Sostis

A poem in honor of the hermit of Santorini, one Sostis. In the 1980s he was a professional tour guide on a group of islands formed by a massive ancient volcanic explosion that buried the civilization dwelling there and turned the one landmass into three. Sostis worked for a tourist agency famous for its signature bright red boats. He fell in love with a fellow tour guide, but she did not requite his love, and in due time she departed for her home in Italy. Devastated, Sostis went mad and withdrew to the volcanic islet known as Nea Kameni (“New Burn”), a place forbidden by law to human visitation that rose across from Palea Kameni (“Old Burn”), a much older volcanic island. Having developed his hermitage there with modest crops and livestock enterprise, Sostis trades eggs and cheese with the towns of the other islands through tour guides who know him and make landfall there, such as Klevisa of Caldera Yachting.

Part I
Atlantis

O how the bougainvillea blooms
Spilling over every walled garden
Splashing columns of sacred temples
Crowning heads of avenues

Spanning a world
Wild with capture of the wave
Where hearths are warm
and hearts are warmer

Plaza to plaza, house to house
Floor to sturdy floor
Colors ruddy and sublime
Storehouses of desire and design

A river runs through me
Flowing down the middle of the main
Roots drenched with promise
Bows benign with green burdens

Fresh water flows
To an open mouth where
Ships gather from lands
Beyond the seam where sea meets sight

Many are in port
Many come and go
But two are set apart
Two shine as new

Burning scarlet bows
Above the Aegean blue
Two jewels who know these waters
Like palms hand in hand

Side by side at work
We guide happy strangers
But I myself need no guide
For I have found her

I approach my desired haven
Colors fly
Anchor drops
I call

She looks
She considers
Hope stirs
Desire burns

Delight draws near
Very near
My heart alive now
Filling, spilling, flowing

I anticipate her breath
Fears erode; foundations shake
Exposing fissures primordial
That speak the ancient word

“It is not good to be alone; come away with me
Where apples drowse above the mandrakes
At the time when breezes move nothing more
Than leaves at the tops of the trees”

Earth, sky, water, fire
All is alive beneath my soil
A mountain swollen with strong, round hope
One “Yes” and the Garden is here!

Her heart would have it
But her mind forbids
Mouth frozen in mid-speech
Behind the glacial fears

The answer is “No”
Silence clear and cold
Her boat departs
I am left alone

Part II
Kataklysmos

My heart! My heart! Split in three parts!
Demiurge deeper than words
Resisting to volcanic strength
Her unrequited love

Reaching I find no one
I swell, I steam, I boil, I blow!
Down falls ashen promises
In absolute annihilating anguish

Cathedral of Charms collapses
Cosmos falls back into Chaos
Not a single blade or leaf remains
But all is numbness blanketed in pain

A cauldron brews where once
Whole cities of plans busied themselves
But all is now entombed mid-stream
My soul a vast and flooded crater

Two new isles fume up
Sulfurous savor draining
From their once molten sides like tears
Noxious torment now hardened

I name the isles
For they are mine
I own their stones
Blame and Shame

Up they climb from boiling sea
To join my fragmented realm
Where life is no longer living
But only pockmarked shards

The place I once called home
Is now loathsome to me
I cannot return
I must flee

Part III
Exodus

Nea Kameni
Palea Kameni
Both burn in me
Both beckon me

As my boat jams the tumbling shore
I do not know the name of which I choose
Whether this isle or that
Or whether names interchange

Or if it even matters
Since the ferrous waters between them
Lap the shores of both and commingle
Their bitter alchemy

Here I pitch my tent
Here I find a cave
Here I carve a deeper dwelling
Where Man or Nature began before I found it

Whether loving providence or cold chance
I do not know, but one thing I crave:
To hide in the dark
Until the light comes

Nea Kameni
Palea Kameni
Both are pain to me
Both affirm I am alive

Yet separated from the
Pain-free home that might have been
Both provoke a dialogue
(But with whom?)

Here I pose aloof from you
O treacherous World
Who wooed me with your false caresses
Velvet fingers hosting daggers for nails

Belying carnivorous intent
You spun arachnid pleasures round my heart
And devoured it while I slept
Disarmed by dreams of comfort and delight!

O foul mistress!
Even now beneath the waves of my memory
A new crater emerges
Twice as unforgiving as the first

A Columbian vow
Declaring “never again”
Promising a cataclysm
Worthy of a continent when it explodes

Until then I sit in judgment over you
O treacherous World
You whose blinking lights
Mimic the eternal stars

Your throbbing drums mock the heart
Your whitewashed homes belie the dark
Cresting on cliff edge
Yes, to the very brink!

I lie if I declare: “I envy not”
Your blue-domed charm still moves me
For friends are arm-in-arm there
While I am here alone

Still I reject your painted embrace
Only begrudging commerce will I give you
The necessity of trade common to men
Who search for daily bread

Eggs and cheese are bond enough
‘Tween stone age and silicon
‘Tween hermits who hunger
And kings who crave

Part IV
Oȋkos

What is this I descry?
A grassy root springs from unseen colony
Causing dew to drench the thankless crag
And breed life-giving vapors

‘Til seeds cast away by wind and surf
And left behind by birds’ ignominies
Awaken to the freshwater
“Welcome” whispered here

Strange that this alien offshoot from tectonic crust
Would host life before life required it
As if in forethought of Man’s arrival
Or of a certain man

(More compassion than logic
For who would choose to make his home
On martian soil like this?
Who would care to intervene for him?

Who would care for wicked wanderer
wounded by hope deferred whose soul calls
To Vulcan boulders “Fall on me! Fall on me!
Bring a solid end to my empty life!”?)

Here the lush grass testifies
A love too gracious and too innocent
For me to entertain long
Before my earth quakes

In haste I throw upon my eyes
The double-named veil
Time and Chance
Evolving to the random moment of my arrival

Here the imp-god Luck
Has accidentally spilled
A rare morsel of her good
On her way to better waters

Or was it a generous eye?
A kindness creative?
Before this question
I am naked and afraid

I hush the muse of the Other Narrative
In preference to my self-made one
For here I am safe
I am my own

Rabbits chewing virgin fare eye me in deadpan curiosity
With no angst of predatory tales
For here no serpent lurks to bite their heels
As she has bitten mine

All faith, all hope, all love
Poisoned and paralyzed
Marooning me to build a home
Without this triune family

Handmade shade above me
Swells and collapses
Giving shape to gusts dreaming premonitions
Above my tattered tabernacle

Seagulls in silence perch, keeping watch
Ornamenting lithic posts of my pavilion
From which I lord it over Nature here
A king in untrimmed majesty

Homemade hammock swings
Twixt earth and sky
Rocking me asleep in sullen lullaby
Bony frame curled as in the womb

Part V
Béma

I awake to rain

Canvas catchment catching him
Who falls on just and unjust alike:
The showers of the seldom-gray blue
Distant twin brother of sister dew

Before me a farm
Driven into life by fretful pangs
Mills about the black plain I tamed
Ruled by a rooster and a ram

Chickens search for still unrooted seeds
Vulnerable to being taken up again
Before a bumper crop is born
And granaries are full

Goats and swine their barnyard kin
Meander through the labyrinthine pattern
Of light and shadow thrown beneath
The unperfected weavings of their roof

Yes, here the cold pastoral
Must become warm
And these my livestock
More than hard-won meat

Must also become my community
My counselors
My parliament
My judge

Behold, I call you brutes no longer
A new name I give you
Come, you blank stares, be filled!
Testify of my kindnesses on the day appointed

If indeed there is a day
And all is not a circle without end
But a single line telescoping to a full conclusion
From prologue to epic crown

Summer and winter, sweat and cracked fingers
The slow wrestle to stay warm, or cool, or dry, or fed
Soles thickened by ascending and descending
Until the rock pile becomes a skin-worn set of stairs

Above my still life the sun and planets
Make a score of revolutions
But hairs of beard and brow testify
Time has passed in one inevitable direction

Meanwhile I keep watch as
Ferries ferry frantic fun-lovers flooding
The fabricated docks of Athiniós
Glutting roads and balconies with their faint revelries

Hanging over rails and rooftops
Filling coffers of their hosts
Trampling the map
With backpacks full of boasts

As if each were the first Odysseus
To conquer this cyclops
Indulging more than purse or wisdom could afford
Falling for its siren song!

As if each were the first Theseus
To outfox the minotaur
With strung together strategies
For trophies of love

Part VI
Eikón

Turning now I contemplate Thirasia
The estranged sister of wanton Fira
Her head erect, her arms folded
Against her brazen sibling

Vowing two hundred times
(Once for every household on her)
“I shall never be like you
Though I am left barren and you
Become a Cretan queen clothed in purple

“Only at the fringe of my wool skirt
Will I tolerate the tourist
The pilgrim-hearted traveller is welcome to pass through
(He who has ears to hear and eyes to see)

“But none shall threaten me with foreign glories
Content I am, or if not content resolved
To be a Stoic as the duty-bound foil
Of my Epicure other self across the gulf

“One schoolroom is enough here
One way to fish
One chapel with her icons
One Saint Irini

“One road to keep an eye on
One gossip at the fence
One handful with peace
Is better than a two-fisted world!”

But as for me, where I dwell among the burns
No chapel finds a place, no preacher
No akathist to saints
No holy mother’s care

Nor intercessors mystic
Like Giorgios, Athanasias
And brave-tongued Maximus
In cheerless greeting

None to call me family or friend-elect
None to give the holy kiss of fellowship
Between this life and the next
For I am my own icon

But O the cost of such a cross!
The bridge is down, rammed in memory’s scree
So steep I cannot cross, for I am gullied into paths
Hiding self-righteous chimeras

Beasts wielding glued-together arguments
Of cause and effect, of good and evil
An ever backward-looking story
Of what went wrong

While savage Nature groans unpacified
Traumatized by atlantean baptisms
Preoccupied with birth pangs of a new isle
With a new name

Part VII
Apokalypto

I survey the curve of sea-rimmed sky
Eyes fall on Aspronisi
Scudding as a ship long lost at sea
Yearning for safe haven

Spotting home just in time
When earthly rations have run out
And the only food remaining
Is stars and prayer

How far a cry this is
From days beyond recorded time
When this marooned mesa
Was a patch of prairie

A florid carpet fit for picnics and diurnal dance
Of the young in love and the family at rest
A Spring without
And a Spring within

But no one will ever know,
For that age and that field
Plunged beneath the aggravated waves
‘Til all was lost to loneliness and tears

But through the sting such thoughts
Provoke my burning eyes to look longer
Until they fall upon the lighthouse of Mavro Vouno
Fixed at furthest point a man can tread

An everlasting guide for boat and soul
Testifying to both, “Take courage.
Waiting is not wasted, but
Carves out multi-colored works of wonder.”

To which I call back
“How do you know?”
A gaggle of windswept voices
Rasp in reply, asserting their positions

Debating with each other and with me
Some soothing, some stirring,
Some so cynical as to stall proceedings
An Areopagus of air before me

Now accusing, now confusing,
Now justifying, never letting up
A school of competing thoughts named many names
Swimming through my grottoes, crowding my lodgings

“Peace, be still.”

Hush! What was that?
A voice more solid than Olympus
Yet calm as a cloud
Wafting through the rest

A voice too small and too meek
And too real
To be disturbed by the circus
Reaches me

Who are you?
Friend or foe?
Who are you
Peace who disturbs my peace

The voice mounts the hill and disbands proceedings
Each goes to his own home
And I am left alone
With this voice

A voice not from the dead
But from one who has already drunk that cup
And come out the other side as master of the banquet
Or groom

The voice makes no assertions
Points no fingers
Throws no stones
Grinds no axes

The voice sows seed like a farmer
Prunes limbs like a gardener
Shapes clay like a potter
Works stone like a master

Silver like a smith
And is itself gold
Refined in the fire
Seven times

Yet no molten residue is here
No furnace blast
No thunder, quake, or wind
But breath too close to turn away

One lovely choice is left
As hourglass grains pause:
I must cover my face
Or show it

I come out

The touch of a coiffure rests
Upon my tangled dreads
A touch speaking “Let there be”
There is no burn in the burning here

Only beauty
Wrought by a hand now placed in mine
Bearing both the scar I took
And the scars I gave

“Sostis”

I lift my eyes
On my lips the revelation rests
Whereupon the speaking births
A whole new world

A whole new name

“Here we are, you and I.
Never alone.
Never goodbye.”

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