Mennonite Poetry Home | Leonard Neufeldt



Archaeology in Knidos, 1991

Here archaeology begins
with missing planks on a dock too narrow
for two abreast or a misstep,
for anything more than counting loose boards
under our feet, single-file of purpose
away from the dinghy and the shore
into the past, mainly uphill
on the hard path, our feet
small among mouths
of rodent holes in the brown tobacco earth.
We answer to names with heaving breath —
our captain, my wife with red umbrella,
a young Elena of Hamburg
and, falling behind, you, her Viennese husband,
sourdough amateur archaeologist
with much to go on: new wife,
digs started by others, wine
at sunrise, scorn for your nation's hypocrisies.
Because you pressed the "du"
when my wife and I said "Sie" to the largesse
of eyes behind your raised glass,
you will always stay within sight in this poem.

A past everywhere is a past nowhere,
and so five temples have been found
underfoot, stones mortared by shadows in trenches
marked by signs, misspelled words weathered
like the thorn grass and the path we’re told
to follow. Only the Dorian league’s
temple to Apollo, somewhere on the far cape
beyond the land bridge, is still in hiding,
rocks and grit settling time as place
inside the promontory round and flat
as a skull before falling steeply to the sea.

"No one is sure," our sandalled captain explaining
in Turkish and German. His yacht is the Tamas,
in Amharic, like didymos on Kos
and the other Greek island we skirted this time,
favouring Euclid’s theorem of the hypotenuse,
subtended line stretching in and out
of sea troughs to make our way across
open water in a local storm.
Your Viennese boot scrapes earth
with the self-absorption of a straight razor
through two-day’s bristle. You know legends
in which Judas Thomas Didymus, the doubting one,
is the twin of Jesus. Our captain,
nominal Muslim, works his way higher;

his hands order us together
five metres south of the pedestal
Praxiteles' Aphrodite left for a day,
then stepped back up
to her accustomed place with a history
of a new order below — islands, sea lanes, people
old and young, a league of cities, coins
of many kinds, amphorae sweating olive oil
and wine, bronzed sailors sweating their night
with unpainted prostitutes, and gods
who get information first hand
in small parts, unhappy
with the whole, the future’s imperfections.

This dais of a world, more exact
than American archaeologists who found it
almost level, almost a perfect circle,
although shock waves moaning upward
from far beneath the sea brought down
sometimes a roof, sometimes a rush
of powdered air, sometimes a wall
of street-corner interests, or houses
of the dead, their marble-wrought lives
and wreathed after-life littered in weeds.

You agree with our captain, this dais
has lost everything: the Aphrodite in the Louvre
may have come from another place
and time. "When the young began to build the city
a third time, mainly of rubble hauled further back
from the bay, the old saw the goddess
free herself a second time and stride
down to the water’s edge, into the sea."
A drowned goddess, more beautiful
in vanishing, more patronized and pampered,
but less audacious than the dais
she deserted.

“A late shoveller,” you say; “excavator
of what’s left,” as you kneel down like a supplicant
forbidden to speak another word, one boot
forward, and then with a wince you pluck
a small coin out of the ground.
A thing of wonder like coins
out of earth or air. As a boy
I counted them, conjured in ones and twos
by my neighbour in blowzy saddleshoes
already unfashionable — from his blond hair
from the evening sky behind me,
always the English Queen’s kind face.
But this is Alexander's head,
cupped round in your hand, mostly black
on silver. “It's not Knidan,” you tell me,
but it dates from Praxiteles' time. Coins
of this kind are found elsewhere.
A coin, almost perfectly rounded by blood
on its outer edge, settled between life lines
marking off short and long. "The blue glass
we see everywhere underfoot
is Roman; the shards of white and gold
are Greek, or Roman imitations of the Greeks,”
the surf muttering far off in unison
with itself, less precise
than the drop of blood on your boot.


Riding sea horses as waves washed the deck,
smacked windows, curled
into the hatchway, drenching our bedding below
had roused night-long regrets
and desire for land. The storm died
abruptly as it had come, like Jesus quieting
the Galilean waters, you said, but the captain
pointed west to where Aeneas lost
his bearings and most of his men.
We helped the captain sweep broken dishes up
before he served a hot breakfast
and your glass of wine,
we looked out to land, and then
we launched a little madness
in a too-small dinghy and came ashore
in two shifts. Earth swayed
underfoot as we worked our way up
to the pedestal, the sun warming our backs,
your wife repeating twice that if there's
a next time she'll bring a small umbrella,
you well to the rear by now,
the breeze filling your sleeves
and greying hair.


Here, near the top, where Aphrodite confessed
even she had been mistaken but not deceived,
the wind has ceased. Our backs burn and we turn
away from the dais to face the sun.
Behind and to the left, stern Aegean blue,
before us our yacht in a sea of fire,
and the grey gain and loss of the bay's
long curve in the heat waves and mid-morning mist.

As crickets exchange a few thin notes
the coin has vanished. You’ve buried it, you say,
where you found it, perhaps a throbbing finger
deeper, another century down,
in a trench you cut with a shard’s edge
because the surface layers are hard.

Our captain scrabbles down the shortest way.
The harbour guard beckons the rest of us
with binoculars and white flap of shirt
to his door. He lived five years in Frankfurt
until they scrawled Türken raus
on subway cars. He tells us this and asks
that we turn our pockets out to prove
we’ve gotten nothing from this morning’s visit
except his story, too much sun and the deck hand’s
call from the dinghy for the women to come first.
But you’re the first to leave the post, index finger
bleeding through its wrap like ink
through paper. My wife closes her umbrella
and nods seaward to Elena; you and I
remain on the derelict dock,
inspecting missing parts and sea bottom beneath.
“Tiring climb; I feel older today,” your hands
in your pockets. The heat? Our age?
Millennia of obligations uncancelled
although the death of gods discharges them
of theirs? From the laze of ancient stone
and new door the guard watches us, his eyes
unmoving, as if the mind can stop
itself or us. Because
you look back to him and step
into the dinghy a foot from where
the rower marks the floor with three slaps of his hand,
the boat heels and washes our boots
with water it has taken on. We regain balance
by sitting down where we are.
The underworld of sea slides by,
and I know this moment began
in different languages a long time ago
and I’d need to start near the end, explain
how those of our people who stayed
in the Soviet Union aged faster
than those who fled, that those
sent to the Gulag
aged more quickly than the others,
that the women aged first. And whether
we escape or not, we wear only our own shame;
we refuse others’. But after you’ve waved
to the guard and the dock shrinks
to a thin pencil of grey
I say by the way that gods imprisoned
by worship here must have aged as quickly
as a god self-banished to the bottom of this sea,
and if we visit Knidos again the dock
may be gone.

You, fingering foot
and red sock inside your unlaced boot,
the dinghy heeling into the yacht’s shade,
the rower reaching over the water
for the ladder, and I see
what he can’t: between bloody-smirch
of your finger-wrap and second finger,
the silver and black of the coin
summoning out.

©Leonard Neufeldt. Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia (Signature Editions, 2015). 




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