Photos by Jonah Resnick.
From the balcony above the cove,
one sometimes see Mount Athos to the north
and the Sporades islands to the east;
one can imagine fleets that sailed
from Homeric to Hellenistic times,
when Byzantium was at its peak,
through harsh centuries of Ottoman rule,
to where the arc of time has passed;
one senses legends come to life,
the blood exchange that war decrees,
the chroniclers of human fate;
beneath the surface of the waves,
the shimmering faces of nymphs appear
and sailors drowned in turbulent seas;
refugees in flimsy craft
from every failed state on the earth
now join the eternal search
for safe haven from catastrophe;
and when silence grips the night,
those on the balcony can divine
sparkling stars that seem to mock
a species the gods have often cursed.
The Lucky Country
A newly made German acquaintance
here in Damouchari
reminds me how fortunate Canadians are
to be living so far from the killing fields.
Thousands of miles away,
we happily play along with our NATO team,
delighted to see Finland and Sweden eager to join in,
promising to up our commitment to the common cause,
though only marginally,
content meanwhile to carry on
debating equalization payments,
minority language rights,
and unresolved First Nation claims
for all eternity.
Not to speak of our anti-vaxxers, bless their souls,
convinced of an ongoing conspiracy
to undermine their God-given right
to be free.
The one is now engaged
in trying to retrieve tatters of its former empire
in a Pyrrhic battle
raining wholesale destruction on its own conscripts
and on its designated foe.
Its long-time rival,
once proud to be the leading world power,
is bitterly divided,
with a constitution showing its many limitations
and weekly massacres of its own citizens
the new norm.
And in the shadows
a third is rising to the challenge
with techniques of surveillance
and thought control over its population
to put the other two to shame.
In the Ancient City of Thebes
I am king, and responsible to myself.
Does not every state belong to its ruler?
— Sophocles, Antigone
So speaks Creon,
as a crucial moment in the play unfolds,
unwilling to yield,
even to his own son,
the sceptre of authority,
the power to decide
what is right and what is wrong.
We know that Creon is not alone
in staking such a claim,
that through the ages
down to our own time,
rulers have thought like him
and acted with similar impunity.
Thousands, millions have paid the price,
not only Antigone
and Haemon, her ill-starred lover,
in the ancient city of Thebes.
In a Beach Town
Incongruous at first
to meditate upon power and its discontents
in a beach town,
buzzing with kayakers, swimmers, selfie-takers
on a summer day.
And though the room you sit in
has thick stone walls
that would have done a prison proud,
yours is no dungeon,
but a renovated living quarter
in an old storehouse
with a balcony overlooking the sea.
Yet the misdeeds of states and rulers
dominate the news,
Ukraine brutalized, pulverized,
because an ex-KGB agent
seeks to undo 1991,
Sri Lanka paralyzed
because two brothers
have plundered the state clean,
Mali, the Central African Republic,
a good dozen other African states
with coups, mercenaries, militias, as the rule,
Haiti and Central America’s former banana republics
as failed states,
aspiring great or regional powers
like China, India, South Africa, or Brazil,
each with accountability problems
spiralling out of control,
not to mention Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan,
Hungary or the good old USA.
But you are in a beach town, after all,
best to forget the world’s problems for a while.
The geography is different now.
— Sergei Lavrov, July 20, 2022
So the Special Military Operation
morphs into something larger
as Western weapons stiffen the fight
for the Black Sea ports,
even as the Donbas,
piece by bloody piece,
falls into the Russian net.
Observers will be shocked,
having seen the Russians
forced to back off on their initial thrust
to take the whole Ukraine
in one fell swoop,
to now hear the Russians’ minimum demands
growing with each day.
Much like Pinocchio’s nose,
save this is no Italian fairy tale,
but a Slavic horror story
straight out of Baba Yaga.
After the Funeral
When the old guard passed on,
Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko,
they pulled out all the stops,
an official day of mourning,
a full-fledged military guard,
Chopin’s Funeral March,
before consigning their bodies to the earth.
They were more niggardly with the last,
perhaps the greatest leader the Soviet Union ever had,
and the distaste of the current master of the Kremlin
for the one he blames
for bringing the empire to its knees,
But the thousands who turned out to bid farewell,
to one who for a brief time
allowed a vision of a freer land
at peace with the Europe and the West
his predecessors had spurned,
reminded us what this day really was about.
Farewell to the hopes that Glasnost and Perestroika had spelled,
to the walls that had once come tumbling down,
as mourners with their flowers and their tears
exited the Hall of Pillars
and a cold wind blew in from the steppes.
The Borrowed Crown
In my adolescent years,
I could reel off the names
of every king and queen of England since the Conqueror
without a hitch.
For a summer job in Ottawa
during my university years,
I swore allegiance to the Queen
with nary a second thought.
It was only later that it dawned on me
that Canada had been a privileged member of the imperial family,
that the Opium Wars, the Amritsar massacre,
the countless booty pried from the “coloured” colonies
had been a dominant facet of an Empire
on which the sun would never set.
So as a reign that began when I was still a child
comes to an end,
I can’t help but wish
that this last vestige of the old imperial tie,
this borrowed crown,
would also be put to rest
along with the departed Queen.
A Strange and Marvellous Thing
Referenda come in various shapes and sizes.
The margin between winner and loser can be razor thin
– those of us of a certain age
can recall Quebec’s second referendum,
when it took over two hours to declare
that the “No” side had won,
because of “money and the ethnic vote,”
to quote the Premier of the day.
So too Brexit not so long ago,
which highlighted in clear relief
the gap between the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres”
in England’s green and pleasant land.
But then there are happier lands
where the outcome does not hang in the balance,
even if the guns of war are pounding away
and alien voices denounce fraud in the making.
For as Stalin,
a hero to the current master of the Kremlin,
“It matters less how people vote
than who gets to do the counting.”
There are elections where the opponents,
for all their rival agendas,
remain civil towards each other,
and though the electoral system
leaves much to be desired,
know that the stakes are not so high
as to jeopardize the foundations
of a shared community.
And then there are ones
where enmities run so deep,
threats to turn to violence
if one’s godforsaken foes take the helm,
that one shudders knowing this is a land
where rich and poor
have always dwelt apart,
where death stalks the favelas,
the public hospitals, the rainforest,
and the future is as chequered as the past.
The twentieth century had two prophetic figures:
– wanting to make the world safe for democracy,
and for nation-states to boot,
irreconcilable goals in a way –
felled by a cerebral stroke
even before his dream began to go astray;
alighting at the Finland Station,
turning a revolution still in gestation
into one putting the Jacobins to shame,
he too felled by cerebral strokes
five years into an experiment
that left the world ablaze.
And who might the dour prophet be,
in his parson’s frock,
as pandemics, wars, droughts, famines,
floods, fires, cyclones
crowd the twenty-first-century stage
– can that be the ghost of Malthus?
riverbeds and lakes
that cannot slake a planet’s thirst,
the COVID years
and their tenuous aftermath,
images from war zones
and inner-city neighbourhoods,
for the overwrought human brain.