Steven Tagle speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about his essay “Notes on Looking Back,” which appears in The Common’s fall issue. Steven talks about writing this essay, originally in Greek, as a way to explore his love of the language and the experience of learning, speaking, and writing in it. Steven first came to Greece several years ago as a Fulbright Fellow. He discusses his current writing project about borders and migration, and the time he spent visiting and getting to know a family in a refugee camp in Greece. Steven also talks about life in Greece—how friendly and welcoming Greek people can be to outsiders, and how the country weathered the pandemic. When he interned at The Common, Steven spearheaded the magazine’s first podcast series.
Last year, I wandered through Greece, knocking on all the gates of Hades. I walked along the Acheron River, whose icy blue waters seemed colored by the spirits of the dead. Stalactites dripped onto the back of my neck as a silent boatman ferried me through the caves of Diros. I searched for the entrance to the sea cave at Cape Tainaron, scrambling over sharp rocks below the lighthouse as darkness fell. Sometimes I wondered if my search for the underworld tempted the Fates. I remembered Orpheus, the father of music, who charmed beasts with his lyre and descended into Tainaron to find his lost bride, Eurydice. With song, he implored Hades and Persephone to bring her back to life, and his words moved the deathless gods to tears. They granted his wish, allowing him to lead her out of the underworld on one condition: he must walk ahead of her, not looking back until they left the dark halls of death. Approaching the surface, the farthest reach of light, Orpheus feared his love’s silence behind him. He turned to look and saw her sink back into the depths, reaching out to him and bidding him farewell for the last time.
At the Mandraki I saw three medieval windmills standing on the pier like heavy friars with their brownish cloaks, also the statues of two Rhodian fallow deer, a buck and a doe, symbols of the island. A theory persists that Crusaders brought deer to the island because their antlers secrete an alkali substance that repels snakes. Standing at the marina I gazed at the platoni, which are smaller than other types of deer, reaching only one meter in height. Their brown coats acquire white mottles in summer, while in winter they darken. Rhodes’s ancient name was Ophiusa, which in old Greek means a place filled with snakes. “That’s why you see cats everywhere,” one of the islanders told me. “They are the guardians of the island. They kill the snakes.”
Here in Ann Arbor, unable to travel, I am missing the Greek balcony, a private and public space: it’s neither in nor out but something in between. Poet Alicia E. Stallings, who lives in Athens, notes on Twitter: “Very Athenian neighbor quarrel tonight: we fired up the grill in the yard to pretend like it was a Friday, but it turns out lady upstairs had just done her laundry. Words were had.” (It was indeed Friday, but what is Friday anymore, anyway?) When I write her about this, laughing, she adds that the woman also menacingly suggests she might water her plants while Alicia’s husband works on his laptop below.
In the early weeks of quarantine, from balconies in Athens, friends filmed videos of their neighbors clapping for health care workers. On Easter, when Athens is often eerily quiet, as many Athenians return to their home villages, say, or travel to an island, the quarantined city’s balconies shone bright with candles.
These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.
His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.
“…to feel at home nowhere, but at ease almost everywhere.”
“You need to be able to receive beauty.”
I am on the island of Patmos for Easter. Though I haven’t come for the holiday specifically. It so happens I’m off from work because it’s Easter, arguably the most important event in the Greek holiday calendar; Christ’s birth the less celebrated event as compared to his death as necessary prelude to resurrection. Patmos, the island where St. John the Divine is said to have had his vision of the apocalypse, generally feels mournful this time of year. Not infrequently it will be a sun-splashed day anywhere else in Greece while here clouds gather in their overcast greys. I am not a believer, though I’m hard put to call myself an atheist. Perhaps agnostic, with its Greek root, is closest to describing my feeling — that is, gnōsis (knowledge), and so agnōsto (unknown) would make me a believer in the unknown.
We walk back onto the road and down towards Niko’s house. The herd of sheep follow us and begin to run up the rocky dirt path. The island whispers. Trees sway above, letting sporadic splotches of sunlight warm the road, pierce the ground, looking like a bundle of rocks landing on the Aegean’s surface. Tiny figs dangle from each branch, growing. I turn to look at the free animals as they hurry to push by. Some get trampled, stuck and pinned between a bigger body and the half-opened fence separating the den from the road. Others squeeze through the tiniest of crevices. They all wiggle themselves out and soar together. They cheer in unison, ringing their bells up the mountain. They don’t have to worry about financial crises.