By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"So we were hidden there, on high, but I would look out the small window in the morning and watch the Austrian soldiers washing themselves, brushing their teeth. 'How many gorgeous boys like you are going to be killed by gorgeous Greeks?' I wondered. What stuns me to this day is this story: Here one morning was a soldier listening to music. We knew something serious was happening because the Gestapo had been brought to town. A German soldier had been killed in the next village, and all the men there had vanished when word of some retribution came. So, here is this soldier--the enemy--and I am around the corner, unseen. He is enraptured by Mozart. Soon he stops. He gets up and goes to that village and kills 150 boys under 12 years old. He comes back in the evening and turns on the Mozart again! To me--my god, such joyful music after such a slaughter! What on earth?
"Later in the war, I thought I would be a doctor, you know, and go to the medical school. Until, going by everyday, I started to see all the dead who were killed in the middle of the night, piled up there on a truck for the medical students to perform anatomy on. Everyone was killing everyone--Greeks killing Greeks, the communists, the noncommunists, the occupation forces, brothers against brothers." Suppose, Popie goes on, more subdued now, that in your next life the Archangel says, "OK, you have been such a good one in your previous life, what country would you like to be born back into? Who can say? America, Greece--every kind of paradise has its way of wounding. Anywhere, the chaos can come loose, and death follows."
To put these kinds of memories into a garden is, at the least, a psychic risk. But the other risk--that of forgetting--has its own lessons in ancient Greek mythology, which Popie knows by heart: Orpheus, the son of Calliope, was married to Eurydice. One day, she was bitten by a serpent and killed. So Orpheus went down into the underworld to retrieve her. It was said that his beautiful songs could charm wild animals and make rocks and trees dance, so he sang one to Hades as a bribe for his wife. In turn, Hades agreed to release Eurydice, but on one condition: that Orpheus was not to look back as he was carrying Eurydice to the surface. But just as the couple reached the upperworld, he forgot. And so his lover slipped back into the fire. Later, Orpheus was attacked and torn to pieces by the Maenads. His body was thrown on the rocks and his head into the river where it floated away, still singing, and still inconsolable after his tragic act of forgetfulness he could never forget.
"For a long time, I didn't remember my dreams." We are sitting again on the patio, talking about the river of black stones nearby that runs into the roots of an old tree. "So I gave up on Freud. All those theories just caused the dreams to slip my mind! I said, 'Popie, that way, you are stuck wide awake with just a tangle--no images, no landscapes, nothing to represent.' So, no stories. And so, a kind of death."
What you must keep in mind, she tells me, is what the Greek tragedians taught us, especially about the gods. The gods, remember, were each stuck with a fatal passion. They were done in by hubris. Think of Apollo, she says, as if mentioning the name of a pop star everybody knows. "He was a high and mighty aristocrat who was brought down by a nobody, Hermes, the thief who stole all his cows. Ha!" Think of Zeus, who wasted his days entangled in nymphs, giving birth from his thighs to mad baby demi-gods, and suffering for his lascivious deeds into eternity. Think of Hera, wild with envy. Or Dionysus, drunk to the gills. "Or Artemis," Popie goes on, "who, and I agree with her, thought men were a pain in the neck, but did she really have to shoot them all? The concept of balance, humility, common sense--it's not there in these myths for us. But in the presentation of nature"--here in the garden, say--"what might be more useful is to come down off those heights and make stories out of ordinary materials." Like dreams. Or rocks. Or memory.
Popie's view of the gods, be they the ancients or in their modern, American incarnations, is as irreverent as the design of her garden--floating here on an urban throughway where most plots follow the conventional: the requisite border of marigolds and spirea, set down according to some landscape architect's formula. What kind of dramas could they ever tell? Certainly not epic ones, not ones that rhyme or remind the gardener of what Popie calls "the strange love affair between the self and that old Achilles' heel"--the mind.
"I always remember," she says near the end of my last visit, "what happened on Mount Olympus here"--pointing to the small rock at our feet. The pantheon of original gods was said to live at its summit, where they spent the better part of their waking hours gulping ambrosia, screwing around, and basking in their immortality. "Well, I put this here to remind myself of a story. In this one, Olympus, like the many mountains in the Olympic Peninsula of the American northwest, rises thousands of feet above the ground, high in the clouds. One time I was there, towards the end of the day, looking at the path winding up it. I said, 'Popie, you are acrophobic. What on earth do you want with going up there?' But I went, up and up, as if in a dream.