Turning Fifty at the Oracle of Death

By Christopher Bakken

Cape Taenaron, Mani

A few wrong turns brought me here to the end,
so far south the land ran out of itself,
open sea devouring all but this slab
of dusty headland inscribed by high wind.
I obeyed the ancient instructions, left

my rented car behind and went by foot
to find the cave—the drawing place of ghosts.
Ventilation shaft of the underworld.
Here the living came to sip death’s breath.
Would I even know which questions to ask?

Half a century old and I was still
a ruin-addict, clomping haunted sites
in my flip-flops, hoping to rouse the mind
with a whiff of information and myth
in between long swims and cold seaside beers.

I’d never liked to predict my next move
Yet for this cheerful destination,
I’d read a book, even opened a map.
In fact, prediction was what drew me here,
since looking out for death, or listening,

at least, for its mute, insistent murmur,
was what I had been doing every day
since, as a boy, I learned I had to die.
When you come to the Oracle of Death,
push your head through, find a road going down

that no one travels. I’d already found
that road: it led into a labyrinth
of storm drains I explored when I was ten
beneath the streets of Madison, Wisconsin.
Those crumbling tunnels were ankle-deep

with rain water and rills of fallen leaves.
I lost myself down there, and yet
emerged from a manhole five blocks from home.
I’d followed where the unlit current led.
Fifty, now: why not get lost again?

I trudged the sweltering peninsula,
but found only old walls, a broken church.
The famous cave, I learned, was further out;
you had to go by boat and then dive in.
So many years spent tunneling back

into passages I wouldn’t remember:
every hour sacred but rigged for collapse.
Burial rites we rehearse each birthday.
Which is to say there’s really no way back,
and this far south, left and right are the same.

Anyway, the afternoon was dying.
The map of the Mani I’d unfolded
was still there in my car to be ignored.
The end of one continent at my feet:
nothing to do now but turn north and walk.