“Days Come When I Forget What I’m Called”: Thirteen New Poems on Greek Poets by George Kalamaras


Michalis Ganas Looks at the Moon Looking at Him

      Days come when I forget what I’m called.
      —Michalis Ganas


So much civil war his head hurt
His father’s head hurt
And his mother’s
Even as a four-year-old his home in Epirus
In the border mountains of Greece seemed remote
Hawks circled their stone house, eagles, then vultures
Then bloody boar-like shapes drenched his dreams
In the Greek Communist retreat, they carried off entire villages
First they took him to Albania, then Hungary,
The village of Beloiannisz
His mother wrapped deer offal in a pouch around his neck
His father prayed to St. George for family protection
Lanterns inside him turned moonward for a match
Little wood in the stove in Hungary to soothe their night
He helped strip wood from boarded buildings to burn for heat
As if cast into the middle of Doctor Zhivago
No wonder his poems are nostalgic even though he’s lived
In Athens fifty years that he could measure in burned books
And when his wife shaves her legs now he hears screaming
From the gulags still and the fierce scraping of wind
And when his dog nuzzles his leg
He feels well-depths rise up to swallow him
And when starlight enters the window and bathes his knees
He sees death-drops disguised as rain against the pane
And when a friend phones
He worries about eavesdroppers and informants
So much war all he can do is call out to the moon
To write his poems for him
Yesterday he looked at it and begged it not to bleed
He rolled up his sleeve as if preparing
For a shot of morphine

 


 

Rhea Galanaki and the Noxious Nerves of Her Throat


One morning, an owl flew into her
mouth. Moon-soaked rags seemed to ask,
Is it true the barbed-wire mouth knows
how to guard the grass on the ancient hills of Athens?

Yes, Rhea Galanaki grubbed rain from the throat
grunt of a goat. Then she spoke the stones’
slow. The stones’ slow turn in the way the soil did not
turn. Once, I was a horsefly, she seemed to say,
as she stared at a stack of worthless paper
money. Here. See my sun-bit hard. The swell
of it and clutch. The bureaucrats and all
they kill
. If the moon poured kerosene
into the mouths of the dead, the Spartans
in her spine might pass a rag-wrapped torch, scarred
with midnight char. She could dial a phone and stir the way
history asks the many hairs of the mouth
which way the ships sailed west as they bled
into the sun. Rhea’s sun. As she rehearsed
the misunderstandings of words
molded into what might have been.
The Word stops here, she whispered, as if her voice
was wind whipping the willows. Once, a sparrow
settled inside her ear. Her left ear. And a bird nest
of bad weather unsettled the goats
nibbling the grass, knowing her
throat. Here, drink here, she told them. And coaxed water
from the gullies of each sunken star. There are wells
and ancient ways of dying, Rhea knew.
Some of which stayed with her—with us
all—as she moved through a slice
of time as if it were an apple
attached to a child’s swing. An apple Rhea ate.
Daily. To calm the noxious nerves
of the throat. A throat she inherited
from the goats, the grass, from her sisters,
ancient and obscured, in the underground sulfur
caves of knowing how not to predict the Orphic
itch that would become her. That would become
everything her barbed voice needed. To hear.
To touch. To ache. To stay alive.

 


 

Nanos Valaoritis Considers Trouble in the Tree of Life

      We built this house ourselves, but others will inhabit it.
      —Nanos Valaoritis


We built this tree ourselves, but others will eat it.
We built this brick, but others will place it in the cat’s bed.
We built this bed, but others will deliver the daily mail from it.
We built the sky, the stars, even the ladder into the chasm,
but others will fly as they sink back through the gods.
We built our wars, which others will bless.
We built our building of peace, but others will weep.
We built a solution, but it will only dissolve.
We built our farms, but others will trouble the corn.
We built the corn certain that others might rescue the meat.

We built the yes; we built the no.
We built these words; we built this poem together.
Yet no one, no one will sit and break bread with it.
No one will come, confident and calm, to eat it.

 


 

Poem in Which Natasa Hadjidhaki Becomes an Owl


Okay, it’s raining again
Okay, the leaves are calling me
To the miraculous flight of her poems
Sure, there’s wind in my throat
And lightning bugs in my mouth
Lightning in my ears and mouth
And moon-slips in my moist places
And, yes, wind still in my throat
When the leaves call forth the rain
And Natasa Hadjidhaki leaves her poems aside
And flies branch to branch
And absorbs the river
Absorbs the river
Into the age and ache in her throat
When it rains again
And it rains again
Because it keeps raining again and again
And the oil on her owl feathers protects her
Like the gods of Olympus throwing lightning bolts
Or Icons soothing the sick
In the monasteries at Mount Athos
Oil secretions, yes, on her feathers protecting her
From the river’s rising
And from all manner of darkness
Which in her owl flight she absorbs
In the way the moon absorbs her
When its milky light covers the river
The reeds
The canebrake and shadows
All that shadows the sad of her

 


 

A Reading from the Epistle of Gisèle Prassinos

      as heard by Paul Éluard at the Bureau of Surrealist Research


And so, my brothers, let your cigarette burn as if a cypress tree in Ephesus on fire. Once, when you were young, you were me. And you felt your woman-body glow and expand in ways only the wind knows. Please, there is a seasonal wind inside each fallen leaf. And what has fallen is part of what you hope to one day redeem. Raise. Lift. Listen. There is an eviction of geese leaving the body all at once when we awake. And we are rarely awake. Stop. Step. Hear. Your voice is my voice is what the deep wells of grief call up from the ground. You lean forward in your chairs, listening to me—this fifteen-year-old Greek girl who will one day become a lantern burning water—convinced you have lost something far back in your youth. And you have. What you have lost is a protective scavenger. Of sound. Advice. And I am here before you and also inside three of the two steps from the dream bowl of blowfish left at your bedpost. I love you all as deeply as you love yourselves. If you love yourselves. And I implore you to do so. Here, in Paris. Here, in Ephesus. Here, where the vast weight of those who are cypress-stung swings in the in-between. My brothers of the Institute of Scientific Exploration. My sisters of the wind lifting through the soles of the feet. Go inward. Toward me. Toward. Yourself. Toward every bird you know you are longing to wing-shoot and become. Fifteen is just a beak rip. Age has no worm. Or mouse. Or drift of vowel. This is true and not true. And it has been so for as long as we have lied to one another with our various truths. Listen to these words. Even as you eat them, they disappear.

 


 

Nanos Valaoritis Visits Paul Bowles in Morocco


And they smoke hash together in Tangier and pass
the hookah and, yes, it is dark. The night soil
they burn for fuel gives off the scent of earth
turning and turned. And the thick animal night
inside the wind is inside their bodies
as well. Wind from his heart, Valaoritis’s heart,
merging with the leaves of a Paul Bowles tree,
desert-stretched and sunk. Roots reaching
for water all the way to the sea. Nanos reads
his latest poems to Bowles. Into Bowles.
They are not words or sounds or aches of rain.
They are splices of wind, spittle, bits of ash from his rib.
His sixth and seventh ribs on his left side,
Nanos Valaoritis’s side, perched there like crows
counting corn growth on an abacus.

Bowles passes him, again, the hookah, praising
what they share, some of which is exile—from the public,
from the junta, from The Sheltering Sky. Bowles asks
about Breton and Péret and whether it’s true
that René Daumal actually died in India with a peacock
sewn slantwise into his chest. Love the life
with which the wind gifts you
, Valaoritis answers. Look
in the mirror after painting it black as sea salt
sunk in a bog. That, Paul, is Surrealism
.

And the wind in their bones, in both of their bones,
lifts a little and burns like birdsong through the hollow
parts of the heart. Men and women emerge as outlines
from dreams with canisters of wren feathers
they add to the hookah, along with snail droppings
and bits of chickweed.

There are imprints in the ether, forms in the shape
every word ever lost. Forms in the shape
of Simone Kahn, Jacqueline Lamba, a sandhill crane
from Ogallala, Nebraska, with one leg poised into a pout
of mud as it scours for fish. This could be a wood ibis
or a marabou stork, the scent of a sewing machine
on a dissecting table, even the effects of the hash. Valaoritis
hands Paul Bowles his beret, asking if that shade
of black is dark enough to spark the mirror
he spoke of minutes before, Bowles handing back
his hooded Moroccan wool cloak as one way to be
a wingèd birdman and fly above it all.

And they wash their hands and step from their room
and clear their throats of the smoke, approaching
the casbah in search of tagine chicken and a bit
of mint tea. And each person they pass is a poem
Bowles and Valaoritis read and seem to know
and pour into one another and through. The night soil
keeps burning the city streets and the dreams
embedded in their lungs. And the thick animal night
offers healing release, beckoning down into them
as they hunch near the tagine oven and praise the chicken
they are about to eat. Say its wings,
even dead, are as moving as the poems of Elytis,
Sachtouris, and Breton. The gift they are certain
is sure to enter them and lift their urge
beyond the burden of words and into the driftings
of daylight and the release of all discernible disease.

 


 

Katerina Angelaki-Rooke Contemplates the Words of Her Godfather, Nikos Kazantzakis


There is a fishbone caught in her throat
The size of a quarter moon
The triumph of constant loss, she said
Is a winter inside the coagulation of spring
Beautiful the moon and beautiful the dahlias
To be born in Athens among all those gods
To wake some mornings with red hair, others with brown
And breathe bus fumes crowding the Acropolis at noon
Blessèd be the fire ants of Namibia
Who forage for only seven minutes thirty-three seconds a day
The scorching sand and heat is enough
To blister anyone who tries to write
A life
Who attempts the holy mountain
Trek inside
These are the things she thought
The things she became
Reading The Odyssey of her godfather, Nikos Kazantzakis
Spilling his words among crowds in Harvard, Iowa, New Delhi
The moon is some beached fish
She surely must have said during a lecture
Or some nights swallowing hard
Writing her poems of sparrow blood and calm
Her poems of victory and deafening defeat
And long nights lantern-cast back through her own soothing
Yet disquieting dark
Translating Kazantzakis’s The Suffering God
Like a god herself working
To understand herself and the swallowings of night
Near a flickering lamp casting its light darkly through her own

 


 

George Themelis Learns to Say I Love You

      And what sort of thing would God have been?
      . . . What would Death have been without us?

      —George Themelis


George Themelis took suck
from the crop milk at the base
of the neck of Alberti’s burning
owl and from the charred part
of René Char’s heart—both of whom
he had translated. Say a manta ray
beached itself on the island
of Samos as a way to claim
the flames. Say Nicolas Calas—
first named Nikitas Kalamaris—decided
it was cannibalism to eat
the holy squid from which
he got his name. It could be
Japan and the slaughter
of dolphins that alerted
George Themelis to the importance
of taking footpaths with Orthodox
hermits in the Scetes Desert
of Egypt. They spoke koine
Greek and demotic Egyptian
as if the Tower of Babel
found, finally, the two true tongues
when it collapsed, crumbling to the ground.
Anthony the Great was a person
and a poem. And George Themelis
knew it was a form of writing when he prayed
to the saint that the desert might yield
cactus milk in his own heart too.
How to learn to say, I love you, in every language
of the world was Themelis’s goal.
Though he never said so
but expressed it with the way
he hung his washrag, delicately,
after the bath. And wrote poems
as a translation of holding hands
with a moon split in two,
with a piece of burning straw
that sought and found its own drop
of water. Outside of us, he said, things die.
Animals die from anonymity
and birds from silence
.
Which could be one reason
he married Alberti’s owl.
And found in Char the burning
brain to seek God inward
as if he, too, were a monk
whose feet bore blisters
from the desert rough and sand.
Rilke wrote, Only what’s inside is near,
the rest is far away
. And Themelis
knew this in the sinking of his ink,
though he’d never read those words.
Instead, he wrote, Whatever my soul
has heard / Within me, it hears
, as if
a letter directly to St. Anthony. As if
resuscitating dolphins with a basket of squid.
As if the inward deserts of Egypt
were storms confusing the sea, and he lived
in them both—all lightning long—walking
the waves and sand hand in hand
with what he knew had to be inside him.

 


 

Thoreau Studies Classical Greek So Long, He Wakes One Morning Only to See Homer in His Mirror


I went to the sea because I wished to sail deliberately, and not, when I came to die discover never having ever truly drowned.

Even ships do not crash against the rocks without a groan.

I have set sail inside my own blood. Inside the wind inside my blood.

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The use of Theban slaves as oarsmen must be the intractably compliant idea that forced labor resembles the possibility that the moon invoking a wooded cabin might actually not calm the sea.

In other words, a man is rich in proportion to the number of Trojans he can kill.

Yesterday, Sappho’s owl flew slantwise through my throat. And Walden Pond will always be just one drainage ditch into which the Aegean empties.

Live, I tell you, the life Pericles on his throne imagined for himself.

Or die of pneumonia like Alexander only after having reached India and realizing he should have stayed home by the log fire with the sound of wind and a dear devoted dog.

In fact, our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

Concord, Massachusetts, a crowd of people stuck as the helots of Sparta.

The mass of men, I tell you, lead lives.

The mass of lives end up, in the end, quite desperately dead.

I have set sail quietly inside my own saliva. Even within this beard which refuses splintered shavings of a morning rain. To return each chin hair home after a ten-year war.

When I tutored the children of Emerson in classical Greek, I extracted three fingers of salt from the Trojan gods peppering the young ones’ brains.

Kabir says, Go to the inner woods to learn from trees to breathe; Homer says, Cut down the trees around the secluded pond—even on the slopes of wooded Zakynthos—and build a new ship so you can flee to the sea.

 


 

Jenny Mastoraki and the Multiple Mounds of Hurt


Her poems are badger-dens disguised
as Stop. Wait. Listen. Among us and through
are the many murders of Jenny Mastoraki. Her words.
Her way of mouth. The many blows military batons
beat, battering her almost into another life. Wind comes
as all winds do. As do death and the after-
bath of a pummeled body left to hemorrhage
on the stone steps of the University of Athens
library. One baton-pop. Two. This rib,
that. Count the splinters. Scour the badger-dens
for the number of termites
multiple in the mounds. Oh, God,
how high can the concussive count?

Some say we hold in the belly the birth
of the belly. Some say, no, there are Aegean sails
sent forth from there to find Ithaca,
even the Golden Fleece. Yet all agree,
what’s in the belly is never expelled. Completely.

And it cries out, this belly-
urge. Roped against the mast
of the body, begging to flee the duodenum
for the pharmakeia of Circe.

Like love, say, or anger. Transformed
into lions. Wolves. Swine. Or into the memory of Jenny
on a stone step, reciting her poems courageously against
a military coup. Brave and fierce as the wind
Odysseus longed to listen to and begged
his men to let him become.

 


 

Oh, Pavlina!

      The fibers of my voice stretch out
      —Pavlina Pampoudi


Yes, your voice stretches out
Into me into
The trees
Where the wood thrush extends its chest
And becomes a grosbeak
You once said, I have nothing to say to no one
And my mind bends
Its attempt to suss out
The seeming double negative
Knowing there are no silences where you once
Spoke and keep
Speaking the trembling leaves
Because your breathing mists
The trees
Because your words remain alive in other people’s bodies
Because if we do the math it all adds up
To a broken word
Spoken exact
Times two spoonfuls of table salt
That lathe the tongue
With moonlight and its miraculous mines
Oh, Pavlina!
You eclipse the already-said
You step out into the dark
Of thinking you have nothing to say to no one
But having everything to say to the sound
Of now
And no one is there, no one is there to hear you

 


 

Zephy Dharaki Becomes the Moon Becoming a Bee


And so it was told unto the throat
And so the happy blood of the moment
She wrote about burst upon a star
And so the blood the star the stars
And all manner of things
Awakened
Zephy Dharaki carried the stone steps of her library
On her back after being fired
In the wake of the coup
She wandered it wandered we wander
Conjugate the complexities of grief
If you dare
Look directly into the eclipse
Of one burning dog eating another watery one
There are special glasses to see such things
Advised for our legs our feet
To cross borders when necessary
Like Antonio Machado fleeing Franco’s Spain
Crossing the mountains in a car with his mother on his lap
Zephy Dharaki became the moon becoming a bee
The bee becoming each word each phrase
She piled and layered upon each other into her poems
Happy blood of the moment
She assured us
Blood pouring blood pouring blood
Happy blood of the bee in the throat
And we begged of it to speak to see to one day hear
As we slit our veins on each word
Each phrase
Each storm given us
Each lathering swarm of the holy work

 


 

Melpo Axioti and a Theory of Moths


You are the shadow of a sparrow
trapped inside a slab of concrete.

The bones of your face groan
with the sudden burden of trees. Louis Aragon

and Pablo Neruda still call you Sister.
The Greek Civil War was a songbird

you soughed into a cage. Your exile gave the plane trees
an excuse to weep. Now the critics praise

your communism, your bread and water,
the color of your hair. Fumes from buses

perfume you. Footsteps fertilize the paper bags
on which you wrote your poems. All those years

of exile allowing the sound of your mouth
to retract. Even when it branched out

and became a library of drowsy moths.
Stop! Stop the train from tracking

words in your throat and taking them
through back-country agonies

to East Berlin. Pablo Picasso puts down
his brush and paints you with his eyelashes.

 

 

 


 

Biographical Note:

George KalamarasGeorge Kalamaras, former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016), is the author of ten full-length books of poetry and eight poetry chapbooks. His most recent books are We Slept the Animal: Letters from the American West (Dos Madres Press, 2021), Luminous in the Owl’s Rib (Dos Madres Press, 2019), and That Moment of Wept (SurVision Books, 2018). He has received several national prizes for his poetry, and he spent several months in India in 1994 on an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship. He is Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne), where he has taught since 1990.

 picture of George Kalamaras

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