thalassa

Thalassa

Selected Poems by Jon Corelis

Ithaka

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You've got to start out from wherever you are, to arrive

at the end of the road which has led you to where you are now.

Those island dreams, of the barebreasted virgins who sang

with skulls at their feet, and the dangerous craft of the witch,

whose calling could not be denied, and, deadliest of all,

the shining girl who smiled on the opulent shore,

where the trees dropped apples into your outstretched hand,

and the amorous vines grappled your feet as you trudged

to the palace that could have been yours, with its heartless wealth

and shallow-eyed retainers, -- all these lures

were only starting-points towards your goal,

having no purpose but to be left behind.

You had a destination: it was yourself;

and though that self was hewn from anger, nursed

on slaughter, like the dead who sent you back

to stand revealed as father, husband, son,

fresh from the gore of fools whose last mistake

was not to know you, still, the choice you made

was not the choice of that great predator

who bartered life for pride on those bleak plains

and starkly summed the choice that breaks us all;

and if his bitter ghost recanted, choosing

the living homeless wretch above the warrior

famed in death, you, that come as both,

must know there's more than what is ultimate,

that life, while never fair, is always just,

since justice is what we are. Now leave behind

those twenty years that heaven has robbed you of,

and let your anger fade into the mists

that shroud the grey horizons of the dead.

It's done its job: it brought you to your home,

this undreamed isle, awash in the sensual sea,

whose undulant hills recline against the bays

and, crowned with eagles, gently challenge the sky.

She is the core, the hugely rooted pivot,

whose branching blood so deeply grips this earth

no wrath of storm nor insolence of men

can budge her from the birth she testifies

or shake the love like iron in her breast,

flutter her foliage in what light breeze it may.

No random winds delayed this homecoming

or blindly drove you finally to this shore.

The gods know what they're doing. So set your hand

to whatever they send you today, you mysterious stranger,

for they at last will ripen all desire.

Vines curl among the rocks; the air is sweet

with thyme and droning bees; the drowsy clang

of goat's bells drifts from ridge to ridge: perhaps

you're only beginning your setting out, perhaps

when you finally understand what such a place means,

then wherever you are will be the end of the road.

Prayer

Lord, set me a table in Byzantium:

not the rose-colored queen of the Bosphorus,

not the city of jewelled liturgies,

but the drain where the scourings of empire collect.

Give me a rough wooden bench

and a goblet of thick southern wine

that smacks of honey and dust

in a tavern on some twisted lane away from the sea,

where a plump dancing girl of uncertain antecedents

clicks the reptilian scales of her castanets,

her gaze weighing my limbs like dubious florins,

while a one-eyed Cappadocian in the corner

thoughtfully fingers his knife.

Lord, I don't ask for much,

only a fate I can handle.

The City

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You make me think of a city

of spires and minarets

suspended in the purple

focus of a dusk

that seals the bitter bargains

of sinister bazaars

where gems and crystals mingle

the clatter of their light

with dizzying aromas

of saffron, incense, mint,

where silks as pale as moonlight

and red as blood on snow

and blue as desert noons

stain the heavy breeze

that falls through crumbling alleys

and stirs the scented curtains

of richly cushioned chambers

where lacquer, brass, and jade

receive helpless blossoms

of indolence and passion,

while from the far horizon,

beyond the groaning spars

that throw a crazed lattice

across the dying sky,

startled gulls reiterate

their clean, remote despair.

To Elli

The heat has stung the lizards numb, Elli,

the white church scours itself with glare.

Ecstatic mules devour the afternoon

by the rusty fence where poppies smudge the sun like the blossoming wounds of Christ,

and your arms gleam bright as dew on a dragonfly's wing, Elli.

A god dreams on in the olive tree's angry womb,

the balcony's shadow slices the street,

and your body is sweet as a knife, Elli,

your flesh is a casket of flowers.

In the valley between your breasts I hear your heart pump molten stone.

Enfold my breath in a rose of musk, Elli:

in your black eyes I see my death, Elli.

White Days

white days

of almond flower

and flesh sheathed in sunlight

white sea

dissolves laughing on flat rocks

below white chapels

where consecrated bones

crumble into purity of incense

white kisses

beating against the sun with white wings

white boats set sail for white dreams

where the white days have gone

Aphrodite

Fingers of foam

languidly stroke the shore's tawny shoulder,

softly explodes

high on the beach and recedes in reluctant refusals of surf,

moodily turns,

tenses, quickens, insists, surges, surrenders, falls,

laughter and froth

betraying the threat of the far cold depths never known

Plato

Plato was dazzled by the numbers' dance.

Their interlocking rhythms made a song

which must have come from God, since they alone

stood unmoved in the welter of the world.

The flushed and youthful flank, the glancing eye

articulate with desire, and quick response

to fly or flutter near, that so engaged

passions so deep they had to be eternal,

all withered to the slack and fusty dugs

of each day's lying truth, that drip the sour

after-mockery of joy gone stale.

But in the reasoned frenzy of proportion,

strong as steel and delicate as fire,

he found a lust refined of all corruption,

the rapture of the body in the mind.

Oedipus

I could not bear to see that nothing had changed,

that the world still rolled along its trivial round

and day rose up and yielded to the stars

and all the trees just stood there. If the earth

had swallowed me or demon visions claimed

my mind's clear understanding for their own,

I might have veiled the truth behind the horror

and kept the blindness other men call sight.

But I have looked too nakedly upon

the sun and know the light for what it is.

Yet neither may I pierce again that pit

from which so long ago I fell unwilling,

and into which I later fell unknowing,

by entering the void through my own choosing.

Action itself is foul: I must accept.

Thus I indeed am fortune's child and toy,

my helplessness once more my sole protection.

Now neither life nor death is what I need,

but only to be of use. I may yet know

where I belong and learn what I am for.

Cyclades

The light in Andros is still the Attic light,

but without its harsh comfort.

Perhaps it is the presence of the sea,

so close, that softens the urgency of its question.

The light of Tinos is cleansing and mild

with incense and sweet barley.

On Paros the light will be seen to best advantage

if you rest alone by an abandoned threshing floor

and carefully compare its patient marble

to the rich tawny grain stretching itself in the far fields

under the gentle insistence of the seaborne breeze.

The light of Delos is moist and firm.

From the hill at the center at night

the liquid stars do not seem so far off after all

as they peacefully circle the pole,

quite undisturbed by the racket of the frogs in their cisterns.

The light of Mykonos is the light of childhood,

simply itself.

On Naxos the light looks a long way back.

It is as if the brightness of all past days

has left something of itself here

before vanishing into the sea.

The light of Santorini is breathless with expectation.

From its fertile ash the vines draw up old fire

into their small tight clusters, waiting.

The promontories etch their endless hint against the sky, waiting.

An ancient wind moans over the ocean, waiting.

you cannot remember

you cannot remember white shores of summer

and the metallic taste of the sea on your flanks

and the air opaque with the dazzle of noon

you cannot remember the wine that gleamed like a snake in the sun

and the boats nuzzling the hot pier

and the emphatic simplicity of their message

the urgent peal of the cicada has been quite lost to you

and the sleepy eyes of the horizon late in the day

and the loneliness of the ocean that justifies everything

you cannot remember what the sudden laughter affirmed

nor the startled sweetness of the flowers crushed under your loins

nor the love from which your body drew its pleasure

easily as a child milk from the breast

You were

You were a white church on a white hill against the sky,

a flinty field that gave forth intense olives and pungent grapes,

a statue of an ancient god bathed in starlight,

the blur of a blue moth merging into the night,

a ship bearing concubines and incense to a barbarous khan,

a wild rose rooted in the frigid veins of the mountain.

But now you are emptiness, absence, void,

a forgotten text in a language that never existed,

the arid mockery of an abandoned bakery,

the currency of a ruined nation,

the dry and withered stone of perished fruit,

the silence that grips the killing floor after the final scream.

Ezekiel

From a whirlwind of fire, the Lord

has made my forehead an adamant harder than flint

and filled my mouth with the honey of his word.

I loved you where I found you naked.

I washed the blood off you, fed you

to flourish strong with honey, flour, milk,

clothed you in silk, adorned you with gold,

silver, and jewels.

But you forgot.

You pointed to rubies while I slept in your heart.

You thought you could hoard my music like silver.

You dazzled yourself with golden mirrors.

Lord, your people are a stubborn stone.

Forge me in your fire

and make me your chisel.

All material on this web site copyright © 2014 by Jon Corelis