Nature’s way conceals mysteries of the lost city
Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City By Mark Adams Text Publishing, 306pp, $32.99 We live in a moment when technology seems to be unlocking the mysteries of the past at dizzying speed. Between satellite imagery and computer analysis, hardly a week goes by without somebody announcing they’ve found the resting place of Cervantes or located yet another lost city hidden in the jungles of Ecuador, or nutted out how long Neanderthals breastfed their children (seven months, in case you’re wondering).
Yet if there’s one mystery of the ancient world that remains stubbornly elusive, it’s that of Atlantis, the “great and marvellous power” described by Plato that was supposedly lost when the island on which it stood sank into the ocean. Did the magnificent city really exist? If it did, where was it? And what exactly happened to it?
These aren’t questions many serious historians or archeologists lose sleep over. Yet the same questions are an obsession for a small but dedicated band of amateur experts, as American writer Mark Adams discovered when he became fascinated by the lost city while researching a series of articles about the great philosophers.
Whether Atlantis became an obsession for Adams as well is an open question. Although he describes becoming infected by the “contagion” early on in Meet Me in Atlantis, he never really succumbs in the way many of his subjects have, retaining instead a reassuringly sceptical perspective.
This scepticism gives Adams the distance he needs to unravel the complex and often contradictory textual, historical, archeological and — significantly, it turns out — mathematical elements of the Atlantis myth and transform them into something that at least resembles a detective story.
One by one the various candidates are assessed: Malta, Crete, the lost Greek city of Helike, the foothills of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and, perhaps most tantalisingly, the ancient city of Tartessos, which was located in what is now the Donana National Park on the Spanish coast near Cadiz.
Adams’s treatment of this aspect of his story is never less than entertaining, but there’s no stance is never far from a hermetic renunciation of politics. Many poems turn on a twin impulse: to meditate on one’s wisdom or lack of it — the essential emptiness of the Buddhist teaching — versus the impulse to fight for social justice and avoiding the fact sustaining the mystery of Atlantis’s whereabouts for almost 300 pages requires a fair bit of creative footwork, especially around the questions of how literally we are to take the “facts” as Plato describes them.
Sensibly, therefore, Meet Me in Atlantis is as much about the people obsessed with the lost city as it is about the knottier questions about its existence or otherwise, those people who become, to borrow a phrase from one of Adams’s subjects, possessed by the subject, “their minds … fired with a continuous fever”.
This focus gives the books a wonderfully human edge. Like Jon Ronson, Adams is egoless enough to allow his subjects the space they need to unfurl their theories, and by extension their eccentricities. In places that is charming, as in Malta, where he meets a pediatrician who is also the leading exponent of the theory Atlantis was in fact part of Malta, a man whose all-too obvious generosity and good nature cannot disguise his refusal to countenance the problems with his theories.
At other times it is frankly bizarre, as when Atlantologist Rand Flem-Ath (his surname is an amalgam of his own name and that of his wife) launches into an explanation of his theory that the continents of the Earth go through periodic stages of sudden convulsive change, a process that supposedly resulted in the continent on which Atlantis once stood migrating to Antarctica just under 12,000 years ago.
And sometimes they are both touching and revealing.
“I have given up on finding work,” one of Adams’s Atlantologists confides in him. “Two equality. He has poems saturated with quiet and sad resignation, in the manner of Wang Wei, Tu Fu or Li Bo; and he has grumbling, bitter poems of indignation, as direct as a protest song, their diction therefore running the risk of being hackneyed.
Between these two poles, most of the poems of Habitation dwell. Their canny negotiation of the two poles is what gives Hamill’s oeuvre its stamp of literary quality and enduring political bite.
The first few collections contained in Habitation earthily evoke the Utah Hamill knew as a damaged kid — ‘‘the difficult beauty of my boyhood’’, as he wryly puts it. Hamill’s typical form of address has the democratic ethos Walt Whitman wanted of poetry. Yet all along there is, as with Whitman, the solitary, in-turned voice within an open field of speech. He is ‘‘almost fifty’’ and ‘‘almost overcome with loneliness and gratitude’’, when he ruminates on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: It is spring, full moon in a cloudless sky after a long dark winter, a year after another stupid war. Maybe these years ago I learned I have Asperger’s syndrome. It is a mild form of autism.”
Yet in the end it isn’t the mystery of the city’s existence and location or the personalities that are most interesting about Meet Me in Atlantis but the sense that buried somewhere in its fabric is another, larger set of mysteries.
Sometimes these are as simple as an oceanographer’s observation that rapid sea level rises at the end of the last Ice Age probably submerged not just the occasional settlement but the evidence for the existence of many cultures worldwide.
But it’s equally present in an anthropologist’s remarks about the way our obsession with terrestrial archeology blinds us to the unconsoling stars know the secret names we cannot know … A Leaf
It is hard to find a note of political consolation in Habitation. There are vivid, love poems, and their limpid, naked speech is consolation of a kind. But those experiences are mostly transitory. The ‘‘true peace’’, as he writes in a poem of that title, comes to him as he is ‘‘halfbroken’’ on ‘‘a smoky night, hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive’’: he finds himself contemplating news of the monk burning himself to death in Saigon. He wonders what it can possibly mean to make a sacrifice, to give one’s life with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
In the longest poems in Habitation Hamill strives to work everything out at once: historical wounds, the commemoration of the dead, the rebarbative politics, one’s damaged heart, the climate of opinion, the climate itself — the poetics, in fact, of the totality.
The best of these are tours de force of lyrical specification and allusion. A Pisan Canto, for ex- sophistication of ancient mariners, and, perhaps most potently the degree to which human history, like that of the Earth more generally, has been shaped not by gradual development but by sudden catastrophes in the form of volcanoes, tsunamis and even meteor strikes.
Or, as a Spanish naturalist remarks to Adams at one point, in words that will resonate for many in a world in which a transformed climate seems likelier every day, “in the end nature erases everything … I think that’s the real story of Atlantis. No matter how big and powerful you get, you can disappear like that.” ample, shines as a critical lament regarding Ezra Pound — no mean feat for a leftist to pull off.
The older Hamill has grown, the more deft the ‘‘wisdom’’ statements threaded throughout. My favourite collection, Border Songs (2011), is his most recent: it is saturated with grief for the death of his wife and informed by the studied humility that becomes a sage, albeit a sad, rather embittered one. “What is true peace, I cannot know … mine’s the heart that burns …’’ We come to this a few lines after reading about Shelley’s heart that ‘‘refused to burn’’.
It has to be said, I suppose, that overall Hamill is a romantic poet in extremis. Hence his morbid tendencies, which are not always alleviated by Eastern teachings. But it’s a mistake to focus too much on the solemnities. Here is Road Hog Sutra, a poem from back down Hamill’s track, in the middle of his dark wood, as it were. Bodhidharma’s face — big bushy brow and long beard and dangling earring — on my lapel pin prompts a postal worker to ask, “Hey! Who’s that biker you got there?”