If you were a poet returning from war-ravaged Yugoslavia with a marriage on the rocks and credit-card companies after you, where would you go to get away from it all? Christopher Merrill’s choice, several times between 1998 and the millennium’s eve, was Mount Athos. The only women to have entered this thousand-year-old monastic republic in northern Greece — a watchtower for Byzantium, he calls it — have been halted by guards as they stepped from the boat or warned off by the voice of the Virgin Mary.
Some of Merrill’s experiences on Athos are equally forbidding. He arrives at the Serbian monastery, to be asked ‘You like racquet ball?’ and, nodding politely, is told the world championship results: ‘Yugo- slavia just won.