The Poseidonians

Poem By Keki Daruwalla

(After Cavafy)

[We behave like] the Poseidonians in the Tyrrhenian
Gulf, who although of Greek origin, became barbarized
as Tyrrhenians or Romans and changed their speech
and the customs of their ancestors. But they observe
one Greek festival even to this day; during this they
gather together and call up from memory their ancient
names and customs, and then lamenting loudly to
each other and weeping , they go away.
Athenios, Deipnosophistai, Book 14, 31A [632]




All it takes to blight a language
is another sun. It's not burn
that does it, or chill, or the way
woods straggle down the hills, or seas
curl along the shingled coast.
It is the women, cowering
in fear, whom the soldiers,
as they clamber down the boats,
first reassure and then marry.

They are faithful, good with grain,
at baking bread and fermenting wine
and unscrambling the fish shoals from the meshes.
They get the goddesses wrong sometimes [but so what?]
Confusing mother with daughter.
And there are minor errors
In ritual and sacrifice,
In lustration oils and libations.

A few seasons teach the man
that his woman's omen birds are always right;
her fears travel down the bloodstream
and a new language emerges from the placenta.

What does one do with a thought
that embarks on one script and lands on another?
A hundred years go by, perhaps two hundred,
Living with the Tyrrhenians and the Etruscans,
and they discover there is more to language
than merely words, that every act
from making wine to making love
filters through a different prism of sound,
and they have forgotten the land they set sail from
and the syllables that seeded that land.

What do they do, except once a year
At a lyre-and-lute festival,
Greek to the core, with dance and contests,
grope for memories in the blood,
like Demeter, torch in hand,
looking for her netherworld daughter?
And weep a little for the Greece they have lost
and reflect on the gulf of years which has proved
wider than the Tyrrhenian gulf,
and the hiatus between languages,
wider than the Aegean ?
What can they do, but weep for Agora
and Acropolis, forever left behind;
and reflect, how three centuries distant
from the Ionian coast,
they have been barbarized by Rome?

[From: A Summer of Tigers]

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