Poetry Porch: Poetics


News from the Village: Aegean Friends by David Mason. Calif: Red Hen Press, 2010. 9781597094719 $20.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

In his memoir News from the Village: Aegean Friends, David Mason follows the advice of Bruce Chatwin to write short chapters. He met Chatwin briefly in a convenience store that also served as a bus station in the small Greek village of Mani, the center of his early years in Greece. In this book, which is a full-length book and not a collection of essays, Mason’s narrative develops in short units, some no more than a page or two. Reading the book form, one finds that while the flow of the short chapters seems haphazard at first, soon a momentum takes hold and each part contributes to the whole. The narrative bits about what happened while Mason and his first wife were living in Mani give way to windows of the past, what happened in those specific environs during World War II, which open up to an anecdote about village life that has hardly changed over a hundred years, followed by reflections on the definition of a good life.

At the intersection between his description of his early experiences in Mani and his fascination with the writings of the authors he met there, Mason creates a narrative that digs much deeper than you might expect it to at first. In the connections he makes between his early aspiration to live the life of a writer, his befriending of authors in the area who introduce him to what they know, and the primary place of the Greek landscape that envelopes the person with its continuity and unbroken links to the past—Mason creates a circular structure. He explains his purpose: “I would be coming back and would write in earnest about my friends, trying to bring them all into the circle and tell the story as I saw it, and tell in again until I got it right. But the story was still unfolding. It has taken a long time to get this down and everything has changed as I have written it. Revising a book, revising a life” (14).

Mason assumes a number of narrative personae to accomplish his goal: the youth who is running away from responsibilities; the young romantic who is enthralled with the pleasures of life and ignorant of its deeper meanings; the hardnosed writer who isolates himself to get the project done and to keep the facts straight; the teacher who wants to bring what he loves about Greece to his students; the friend who wants to keep in touch. With this varied cast of speakers, Mason is able to create an appropriate mood for each anecdote or period of reflection and define its particular place in the narration. One day, early in his first stay at Mani, he was confronted with the realization that his neighbors considered him little more than a child after he tried to initiate a discussion about politics.

    I tried to have a conversation about what was happening with two men seated in chairs outside a shop. In a rather naïve American way I cracked a joke about Greek elections producing a lot of garbage in the streets. One of these men, a fellow named Elias who was called a wise man and interpreter of dreams, snapped at me angrily:
           “Don’t say anything. You don’t know what we have been through to have this election. You don’t know what this election means to the Greeks!”
           “Calm down,” said the other. “Stay in your chair. He’s just a boy, an American. How could he know?”
           “Let him learn then,” Elias said. “Let him learn who had to die for Greece to have this election , who went to prison. Who’s rotting in prison now.”
           “He’s just a boy, just a boy.”
    The ferocity of Elias had been like a slap across my face. I apologized and excused myself. (125)

Eventually he learned to read sullen stares from several corners when he entered a café, realizing that each table might well represent an individual faction, and that the room itself might contain all the elements of the civil war ready to erupt, and he became more agile in his approach to connect.

More often, conversations that Mason experienced went as follows, in which a native Greek would inquire about his ethnic background:

    “Are you Greek?” Followed by: “You don’t look Greek” or “You look Greek, you have Alexander’s nose,” or some such thing, as if anyone on earth knows what Alexander’s nose looked like.
           “No,” I would say. “Only someone who loves Greece.”
           “But you speak better than the Greeks.”
           “No, I make many mistakes.”
           “Greeks make mistakes too. It’s a hard language. You speak very well.”
           “I am trying to learn better.”
           “Marry a Greek woman. That way you’ll learn.”
           “But I have a wife in America.”
           “One here, one there—you should have both!” (127)

Mason concludes that he has this conversation often once a day, in the United States and abroad, and he presents it as a testament to the warm accommodating nature of the people he cannot seem to let go.

Mason gives full portraits of his literary friends from Greece, especially of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was his neighbor for a time and with whom he kept in touch over the decades. With Fermor, Mason was introduced to kefi, the light headed mood so prized by Greeks and usually induced by their local wines. Much of Mason’s relationship with Fermor had to do with the man’s writing. Reading Fermor, Mason felt he learned to see the landscape. He quotes a passage in which Fermor describes cypresses and poplars as frivolous and reckless beside near soaring “biblical” rocks where a shepherd tends his sheep: “‘This rocky world has the property of making all look momentous, for all is isolated, nothing congregates, everything becomes archetypal, and, as it were, symbolic of its own essence’” (qtd. on 76). Fermor was a slow writer, known as a procrastinator and worrier of phrases. One senses that his intricate prose, achieved after a great deal of effort, endeared him to Mason, a novice writer who found in his example the encouragement to revise and revise again. Mason emphasizes the dream-like quality that Fermor creates with his prose, in which realistic details and their placement together result in a work of the imagination. “To call them travel books,” Mason writes in his critical mode, “is far too limiting. They are works of the imagination, a form of poetry” (77).

Yet Mason cautions the reader, and himself, about being too susceptible to the romantic lure of the palpable surface of Greece, whose metaphors can transport and deceive. The tone of Mason’s critical persona usually works for him, especially as he describes his remorse about wasting time during his first years in Mani, not being able to meet the needs of his first wife, and delaying the process of grieving over the death of his brother in a climbing accident. Should he have written more about his parents’ divorce, why his father turned from pediatrician to psychiatrist, why he and his brothers seemed desperate to get away from their past, or each other?, and travel to the ends of the earth on the most meager of means.

His tone doesn’t work in one instance however, when he describes how he returned to Mani after years away and talked with one of the village women about all the changes that had taken place, for example the arrival of drugs among the young people and the rise of the socialist party. He was shocked at the woman’s reaction, calling it “knee-jerk xenophobia” when she blamed the drugs on gangs from Albania. Then she turned to politics: “We have had enough of socialism in Greece. Enough of Democracy. The children are dying. Théloume fassismó. We want fascism now” (231). Her vehemence shocked Mason again, who wondered how little he ever knew about this friend from years before. (Yet should he have been so surprised? Does he not know the adage in the poem by Sylvia Plath, “Every woman adores a fascist”?) As the 1990s ended and the new millennium began, he watched the people of Greece let go of the option for fascism that many in remote areas said they wanted.

One might say that this memoir has three parts: early, middle, and late youth as told by the mature man, for the narrative sustains an enthusiasm for its subject that never seems to grow very old. He looks back on his many visits to Greece and is filled with happiness, regret, and a longing to go back one more time to see his friends again, inquire about their well being, and through the exchange, get in touch with his old self. Wiser now, a published author and poet with a teaching appointment and regular assignments to translate Greek poetry into English, and a Fulbright, he goes back to the country in a new state of awareness. He has studied the history, immersed himself in the literature, so that he is able to see so much more about the culture now and put aspects of the way people live into better perspective. He believes he has more to give. “I go back in a different way now—” Mason concludes, “less the child-romantic, more the friend” (303).

Still, while in Athens and its environs on academic and literary assignments, he becomes obsessed with going back to the primitive village of Mani, to see how it has changed, to introduce his second wife to the place that was once so central to his life. When he finally arrives after sixteen years away, some in the village have forgotten him, except for Patrick Leigh Fermor, that garrulous literary figure whose company he wooed years ago, who greets him with open arms and invites him over for fruit, cheese, olives, bread, and wine, followed by garlic potatoes and salt cod, to discuss all that has happened since the last time they had dinner together.