Issue 129, Winter 1993
Eight Months Pregnant in July, High Noon, Segesta
Segesta ... seems to have been founded in 12c BC by the Elymni. . . . It was rapidly Hellenised, however, and was in continual warfare with Selinunte from 580 onwards, seeking the alliance of Athens in 426. After the destruction of Selinunte in 409 Segesta became a subjectally of Carthage, and was saved by Himilco (397) from the attacks of Dionysius of Syracuse. In 307, however, Agathocles sacked the city, killed 10,000 of its inhabitants. . . . It was finally destroyed in the 10C by the Saracens.
—The Blue Guide to Sicily
“... Tell me, Selig, please, what does this word Venus mean?” asked Hayim.
“. . . remember the strange looking man who appeared a week ago wearing an apron and a red cap, the one who sold licorice cookies and other such things for practically nothing?”
“He was a Greek and there is a whole group of people called Greeks.”
“And they all sell licorice cookies?”
“Don’t be silly, they have their own land: Greece. . .
They once were a very strong and learned people. . . . And even though they were very learned and knew how to paint, sculpt, carve, and appreciate fine things, they were nothing but idol worshippers serving false gods.”
—“Venus and Shulamith” by I. L. Peretz
It was foolish planning to arrive at noon
But, in retrospect, it doesn’t really matter.
There was a bar, after all, where we bought water
And my husband bought a sun hat for the daughter
We dared not bring, exposed, into that sun
And I thought I’d make it another joke-legend:
Eight months pregnant in July, high noon, Segesta,
The people at the bar agreeing, “She’s American,”
Which from them was less judgmental than amused.
It was hard climbing in the stifling heat
With my enormous belly up that hill
But, probably, the belly stood me well.
How do you approach a recluse temple?
I’d have Ion myself as obsolete
If not for my peculiar role as conduit,
Conducting the implausible, attended air
On a circuit of an inaccessible heart
As if the god they built the temple for
Might leave those tiny, rumbling chambers streaked
With razzmatazz extracted from the stars
Or some other godly gift, say, lunar poise
If its Artemis (they don’t know which it is);
Usually, I bargained for intact
In my absurd negotiations on this subject
But resting, lopsided, against a pillar,
I let its sprawled dimensions contradict
Whatever truce I’d made with hope and failure.
I’d never guessed that air could fuse with stone,
That in some miserly and parched terrain
Meagerness could bare the way for rapture.
Once, according to my book, a city flourished there,
So large it lost ten thousand in one massacre
But all I saw was emptiness and temple
And a tourist bus, apparently jammed with people,
Ascending the next hillside on its noonday trip
To the long-lived amphitheater at the top.
You certainly couldn’t say that time absolves
The atrocities that must have happened there;
Chronology was messy there as everywhere
And, surely, saw to more than that one massacre
As successions of invaders made their moves
But among the things that this Segesta proves
Is that, whatever else we are, we’re also dreamers
And sometimes it’s our dreaming that survives.
It might just turn out that we’re late bloomers
Who could learn something, after all, from history.
I, of course, was desperate to believe this,
Enormous as I was with one of us,
Beside the child in sun has on the stingy grass
Begging for something like the Io story
Which explained (at Agrigento’s Temple of Hera)
How the peacock’s feather gained its watchful eye.
I said, inaccurately, that somewhere near
A boy’s dissolving wings gave up the sky.
I lied and said he swam his way to shore.
The truth is I know little of these legends
As a child I had no patience for their nonsense—
People turning into bears and swans . . .
I preferred the reckless child dreamer
(Feared by sun, moon, sheaf of wheat and star)
Who cracked the ciphers of the steward’s vine,
The lethal basket headdress of the baker,
The seven unforgiving ears of corn.
I liked, in other words, to hear true stories—
A woman laughing at the child she carries,
A twin embezzling blessings from a twin,
Blood, frogs, locusts, wild beasts, murrain,
The fact that if the sea would part again
I’d be with those culled to wonder through—
I luxuriated in their lulling Hebrew
Unraveling in my ears as they were sung
With the murky splendor of a holy tongue.
The first I heard of ancient Greece was Hellenist
Which meant that someone like my grandmother
(Who waited every Shabbos for her Irish neighbor
To tune her in to WQXR
And Milton Cross’s weekly opera broadcast)
Would, in Hellenistic times, have been coerced
Herself to turn the opera broadcast on
And give up the women’s section’s weekly feast
Of gossip in a din of praying men.
I assumed that she’d have braced to die
Like the martyr Hannah and her seven sons.
In Hebrew School, they made as model partisans,
Avoiding obstacles like art and science,
Architecture, drama, epic poetry.
My father did try to push the Odyssey
But I objected to the plot as too ridiculous.
In the middle of a war, what lunatic city
Would welcome an enormous man-made horse?
I still have trouble with that section
(I suppose I’ve retained my childish prejudice)
And much prefer the episodes with obvious
If out-of-context likenesses to Exodus:
You simply turn the desert into ocean,
The golden calf to oxen of the sun,
And marvel how, despite their years of roaming,
The lost, inveterate nomads still don’t learn
The underrated art of coming home
Wherever. as the poet wonders, that may be.
In my case, it certainly isn’t Sicily,
Though Sicily is not unlike the luckless spot
Where my erratic people got their start—
Same sea, same sirocco, same near-desert,
Same oranges, same capers, same persimmons,
Same centuries of parallel invasions.
The Sicilians weathered theirs with more aplomb,
Acquiring, besides Greek temples, floors from Rome
With fish, reptiles, mammals, cupids, gods
And string-bikinied gymnasts in mosaic;
A hill or two berserk with high Baroque;
And Saracen palaces whose windows arc
Like spiraled dancers’ palms above their heads;
And then there are the rash, elaborate hybrids
(Part Byzantine, part Arab, part Romanesque)
Whipped up by Normans bored between crusades
To counter any stray, leftover mosque.
This, too, was one of our alternate histories:
How, first, they slew us infidels at home,
Then went to look for others in Jerusalem;
We were taught, that is, to side with Islam
In the erudite and forward-thinking days
When the Sultan’s court physician was Maimonides;
We never heard a word about the spice trade,
The sudden taste for silk, the open east,
And learned to regard the term crusade
For any kind of philanthropic enterprise
As a threat, Like B.C., in our adopted language.
Sicilians don’t appear to have such baggage;
Odd for people said to hold a grudge.
Do I envy them? Well, it would be pointless
And, in some ways, they’ve wound up just like us
In adjacent, noisy neighborhoods in Brooklyn
(Of course, the route they took was less circuitous),
The Bronx, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston,
Then outward to suburbs, for the driven ones,
Some even to houses whose exaggerated lawns
Set off immense facades of pillared porticos
Traceable, backwards, from their grandiose
Contractors through slavers’ mock Palladios
(By way of old-world gentry’s stately homes)
To the Renaissance obsession with ancient Rome’s
Facsimiles of places like Segesta .. .
They’re better off in Larchinont than Segesta
And yet—but I’ve been planning this and yet,
As if it might recover every page
Or work, at least, a retroactive camouflage
To take my more egregious errors hostage.
There ought to be more here than this and yet
It’s not as if I’d say I haven’t meant is.
That air did seem to me like other air;
It could have graced an unknown infant grated by it;
I had to disregard that ancient war
But the put will never teach me what it knows;
It won’t get by the hurdle of what’s beautiful.
From post-nazi recordings all I could tell
Was that their prima donna sounded like an angel.
I’d have listened if she hadn’t been the Nazis’.
Grateful, probably, for such a voice
If it belonged to less familiar horrors.
I’d love to learn from history, but whose?
How do I get past these angled mirrors?
Not to mention the bias of what remains
When it ought to be what’s lost to us that’s precious.
I’m remembering my mother’s uncle’s alles
As he held a family photograph from Czernowitz
(Forty people spanning generations
Squandered—each one—in a matter of instants)
And the German tourists in the shul at Prague
Examining my civilization’s remnants.
Old men told me Hitler left that synagogue
Precisely to that such a visit could happen.
One way or another, destroyers win.
I suppose that’s why we’ve honed their art to well.
I, at least, have photographs, a wall
But there are those with nothing left at all
Unless you count their breath’s transfigured air.
Not even mounds of shoes, eyeglasses, hair.
Surely some of them were given to dream?
Who knows what famished stars bowed down to them?
Mural from the Temple of Longing Thither
after Paul Klee
In KIee’s “Mural from the Temple of Longing”
Thick, dark arrows from each skyscraper window
Head “thither” in opposite directions, into
Skies to which at once the sun and moon
Entice like come-ons to a thronged bazaar.
The arrows whisper, this is what you are
And I, who’ve never liked this sort of thing,
Acknowledge what I’m seeing as my own.
Who can say which is its darkest wound?
That all this frenzied wanting never stops?
That mine are such indulged, such meager, sorrows?
Or that I’ve known such eloquence in arrows?
How these crude weapons, these traffic cops
Suspend so effortlessly my beyond.