Poems from Swimming to Ithaca

Swimming to Ithaca includes poems supposedly written by one of the characters in the novel. Like the novel itself, they are my own compostions and I include them here (and perhaps one or two that never made the final cut). They are inspired by memories of Cyprus. Some readers may be interested...

Swimming to Ithaca

When I first came ashore at Ithaca
I expected something different.
The grey olives, fingering the wind,
Were predictable.
The asphodel, with its cat’s piss smell,
And of course I knew it would be hot and dry

But when I came ashore at Ithaca
It was Penelope who surprised me.
Her manner with the suitors,
And her impatience with my stories.
The relationships she had been weaving
In my absence
And the sense that we had been apart too long

I had hoped to find an ally in Telemachus
But he just shrugged his shoulders
And asked where I had been all this time

Expedience had become habit, that’s the trouble.
We become our absences



The goddess of the world has crossed Lethe
And with her passage
All record of Spring’s effulgent blooming vanishes:
Hyacinth is drowned
Myosotis forgotten
Anemone blown away by gales.
Dog rose and dog violet
Are thrown to the dogs.

Candles gutter in the wind
And Olympos stands against the sky
Draped in a winding sheet
Like an old man walking to his own funeral

If Zeus is king, he doesn’t show it
Hades rules now


Umm Haram*

(Muhammad’s Aunt – some say his foster mother – who, coming to a place at the Salt Lake of Larnaca, fell from her mule, broke her pellucid neck, and died)


Umm Haram came to Kition
In Caliph Othman’s reign
She took a fall and broke her neck
And never went home again


The Prophet’s aunt, probably
A formidable woman,
Sitting on her mule and giving orders this way and that
Like a memsahib

What did she think of the place?

Reeds part to discover there the water, polished by sun and wind,
gleaming like the single eye of God.
Seascape and landscape touched in pastel shades
By the brush that stands now, pointed at the sky.

What did she think of the place?

Flamingos draw a crayon line of pink against the blue
As in a child’s sketch.
The pellucid air shivers, like salt on the tongue.
A weight of heat and light and history,
Presses the water into the land.

What did she think of the place?

Did she understand that in this perfumed grove,
the thin gauze between life and death
Would soon be torn aside?

A stumble of the hoof, a sudden lurch
Engenders there the minaret, mosque and tomb
Couched in its grove of cypress, palm and olive;
And pilgrimage and reverence.

Lovely in death and remembrance,
She lies beneath her stone.
It floats in the air,
As though it is no more substantial than
An exhalation from the lake

*literally, Sacred Mother



He’s there at the doorway
looking this way and that

Old Janus, the guardian
of going out and going in
of past and future

You can tip him a couple of pence as you pass
And nod a greeting
And, never taking much notice but always taking note,
He’ll watch you come and go

Two faces, like the persona, the actor’s mask
Like any person, in fact:
amused, solemn
attracted, repulsed,
friendly, hostile
truthful, lying

At the start of the year all things are possible
Just as, at the rise of the curtain, anything may happen:
Laughter is a possibility,
Love is on the cards

But by the year’s end there is only one outcome
And that the worst:

Hatred, the Janus face of love.



Laughter is the second greatest intimacy
We all know what the first is
But laughter is the second

Look at Circe and her joke
- all the sailors into pigs.
A great piece irony, that one,
A practical joke
A real side-splitter.
And Odysseus roared with laughter
And touched her
And was lost.


These poems are ©Simon Mawer, 2006. Please do not use them without permission. E-mail me from the contacts page.





Jacket of the Little, Brown UK hardcover edition - a family photo from 1958, my mother, my sister and me in Cyprus.


Simon Mawer 2008 - 2022. This website is written and maintained by the author.