‘The kindled terraces are bare’

Light into the olive entered / and was oil…» begins the first stanza of the first poem («After Greece» by James Merrill) in «Kindled Terraces: American Poets in Greece,» an anthology, published by Truman State University Press, comprising the work of 40 American poets, all influenced in some way by having visited or lived in Greece. The book’s 230 pages contain over 130 poems in a wide variety of styles – free verse, couplet, four-line stanza, rhyme and experimental – far too much to do justice to here. There are many that express or describe things we consider quintessentially Greek: «The temple over there is doing rather well, I think / a small neat pile, all its very own / and as the stand of pine that frames it dwindles / it’s forced to maintain increasingly alone / whatever ambience one might attribute to that place – / each year’s postcards show a boost in unassisted dignity» («A Temple,» Philip Ramp). Others contrast the traditional with contemporary life: «A tinkle of goats on the cliffside. Here urban man / Makes his moon landing, cocooned in a high-tech bubble / Immune yet exposed, pursuing some alien plan / But still walking warily, bent on avoiding trouble» («Ikaria,» Peter Green). Still others allow us to vicariously observe a moving sight: «The few oil-grey dolphins that teased the bow / submerge with deft fluke strokes. / Slapping each wet hurdle, spray spatters me. / I lick the salt from my knuckles («Crossing the Strait,» Nicholas Samaras). In his introduction, editor (and contributor) Don Schofield readily admits the difficulties he faced in choosing the works and authors: «I wanted to include poets from the 1950s to the present in order to show how rich and vital writing out of the Greek experience has become. Far more difficult was deciding whom to consider an ‘American’ poet. Any line I drew wound up excluding important figures. Ultimately, I decided not to include poets living in America who were born in Greece.» Many of those included have made their lives here or have spent much time in the country. Schofield and the publishers must also be commended for the care given to the layout. The table of contents is organized by poet and lists the title of each poem. In addition, at the back lie an index of first lines, a list of authors, a section of permissions and short biographies of each contributor (see box). And in the main text, each writer’s section begins with a photo of the poet and a short expository piece about how the country influenced their work. These are as interesting as the poems themselves; they refer to personal experiences, Greece’s long history, mythology, and the classics: «One of the most striking impressions certainly was the recognition of how widely known and deeply respected Greek poets are in their homeland, by cobblers and ships’ crews, by taxi drivers and clerks. Even a poet as complex as Ritsos is as integral to the culture as rock stars are in the United States» (William Pitt Root). «Here more than elsewhere you remember that all literature is, to the reader, contemporaneous» (A.E. Stallings). And because anyone who travels does so with his or her own cultural bias, this contrast is also reflected in the poems. «Seeing me regularly / in the hills with / my stick and dog / the locals must think: / Why doesn’t he just get / some goats and make / himself useful? («In the Weather,» Mark Sargent). «I wear slacks every day, teach Gatsby / to a class of Yiannakis and Marias… / 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» («Teaching High School in Greece,» Don Schofield). «A sideways flicker, half headshake of doubt – / meaning, confusedly, assent – fills out / the scant wardrobe of gesture I still use. / It clings by habit now» («More Enterprise,» James Merrill). «Even the days of the week have fled for the islands. / In the broken shadow of ruins, tourists huddle. / The citizens have vanished, melted away / In August’s neutron bomb, its blinding silence» («Athens, August,» A.E. Stallings). Whether distant observation, whimsy or the evocation of something much more personal, this anthology is rich in experience, sweat and inspiration; all culled from having visited these shores, possibly deciding to stay, but in any case, changed by the encounter. Schofield writes, «Living in the mesmerizing light of the Aegean, among people whose lives seemed attuned to the natural rhythms of the seasons and the rituals connected to them, these sojourners saw writing not as a career choice, but as a sacred act as timeless and essential as drawing water from a well.» «The lost skyline, the olive window-frames, / the beauty buried below the cinders / are swept again by salt and light – / the kindled terraces are bare, / the avenues narrow enough / to hold you near me / as I touch your hair / and breathe your ancient name in Akrotiri» («Akrotiri,» Michael Waters). «Kindled Terraces: American Poets in Greece,» edited by Don Schofield and published by Truman State University Press. Distributed in Europe by Gazelle-Drake Academic, UK.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.