by George Kalogeris
It stood in our kitchen, as stolid as it was solid:
That new refrigerator, pristine as a block
Of Parian marble, freshly cut from the quarries.
Each time you opened the door of our Frigidaire
You were face to face with a breath of colder air,
And that much more aware of the silent elder
With snow-white hair, and his blank unreadable stare.
He too was new to us. We called him Papou.
He came from Greece. His village was very poor.
Whatever happened there, it was also here—
But frozen in the unspoken. My father’s father
Sat by our kitchen window. And all afternoon
For one whole summer watched over us kids without
A single word of English. And right up until
Our parents got home from work, politely refusing
An Eskimo Pie or a glass of lemonade.
As if he’d steeled himself against the Promised
Land of milk and honey, aglow with one
Sweet pull of the shiny handle. Our Frigidaire,
Its glittering name spelled out by a strip of chrome
That kept on coming unscrewed with all the wear
And tear—till finally the fancy lettering
Broke-off all together, and left a row
Of blackened holes across the glazed enamel.
And not unlike what I witnessed decades later,
In an open field. Not far from the sheep folds.
That upright oblong slab of whitewashed stucco ...
It’s still the summer when a door of moonlight
Opens wide in the dark of our ancient kitchen,
And just as a chilly fluorescence floods my face
And I’m caught red-handed on a midnight raid,
My cousin shows me where the shooters stood.
At the cemetery in Winthrop, under the shade
Of the cypress trees, our annual gathering
Is down to thirty or so—but the holy incense
Unfurls from its censer as fragrantly as ever.
We stand before the grave of Teddy Spanos,
Our first arrival here to go down there.
O little censer with your looping handle,
Orthodox dome that opens like a lid,
The finest silverware of the tarnished tribe
Set down on the marble countertop of the tomb,
Like a Russian samovar in the Hermitage!
Now one by one, before the chanting starts,
It’s the elderly women, same as always, who kiss
The hand of the priest, then pass him an envelope
With a little money in it, and lists of names.
Names of the dead, as long as grocery lists.
Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie
Eleison ... Lord have mercy on us ... Maria,
Panayóti, Chrysoúla, Walter, Irini, Becky,
Orestes ... And there they go, in the rising smoke,
Our dearly departed—as if their surnames were
Superfluous now. And there they go, our souls
On the way to becoming anonymous. But may
Their memory be eternal, chanted first
In Byzantine Greek and then in English. Our people
Have lived in many places, our poets intone:
Egypt, Syria, Turkey ... Even Kommagene,
That little kingdom snuffed out like a lamp.
There’s hardly a breath of air as the wisps of smoke
Unfurl on the listless breeze, and the names disperse.
Under the shade of the cypress trees, in Magna Graecia.
Grape Leaves at Chloe’s
It’s one of those upscale places where nothing will taste
Like that redolent old world stuff we ate growing up.
As if I could sink my teeth in a tight green wrap
Of boiled white rice again, and get the real deal
On my tongue: dolmáthes. Drenched in oil and lemon.
Rolled on the kitchen table. And that steaming cauldron
When over dark leaves she’d mutter, stirring the ladle,
As if one grandmother conjured the other’s ghost.
Born from the sky-god’s thigh, did Bacchus grieve
For his mother—turned to ash in the flash and scorch
Of inconceivable thunder? Semele’s grave,
Euripides said, was hidden by ivy and grapevines.
Just like those tendrils climbing all over the porch
When I visited my other yiayia’s house—
The one our parents would never discuss with us—
As one of the villagers told me about the Germans.
Even now, just seeing one with its dripping
Canopy open and left to dry on the floor
Of a front hallway is bad luck, and gets me
Tense as the glinting tips of its outstretched struts.
Just calling it, as the dictionary does,
“A bell-shaped collapsible shade” invokes my father’s
Black umbrella, and how it sprang into shape
With the push of a little red button under the handle—
And from the way my mother came storming into
My childhood room, you’d think the full-blown Curse
Of Atreus had been loosed upon our house,
That house my father blessed with a basil leaf.
Long before Horace taught me that Jove could drive
His thundering chariot and galloping steeds
Across a perfectly clear blue sky, Greek Dread
Was the air my superstitious parents breathed.
As did that row of elderly women who always
Dressed in mourning, and sat at the front of our church.
And if you didn’t watch out, those black-shawled crones
Could give you the Evil Eye—or so we were told.
Fear Hubris. Fear Sickness. Fear the way they muttered
Your Moira—meaning your Fate—is already written:
Gramméni ... Same old same old ancient chorus.
It all comes back with a sudden bracing whoosh—
Like holding a plastic shield against a deluge.
Another ancient text the cyber search-engines
Have rendered as obsolete as a scroll of papyrus—
But there it is on my bookshelf: Roget’s Thesaurus.
My godparents gave it to me when I was eight.
A name day gift that came with my name day candle.
The filigreed candle was wrapped in tissue paper,
With a little blue and gold banner for brave St. George.
In the church mural he held a lance between
Two fingers, angling it like a dentist cleaning
The Dragon’s fangs. But the Dragon’s arching fangs
Looked as if they could snap the lance like a pencil.
I loved the myths. No wonder the first time I saw
Thesaurus I thought it was all about Theseus and
The Minotaur. My godmother laughed. She taught
First Grade, and showed me how to say: Ro-jay’s.
My first French word. My godparents, Andrew and Edith
Christópoulos—Nounós and Nouná—were the only
Relatives we knew who had been to college.
He was the CEO of a major firm.
They lived in Andover. Their kids were bound
For Phillips Andover Academy.
Over and over they came to sit in our parlor
With its upholstered couches, and played with the tacky
Worry beads, and relished the ouzo and homemade
Honeycomb pastries, and listened to my parents’
Demotic Greek as if it was music, sweet music
To their gentrified ears—and music to mine
Their polished, but never condescending, English.
Until Andrew, at forty, lost his speech to a stroke—
Except for the expletives he couldn’t suppress.
And always followed by the apology
He couldn’t express—except for his fitful, florid,
Obscenely pitiful shame and humiliation.
Then two years later, it was Edith’s cancer.
Swollen glands, then swollen face and hands.
Until that open, encouraging countenance
Of the first grade teacher, unspeakably contorted
And bruised, was almost unrecognizable—
If not for the eloquence of her reticence.
Fluent the glittering spokes of Andrew’s wheelchair
Pushed in procession down the nave of the church
That led to her casket—but not as fluently
Articulate as his flapping hapless hands
And the expletives my godfather couldn’t help shouting,
Pew by pew, as they wheeled him down the nave
To the open countenance in the open casket.
And then, a decade later, when Cindy, their oldest,
(My parents always called her Xanthi, “Golden”)
Was studying speech pathology at Tufts,
And started getting bad headaches, and slurred her words,
And up all night preparing for tests she read
Her symptoms like a speech pathology text ...
And now it’s my mother, called on to make the calls
That have to be made, calling her cousin long-distance,
And telling her that she’d better be sitting down.
Échoume chásee tin Xánthee. And into the phone
That groan. And out of the rhyme of “gone from us”
With “golden to us” the news was carried to Greece
In the lamentation my mother sang in the kitchen
For poor Cindy: Échoume chásee tin Xánthee.
Theseus wasn’t in the Thesaurus, but labyrinth
Was. And crouching inside whatever it was
That minatory meant, the Minotaur
Was ready to spring, malignant as a tumor.
As if the myths were already trying to tell me
That nothing could hold a candle to the darkness
That wealthy, kindly, college-educated
Christópoulos family was doomed to enter,
Calamity by twisted calamity.
And all I can do is hold up the name day candle,
The one my godparents gave me when I was eight
And they were sitting down on our parlor couches.
The History of the Peloponnesian War
It’s in an anxious footnote to his Commentary
That one can hear Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Worrying aloud about his fellow Hellenes,
And how those readers might react to Thucydides’ text:
“Although by now it’s almost four-hundred years in the past,
I know that there are those who still might find the subject
Matter too personal—and so much so that some
Might not be able to get beyond the Introduction.”
O studious Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
The great Thucydides wrote the book on Greeks killing Greeks
But it’s your footnote that brings my relatives to life.
And so much so, that even now I can hear the ancient,
Anxious, broken English of my immigrant uncles—
The ones who came from Sparta and Arcadia,
And never managed to get beyond a sentence or two
Whenever they tried to tell us about the Civil War.
No wireless cell or instant message. But current
Enough to recall those ancient long-distance calls
That always seemed to ring around suppertime,
Once every few weeks. The calls from overseas.
And always in that other, more difficult language.
And somehow via that rubber spiral cord
Just stretchy enough to reach across our kitchen,
To where she stood, wiping her hands on her apron,
And turning knobs of the stove, her head to one side,
Receiver cradled between her shoulder and ear.
Tiléfonos. And if the Greek was over
Our heads that long beige cord was on our level,
And kept us kids in the conversational loop.
And sometimes its springy taut suspension picked up
The quiver we heard in her voice. And should the lentil
Soup in its simmering cauldron remain unstirred
And her stricken face grow pale in the rising steam ...
Long distance sorrow, calling at suppertime.
We felt it in our guts—that sinewy coil
That somehow stretched across the Atlantic Ocean
And tied itself in knots when she hung up.
George Kalogeris’s most recent book of poems is Winthropos (LSU Press, 2021). He is also the author of Guide to Greece (LSU Press, 2018), a book of paired poems in translation, Dialogos (Antilever Press, 2012), and poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer Press, 2006). His work was anthologized in Joining Music with Reason, chosen by Christopher Ricks (The Waywiser Press, 2010). He is the winner of the James Dickey Poetry Prize. He teaches English Literature and Classics in Translation at Suffolk University.
Editor's Note: For an analysis of these poems see Ilana Freedman's "Greek/American Belonging in the Poetry of George Kalogeris"