Six Poems

In the Kitchen with the Window Open at Noon

Peppers from the garden, salted and fried. Their tangy, voyaging scent. Then with the oil I make koorkoot, that is, a grated tomato, two garlic cloves chopped, minced parsley, all from the garden, a spoonful of flour dissolved in water and mixed in. The radio playing songs from childhood summer days. A breeze on the curtain and through the house, at times picking up, shutter hinges creaking, plums and apples falling off their bent boughs.

The Day after the Funeral

The church bell rings for the memorial service. My ninety-six-year-old neighbor has called the young Albanian woman who does various jobs in the village— cleaning houses, gardens, washing old people—to weed around her tomatoes and dig up and lighten the soil and add manure. It’s sunny. Strawberries, cherries and poppies have reddened. The old woman watches the younger one work, instructs, encourages her: “That’s the way.” Women in black pass on the street below her garden, heading for the church.

It Starts with Color

The faded baby blue of fifty-year-old road signs with gold lettering (new signs aren’t bothered with in the countryside): Κυδωνιές, Αηδόνια, Τσοτύλι in one direction; Ροδοχώρι, Κριμήνι, Τσοτύλι in the other. Κορυφή, Πεντάλοφος. Villages from which round-backed baby-blue buses with mounted racks brought people to and from the market town of Τσοτύλι Mondays and Saturdays—so many people, each village was assigned its own bus. The crowded bus station in Τσοτύλι, a dimly lit room except past noon in summer with sun through the filmy street-front window: old men and women in dusty clothes, with satchels of cheese, beans, nails, watermelons, chestnuts, cans of oil, lard, fish wrapped in newspaper, rat poison, the few chairs taken, everyone else sitting by the walls and in the middle of the room with their packages—you couldn’t walk through without putting your hands on someone’s shoulders or kneeing their backs to balance yourself. Then the drivers climbing the drop ladders on the buses’ backs, tying packages to the racks, pulling hard on the rope. Then the pushing and grabbing to get on, and the buses driving off, dirt kicking up, heads bobbing or swaying or in loud conversation.

Hardly anyone in the villages anymore, and what’s left of the buses sit pathetically rusting in overgrown fenceless fields; the old station, gutted. The only way to that Τσοτύλι now is to stand by a sign of faded color on the abandoned road, where the place still lives. Perhaps on a summer morning as a sign heats up—if sun’s what provides fuel for the memory. Step up, place your palms on it, run your fingers over numbered distances, hand-cut letters and accent marks glued on for life. Then step back and stand awhile looking up at the sign till it makes no sense at all and you walk away.

Late Summer

Ionian blue, as we look down
a Lefkadian cliff, won’t cure us.
Nor Aegean blue while we sit
on any beach we like, cicadas screeching,
scent of tanning lotion
in the air. No sacred number of dunks
will bring about a turn. Talking won’t.
The dyad of village sky
and yellow hill grass won’t help.
The delicious cherry spread, the native
sheep’s-milk butter, spoons of
olive oil taken each morning, garlic
from the garden, unsprayed
apples eaten fresh off the trees
on the land where we were born.
Not the day trip with others
to a lake shared by three countries,
the walk on the bridge
to a small island, the sound of many reeds.
The touted, looked-forward-to fish dinner
disappoints us. We drive back,
our stomachs ache all night.
We can’t find our way
about silence. About others. About
night. The sun is too big for us. The blue,
unmanageable, inland or coastal.
We can’t be with our sadness. Late summer
is an awkward time.
Just like the rest of the year.
Yet bringing a stool out to the balcony
one last summery night
and listening to crickets’
clear, tender vibrating tones
in layered distances
is a tonic, whatever they are singing of—
stars, trees at night, God, the end
of summer.

Report from Thessaloniki

The sun has come out since I wrote to you earlier today, when I was in perhaps a downer state. And I ate a delicious fig, which made me smile, was enough to overturn everything, at least momentarily. Sometimes it’s that simple, a fig can do it. Then I walked around— lots of pigeons in the squares; the very wise and gyro-overfed dogs reclining by street crossings, making sure everybody makes it across safely; sunlight on the marbled piazzas; the sea. And lots of faces, not Greek faces, but Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, Iranian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, African. Thessaloniki is more Middle Eastern compared to the last time I visited. A boost of life. If I were to use a sentence with God in it, I would say, “God has sent these people to Thessaloniki to enrich the place, and to keep the Greeks from killing each other off.” Right now five Afghani boys on green scooters are lighting up the square as I sit on a bench in the shade and write this. I am happy they are here. One of the boys smiles at me, and I am happy. They play for a long time, with many pigeons in the same square flapping their wings en masse and lifting off into the sky. It’s not all happy. There are people eating out of garbage bins, and they smell terribly. You pass so many things when you come to the city, in your need to be somewhere else for a while.

Every Day

One February in Chania, in the old town.
A house facing the sea.
Large windows. Thick floorboards. High ceiling.
Great light coming in.
From the bakery at the corner
a fresh hearty loaf.
A chunk of kefalograviera and a bottle
of spring water from the store.
Legs stretched over the wide
deep sill, window open. Breaking off cheese and
bread. Eating and drinking in that air.

Tryfon Tolides was born in Korifi Voiou, in the province of Kozani, Greece. His first book manuscript, An Almost Pure Empty Walking, was a 2005 National Poetry Series selection, published by Penguin in 2006. In 2009, he received a Lannan Foundation Writer Residency in Marfa, Texas.