Alan Gould has published twenty books, comprising novels, collections of poetry and a volume of essays. His most recent novel is The Lakewoman which is presently on the shortlist for the Prime Minister’s Fiction Award, and his most recent volume of poetry is Folk Tunes from Salt Publishing. ‘Works And Days’ comes from a picaresque novel entitled The Poets’ Stairwell, and has been recently completed.
Works And Days
Now and then throughout the night, other coaches arrived at this depot, passengers disgorged, bought coffee at the all-night stall, returned to their seats, whereupon with a growl, their vehicles departed, for Athens, Istanbul, Skopje, Sofia. Henry and I returned to our seats, dozed upright, bought further coffees, waited for what the Turks might do. Dawn came up, strobe-yellow from behind the angular roofline, the disco closed down, and in the early light, now resembled any old garage. But our two feckless Turkish drivers had vanished along with their plump Greek girls and the hundreds of spectral dancers we had glimpsed under the blue lights. As it became clear some fraud had been practiced on us and we were not going on to Athens, one by one our fellow passengers took their bags from the lockers and dispersed into the industrial town.
‘What’s the verb from ‘feckless,’ I tilted to Henry.
‘Well and truly fecked,’ he rejoined, hoisting his pack. And we went looking for a roof.
We found a room in Thessalonika quite quickly, but the city promised to be tedious for an enforced stay. Here were shopwindows displaying lathes, compressors, saw-benches, a workaday town without a historic relic in sight. By late morning we had wandered to the waterfront, where we met Martha.
There was a wharf, and a Greek woman thrashed a squid against the timbers. Behind her the Aegean resembled hammered tin. To one side were monstrous derricks and several bright container ships. The day was warm and the scene was held by a complete inertia but for the woman’s exertions with her squid. Some loafers sat on bollards, watching her or minding a fishing line. And there was also the American girl who had been on our Istanbul coach, regarding the treatment of the squid with evident dismay. Hup! And thunk!
‘Like, I know they gotta eat,’ she said, seeing Henry and I approach.
‘It loosens the guts, I suppose,’ I offered.
‘That is still one helluva way to treat a squid.’
‘You’re probably right.’
We all three watched. This American girl was solidly built with short blonde hair and small eyes that now showed an expression of affront. Indeed I wondered whether she intended to intervene on behalf of the squid. If she did there would be a scene, and this, I recognized, would disappoint me because I found the Greek woman’s heave and slap rather magnificent. Here was someone putting her whole being into the simple domestic task. Up flew her arm with the long, glistening squid at the end of it. Then with an undulation that ran from squid-tentacle to human ankle, down came the creature with a forward jerk of the woman’s torso, a bounce of her ample bosom and a resounding crack as the squid hit the boards. Hup and smack! Hup and smack! I thought of Eva, and how she would have relished this turning of task into dance, immemorial.
‘One helluva way to treat a squid!’
Henry had watched the spectacle, then lost interest and gone to the wharf edge where he gazed at the oily sway of the sea. But for our different reasons the American and I remained transfixed.
‘I concede I’d prefer gentler treatment for my own insides if I was being prepared for a meal.’
‘I’m thinking of that squid,’ she dismissed my attempt at charm.
‘Actually, I find this rather a thrilling sight.’
Hup and smack, hup and smack, and the Greek woman a silhouette against the glary Aegean behind her!
‘O sure thing! It’s ethnic as hell.’
‘And beautiful in its way.’
‘It’s still one helluva…’ and she shook her head, leaving the sentence unfinished, distressed by the sight, unable to tear herself away.
When I made to rejoin Henry, I found she had followed me. ‘May I tag along awhile?’ she asked. ‘I’m kinda lonesome right now.’
‘Of course,’ I agreed, and learned that she was Martha from Muncie, Indiana, where
she practiced as a plumber. I saw she had big hands and long fingers. ‘Boon&Luck,’ I introduced ourselves. ‘Both poets,’ I owned.
‘You say that’s your livelihood?’ asked Martha. ‘That’s weird.’
‘Not livelihood,’ I allowed. ‘Somewhere between an aspiration and a place in history.’
‘History? Speak for yourself,’ Henry interposed.
‘I don’t get any of this,’ said Martha. ‘You gotta have a livelihood.’
‘Poetry is a kind of money,’ Henry was prompt to supply the Stevens, which left Martha further bewildered.
‘And you…um… plumb?’ I asked.
‘You getta lotta treeroots and sick smells come out of a job,’ Martha brought our conversation to earth. ‘But sometimes I get to do a course on plastics or the latest hydraulic theory. I never grew outta liking being in school.’
‘What brings you to Greece?’ Henry asked.
‘I got kinda itchy for some of the things I learned back in school.’
‘Like, well, that war they had with the Trojans. I’ve just come from there. And like, all those Gods and Goddesses having ding dongs with each other.’
At a waterside café, we took coffee, then some lunch. Martha did most of the talking, about her visit to the Troy diggings at Hissarlik. It was a methodical presentation, but something in this person brought out a kindliness and patience in Henry that I might not have expected. We wandered further down the waterfront, retraced our steps and found ourselves back beside the Greek woman, now resting from her squid-thrashing, her galvanized bucket containing a mash of several squid at her side.
‘I kinda think I’ve seen this town enough,’ Martha stated. ‘I don’t like discos and bad ladies and someone smashing hell out of a poor squid. When you travel, you come across places that kinda have no poetry I guess.’
‘On the contrary!’
We both glanced at Henry who held his body poised with conviction, like a heron that has just seized a minnow. ‘Everywhere you look you can see a town saturated with Hesiod.’
‘What’s Hesiod?’ asked Martha.
‘A poet,’ I knew enough to explain.
Henry might have given us dates, a lifestory, but instead he advised us to check out Works and Days. ‘Hesiod’s your boy for tool shops and working women of one sort or another.’
‘I don’t know that guy,’ Martha decided, her attention drifting back to the tub of mashed squid and her face clouding as she did so.
‘Do you believe in the dignity of honest labour?’ I should say that Henry was positively firing his questions.
‘Protestant work ethic, etcetera.’
‘Of course,’ Martha glanced at her interrogator with sudden suspicion. ‘I belong to our church.’
‘Good. Well, the Protestant work ethic is pure Hesiod.’
‘Hesiod was a Protestant?’
‘Absolutely,’ Henry nodded with that grave deliberation indicating he was having fun.
‘I didn’t know that,’ Martha pondered this new information. ‘At school I learned about Socrates and hemlock,’ she decided to risk.
‘Hesiod is pre-Socratic.’
‘And yet he’s a Protestant?’
‘I don’t get that.’
‘Do you think present times are degenerate in comparison to a past golden age?’
This caused Martha to take her eyes off the squid bucket and look at Henry’s intent, mischievous face reflectively. ‘I sometimes have a gut feeling that things are coming kinda unstuck these days,’ she conceded at length.
‘Mankind has a golden, silver and iron age – in that order?’
‘I guess we all think that deep down.’
‘Then Hesiod’s your boy for things coming unstuck.’
‘So he’s important, right?’
‘He’s critical,’ Henry affirmed for her. ‘Final question!’ and my companion poet was not quite able to hide his smirk, ‘Do you like the poetry of Robert Frost?’
‘Of course! Frost is a great poet. He is taught at school.’
‘Frost’s poetry could not have existed had there been no Hesiod.’
Martha’s brow furrowed at this connection. ‘I don’t get that either.’
‘Poets of a present age learn to speak by taking in the speech of poets from an earlier age. It is a process identical with how infants learn to speak by absorbing the speech of their parents. Frost is a pastoral poet because Hesiod established the territory of pastoral poetry.’
‘That’s kinda neat.’
‘It is very neat indeed,’ Henry trumped.
‘I thought Frost was a pastoral poet because he liked writing about his farm,’ I ventured to check the progress of the lesson.
‘The farm was incidental,’ Henry could not disguise his smirk. ‘The farm was inert without earlier text to animate its possibilities of meaning.’
‘I guess this Hesiod must have been quite some guy,’ declared Martha.
‘He was,’ said Henry. ‘For instance he advised people not to urinate where the sun can see you.’
‘I can see that makes sense,’ Martha the plumber nodded, willing to be taken along now, for all that the information came at such headlong pace.
‘Hesiod discouraged people from telling lies simply for the sake of making talk….’
‘Ri-ight,’ Martha was not sure how this one related to being a poet.
‘…Which is to say’ Henry continued headlong, ‘we have a poet at the dawn of poetry who understood the pathology of people who get nervous in conversation.’
‘I get nervous like that,’ Martha brightened at the recognition. ‘I get kinda muddled and blurt, and then falsehoods come out.’
‘Exactly,’ Henry clinched. ‘Hesiod also said that sometimes a day can be your stepmother. And sometimes a day can be your mother.’
‘I think that one just gets me confused,’ she decided. Nonetheless I could see she was intrigued by the proposition.
‘So you see, Hesiod tackles the gut issues,’ Henry summed up. ‘You must read Hesiod at your earliest opportunity.’
‘I guess I’ll do that.’
She had been distracted entirely from the squid-bucket now. So had I. And once again Henry had performed according to his genius. He had taken the substance of books and brought it to thrilling life. Yes, I would re-read Hesiod at the earliest opportunity, now that print on a page was somehow made vibrant, as the blades of light scintillant on the sea beside us, as the gleam of the squid in their galvanized bucket.
We strolled the waterfront. Henry moved us from Hesiod to Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics. Thales, with his view that the underlying substance of reality was water, was a plumber’s gift that Henry did not neglect to present to Martha. We took an early dinner of moussaka and retsina at a waterside café, walked some more in order to tackle Pythagoras, then parted, Martha to her tent at a campsite, Henry and I to the small, cement-smelling room. In the morning the three of us met again at the same café and when it came time to catch the Athens train Martha again requested she be allowed to tag along.
‘I’m kinda more curious than lonesome now,’ she said.
‘There’s ground to cover,’ Henry welcomed her along, and in Martha I recognized, we had a Henry Luck project in view. From it I would gain an insight into the purity of his altruism.