A resident of Greece for over 30 years, Don Schofield’s poetry volumes include Of Dust, a chapbook from March Street Press (1991); Approximately Paradise, a book length collection (University Press of Florida, 2002); and the anthology Kindled Terraces: American Poets in Greece (Truman State University Press, 2004).
The recipient of the 2006 Allen Ginsberg Award, he has also received honors from, among others, the St. Petersburg Review, the State University of New York, Anhinga Press, Southern California Anthology and Princeton University, where, in 2002 he was a Stanley J. Seeger Writer-in-Residence.
He currently lives in Thessaloniki, where he is the Dean of Perrotis College, a branch of the American Farm School.
When the priest begins, they step aside.
One eyes the clutter of grey high rises
up Hymmetos, and higher, where the mountain’s
craggy peak snags a cloud of smoke and fumes,
keeps it hovering right here. The second
watches a stooped woman a few rows down
pouring soapy water over a marble
headstone, scrubbing the letters and numbers,
wiping the portrait of a young girl clean.
The third looks over at the job in progress:
a husband kissing his wife’s doughy cheek
one last time, calling out her name though she
is past response, then unties the ribbon
at her wrists, throws in a fistful of dirt—
thick clumps on her lace bosom, several grains
in the groove of her lips—closes the lid.
Two step up now, slip a frayed rope
under each end, straddle the open pit
and lower the coffin headfirst. As the third
takes up his shovel the mourners turn away.
They won’t see the workers flinging dirt,
won’t hear dirt clods hitting wood. When they reach
the cafeneio—by the flower shop,
where the cabbies wait—where the husband
must be served by the cemetery waiter
dressed as any other in black pants, white shirt,
the sound of earth hitting earth will be soft,
almost gentle, like the waiter’s voice
as he talks to the silent husband
of coming elections, the rising price
of real estate, what to do about that damn
cloud that won’t leave this part of the city.
Hotel Four Seasons
Arabesques in Rustempasa Mosque,
Atik Valide, Iskele, Semsi Pasa,
and here where we have come to sip a drink,
enjoy the view of Sultanahmet Square,
the Sea of Marmara, the seagulls trace
arabesques above our heads, but now
they’re diving close to our veranda table—
twenty gulls along the hotel roof,
thirty more screeching just above us.
We see the white and grey of underwings,
their eyes like specks of oil against their snow-
white skulls, feel air their wings all push against.
Is this the way we fled from Paradise,
gulls wheeling overhead, squealing fiercely,
and all the seasons happening at once?
Our waiter looks up nervously, explains
“They’re here because a baby gull fell into
the garden yesterday, can’t fly away.
I tried to catch it with a towel all morning.
Now it’s cowering behind the floodlights.”
No cowering in Paradise. Our fears
were just an easy tingling. Death a wheel,
a steady turning back toward life. Each prey
would freely give itself, like leaves in autumn
flaring golden. God revealed Himself
as reeling arabesques. No image there,
just endless intricate motifs.
we’ve kept of pleasure, the softness of a lowered
breast, Iznik tiles, a countryside, in essence
arabesques And pain: “It won’t escape
the cats,” the waiter leans and whispers, breath
warm against my ear,
Olymbos, Turkey—1994, 2005
There were tree-houses then, some bungalows
beneath the spread of oaks. The one taverna
had Ottoman divans and hukka smoke.
Barefoot, we walked an ancient road that led
past toppled columns wrapped in vines, Lycian
temples and tombs, wild figs and oleanders
along a stream that ended at the sea,
a lone skiff bobbing in the waves at dusk.
Now bars and eateries and tourist shops
line the wide, paved road, music blaring
from each one. Bungalows of new, unfinished
lumber are everywhere. (In ours we sweat
and press against the walls to pass each other.)
The path we walked is now a park, with ropes,
an entrance fee. The ancient road is lost
beneath the mud, a thousand tourist feet.
The beach is rows of bodies, tanned and oiled,
far as we can see. The boats are hired yachts.
So why return to Olymbos, or any
place I’ve loved, when just a word, a scent
brings back those tombs at sunset, smooth marble
underfoot, figs and languorous, curling waves?
Because return must be, those waves reply,
as now we climb the winding road away,
must always be, and be again, and then
From Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002)
Teaching High School in Greece
I wear slacks everyday, teach Gatsby
to a class of Yiannakis and Marias, write Emily’s
slant truth on the board, check their spelling books
as they carve their desks
with words I can’t understand. I tell them
Huck sails the Aegean
on a raft knotted by the
Hero himself. The black stacks of Corinth
remind him of home. Hester loves
the Parthenon, its broken columns with letters
she can touch. Emily circles the Tower of the Winds,
clicking snapshots. Walt hears wind in an Aleppo pine,
thinks North America bigger, greener–endless
next to this thin sighing. Yet he likes it here:
the sunglasses he bought, the postcard
of Diana striding legless.
Truth is, I walk and walk,
not knowing even the alphabet.
Alone at tavernas, I drink retsina late into the night,
but my eyes are wide: This is Greece, I’m here
in the fire of an idea, on a wave of fear and doubt. Figs
brush my cheek when I enter the hotel
where I’ve learned to keep my dream intact
though the bed in the room above thumps all night
and all morning buses wheeze, trucks
blast past my stop with icons of the Virgin
wired to their grills, motorcycles
race past me on the sidewalk, collect at the light.
From the heart of the traffic I always hear
someone calling: Helen, Helen.
Sometimes, when I lean to make a correction,
a young face with ancient eyes
stares back. I’m sure
the dead snake they put in my desk
fell from the Gorgon’s head, that I saw
last Sunday, walking through the National Museum,
Emily and Walt holding hands,
leaning close to Persephone,
her smile simple and clear.
The Physics of Parting
A moment ago I heard the fine
spatter of rain in the field behind me,
water rising, ready to sweep me away. Aristotle
taught wet and dry are absolute
opposites, each on its way
to its natural place. So why
do I see a row of poplars along a wall
when I turn, wind prying dry leaves
up and down the golden trunks,
and still the hiss of rain in my ears? I think of the spider
weaving that last night it was our bedroom,
rising and falling in moonlight,
not like us but Socrates,
who kept standing and sitting those last nights
in his cell, curious about his presence there–
due only to bones and joints
and flexible muscles? the words he uttered
explained just by laws of sound and hearing? I ask
what law for parting lovers,
one wet, one dry? Our wholeness
was never a burden–then it suddenly hardened
in opposite directions. The web snapped in my face
when I finally rose and left, descending
into chaos, but for the mind,
pure and alone, weaving depths
to heights, mind so pure it makes
wings of thick gossamer and lost
love: rise, now rise.
Dead Shepherd’s Hut
Sure, I can fix the broken door, clear the brush
out front, find a rope and bucket for the well,
a mattress for the iron bed in this hut
I’ve rented for next to nothing, but what about
his coat and crook still hanging by the mirror,
the photo of bare-breasted women
in white shorts and red boxing gloves
squared-off and whaling at each other?
I’ve come here, a tangle of desires,
more like the brambles I open the shutters to, the random
twisted olive trees up this valley kilometers from the road,
come to lose myself in the deep lull
of summer, to be less than smoke
curling from a lamp, nothing and nowhere. I like to think
he woke early, herded the huddled goats
up the ridge, that he knew each one by its bell,
that he’s still sitting where pine cones
crack in late morning heat, the place
he slipped through to death. He’s buried
on the opposite slope, in the one bare patch
among briars and burned grass–beyond desire,
I whisper to myself. But when I stand at his rusty basin,
see these women he gazed at every morning,
the smell of leather and sweat implied
by their gleaming shoulders and gloves, the ripple across one breast
where a punch just landed, the spectators cheering
from the darkness surrounding the ring, even the referee
smiling and pointing–I wonder
what he thinks of pleasure now
that he’s gone to the source. Dead shepherd,
are you still hovering near your body, or here with me,
gazing at this primal destruction, resenting
even your own birth, that wound that bore you?
Or have you come back with some different knowledge–
taking down your coat and crook
then winking at me with the eyes of a goat, behind their bright slits,
some truth I just can’t see.
When a man hath taken a new wife
he shall not go out to war…
but shall remain at home for one year….
All day the guns pound from the mountains.
When a shell hits the arbor shakes.
The sandbags fall unless we prop them up.
Here in Besaam’s garden
my new father-in-law talks
of mists in the Bekaa Valley,
deep grass hiding the ruins.
Dust hangs in the failing light. Before eight
we go home past the searchlights.
And his words go with us through the rubble–
to be a weed in Baalbek, a stone piled
in that Roman library with field and sheep.
The Romans left that valley bitter, defeated,
to shepherds who now sit and smoke and follow
the trails of jets across the dusk sky.
Home is harsh lights, locked doors,
torn shutters, one room looking out
on an alley of burnt cars. My bride and I
leave our clothes behind the door and go into
that empty room. When the spotlights pass,
our bodies shine like toppled statues.
Callicles Puts a Head on the Argument
…I should not like the argument
wandering about without a head; please then
[Callicles] go on a little longer,
and put a head on.
I say pleasure is its own reward.
Nothing to do with order or balance
as the Old Man would have it. It is daring to rise
to whatever might be gathering. Even anger.
That slap from a mistress may bring on
Father, dank with wine and hugs so fierce
they mesmerized. And such music in his voice
as he answered my questions, not like me
bewildered by the bodies of women in the agora
pouring out their leeks and winter oranges.
The robber in the alley demanding money–
there’s pleasure as he grabs it, and pleasure for the victim
in the stories he’ll tell. In the howling of jackals,
the rueful laughter of hyenas,
all we mime in ecstasy.
Such pleasure advancing,
all the prophets cry out
for fiery inundations,
as if anything
could keep us from the sublime.
Give me shadows. Curtains. All morning
in the bath, masturbating to the scent of the woman
last night. Was there temperance in her moans, balance
in the reeds that dangled above us? First I kissed
that perfect crescent, that birthmark on her neck, then sliced it
free. They found her and blame me,
the rabble pounding at my shutters demanding justice.
There’s no order to the Cosmos, Socrates,
only the confusion of arms and bellies
rising in the steam around me. I’ll dry off
and go out to the mob,
thinking of the pleasure of the pyre that awaits me.
Socrates, I’ve pressed it in a scroll. I leave it here
for you: That little crescent. That moon
Man is a creature who lives in a city.
My brother tells me, flipping channels,
in Tokyo they don’t trash
vending machines, or splash them with graffiti.
Machines have spirits, ancestors
selling baseball cards, condoms
and sandwiches. I tell him in Athens
wherever they dig for construction they find
antiquities: A splintered cornice. Shards
of a floor. A boy’s head, the papers said,
with bronze curls. By law, work must stop
till experts come, sift the jumbled layers
of stone and dirt–so a subway
can’t be built, nor skyscrapers,
nor underground parking. No time,
the builder usually
keeps digging. Huge metal claws
recently tore through fossils of pines,
a grove to Hyacinth Apollo,
archaeologists say, the name for the flower
there long before the god or the Greeks,
growing wild out of the mouths
of the original settlers–reminding my brother
that Mother called, says she’s moving
her mobile home again, up north,
some town called Paradise.
Homage to the Wheels
Just as if one night
you happen to enter
the city that reared you…
Laying down his journal, I think of his life.
Exile and birth, he spoke of them as one. He escaped
with his parents to this city, where I too fled
years later, from the opposite direction. In his time
whole empires collapsed, cities razed, his people
driven into the holds of ships, all they managed to save
grabbed from their hands. My upheavels are nothing
next to his, yet I feel that emptiness he describes,
that yearning for a past I had to escape. He saw,
when allowed to return as a diplomat, his living room collapsed,
front door now a garden gate, fountain crumbling, graffitied,
thistles growing in the basin. I saw stacks of books on the porch,
yellowed newspapers, an old woman being wheeled by her daughter
down the steps, pomegranate gone, pine and eucalyptus.
I too want to know the mechanism of disaster.
He went on to become Ambassador to England, won a Nobel. Was it worth it?
When he died the crowds rioted as they carried his coffin through this city
never his, his body their symbol of outrage at the Colonels.
Exile and birth. In the town where he was born, on bank
and office walls, he saw portraits of the father
of that new country. Downriver from where she was born,
my mother is dying matter-of-factly. I wonder at my world
where power changes hands with a smoothness he’d envy,
yet I’m battered like him, broken by oppositions
personal, invisible, in the stretch of body on body, its ramifications.
The dust of events covers what we’ve lost. Wheels pass over.
Something new will be ground, I should say, but I won’t. This is praise
without hope of renewal, pause in awe of the paths
we take. I fled my country and wound up not far
from the crossroads where Oedipus killed his father.
Those roads, like the roads of my childhood, are lined
with eucalypti, olives, cypresses. Here and there
a patch of fur ground into the asphalt.
The wheels grind.
It just happens.
from My Neighbor’s Brush
Seven brushes. Seven buckets. Six locals
mixing well water with quicklime,
laughing as they estimate
the monthly pay they’d get for this
if paid at all. A glass of wine
for the seventh, bearded foreigner
they set to work on the outside wall of the porch.
I dip my brush, swirl it around, swing it
up to the top of the wall, wind driving
beads of whitewash into my mouth and hair,
cries of a lamb from the village below
into my ear. I stroke each spot
several times and several times
stir the grains of earth, loose stems, winged
creatures drowned in white–What’s it like
to drown in white, arms and legs
glommed immobile, lungs filled
with so much purity? Where the stucco ends,
bricks in rows, globs of mortar.
I paint these too, till my bucket is empty,
then climb to the porch, face and beard
splotched white, a prophet come in from the wilderness,
ready to fling this brush, this almost
perfect image of the soul, down at my neighbors’ feet,
speak my message from the divine.
Yet I have no vision of the world to come
or its end. I could say my body fails while the spirit remains
elusive as air, that the gap between
one life and another never fills
except with loss, but I’m not sure. And even if I rattled off
each precise step to salvation,
they couldn’t understand my language,
maybe a word or two.
For other contributions by Don Schofield, please follow the link below:
Poetry in this post: © Don Schofield
Published with the permission of Don Schofield