splayed open on the desk: ‘Have a pleasant onward journey... beyond the Pillars of Hercules…’ Three photographs are taped to the wall above. Henry is playing cricket, the ball apple-red, a man’s arms are raised, mouth open, the word howzat! falling from his lips like murder. Katy is in Venice, fur hat, traces of snow, water thick with gondolas behind her, terracotta-coloured bell-towers fill white sky. Katy and Henry are in Paris, sitting on the terrace of a café, ivy, glasses of beer, her countenance inscrutable, present but opaque, his one of perplexed admiration, but his face is slightly obscured and indistinct.
Outside, through the window above the desk, to the right of the photographs, is an olive tree blown bent white by the wind. Distorted conversation fills the open-plan studio space of Henry’s apartment. As does the smell of pickled herring salad, the click of a spoon on the interior of a glass, the howl of tragic modernity.
History happened here, but the question ‘Are we a part of it?’ haunted us always.
Angelos the poet had a grey-brown beard, and eyes that, in certain lights, like dusk, glowed lavender. Henry had just translated a booklet of his poems.
‘I’ve been reading Parmenides and all the craziest avant-garde journals,’ Angelos said through the noise of the party.
‘Yeah, and what are they like?’ Henry replied, stopping with a bowl of glazed olives in his hand.
The world is a vampire the record player said.
‘I don’t really know. Pretty good, I think. I can’t really tell.’
In the twilit sky the moon showed blue and white, as if made purely of ice and sea.
The twilight was, like, Chrysler Blue, if you know what I mean?
Hexadecimal colour code #25285a, Chrysler Blue is a dark shade, the colour of lilacs from a dead land in the light of the violet hour, comprised of 14.51% red, the shade you get in the shadow under a red rock, 15.69% copper-flame green, and 35.29% blue. It has an approximate wavelength of 465.88nm. You get the picture.
‘The pieces in the journals say stuff like The Moon is Greek,’ Angelos said.
‘Sounds true to me,’ Henry said, spitting some dehisced unchewable olive-skin into his palm.
The Chrysler-Blue twilight was fringed with fog down by the tree-line. Will-o’-the-wisps swam through the umbra, coffeehouses, gardens, low taverns, and beyond. Giddy moths gave chase. The occasional black crack of noise ruptured the biology of the night.
One of my scars throbbed; nothing had been achieved. I pressed the memory down into the core of my body, letting it mingle with the spores and acids and vegetable mulch, and dissolve.
‘Space is as odd as antiquity,’ Angelos said.
‘You read that in journals too?’ Henry said.
‘Kind of, but I made it up as well.’
‘Cool. Put it in a poem, it’s pre-translated for me that way.’ He pirouetted off, priapic champagne flute in hand.
When I put a spike into my vein and I’ll tell you things aren’t quite the same the record player said.
Smoke from Angelos’s cigarette transcended up and away in circles, rings, ellipses. He had a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome. I guess that was why he was a poet and wrote about death and stuff.
‘O, oh,’ I said, apropos of nothing, staring at the splitting and elongating smoke rings.
‘Yo, Zarathustra,’ Henry called to Angelos, ‘need a drink?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes. Yes I do.’
A guy from the Deutsches Anthropologisches Institut came out of the toilet, sniffling. He seemed to be experiencing the most gorgeous excitement.
‘Über Coca,’ I heard him whisper to a friend, slipping a hand into his.
I went outside and listened to Helena’s voice message on my phone again, for maybe the zillionth time. The screen wobbled when I hit play,
‘... Darling, you can call me any time ... what I’m trying to say is, let’s meet up ... I am permanently in London.’
Her accent was very posh now she was back in England.
Another message came through. With all the youth, energy, and grace of someone utterly at home in technology, I flipped the liquid-crystal notification into the invisible infinity above the screen.
The colour of the sky was now beyond something like damson in hue. Dawn has not yet broken.
I was then engaged in a lot of enthusiastic conversations while running to and from Henry’s big fridge-freezer with various bottles of tepid, cool, and ice-cold liquor, getting myself and other people pretty drunk to a nervous, syncopated meter that went well with the noise of cars going past on the arterial road.
Angelos thumbed a book which had a light foxing to the pages.
It was now midnight. I was sent to my flat to collect wine. I used the Parthenon as a guide home, a magnetic navigational tool atop a forest of iron and rock. This wasn’t necessary, I knew the way back, I just liked it, the Parthenon was always there for you, always had been, erect, lit up and everything. But outside, grovelling below the superlatives and precedents it set up, there was just street sadness and sweat and the cocktails dying inside you before you get home, fascist and Marxist-Leninist and Antifa graffiti the whole way. Petroglyphs. One set looked like this:
Refugees get out!
Refugees get out!
Refugees get out!
Each line was struck out with a thick line of spray paint, apart from the last, so ‘Refugees welcome’ won out in the end. There was a brownish stain on the whitewashed wall beside it, which might mean that the previously polite war was over and Mr. Refugees Get Out got his head split open with a metal baseball bat and crumpled there with his spray-can clutched in his limp hand, like a sleeping child holds a soft doll, the Golden Dawn insignia tattooed on his shoulder draining blood, dying, looking blacker than ever.
I passed the local tavern with its gaudy green lights and every conceivable moment in my history on that ten minute walk. I thought of a poem of Angelos’s (translated by Henry),
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Outis
I ain’t what I ain’t.
I am not what I am.
And it ain’t an epic,
His poem was the opposite but somehow the same as an inscription I had once studied, dating from 550 BC, which came into my mind:
Desire for erasure and immortality beat from the hearts of both texts.
Henry and Angelos were loafing in the street outside my flat, smoking.
‘Katy says you need to get ice, she sent us to remind you.’
‘And we’re also a bit sick of the party now, needed an excuse to take a minute,’ Angelos said.
‘I’m done with guests, I want a break,’ Henry said.
We went down the street to the square with the orange trees, to pick up a sack of ice and get kebabs at a late-night spot: red, roasted cubes crafted from meatanimals, with wine to fortify the blood.
In the square with the orange trees, Angelos rolled a joint and began leaking fragrant smoke: lavender and mangoes if they were grown in an old sock. We opened and handed round a bottle of ludicrously expensive wine a visitor had left at my apartment as they had only booked hand luggage on their flight, and was being saved for a special moment like their return or being drunk enough not to care.
Then we went back to the party.
The German anthropologist was really animated, haptic. His eyes were ghoulish. Instead of engaging with anyone, even him or Angelos, messengers from other worlds, I reached for a choral mask and slipped it on and into the dancing crowd in the middle of the room, fading into collectivity and incantation. A couple pressed themselves together as if desiring to form a single thing.
I went out and smoked, listening to Helena’s voice message. I felt the familiar tummy lurch, then the equanimity. I hit play again, reproducing the feeling not in memory, but in action.
‘... Darling, you can call me any time ... what I’m trying to say is, let’s meet up ... I am permanently in London.’
The German anthropologist came out of the toilet [he was like a tape on loop]: a prolegomena to his developing a more acute antic state. The movement of his arms and eyes was unreal. What was lodged in his blood had metamorphosed through network after network—sun soil air leaf gunk nitrogen petrol paste acid powder—from a resurgent FARC camp in the rainforest to Medellín, travelling north, split into the hands of innumerable narcotraficantes with their tacky little Pindars, narcocorridos, singing the praises of beheadings and supercars, then, like a hyper-successful parasite or crass analogy of globalism, packed into crates and consumer goods, onwards to the Italian ports of the ’Ndrangheta, self-appointed Iliadic mafioso (some bastardisation of ἀνδραγαθία + ἀγαθός) who hadn’t got the academic memo about not idolising Homer’s heroes, and out into the world, into blood. The ’Ndrangheta who also fondle the heroin of the Taliban, the Taliban who made it possible that I have seen people bright blue with overdose and phials of naloxone crushed into a carpet and placed my hands upon a chest containing lungs being drained of an alien fluid which would have been unto death if left for like thirty minutes more—a slang term for heroin is tragic magic, how fitting—and that there are photos of very young and very armed American Marines standing or crouching kind of dumbstruck in beautiful, verdant purple poppy fields. Henry has one of these shots pinned to the wall above his desk, cut from the glossy pages of a Sunday newspaper’s magazine.
The telemagnetic power of distribution, navigation, and capital. It spreads in waves / circles / stripes; blooms like bacteria across a petri dish.
And what was the German anthropologist thinking of at this moment?
‘We have chased the sacred symbols into the desert and replaced them with electronic eyes.’
‘Double sex sad as the drenched lands.’
‘The moonlit flowers are shining metal and their pollenization is mineral.’
‘Cricket earphones fail us not here in the season of receptions.’
Gaining gratification through the mode of having another line of flakey, pearlescent cocaine.
Angelos glanced at a woman who seemed to him possessed of every estimable facet of perfection.
‘Do you think she will come towards me?’
‘I think yes.’
‘No, she is in fact going further away.’
‘She may come back.’
‘I do not think she will return.’
A plane howled through the night. You never enter the same flight-path twice.
Through the winter, Henry had followed Katy and her (precarious, but brilliant) academic progression, moving from Athens to Paris and back again, flitting between cities.
For fragments of moments in Paris, Henry told me, when he was drinking coffee and translating poetry snug inside against winter and the tempest-tossed clouds and he dunked the golden crescent moon of his croissant into his cup of coffee and it came out saturated just the right amount, he felt, for a Zeno-split second, fully assimilated into the city. Integration was no problem for him in Athens. But he sought out spanakopita and Earl Grey tea in Paris.
In Paris, Katy taught a term on Julia Kristeva. She read and reread Samurai and Black Sun and Powers of Horror. Students turned up extra early for her seminars: they became something of an event. Katy and Henry were, by all accounts, rather happy during their time in Paris, despite their verbalised concern—stuttered through the buffering crackle of FaceTime—that teaching a seminar on melancholia, abjection, and revolt might summon melancholia, abjection, and revolt. It was, in the end, allegedly, a sublime working environment. The long avant-garde paper Katy published on her teaching and research was widely praised. She returned to Athens, bringing Paris with her, leaving a little Athens in Paris, becoming again a cell of the Sorbonne installed in southern Attica.
A Greek sculptor we knew moved to India and was Athens in Kolkata. He made huge abstract iron kouroi and korai in randomised pairs. Then he moved to just outside Mumbai, tracing lines in the sky from east to west, to become part of a collective that populated the landscape with sculpture at the interstices of the Greek and the Indian. Henry kept a photo of the sculptor stood in a tropical landscape, smiling, surrounded by statuettes. There was another of him and Henry on a caïque in evening on champagne-coloured sea. A small American battleship is moored behind them, near the gates of the Hellespont. The photographer has captured in her frame two globetrotting artists and the entropy of empire.
The party was ending. We went out onto the balcony to watch the sun rise.
Our view showed the abstract civic space imposed upon the landscape by humanity: suburbs and squat tower blocks and gardens reloaded with colour. At the foot of the hill beside Henry’s apartment block cypress and pine trees grew: black brown green gold and yellow. I could hear fierce insects buzz. And the Aegean was out there somewhere. Above: an overflow of light, sky, and blue-breaking cloud. Towards the horizon thin white cirrus clouds formed spiders’ webs across the sky.
Plants began to change form, unfurl, were scorched into life. A synthetic orchid became real under the sorcery of the sun. Fraudulent flowers shone and the world shone with them. Partygoers stretched their tired limbs. I had the taste of rust and brine in my mouth, as if I had been on a long voyage. The age-old drama of the hangover.
Inside, a few sleepless, drunk, drugged people were at the table, gathering makeshift breakfasts from the superfoods wilting in the hot shade: limp broccoli, squishy blueberries, oxidised avocado. An organic chicken carcass was an ossuary for lemon and thyme. The dregs of the fish stew began its long rot into anti-food.
Everything was changing and the sun sped it up.
You could almost sense, see, the germplasm double, duplicate, and spread in the fresh morning heat. Tribes of bacteria invade the bowl of fish and saffrony sediment, the monstrously hot cavern of the chicken. Guts therefore welcomed new shoals of microbiomes.
Sticking to the shadow, aircon, sublimating their desires into the comfort of eating, they were denying the sun, desire, πόθος, the end of the evening, the end of the night, the end of time.
Back outside: Katy is a solar energy sculpture, totally enveloped in light, the obverse of a dark continent.
‘Only eagles are allowed to look into the sun unpunished,’ a bearded man called Nicholas-Abraham said, ‘and, of course, people in tombs.’
‘The inferno holds no terrors for me,’ Angelos replied, ‘it is a nice heat.’
‘That’s madly poetic, Angelos,’ Henry said. His eyes surveyed the sky. Henry loved birds. Ravens cawed to him, a magpie laughed with cunning. There was the hoot of an owlet from the dark wood. High above, temple-haunting sparrows and starlings flew silently on the wing. Flocks crossed the sky in holding patterns until winter migration. Henry’s eyes carved trajectories into this space, following the morphing and darting shapes. He is intent. But he is also listening out for something that is not quite there.
In memory, a pair of kingfishers fly above black and shiny water in the direction of the sun, where the water turns silver. A river curls around the foot of a bluff. Apple blossom floats in its pools and rapids. But when I close my eyes everything turns to neon.
‘Do you remember,’ Henry said, turning to me, or with his eyes on a raptor making circles high above the Attic plain, ‘how Georgie, echoing Nabokov, said that Hemingway wrote books for boys? That always hit where it hurt: right in the boyish bit of me. I hid my Hemingways whenever she came round for dinner, spines to the wall.’
When we were tired or hungover, which was often, Henry and I spoke in platitudes, prejudices, and insubstantial indiscretions. We knew our lazy roles.
I opened my eyes and the world was blindingly green.
‘Yeah, I do,’ I said, ‘...I still treasure The Sun Also Rises. But it carries with it that guilty feeling of being so damn sorry for all his forlorn, castrated characters.’
‘She’s right though, I guess. It can’t be good for you, too much Hemingway-empathy: all that maudlin butch.’
‘He writes like dirt is driven up under his nails.’
‘I bet they were exceptionally manicured.’
‘He does the sun justice, at least. In his books I mean.’
The alcohol had fully died in me now, God I was tired.
‘Artemis, remember her,’ Henry said, turning to me, sharply, ‘she still comes into my thoughts. Bittersweet, but insistent,’ then whispered, a fraught look in his eyes, as if something poisonous had been stirred into them: I am possessed by past lovers it is as if their minerals have got into me. His talk had got to him. The sunrise had got to him. Books had got to him. He was underslept.
Then Katy moved towards Dora, squinting in the slab of sunlight covering the balcony, and said: ‘tell me again about when you lived in Cairo, and of when you went to visit Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamyli, what did you think of him?’
‘Well, Katy,’ Dora said, ‘there are certain people with a magnetism, impossible to ignore. Not those who lurk at the edge of letters or books, who leave just a touch, a light imprint, on the grass; that huge crowd. Fermor never held the camera, he was at the centre of the picture. I was the photographer while I was in Kardamyli. But when I was back stomping around dusty Athens, I wondered if he might have been a charlatan. One will never know, I suppose, don’t you think, Katy?’
‘I remember you saying that you felt his stories were retold. You saw and heard snatches of them in books and in friends’ tales, even years later, which made the tales less special, divested of their uniqueness, which had felt so pure and true and quixotic and hypnotic when he was speaking to you.’
‘Quite. Well, seeing as you asked: I lived in Cairo with my mother for several years when I was a teenager. My father, though a man of means, was a serial bachelor and a hypochondriac. He lived alone, in Dorset, a connoisseur of the common cold. I had just seen Tutankhamen’s face in Cairo Museum for the first time, the pretty, solid gold of Wendjebauendjed’s death mask, and statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti that made them look the same, elided their gender, both with little pot bellies, rounded breasts, smooth jaws. (I took a lot of ketamine once and had sex and I hallucinated the guy’s face as Nefertiti’s, like a perfect reproduction of that famous and famously desired bust—Egyptomania—just as I came.) My mother and I walked a few blocks down the Nile from the museum and then there was a car crash. We arrived just after the event, but heard it, a huge noise, movie-style. Imagine this: a camel had been caught, nipped by the metal of two colliding cars. It was lying there with its stomach open and its entrails spilled out over the sandy tarmac and onto the rug that had been laid over it before it died. The rug was gorgeously varicoloured and, thinking of it now, as I saw them this summer, it reminds me of the ones they weave in Thessaloniki. (How radically the present affects the past!) A woman had been hurt in the crash. My mother spoke to her, cradled her in her lap. She had a smear of blood on her forehead. I am not sure from where: a graze or a mortal wound. And I don’t know if the woman lived or died, the ambulance took her before either could happen. But I remember my mother holding her like a mourning god holds a dying mortal in a Renaissance painting and all the powerlessness of dying is shown bright and cloudy and messy. At that moment I thought my mother was like a god. I think this is a trauma. It is never too good to idolise your parents as a teenager, cover them in honeyglow. I am still living with this moment, and, if this is at all possible, it feels like necrosis inside of me: after my mother died, I found myself lingering at intersections, in the centre of roads, near heavy traffic, hoping to see angels. I was like a shark attack victim who returns to the sea, the vast inter-spilling canvas of their trauma, to get sucked back into the waves of the feeling, give themselves up to something bigger. (After mourning, we’re just so ready to go out and get hurt again.) Anyway, I’m tired, talking nonsense, it sounds like a dream, huh? and I think I have told you this story before, haven’t I, Katy?’
‘Many times, Dora.’
And then the twitching coked-up German anthropologist whispered ‘die Sonne’ while staring right into the sun.
‘Stop doing that you nutjob,’ Katy said, ‘or you’ll go blind.’
‘Pour faire une omelette il faut casser des oeufs,’ Henry muttered.
‘Die, sun,’ Angelos said.
‘Amen,’ Henry said or it might have been ‘Amon,’ or ‘Aten.’ I felt as tired as Dora.
‘My sun sign is Taurus,’ Angelos added, ‘whose ruler is Venus.’
‘The sun is a whore,’ the anthropologist said, having ignored everybody. He walked further out onto the balcony, nearer the railing, nearer the sun.
Katy went inside, returning with a bag from which she took out a canvas, paints, and fine sable and hog-hair brushes and began to write the sun down in oil and colour. I looked at the painting. It resembled something daubed onto walls of a cave or a crypt in a pyramid: a round disk with rays proceeding from it which end in our human hands.
Angelos held a cup of chamomile tea, the daisy heads bobbing in the steaming water, dried white petals clinging to a dull yellow core. Chamomile flowers are found depicted all over pharaonic tombs.
The German anthropologist was gone, absorbed by the light.
The livid sun burns all history. Fiery plasmic filaments arc up and off its superhot roiling surface like a flagellant’s whip across raw skin. Another self-immolating spaceman with a death drive.
We were of its cult.
Angelos looked happy. He was filling his lungs with ultraviolet rays. I felt drunk on photosynthesis.
The record player said nothing. We would not have heard it anyway, warbling in the background, we were so preoccupied and far away.
What was her name? Dora or something. She had been at the party, I was sure. I think she had slept the morning away wrapped in a thin carpet on the sofa, a Viennese dreamer [via Cairo, and many other places, of course]. Well, “Dora” was now kind of sick. She heaved up in a pink bin. Midday light hit the freshwater pearls strung around her neck. A golden grasshopper held up her messily restyled chignon. Some of the puke went on the floor. Liquid and white. No one minded: we were young. Dora laughed, stood up, then slipped, as if experiencing vertigo or a vaguely unfriendly relationship with the floor plus gravity, as if the inside of the earth consisted of carbonated water. I thought I could sense in her slight sway an appreciation of the unnerving experience of reading the world completely wrong. Anyway, preferring incoherence seems better than seeking a distorting order. Dora seemed to have it down just right.
And it began to rain. The sun was stolen away; the morning revealed to be a lie. I thought of England, as always in rain [and it does not lack charm when it rains]: rain touching the window begging to be let in and just soak everything soak you like it soaked Tacitus’ ink and Caesar and Constantine and Agricola and Boudicca and Gaius the bloodthirsty killer of druids magic and the irrational who tried to bring logic and reason to little untamed Mona greased with raindrops and now it soaked Dora who stood out there in downtown Athens in the downpour as the rain washed and scrubbed away time and distance and otherness with its poetic powers of erosion abrasion movement and lubricity and Dora was absolutely anyone in history out there wrapped in a rug having experienced the promise and betrayal of the political and the promise and betrayal of love many times as she said to me through the rain like poles of water puncturing the air ‘Odysseus talking to the shades in the underworld is a simulacrum of art: he has found the richest trash, is digging though the most bountiful midden imaginable: a zone of recovered and endless oral tradition.’
This piece is influenced by the exhibition ‘Takis: Sculptor of magnetism, light and sound,’ at the Tate Modern, London.
It is also a prelude to a special issue of Pericles at Play which will respond to the exhibition ‘Between Oedipus and the Sphinx: Freud and Egypt,’ at the Freud Museum, London, curated by Professor Miriam Leonard.
For quotations I gratefully acknowledge: Joshua Barley, William Burroughs, Anne Carson, Jacques Derrida, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Attic Inscriptions Online, Miriam Leonard, James Merrill, Harriet Rix, The Smashing Pumpkins, Takis, Phiroze Vasunia, and The Velvet Underground.
Indian ink and watercolour on paper