On a Greek bus, stopped at night, a roadside in Arcadia, a blind man was led with his bouzouki case down the aisle by hand.
Maybe it happened, as he said, or it was subject to the invented romances of port taverns,
a succession of singers, a prince here, an empress with thoughtful fingers. I always thought of him as paradoxical: lost, as we all really are, but perceptive.
When clouds reflect sunset,
the sea glows red,
wine is invoked,
and the lion fed.
Iris is a rainbow. Iris is a girl. Iris is a woman who thrills. Iris is a flower, blue and pale blue, tinged with white, fragile light. Her scent: violets and rose water. With her smile, with her spindrift of visionary waves, beams, motes, and cool remoteness, Iris is color--water floating in oil, a coil that unravels, a traveler’s tale.
Iris empties the trash, sweeps the floors, stands behind a register and says,
“Yes, M’am, No, M’am, I’m sorry, Sir, will that be all?”
“In my mind,” she says, “I contain dreams. In my eyes, ships drift on epic adventures
that turn into long journeys home, into lives of those who have left and cannot return, not intact.
“Among these islands, I heard the tales, and I retold the tales, old myths, many times twisted to make them whole. Yet the heroes spawned confusion and doubt.
“I fold blue regrets and throw them off red cornices. Drifting downward, they trail clouds of flowery sentiment to be celebrated, not regulated. Love’s allusions are an infinite spectrum,
and I won’t take any more dictation.”
First there was an island, then there was no island, then there was volcano. A tidal wave swept across the Aegean Sea.
At night, survivors walked through the hills, crying the names of the missing.
In their sleep, in their dreams, familiar faces appeared to greet them.
In an old Cycladic sculpture, a marble harp rests on the arm of a marble chair, and a Brancusi-style bard leans back a marble head and supposedly sings and supposedly strums
In these uncertain depths, in these unknown waters, nobody remembers the names,
any of the songs they sang to console them.
Costas wore a scarab ring that came, as he did, in the diaspora from Alexandria. It clicked the glass that covered the map of the Mediterranean on his desk in Athens as he gestured, speaking of the past, his family scattered across several countries. The map depicted a hopelessly cheerful cherub in the empty reaches beyond Crete: eternally puffing rosy cheeks, an angel that portended favorable winds for a sketched ship on a tranquil sea beyond landfall, those wide waters where winds shift quickly and no course stays true.
For a few moments, he recalled the sights for us: the harbor, the streets where he walked everyday, the outskirts that lead into the vast desert. His voice said: “Home.” The ring caught the light, glistened and, so, too, his eyes. You could almost see the mythical lighthouse, the great library gone up in flames. You could almost find the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.
But not quite.
The Homeric epithet ‘the wine-dark sea” has reached an apogee of speculation about ‘wine-dark’ and the sea. The Comma Queen of the New Yorker said she never saw such a thing and speculated on theories that included blue for red, and blind epic poets do the chromatic song-cycle, or the way to say achoo in Attic Greek. In turn, this mention engendered three reader letters about such things as looking down from Melville’s platonic crow’s nest and seeing wine in the ocean, or a fortuitously stretched linguistic confusion that somehow involve eyes, color, time, promethean pronouns, Homer’s poetry, and the Odyssey.
The ‘wine-dark sea’ is an epithet in Homer because it was a rare phenomenon that occurred in the Aegean and in other seascapes around the world. It was about as common, I suspect, as the fabled West Coast “green flash.”
The ‘wine-dark sea’ became an epithet because of its rarity and the deep impression it made upon those who witnessed it. That’s why it was repeatedly used in Homer, who was blind and heard this again and again over the years--tales from mariners and coastal dwellers, the cosmopolites of the ancient Aegean. He was all-ear. I am certain he could distinguish the sincere awe in those voices he heard recounting this seldom-seen, sundown apparition.
I saw it once upon the Aegean. I lived on a Greek island in l972 with my first wife, Helen, in a Sixties marriage from San Francisco, at a villa that her mother owned on Ios. We were walking in autumn, nine or ten months into our stay at Milopota Bay, among the windmills above the island’s main village, probably late October. It was a high vantage that surveyed the harbor and much of the southern seascapes of Ios. Looking out over the Aegean sea toward Paros, under a layer of clouds in a spectacular sunset, the red of dying Helios reflected off the underside of the strata and turned the generally blue or gray Aegean a scarlet-red, the same tint as the Greek word mavros, dark, the demotic word for red wine.
Once, surfing with the Hetzel/Pezman/Mabie/ Zuper crew, late 20th century, at the Seven Sisters in central Baja, specifically at El Cardon in January, again at sunset--the same cloud layer and reflection. This time, there was a strong offshore wind that blew the wave crests back to sea while surfers climbed, dived, glided and flew the clean wave-faces, backlit by sunset. The Pacific turned a deep red.
Not so long ago, on the Oregon coast, Christine and I witnessed the wine-dark sea at Agate Beach on the inside of Yaquina headland, once more at sundown, once more the sea blood-red, again surfers on waves in an offshore wind--spindrift-plumes of spray for an epic effect.
Three times in seventy-five years--I witnessed Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea.’
It is real, an eyeful, a rarity Southeby’s could not auction, a scarcity, a necessary witness.
A caretaker in a villa on an island made-do with a kerosene lantern, the wick casting shadows through gold-lit rooms. To go out through the courtyard, back and forth to the bedroom, he had to cup his palm around the glass chimney mouth to guard the flame from guttering out
while the bell on a lead-goat rang to the star-herd on hills above the valley
or the night wind
might have left him in the dark
between the mountains and the sea.
Paul Dresman was born in Los Angeles in 1943; he has co-edited several literary journals, including the bi-lingual helicoptero. He has also lectured on literature in La Jolla, Beijng, and Eugene. Poet, essayist, and translator of poetry, his recent work has appeared in 34th Parallel (Paris), Permafrost (Alaska), The Shanghai Literary Review (China), Critical Read (New York), and The End of the World anthology, Illinois.