With a View of the Sea
February, the month of departures,
when ships disembark slowly, as in a nightmare.
And everything goes silent.
The steamship KAISER FRANZ JOSEF I
was built in 1911 for the Austrian Union of Trieste
by the Nautical Shipyard in Monfalcone
(Engines from D. Rowan & Co., Glasgow).
Registered gross capacity, 12,567 tons.
Length, 477.5 ft.
Width, 60.2 ft.
Speed, 17 knots.
Capacity, 125 first-class passengers,
550 second-class passengers,
1230 passengers in third-class.
On May 25th, 1912 she embarked on her maiden voyage,
to Trieste, Patras, Palermo, Algeria and New York.
Her last voyage ended on June 13th, 1914.
I crossed the ocean with its tempests
and massive waves as a passenger in third-class
on the steamship KAISER FRANZ JOSEF I
with many other Greek immigrants,
none from my island.
I stared for hours at the sky of the New World
filled with grey-black veils of smoke.
On Ellis Island they pronounced me completely healthy.
When at dusk we passed
the Statue of Liberty,
I crossed myself,
then tipped my cap to her. So this was New York.
This was America.
This is what I’ll be for years,
I said to the seabirds—
an immigrant with a trunk.
I went to America
to make money and buy land
for an orchard back home.
I didn’t know the language, though I tried.
This is a face.
The eyes, nose and mouth
are parts of the face.
I would send money home
from McCallie Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee,
all in my father’s name.
When I returned to the island,
the money was gone.
I joined the army,
volunteered for the Balkan Wars,
volunteered for the Great War as well.
On the battlefield, I was infantry.
With my trusty rifle and the help of God,
I survived that burning hell,
though I did start smoking.
This is his body:
his head, his arms, his legs
are parts of a man.
Back in the New World,
I didn’t wander about.
I became a restauranteur.
I stayed in one place, became a ghost.
No one could see me
to save me.
Ten years passed.
Swelling waves kept pounding my door.
Suddenly, my partner and I
made a fateful decision—
we burned down the restaurant
to split the insurance.
In that Southern state
that would soon expel me,
I saw the greedy fire swallowing up
the wrought-iron tables, our dishes and silverware.
Inside those dancing flames
I saw my island,
tongues of fire caressing its mountains.
At that moment I wanted nothing more
than to plant some trees,
see the fruit they’d bear.
Closed up in those trees,
he saw houses with doors and windows
floating by. The sea was not on fire.
He went silent.
Back home, my sisters were becoming
heavy and impatient. I filled a Bayonne
with their dowry and a carpet
depicting Armistice Day. On the ship
I stood at the gunwale day and night,
a cigarette in my mouth,
eager to see the port of Patras.
Lord, take the salt from my eyes.
On the island, I found my relatives
changed, with many children.
For weeks I observed the mills
on the ridges of hills,
the mechanical clock with a chime like a bell,
sailors marching and playing trumpets.
Glory be to God.
Finally I bought an orchard,
became a landowner.
I loved that plot of land;
loved the earth,
the way it blossomed in spring;
loved the chickens pecking at it,
the dogs protecting it,
the cistern collecting rainwater,
the draw-wheel, hoist and vertical gears,
the horse treading around in circles.
I even loved the ditches I irrigated,
could find them with my eyes closed.
High time to find a wife.
Before our wedding, Nina worked at home,
making hats with fabrics she’d buy from Ermou
in Athens. All the officers’ wives
wanted to wear her hats at the big receptions,
whatever matched their coats and gowns.
They’d come for a fitting
since she had all the latest patterns,
would do every correction they asked.
A hat has angles and curves, a pose.
It hides the brow with great care,
with a veil or black satin spangles,
or a brim sometimes
angled above an eye
for a touch of the erotic.
They wanted to marry her off
to a pharmacist,
a marine officer,
men with a bright future. In the end,
she chose a man with a past
and stopped making hats.
“I was born in Bulgaria,” she told me,
“beside the Danube. They named me Irene.
My father, a barge captain, would ply his boat
back and forth across the river.” At the wedding,
Ponirakis, who owns nurseries,
was my best man. He planted calla lilies and tulips
for us, red grapes beside the cistern,
and asphodels. Our land became a flourishing garden.
We had two strong children.
I baptized them at the monastery,
gave them both durable names.
They were born
in the time of large investments—
his faith in the future was restored.
The tongues of leaves tell me
inside the earth there’s a plan inscribed.
I imagine a network of roots
that thrive there, elusive and unbaptized.
She whispers to me,
“The trees are holding back,”
and I look for changes
in our citrus fruit:
time here is dense and abrupt,
there, underground, it spirals up in tranquility.
This is a steam.
This is a pot.
This is the cover of the pot.
This is a flame
When the Germans came, we couldn’t make money
from the orchards, but we had the restaurant where Nina
used as many lemons as she could,
gave her recipes to friends:
Lemon Blossom Spoon-Sweet
100 drams of well-chosen blossoms.
1 oka of sugar.
Put water on to boil
and add the blossoms.
Boil them 4-5 times,
then drain the water,
put in fresh water
and boil the blossoms again
until you can tell with your fingers,
like we test greens,
that they’re thoroughly boiled.
Once ready, prepare a bowl of lemon juice,
pour it over the mixture and leave it in the sun
for an hour. Later dilute it with 5-6 cups of water.
Add the sugar, stirring it carefully until the lumps are gone,
then lower the flame as much as possible,
letting it simmer slowly, so it doesn’t turn black.
PS Dear Semiramis, Give your kids a kiss for me!
Taverna on a sidestreet with bakeries:
Retsina from Foussa
Touloumi Cheese with Must
Our restaurant was on a sidestreet
that opened out to the square.
My son was a helper. During the war
he rode a horse
and would go to Damala,
the village across the strait from us.
We’d throw a brown blanket over the trees
so he knew it was safe to return.
If he didn’t see it, he’d go back. One day
my wife forgot to remove the blanket,
so he set off. “Halt!” the Germans shouted.
Was he the one who’s been hiding weapons,
gasoline and diesel inside a well?
He ran away with all his might.
As he was jumping off a drystone wall
into a field, they shot at him.
A bullet grazed his ear. They caught him,
searched him, found a dictionary.
Full of blood, he was taken to be executed
in the square. I ran to the collaborator,
promised to give him my land,
the family home, all the olive oil, everything,
if he could save the boy.
“He’s not responsible.
He’s just learning English. He likes
Look, a pocket book:
What is this?
This is an animal.
These are some animals: a goat, a pig, a horse. What is this? This? THIS?—
Still trying to save the boy,
I ran to my neighbor Matina,
who spoke German, begged her to go to the soldiers
and explain. She returned an hour later with the boy.
The bay was receding more and more.
The boats had their sails pulled in.
Frantically he was crossing the waterfront
as if flames were licking at his feet;
the horses were whinnying, waves spewing up,
the fishing boats whistling in the wind,
a window banging—her wailing
filled the sidestreets
like a siren.
Who decides survival?
Ice is solid.
This is ice.
The cypress trees suddenly leaned over the house
as Nina said to her son, I’m falling.
For nights, an acrobat, she’d been falling,
the sea, full of rocks, receding,
and she couldn’t swim. When she recovered,
everyone needed something, each making demands
in a different tone of voice.
I told my son he had to become an agronomist.
so I threw him out of the house,
slammed the door behind him.
By 1955 we had reconciled
and he was selling our lemons.
These are lemons.
These are oranges.
Lemons and oranges are fruit.
Ours was the only region that produced really good lemons,
four times per year, sometimes twice in the summer.
They were selling for 2 drachs a crate
(before the war they were sold by the crate,
not by weight). We made a good income.
Workers from Poros loaded the local boats
that went to Odessa. With a “Heave to!” and a “Strike sail!”
the boats would dock and unload—
bricks, black caviar and Russian wheat.
They’d sail all over, to the Black Sea, the Adriatic,
Constantinople, Constanța in Rumania,
Burgas in Bulgaria, Trieste, Venice, Bari, Ancona.
The sea had killed many. The boats that got home first
took the best prices. All the boats
had top-notch captains. Exposed to the wind and rain,
our sailors wore rain-slicks treated with linseed oil
and black paint. They kept good care of them
so they’d last for years. Later, in the time of Dengue fever,
we built wheelhouses,
planted lemon trees everywhere.
Some bore fruit seven times a year.
A gram of lemon juice was good as a disinfectant.
Golden trees, we called them. They cured everything.
They loaded the crates onto the fishing boats one by one,
not all together, because when one crate went bad
it would become a whole pillar of rot.
In summer they took out their stoves and whitened
the green lemons so they could sell them
in Volos, Thessaloniki, Kavala, Mount Athos.
The heat bleached them, made them look like good lemons,
though this was considered cheating.
In November of 1955, Panagiotis, my former partner,
who, in America, married my cousin Marousso
and fathered six healthy children,
came to the island to see me. I brought out
a demijohn of wine from a bottom shelf
and we drank the whole night,
remembering how, all our lives,
we’ve been living at the edge of a cliff,
remembering too the fire we started. We laughed and laughed.
Coughing hard all the next day, my insides torn up,
I filled a basin with spit and blood.
Everyone thought it was wine.
A boat angles toward the purple sunset
and in a calm place far away
I see the trees in the big parks,
the cannon on the hilltop,
roll a cigarette,
and gaze into her eyes
as my last breath wraps around her
like a shroud.
The house is draped, inside and out, in black—
his lanky body fills the dining room,
and she, who knew she loved him,
knew they would always be happy together,
is slamming the chairs loudly,
stomping the floorboards. Just then
an intangible enormity sails free
from his dead body,
passing into the rhythm of the sea.
The air comes in.
That is a breath.
in out out out
Born in Athens, Greece, Liana Sakelliou studied English at the University of Athens (B.A.), Edinburgh (Grad Diploma), Essex (M.A.), and The Pennsylvania State University (Ph.D.). She is Professor in English and Chair of the Department of English Language and Literature at The University of Athens, where she teaches Creative Writing and American Literature. She has published eighteen books of poetry and criticism, as well as translations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, H. D., Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder. Her own poems have been translated into several languages and have been published in a number of anthologies and international journals. She teaches American literature, specializing in contemporary poetry and creative writing, in the Department of English Language and Literature of the University of Athens. The recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Department of Hellenic Studies of Princeton University, the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and the British Council, Sakelliou is a member of the Greek Writers’ Association and a short story judge in the European Union Prize for Literature. Her latest book, Όπου φυσά γλυκά η αύρα (Wherever the Sweet Breeze Blows), was a finalist for this year’s Greek National Poetry Award.