The Problem of Time is a collection of twelve poems by Edmund Keeley, who taught as a professor of Hellenic Studies at Princeton for forty years. In addition to his novels and literary studies, Keeley is known as a translator of modern Greek poets, particularly George Seferis, C.P. Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis and Yanni Ritsos. To choose Greece as the background of his life was an aesthetic inclination toward a certain version of the good life, as defined by an attention to the rich material of the senses. Now that this life is ending, the question of the non-sensual beyond preoccupies Keeley. Getting older is a metaphysical problem which one can confront at any age. As Keeley reaches his final years, he has employed the poetic resources of a Greek tradition particularly fertile in its considerations of existence and death to take the minotaur of his impending end by the horns.
Multiple levels of time exist in Keeley’s work: personal time, world-historical time, metaphysical time. This richness makes an old man’s anecdotal remembrances into something more. The book’s title frames the memories, consciously transforming individual history into a problem as great as that of the classic historical accounts of Herodotus or Thucydides. Mostly about travel, aging, and life after death, there are also two false conclusions of a kind: “On Turning Eighty-Eight” and “On Turning Ninety”. The word “turning” carries more weight than would, say, “turning fifteen”, since what it really implies here is a brush with the abyss, a coming-up against finality.
What is the “problem of time” alluded to in the title? The collection begins by clarifying that the problem of time is not timeliness, that is, the matter of punctuality. Rather, it is the question of whether there is still time to do what one wants to do. This never turns into true anxiety, for what underlies the collection is a state of acceptance regarding what has already happened, and a consideration of time’s infinity beyond a single human life.
When time is thought to be finite, one speaks more sharply; the young are brittle. To welcome the infinity of time, in the acceptance of death, means to welcome a certain slowness, which could be called relaxation and lassitude, or rambling and lethargy. Keeley’s metaphysical concerns find their reflection in the poems’ style. There is no urgency to them; the sentences are not broken apart, but go on and on, not asking or wanting anything to happen. Turning to the poems of Seferis or Cavafy, one feels they possess what Keeley’s do not: that sense of a vital imperative to speak.
The simplicity of the poems is what saves them. Put into prose, Keeley’s poems might not even have been recognizable as “poems”, since their language is not dense, compact, and jewel-like but loose and conversational. Yet the command over the words is clear. It was a conscious choice to write this way, and cut the lines rather than leave them in prose. This stretches out moments, and permits them to live with white space around them. A conversational tone removes the heaviness of the great questions addressed, and makes thoughts float on a ceaseless page unhindered by punctuation.
The Greek poets Keeley has worked on were masters of deceptive directness, and no doubt they are an influence. Yet in the poet’s old age the radical simplicity of his poems also comes to seem an existential position. It does not resemble the desire for clarity of the professor attempting to put Alexandrian philosophies into bite-sized packets for undergraduates, but rather a meaningful search for openness in the form of speaking to oneself and others. As Seferis’ poem “An Old Man on the River Bank” puts it: “All I want is to speak simply; for this grace I pray. / For we have loaded even song with so many kinds of music / that gradually it sinks. / And our art we so decorated that beneath the gilt / its face is eaten away.”
Mostly anecdotal, Keeley’s memories range from past walks around Greece as he meets interesting residents, to current preparations of moussaka while mulling over life. Literary experiences of reading and translating are part of one’s history too, and in “Aegean”, a poem “after Cavafy”, Keeley writes in the style of one of his literary inspirations. In the poem “The Gift” dedicated to Seferis, Keeley explicitly states his rationale for this tribute: although “you may hope that time / will be forgiving enough / to pass them on to others / to be held by them for their day”, you must “remember that poems are a gift / beyond the possibility of pride.”
Greece’s poetic tradition may contain realms of gnosis, obscurantism, and occult thickness of description that hint at the dark desires of pagan gods, but the translucent prose here suggests just the opposite. Keeley has no time for the thick fog of language games. Now he chooses to capture the eternal calm of a blue cloudless sky, over one of the four seas that embraces the country he loves best.
The “boundless sea” of death encompasses all moments in an endless and unknown present, “our song of pleasure”. “Memorial Day” is dedicated to Jack Hall of the 101st Airborne Division, 1944. Poems like this encourage us to think of this boundless sea: What if history were boundless and infinitely retrievable, a kind of death? What if the Greek gods have died, and we are living out history in the boundless sea of their afterlife? What if this breeze, this buttery sunshine, this shuddering red flower, this hummingbird that plunges its beak again and again into a bell of petals, are all elements of another’s extinction, in which we form unwitting part? What if, even if we did suspect this, we continued to live in the same way, as knowledge changes nothing?
Anyone who considers metaphysical questions too long will feel a touch of insanity. Loops within loops within loops: madness is a theme for Keeley. In “The Madman of Athens”, the crazy person in question believes that a long-forgotten war is still happening, and dressed in his “tattered jacket with stripes” goes on marching at the head of “ghostly troops”.
To believe the past exists in the present may be madness. But would only a madman think this way? In “Loukianou Street, Kolonaki” we discover an imaginative recreation (first layer) of an admiral (second layer) dreaming of a banquet in the past (third layer). This triple remove is condensed into the now, images within images. Daydreams, visions, and poetry are a kind of proliferating “madness” that leads to some unknown, the terraced steps of a hillside vineyard.
Change is inevitable, and the job of the poet-historian is similar to that of the madman: to remember the past within the present. Greece itself has changed from ancient times, as Keeley notes: “these days you’ll find / new images to contemplate / not of sun-drenched beauty / but the dark sides of disaster / of migrants crawling through holes / in barbed-wire fences / or falling off flimsy rafts / to drown in the once-blue Aegean.”
How might multiple versions exist within the same reality at the same time? Is history irreversible, or does everything that has happened still live in the present? Does life have value only if what is remembered is valuable? Nostalgia comes to point toward a deeper longing, that of compressing past, present and future into a single boundless point. Here amnesia, the undoing of memory, becomes a concern. So too does the value of memories. Keeley writes of his “sense of a life that gathered / enough good moments to remain / cause for hoping the memory / of what really counted will stay.”
Perhaps time has the same structure as a language game. Perhaps the afterlife is an infinity in which slowness and quickness, memory and amnesia, Greece and America, past and present are possible at once. Perhaps death is a sort of pun: “ultimately, the wind blows” one might say, with “ultimately” meaning either “recently” or “in the end.” The final moment may come quick as the flick of a lizard’s tail, yet feel like one of those drowsy afternoons in which you fall asleep with wine near roses or warm stone, beneath Cavafy’s afternoon sun.