“In the poetry I’ve written up to now (four books and a ms. in progress), over 60 types of fauna appear: dogs and donkeys; scorpions, frogs and lizards; flies, gnats and ticks; grubs, maggots and fleas; butterflies, hummingbirds, and over a dozen types of birds; horses and zebras; deer and moose; cows and bulls; bees, ladybugs and June bugs; lions, camels and elephants; rats, cats and crabs; and a half-dozen species of fish. But by far the most frequent animals to appear are goats and sheep. They can be found, often playing a central role, in over 20 poems.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
“Always facing creation, all we see/is the reflection of the free and open/that we’ve darkened . . . .”— Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2020—In the poetry I’ve written up to now (four books and a ms. in progress), over 60 types of fauna appear: dogs and donkeys; scorpions, frogs and lizards; flies, gnats and ticks; grubs, maggots and fleas; butterflies, hummingbirds, and over a dozen types of birds; horses and zebras; deer and moose; cows and bulls; bees, ladybugs and June bugs; lions, camels and elephants; rats, cats and crabs; and a half-dozen species of fish. But by far the most frequent animals to appear are goats and sheep. They can be found, often playing a central role, in over 20 poems.
Why so many? Growing up in cities and suburbs in northern and central California, I never had much occasion to see real goats and sheep, except on rare visits to the zoo or on school field trips to farms. For me, they were cartoon-like caricatures on TV and in movies, mostly gluttonous, randy, or stubborn billy-goats, and sheep bounding over fences while hapless insomniacs desperately counted them. In my Catholic school upbringing, they were being herded by Christ the Good Shepherd or depicted as the Lamb of God ready for the slaughter. Later, in my university literature courses, they were commonly portrayed as flocks of blissful, grazing sheep, as found in Theocritus, Virgil, Spenser, and other writers in the pastoral tradition.
Once I came to Greece, though, goats and sheep came alive. They were everywhere, not only in rural Greece, where indeed they were pervasive, but also sometimes in urban settings. In my first years here, I encountered shepherds herding their flocks through streets and empty lots in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other cities, and even in upscale suburbs like Kifissia and Panorama. I soon learned that, in Greece, the urban and rural intermingle in ways the pastoral poets probably never dreamed of.
As a writer, I was immediately fascinated by the significant role these animals play in everyday life, especially in rural areas. Goat, mutton, and lamb are a regular part of the Greek diet. Villagers often keep herds and, at Easter, they round up baby goats and slaughter them for the Easter Sunday meal. While Christ, the Sacrificial Lamb, is a prominent symbol in Greek Orthodox iconography, as it is in Western Catholicism, roasting lamb on a spit is the mainstay of the paschal meal. For me, participating in the Easter feast transformed the symbolical into the real. Baby goats, slaughtered and skewered, the whole body (including the head) cooked over an open pit, with everyone taking turns rotating the spit while family and guests laugh and dance and, later, devour the sacrifice—all this brought back the religious imagery of my childhood. Or, to say it differently, the sacrifice celebrated at Holy Communion becomes, at Easter time in Greece, real lamb, real sacrifice, and real celebration. There are few experiences more powerful than when numinous figures from our imagination become concrete presences we can see, smell, touch, and taste.
So it should be no surprise that one of my first poems with a lamb in it is connected to the Holy Week traditions in Olympos, a secluded mountain village on the distant island of Karpathos, which I first visited in the late 1980s. “Holy Days” recounts a ritual in which the village men, carrying the heavy icons from the 16th century Church of the Panagia, accompany the priest as he traverses the mountainside below the village, blessing with his scepter chapels, farmhouses, sheepfolds, and most anything else he comes across, generously sprinkling it all with holy water.
Holy Days The priest leads the village up one windswept ridge and down another, all stopping at a spring to smoke and laugh because I stepped in donkey shit (the stranger, the one who tags along, who doesn’t know but to follow). The men hoist the icons of the Virgin back up on their shoulders so the priest can continue, one fold to the next, blessing lambs, goats, the sea churning below, waving his scepter through bleached-wood gates, chanting some Byzantine litany meant to replace a pagan rite; he even blessed me, then the lamb that would follow Kyria Eleni back to the village. Later, Vasso, her daughter, will swing that lamb in a yellow bucket along the sea, its skinned legs swaying in sunlight—how many blessings do I need?
I’ve always loved to travel, which is how I first happened to venture into the Eastern Mediterranean in my 20s. Besides the desire to experience new cultures and immerse myself in new landscapes, I’ve often sought out solitude and a simpler, more elemental way of life. Island Greece, at first glance, seemed to offer that. It was easy, especially when living in Athens, to escape the emotional complexities of the city, the alienation and loneliness urban-living foments, by fleeing to the islands. There I could reconnect with a deeper, more peaceful part of myself and fall into the more natural rhythms of rural life, aspiring to lose myself completely and take in the world around me, as Rilke says in The Duino Elegies, “with the wide eyes of animals . . . .”
So, imagine my shock when, in 1990, I first visited the island of Ikaria. Back then, unlike the Cycladic islands, this remote Aegean island was not very tourist-friendly. Ikarians in those days looked askance at foreigners—and for them, anyone not from Ikaria, even another Greek, was a foreigner. I first went to the island during my university’s spring break, intending to arrange a place to stay for the summer. I was surprised to find that, however much I searched, village to village, town to town, there was nothing available. Finally, by dropping the name of a friend of a friend back in Athens, I found a local willing to show me a small house he said was vacant. But, really, he was only doing a favor for his friend (the person whose name I dropped). He didn’t want to rent to me, no matter how much Greek I managed to sputter out, or to any outsider. Naïve as I was, though, each negative aspect of the καλύβα the owner mentioned only got me more excited:
“It’s just a hut, out in the middle of nowhere,” he stated almost immediately.
“That’s OK,” was my response.
“There’s no road.”
“Fine, it’ll be more quiet there.”
“There’s no electricity or running water.”
“I can handle that. I prefer that.”
“The place is a mess and needs fixing up.”
“I’ll be there all summer; I can do some repairs.”
“But the last person who lived there was a shepherd.”
“Great. I want it.”
“But he died there. All his things are still scattered about.”
“Better, yet! I definitely want it.”
As we walked the twisting path toward the hut, I was getting more and more excited at the idea of actually living where a shepherd had lived, and my expectations only intensified when we came into the clearing where the little, dilapidated shack stood. But once I went inside and saw certain details of that departed herder’s daily life, my illusions of a summer idyll came crashing down.
Dead Shepherd’s Hut
Sure, I can fix the broken door, clear the brush
out front, find a rope and bucket for the well,
a mattress for the iron bed in this hut
I’ve rented for next to nothing, but what about
his coat and crook still hanging by the mirror,
the photo of bare-breasted women
in white shorts and red boxing gloves
squared-off and whaling at each other?
I’ve come here, a tangle of desires,
more like the brambles I open the shutters to, the random
twisted olive trees up this valley kilometers from the road,
come to lose myself in the deep lull
of summer, to be less than smoke
curling from a lamp, nothing and nowhere. I like to think
he woke early, herded the huddled goats
up the ridge, that he knew each one by its bell,
that he’s still sitting where pinecones
crack in late morning heat, the place
he slipped through to death. He’s buried
on the opposite slope, in the one bare patch
among briars and burned grass—beyond desire,
I whisper to myself. But when I stand at his rusty basin,
see these women he gazed at every morning,
the smell of leather and sweat implied
by their gleaming shoulders and gloves, the ripple across one breast
where a punch just landed, the spectators cheering
from the darkness surrounding the ring, even the referee
smiling and pointing—I wonder
what he thinks of pleasure now
that he’s gone to the source. Dead shepherd,
are you still hovering near your body, or here with me,
gazing at this primal destruction, resenting
even your own birth, that wound that bore you?
Or have you come back with some different knowledge–
taking down your coat and crook
then winking at me with the eyes of a goat, behind their bright slits,
some truth I just can’t see.
Becoming aware of the complexities of rural life, how the numbing effects of loneliness and alienation can afflict us whether we live in a shepherd’s hut or an urban apartment block, were lessons I had to learn during my early years in Greece. But that hasn’t stopped me from seeking out solitude or spending long stretches of time in simple, faraway locations. Nor did it keep me from inviting lambs into my poems. These days I still look forward to summers and holidays on remote islands, though I don’t invest such places with the life-transforming powers I used to. Being able to lie in bed at night and hear the quiet breathing of the Aegean, or sit out on a veranda and feel the stars leaning in so close I can almost touch them, to be lulled into an afternoon slumber by the buzz of cicadas or the tinkling of goat bells on a nearby slope—these are joys I still seek out and cherish whenever I find them.
But with time I’ve also come to cherish companionship more and more; lambs, it seems, have accompanied me on that journey. For the past 15 years, I’ve lived in Thessaloniki, in the suburb of Panorama, which is close to the school where I worked. A half hour from the city center, Panorama, with its wide streets, spacious villas, and rich greenery, is considered one of the more affluent areas of northern Greece (though rents here are much less expensive than in Athens). I am fortunate enough to live at the southeastern edge of the suburb, where, from my balcony, I have a panoramic view (thus the area’s name) of the city below, the Thermaic Gulf and, beyond, the imposing peaks of Mt. Olympus. Directly below me are forested areas, dirt roads and, on either side of my wide street, lush ravines. Besides natural beauty, these ravines have slopes that are literally pastoral: they provide pastureland for small herds of goats. Summer mornings, I often wake to the melodious tinkling of their bells, which inspired the poem below, a sonnet I wrote fairly recently.
The title comes from the meaningless phrases shepherds shout out as they tend their flocks along the grassy slopes. Unlike in “Dead Shepherd’s Hut,” the herdsman in “Tsip-Tsooúp! Cha-Charáa!” is very much alive. The sounds he makes beckon the writer in the poem. Once again, the sacrificing of lambs appears but, this time, it’s connected to the original Passover in Exodus. Also, in the poem, the writer isn’t struggling with desire and loneliness but, rather, celebrating intimacy.
Tsip-Tsooúp! Cha-Charáa! Your lamb…: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats…. Exodus 12:5 What a struggle, these August mornings, leaving her in bed to go write at my desk, but here I am, and again I hear the bells through my window, rams, ewes and baby goats in the ravine behind my house. I know the more I lean to write this poem, the more I’ll be there with them, chewing on wet grass, that if I raise my head I’ll see my own blood smeared across the doorpost, hear the wailing of innocents, the Lord’s Angel passing. So it’s Tsip-tsooúp! Cha-charáa! I prefer, what the shepherd makes up to keep us grazing, as now I lower my head and write, “Such joy, the soft grassy underside of her breast.”
“[L]overs come close to it and are amazed . . . ,” Rilke tells us in “The Eighth Elegy.” Those who immerse themselves in solitude can also attain a sublime state, as Thoreau and Emerson knew. Spending long spells alone on remote islands has enabled me to occasionally lose myself, enough to come close to seeing—at least in my writing—“with the wide eyes of animals . . . .” So, too, love and companionship have enabled me to write poems that, for brief instances, seem to allow me to do like “other creatures” and “look into the Open/with [my] whole eyes.” If that’s even remotely true, it’s the fauna of Greece, California, and elsewhere, at least in part, that have led me there, especially goats and lambs.
Author’s Note: “Holy Days” and “Dead Shepherd’s Hut” are from Approximately Paradise (University Press of Florida, 2002); “Tsip-Tsooúp! Cha-Charáa!” is from The Flow of Wonder (Kelsay Books, 2018). The passages from “The Eighth Elegy” are from The Duino Elegies, A. S. Kline, translator, as posted in “Poetry in Translation,”. Photo Credits: Images 1, 4, 5, 6 and 9 are by the author; Image 2 is from the web site “Reach More Now,”; Image 3 is from the web site “Scrumpdillyicious, Lesly’s Food, Travel & Life Blog”, ; Image 7 is from the web site “The World’s Best Photos of Architecture and Ikaria – Flikr Hive Mind,”; Images 8 and 10 are from the web site “Wide Open Pets,”.
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