In a Greek Amphitheatre: George Seferis, poet
Noon here in hot summer in this quarter-sphere of stepped stone;
the smell of herbs rolling down from the mountainside,
the light so strong that it seems to have bleached away all thought;
time is taking a siesta.
come sit with me here in this almost deserted amphitheatre
which has stood for more than two thousand years,
only the bees are quietly moving,
searching the flowers which grow between these huge blocks of stone
which someone quarried, someone brought here,
someone acted out the world upon, some many sat
and were moved to fear and tears;
someone ate olives, spat the pits between the blocks of stone;
now an olive tree bears witness,
its bleached roots like an arthritic climber,
splitting the stone blocks with the insistence of history.
‘Memory, wherever you touch it,
merciful gods might have removed these stones
with two thousand years of rain, of wind, of searing sun,
so that the insistence of history might not be
so painful to a Greek.
The only other figure in this huge amphitheatre -
you see him down there? In the white hat
and dark suit of summer cloth? He’s a poet;
but is his mind too, sitting in the audience? Or is he
on the stage? Is he
living the play; the hero with a tragic flaw,
the chorus commenting, the tragedy unfolding?
In Greek, the same word means martyr
and means witness.
He was born a Greek in a Greek colony;
at 22, the Turks flung them out;
he sailed in wine-dark seas of wars and occupations;
and when the sailor sailed into the port to take his place in his immortal court,
found Greece, not celebrating peace, but Greek fighting Greek;
the cruellest of wars.
It was not Odysseus but Greece itself
that wandering, had not yet come home;
the harbours boatless; silent the shepherd's flute;
the olive groves untended; hives deserted;
grapes that never tasted wine; figs that burst uneaten;
Olympia's grass, all silent and untrodden;
temples empty, marble columns
their cool beauty empty-armed without their worshippers.
Here at noon, the summer heat pressing and intense,
the air still, a bee passing across our laps
as we sit here on the higher tier;
a dark-suited poet, witness, martyr,
like an olive tree between hard stone,
suffers the playing out, the painful beauty
like a dark thought at noon,
the insistence of history.
you touch it, hurts.’