by David W. Landrum


The sunrise is not grand and not pristine.
That is a disappointment. After years
of Dawn spread out her fingertips of rose
I am appalled at what instead appears:
a garish scarlet sun, the sky — unclean
with fumes from scooters, cars and buses — glows,
sending its angry light over the scene

around me — flat-roofed houses crowded on
the hills. The shadows stubbornly recede
as waves of red light wake a feral dog,
skinny and maimed, who ambles off to feed
on garbage or on handouts and the dawn
spreads whiter light now, burning off the fog
hanging in low spots, cool night-breezes gone.

And Athens comes to life: commuters throng
to jobs, cafes fill up, the buses roar,
the ferries load, and troupes of tourists don
sun-hats and backpacks, moving in groups for
the sights they’ve dreamed of seeing now so long,
and this day is that longing’s denouement.
It’s early and they smile. Their step is strong.

A group of us lounges under some trees
in a park, our backpacks thrown down at our feet
and plan the day. A throng of young Greek kids
with basketballs think it will be a treat
to sneer at tourists and so start to tease
us, smirking. But we’re like caryatids,
bearing the weight of impudence with ease,

unmoved, unbending, not embarrassed when
they shout, Where’s the Acropolis? We laugh,
throw up our hands and say, Hell, I don’t know!
Where is it? You got me! This is a gaffe
for us, the tourists. Our tormenters grin
uneasily. Our answer is a blow
that spoils their morning fun. Then we begin

a pick-up game with them. We dunk, we leap,
dribble behind our backs, put on a show,
and win their admiration. We shake hands
and head on to the subway. We will go
to the Agora — then the upward sweep
to the Acropolis, which still commands
this city from its high and rocky steep.



When artists depict ancient Greece, they paint
white temples, statues, white outcroppings, robes
of white and, far away, the Parthenon,
marble on marble where paleness explodes
up on the alabaster hill — no taint
of dark or shadow, all colour foregone,
pure as the unstained garment of some saint.

The white suggests a translucence of thought —
the radiance of the philosophy
that Athens fostered — Socrates and all
who came after him — white, the purity
of minds unclouded, unstained minds that sought
the truth — deep, soulful minds that heard the call
of wisdom and the music reason taught.

But had we walked up to that height in days
when Aristotle, Aristophanes
or Xeno strolled there, it would not be as
artists envisioned it. The summer breeze
would carry smells of burning fat, and sprays
of sacrificial blood spurt as the adze
cleaved skulls of cows. Blood-handed priests would raise

livers and kidneys high, and they would sing
praise to Athena, Wise Virgin. The reek
of entrails and the cries of dying beasts,
the glossolalia priestesses spewed, would speak
a different story, say a different thing
from what we have been told. We’d see the priests
smelling of smoke and death and offering,

and they would not be white. The acolytes,
young anorexic girls who had been given
as children to Athena, doomed to serve
the virgin daughter of Zeus up in heaven,
would run, wild-eyed, from place to place, their sights
not set on marriage, but set to preserve
denial, lodged here in these sacred heights;

and in those times the statues would not be
pale alabaster, but be painted — all
the images coated with garish hues,
as gaudy as the icons one finds on the wall
of some Baroque church or a deity
carved on a Hindu temple — and the Muse
possessed the poet and hovered fearfully.

The picture of a white, ethereal place
is false. The years have bleached the paint away,
millennia of rain washed off the rocks
and sent the topsoil out into the bay
of Piraeus. The sun has lent its grace
to whiten stones so that they look like flocks.
The stench of sacrifice has been erased.



And yet we stand at the Erechtheion
and marvel. Though it once was a snake-pit,
we see the Porch of Maidens and we feel
the eloquence, the simple grace that it
communicates — a grace that has passed on
from modern life-and here is the appeal
of this ruined complex from a world long gone—

the pull of places one student described
as "piles of rock." The sacrificial smoke,
the wild-eye chanting priestesses who were
deprived of sex and marriage, the bloodstroke
of sacrificing priests who would imbibe
red wine mingled with opium and myrrh
and speak in tongues; the industry that thrived

on fortune-telling, and on prophecy;
the animals who died in droves, the smell
of offerings burnt endlessly to soothe
the never-dying gods — these things may tell
a version different from the history
we know — but sculptures, stark and pure and smooth,
do hint at some hidden profundity.

A light broke through the practices that ruled
that world, and the beliefs that held the soul
of ancient man and woman. Though he walked
past fatuous altars, Aristotle
was perspicacious, and his heart had cooled
to what he saw around him. So he talked
about the mind, and his perspective fueled

the explorations that would lead to when
the yoke of false perception was thrown off,
and reason grew to be the one fixed star
society looks to. If I must scoff,
I'll scoff at what I felt today: chagrin
that Athens as I first saw it fell far
short of expectations I had indulged in.

The cars, the air pollution, the presence
of Dairy Queen and Starbucks should not dim
what happened here; back in the ancient days,
psychotic worship, the practice of  grim,
destructive rites, could choke off reason’s sense,
but nonetheless  light penetrated haze
that curled from altar-smoke and from  incense;

just so, Athens may look quotidian,
not magic in the its modern-day routine,
like any other city in I might see
in Europe — yet a vision, too, was seen,
right here that led the human race to shun
old superstitions. Inevitably,
it triumphed, and the old world was undone.

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