The Ruins of Phylakopi

stretch before us:
strewn plinths in the shattered hewn Megáron,
chopped-up marble herms,
intricate reticulations
of lopped stone
uttered by the cutting Word

— no traction
on these peeled surfaces
to cling to,
these runic shales and chalks.
The wind brawls untranslatably
among the lettered pediments.
Or these toppling walls
terraced in by chicken wire,
razed, rebuilt, erased
by fire and time,
by an aimless Cycladic ferocity
yielding to Mycenaean purpose

written on this metal plaque
as Level IV
of the abandoned dig
(at our feet, commas of obsidian
chipped from the core,
cylinders scattered like type).

Now, in the absolute present
of Phylakopi
with its hard
code of shards,
the alphabetic bric-a-brac
we move between, note,

as we do, scrambling
over grammars
of littered sediments —
seashells rolling underheel
in a drift of ash
(rumors of another speech) —

how scale abolishes noise.
Leica-clear, no trick
of the dyslexic sense,
a dung beetle crawls its dusty track
among strawflowers and saltblast.
Mica.   Pumice.   Lime.
Milos, 1990

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Ruins of Phylakopi”?

This is a poem I wrote after visiting a dig when I was living on the Greek island of Milos. It’s about the inevitable deflection of quotidian perspective from the larger, overarching historical structure in which daily life is contained. The real recognition is to realize this, to note how scale abolishes noise. Otherwise we are like dung beetles crawling in the dust, indifferent to what lasts—pumice, etc.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Ruins of Phylakopi”?

A scattering of lines and verses to indicate the terrain of the everyday, the dust and shards that make up daily life. The last three words are self-contained sentences to suggest the opposite, that is, completion and permanence.

This poem “The Ruins of Phylakopi” originally appeared in Nature, Politics, Poetics. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 136 (Spring 1993): 79-80.

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