“Seven Poems of the Primordial Dark” by George Kalamaras

      each poem based on a painting by Giorgos Vakalo, each
      painting titled with a line of poetry by his wife, Eleni Vakalo

 

      The sky that ate the sun offers it to night


We offer our lives to many things
Consider the fish bone caught in the throat
Butterflies dancing inside
The rembetika singer’s left wrist
Once when I was a child I was the sea
Once you heard me speak you knew the depths
Of swamp light where the owls reside
If you ask me the way south I will point north
Of your vulnerable skin
And its touch of rain and wind
The way your mouth releases moan resin
Into the soup the dandelion greens the stew
Is how the dishes become clean
How the night elongates into another night
We offer our night to the weeds the willows the canebrake
The swamp-sinking moon swallowing the dark
Once when I heard it drop through a drop
Of rain I knew how heavy the world
Once you heard me say it you knew it too

 


 

      The bird that burnt and became a fish


Honestly, the plane trees frighten me with their depth
How they can drop leaves in autumn
And remain achingly alive
Suggests the contours of your body
And how the moon makes them change
Nothing endures but change, said Heraclites
And he was wise
To acknowledge wind in the throat as if it were swarms of bees
Migrating miles from Athens to Alexandria
The body of a fish becomes a bird
When the earth, when the earth turns
Through itself and becomes the soil
Of the motion of our mouths
The body of a bird can burn and become a fish
Sinking into the well-depths
Of our chest
Once it lifts itself
In its sinking
As we did many centuries before
In our brave movement from the sea

 


 

      The bones of fish seem like fish


Just as the bones of the hand seem like a face
Attempting to hear itself
Heal itself in the dawn-dim dark
Of the morning mirror
I have fallen into the color green
Through the jasmine ache of its gout-like stench
Emerging as an osprey on the cliff ledge
Edging for fish
I have fallen into myself one splendid rib at a time
The way rain becomes the grass
And grass becomes sea oats and foam
The bones of fish seem to glow
When we travel the shore where they have slept
And bring their dreams into our way of staying
Still
Look at the dogs nuzzling torns of trash
To uncover the body of food belonging to a scent
The bones of the dogs seem like catgut inside
A piano
Reluctant to pluck itself to song
Just as the bones of the hand tremble and shake
When they reach into the body
Of the sea
Inside the Belovèd
In order to extract the sea

 


 

      Before there were qualities there was life in the swamp


Dark places have bogs and worms and water moccasins
They seep into us just as our past leaps up unexpectedly
With fear and regret
As if all the butterflies that fascinated our child eyes
Were suddenly moths suicidal against the lamp
Cavafy sat up midnights in Alexandria contemplating his lamp
Measuring spoonfuls of kerosene
As if they were blood he might pour back into the beak
Of a dead sparrow
Embirikos too
Weighed the pebbles lodged in his heart
Against the throbbing wind
Giorgos Vakalo’s swamp is much more green
Swirling
Yet partially vesicular
As if the woes of the world were pouched there
Vast but with hope
Imagine a sky rouses from the ground
Imagine a mouth about to speak
These are the things of the swamp
That ask and beg of us and blister
To come into the dark
Luminous night
Alive with the glow of bird bones and heat
With phosphorous and zinc
That give weight to the world
That rises
In hopes of drawing us down
Into sparrow flight and fane
That had been with us only briefly
But quite beautifully
Quite achingly beautiful

 


 

      Butterflies make space a festival


Then there were the twelve miracles
Of spring
Each a blossoming leaf from a cypress tree
Each a step forward after the surgery
Each a word we finally found
Even if lodged in our mouths
He said I was the uncle of the moon
The wise aunt of her left wrist
The farthing and the plea
She said it was all hogwash
That my tongue needed to be clean
That my throat was a hollow bone
That birds lodged there only because it felt familiar
That even the beards of the cypress trees were suspicious
But the miracles
The twelve miracles
Each a word a phrase a way in and out of spring
The butterflies came to confirm the urge
To be fruitful and justify
The multiplying mouth
To allow the sound
To be vulnerable enough to beg, Please
Yesterday’s today was tomorrow
Time is like that
All shift and grovel and grit
As when the caterpillar one day stops eating
Hangs upside down from a leaf or twig
And spins a silk pasture from which it will bloom
Each a step forward after the surgery of a word
Each the aunt and uncle of the moon and its plea

 


 

      Imaginary garden – Our trees after the light has
      emptied them


One plus one equals zero
If we map the galaxies with Archimedes and Pythagoras
We might appear a moment as fully human
Then we become music
A piece of perfect music empty of division and subtraction
Of sound itself
We might our mouths and ears and all manner of speak
Hidden in the hiding of it
We are left with absence we are left with trees
Just as trees are lost in us
Poplars plane trees oaks and cypresses
Which bow before us when the light gives in and grieves
Abandoning them to blurry shape and size
Here Vakalo knows the depth of the animal
Wells deep in his chest
And explores what becomes of them
After light has emptied and emerged
Poplars plane trees oaks and certain cypresses
Shift from their garden and hone
The holy work of emptying themselves
To allow the roundness of now
Allowing that roundness is their work
Now
Cartographers of the stars that they are
Oh, Eratothenes
Oh, Aratus
Pytheas of Massalia
Imagine a tree emptied of light
Peer into the stars and float into them and through
As you begin to know all you can never quite become and be

 


 

      Night rises in strange shapes – None of us know them


If I asked you your name would you say gold slipper in the mouth?
If like the long hair of a tree I bent down into you
Would you be able to recite the close of the Iliad into a stone?
Able its receding rain into the bending blur of a willow?
If we arrested the word if
Indicted both letters for fraud
How would you respond to weather that became conditional?
To a word that could or could not be the mother of all sound?
Let’s say the night rouses strange
And the shapes it exudes fascinate yet startle us
Let’s say nobody understands
The fluidity of space inside
The fluidity of a word wrong-said but strong
Tell me, then
Please
If you my mouth
Tell me into me
Again and again the way a word the way a word might ask of it
And lightning-rinse
The most of our mouths
I ask that you ask the asking
Of it and rise with me into the thickly thin primordial dark
Comforting, quiet, confidently calm

 


 

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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