Adrianne Kalfopoulou has published two collections of poetry, Wild Greens (2002) and Passion Maps (2009), both from Red Hen Press. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, (“Fig” and “Cumulus”), and a memoir, Broken Greek. She has forthcoming work in Hotel Amerika and Room Magazine, and won Room Magazine’s 2009 creative non-fiction award.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou currently lives in Athens, Greece where she teaches literature and general education courses at Hellenic American University.
Figurehead of ship #342, Spetses Museum
How does it feel to be breaking waves?
have the salt eaten wood your collar? Lips part
in what is almost speech, the hair’s in a bun more Victorian
than Greek, then again you’re owned by
George Santos who put a frill around your neck,
powdered your skin in pastels as the sea split your head.
And in the middle of your chest, right at the heart
the waterlogged wood has rotted, an ochre
more beautiful than historical.
Mistress to Pericles, with your reputation
for intellect, of free birth, said to have
conversed with Socrates, comedy was made of
your activities. Apart from that, we know
you bore sons, one to Pericles and after his death,
to the democrat Lysicles, a politician in the mid 400s,
this from some sentences left by others, and here
without a ship, is a head at the prow.
The snake, a favorite subject in Hellenistic jewelry
was considered to be an apotropaic symbol with
protective, curative properties.
Gold Snake Bracelets, 1st century BC –
3rd century AD. Benaki Museum, Athens
Of course you notice the urn, and on
its swollen curve, the painted dog, its tail
between its legs, while I look to the snakes
embossed in gold, four sets of them,
bracelets snug behind their glass,
the snakes encased, the growing venom
on display, each head a slightly larger nub.
The first thin strand, a ripple, the second
curves in waves, the head just slightly
scaled, while in the third bloodless
eyes are ruby gems, and in the fourth
two heads almost meet, mouths visible
with teeth, the jewelry meant to keep
the menaces at bay, the tiny type of history’s facts
propped against the artifacts.
I am in a well under darkness, listening
to what this man is telling me,
my darkness breaks: it doesn’t matter to him
that I cannot change the way
I was born, on this island, in the middle of nowhere,
it doesn’t matter that I cannot feel the pity
of his words; they travel, like he did, far
from the wife promised him by the bishop
(he hardly knew her, it was me he serenaded,
Stellaki, my dark girl, in my hand-sewn skirt).
It wasn’t his fault his family wanted her family’s money,
the bishop wanted it too. All these years
with my husband, I begged my children to have the love
I could not dream of, and then I begged my dead son
to tell me why his father wasn’t taken from me
instead of him. Instead love came into my life,
caressed my soul, filled it. I could not give it back.
It wasn’t for me to feel these things.
He tells me I am a sweet pain, says his life
was dry land without me. Stellaki, he says,
my grandmother’s name.
When I ran over the uneven cobbles, the copper sky,
a beaten rust, became the color
of my husband’s eyes in lust when I grew to
hate him, when I knew marriage was worse than death.
I forgot Stellaki, I learned the heavy weight of
living until it was life in pure darkness.
I knew marriage to a man who wanted to eat the world
as taste and flesh go into the stomach,
becomes bloated with taste and flesh.
I could feed his lust the way I threw slop to the pigs,
my body could kindle it until he used it up
and had to go elsewhere, but it was my body
that gave him the flame, lit it until it was unquenched fire,
the copper flame I always saw in his eyes.
I fold sheets, iron, never leave the rooms he rents
without stripping the beds, airing the sheets,
refolding, squaring corners. I clean toilets,
sponge walls. I stayed untouched because he took
what he needed from others, doing what he always did,
making what he calls love in some room
as I poured morning coffee for a hotel guest, swept
the fallen bougainvillea from the terrace steps.
So when Lucas says Stellaki, I think
I will see my grandmother,
but I am the grandmother now,
and he is the grandfather. In darkness all my life
I never searched these things.
He says words I have never heard, he says I wish
it had been another time. I become a filled sea,
unclear water floods me. He uses words to touch
my heart, I cannot listen to these words
without giving myself up. All my life, he says,
I didn’t care if I died. Now he wants to live.
I tell him the two of us cannot have anything together.
He has his daughters, his wife.
You picked her, I tell him, you have her children.
You must stay close to them. He holds my hands
like they are jewelry, tells me I never knew their worth.
I never knew anyone could hold my hands
like they belonged to the Panagia;
he says twenty-year olds have beautiful hands
but they are not Panagia’s hands.
He found me in the cemetery over the marble
that cannot soak my tears, over the stone
that covers the body of my son. This is my life,
the rooms I clean with my hands,
the marble I clean with my tears. I am always in the rooms
or the cemetery, I never leaned against the low walls
to gossip like my sister, never learned anything
except for work, days worked into more work,
so when his whores want to clean the rooms,
I won’t let them inside, they wash the verandas outside,
where they belong. My husband could not care less
who cleaned the rooms, but without my hands
he would not have done anything. This is the truth
with people who don’t know how to take the thing you give
without stealing it, they don’t know God enters you
like the split wings of an eagle and breaks
your heart in two so you find you have halves
that will have to work to be whole again. My life
is that trial, my heart is alive with that work.
In the middle of my soul where nothing
will grow, Lucas’ eyes planted me.
What would I have been if I had married him?
If he had taken me away like he was meant to
instead of allowing the bishop to decide?
He tells me of the women he’s had, the flesh
that lusts after itself like my husband’s stomach,
this is thirst, the passion that eats him,
for thirty-five years it has eaten him until
he cut a newspaper picture of a woman who had
a mouth like mine, and carried it with him
like a cross. I tell him every day that goes by
does not come again. God does not share everything.
We could have been perfect for each other.
He buys me things I leave unopened. A watch.
Face creams. A nightgown. Another person
would have been happy. I tell him I never learned
about luxuries. What about tomorrow? He says.
Tomorrow, I tell him, is your wife, your children,
your grandchildren. He cries, holds my hands
like they are jewelry. Just to see you, he says,
is my peace. He waits like a child, excited.
And the man I gave thirty-five years to,
whose children I had and raised, whose bills I paid,
is a man who taught my son to drink until
it killed him. When I think of the suffering, when I think
I am a believer, my soul divides its burden
between my shoulder blades so I cannot turn
in either direction, right or left, without the weight of it
searing me. When I know this is what I had to carry
in the years that have become my life, I want to know
why God cuts the flesh to the bone so that we living
hardly know the hurt from the joy.
Lessons of Hunger
“The body creates the flower/spits out the death-pit/…in dreams the body triumphs/or finds itself naked in the streets/in pain;/” Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
Arriving on Patmos close to 3a.m. there are only a few tired looking people at the port holding up placards of rooms for rent. It is still early for the all-night summer revelers. The vague, disembodied night sounds, the lone lights over shut doorways and cafés, keeps something of winter and the quiet, worlds away from Athens. I find the only cab parked outside the Arion café, and tell him I want to go up to Hora where the lit monastery floats in the night sky. The smells of eucalyptus and night dampness waft through the window. I ask the cab driver if the weather has been warm; he says he’s already started to swim. I ask if the water’s cold, when he laughs with a shrug, says “It’s late May.”
At the house slabs of stone are piled in the entranceway. Theologos, literally the word, “logos” of God, “Theos”, has been paving the avli, the patch of open space beneath two lemon trees; “Now you can have your coffee under the trees” he said over the phone. As soon as I walk into the house I feel the island’s energy. I’m awake standing outside against the veranda ledge; moonlight grazes the peeks of distant islands, the open slate of sea, a halo behind the mountain ridges. The port below is a necklace of lights broken up by patches of dark; and the single lighted road swings into darkness like a gleaming thread.
Patmos, the island where St. John had his revelations, is almost empty in the morning. The Greek vacationers will start in late July and overwhelm the island in August. For now Hora’s sokakia, the narrow stone alleyways twisting through the village are deserted, except for the cats. A lazy stripped cat lounges in the shade of a corner, another one angrily meowing rubs against my ankle, hungry. I walk briskly toward Stella’s house. I come to Patmos to get away from Athens, and am always surprised at how the intensity of crowded city living gives way to the isolation of village lives.
Stella is bedridden. She has spent her life taking care of others, and can’t bear the fact that she can’t get out of her bed. Something has happened to her back; she pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve, but however she turns there is the needling pain that shoots down from her lower spine to the bottom of her left foot. She wants me to feel the tightened muscle beneath her clammy flesh. I sit on the bed edge, listening to her reluctant words. “We never appreciate anything until it’s taken from us” she speaks quietly but every word has a weight and takes a pause to utter. Like so much here there is essence in what otherwise, or elsewhere, sounds trite. In the following days I become aware of my body in ways I forget in the city. I walk everywhere since it is too expensive to bring the car, or rent one.
I walk along one of the many byzantine paths on the island to the sea; it’s after 1p.m. and the sun is relentless, thistle and dry bush screeching with cicadas and quick, skirting sounds; a savra (grass snake) and several lizards jet across my path. I am skipping down huge boulders embedded in the hillside, smoothed by centuries of whatever has traveled over them, suddenly aware of being completely alone on this path that cuts down from the Hora to Grykos, a small fishing village. If I slipped, sprained an ankle or took a fall there would be no one to pick me up or help get me to the road. The realization sends a quiet panic through me. When I visit Stella, which I do every day of the five I’m on the island, I become especially aware of how the body finally traps us, how we – in love with mobility – take it for granted until we’re cornered. Stella’s suffering resonates with the many limitations of her life, as if this physical inability to move has made her newly conscious of everything that has kept her from what life might have been; like the island itself, bounded by sea, it is only when bad weather and the absence of transportation make mobility impossible that its inhabitants and visitors feel themselves hostage to geography. But limits also feed hunger, the determination to compensate for what cannot be satisfied, the body at its most ravenous when denied, Stella at 56, confined to her bed, mad with desire.
The second morning I’m awake early and scribble a note to myself “you feel one of those not saved by the beauty.” I don’t sit under the lemon trees with a book and coffee as Theologos suggested, or stare out at the bougainvillea’s branches of June fuchsia. Not saved because the intensity is overwhelming; I take it in slowly though it surrounds me, like bled colors in an evening sky. The senses run rampant. There’s the sea’s deep sapphire, a slap of blue. There’s the sun streaming through stands of yellowed wheat sheaves over hillsides. The deep lavender veins in the Patmian rock that sheer the cliffs. This is about feeling agitated rather than fulfilled by beauty, stark and concrete, forcing confrontation, leaving you overwhelmed, humbled, somehow closer to God. Maybe John the Divine was inspired by these visions of nature that forced confrontation. Stella says she understands, tells me her neighbors criticize her for not being satisfied with her blessings – they mention the rooms she rents for income, her happily married daughter, grandchildren – “They don’t understand I do what I do and you fix the things you fix because you want to fill the hollow inside.”
I am sitting on the edge of Stella’s bed again, gently rubbing her ankle, slowly kneading her calf. She winces when I touch a sore spot. “The pain goes up my back and twists in a knot somewhere here”, she turns on her stomach to point to her lower back and describes the pain like a current. Her daughter Maria regularly comes in the room between her constant chores, the cooking and laundry, vats of sheets she spreads over clothing lines across their small avli so the little garden is covered in blowing white sails. The neighbors visit, leaving Tuppers of food; meatballs, eggplant salad, two whole fish one woman’s husband caught that morning. Stella interrupts my massage with, “Get yourself something to eat! There’s food in the kitchen, fresh eggs in the refrigerator.” I laugh since I am not surprised because Stella always asks me if I want to eat, insisting I take whole loaves and bags of fresh fruit and vegetables with me to Athens.
Maria brings a plate of moussaka to the bed and Stella props herself up on her elbow to let herself be fed. Maria urges her to swallow as if she were a child; after two forkfuls Stella shakes her head and slumps against her pillow. Maria helps herself to the rest of what’s on the plate, asks me if I want some. I am hungry but shake my head. For a reason I cannot then explain I feel ashamed to eat. The phone rings and it’s a woman whose home Stella takes care of, so many on the island make their living by caring for the houses of others. Maria and I listen to her telling the woman she is sorry but cannot go to the house, that she isn’t able to get up from her bed. All the doctors in Athens say surgery but it is going to cost 10,000 Euros and her insurance only covers whatever is above 15,000. “They won’t suggest anything besides cutting her up” Maria says, disgusted. Stella is still on the phone talking, the woman had expected her to prepare the house for the summer; her voice is something between an apology and a complaint. Maria is now shaking her head. “These people,” she says, “are the reason she’s in this condition. They expect her to do everything. And she does it, including lifting mattresses and pulling them onto verandas to sit them in the sun…moving their furniture around to clean.” Stella is off the phone. “I raised her children,” she says. “And now they have their own children.” Maria shakes her head again. “You raised her children and all she cares about right now is if you’re well enough to clean her house.” Stella shrugs. “She’s old too, and can’t do anything herself. I always had everything ready for them. Even flowers in the vases.” I am stunned that Stella is grieved by what she cannot offer of help. Then realize this too is about defying limits. Maria is the one who is angry. “It’s taking care of those houses that has destroyed your back.”
I am thinking of Stella as I walk down the byzantine path the next day with the same gold-streamed wheat shimmering in the noon heat, the wild thistle and baked scent of fig leaves, the cicadas’ steady litany like a continuous shriek. I do not know why I’ve chosen to make my way to the sea at this hour again except that I’m desperate for a swim, and the path down the hill is the shortest way there. Life is so much struggle, I think, with the sea’s short reprieve. In the spring when I had visited for three days, Stella and I took the same path through the wild greens, Stella cooing over the slim stalks of asparagus she found sprouting here and there, snapping them quickly out of the shrubs of bramble. She had talked of the ongoing battle with her estranged husband who wouldn’t give her any of the property she had helped him to build, none of the money they had saved, the money he spends on new cars and women. “You know what it is to work for something all your life and watch someone else take it from you.” Stella points out lots that belong to different people, a stone house now being built. She says it belongs to Christos, that he made good money as a stone mason but worked hard for it. “No one gave it to him,” she says, and adds that things are different now. “Now everyone wants to feel full.”
Is this what Camus means when he insists that the condemned Sisyphus is a hero who experiences joy; the punishing rock he rolls uphill eternally rolling down so that he must push it up again, giving him purpose, a lesson in affirmation that is also a lesson in limits. Sisyphus’ hunger to exist – the trial of pushing his rock – fed by the recognition of limitations. Camus writes:
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his
torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The
workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate
is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes
On the island, more than in the city, I am conscious of the bounded self in the midst of expanse, the enveloping blue horizon that surrounds this rock spit of heaven; I experience it physically in my climb back up to Hora after the wonderful swim — . A writer friend came from the States in September to help with the grape harvest saying he needed to escape the life of the mind. His is also a story of hunger, his beloved, unlike Sisyphus, will not acknowledge hunger; controlling it so her body is tricked into believing that it, like the Gods’, can rise above mere earth-dependence. My friend was wry and broken as he spoke of his coming to Greece for the lessons of appetite, to share the satisfaction of physical exhaustion after the harvesting, meals offered by the harvesters after a day’s work, their philoxenia, that making of the foreigner (xenos) a friend (philos) over food and wine.
I know now why I didn’t eat when Maria offered me the moussaka; I didn’t want to show any appetite. But I was wrong to think Stella wanted me to commiserate; it upset her more. “Eat!” she’d urged, or commanded. “There’s so much food out there. They keep bringing me food, and I can’t eat it all” I nodded, and went to the refrigerator to get some feta, ate it with some olives she had in a bowl. Hunger needs respect; like danger it can lure us to cliff edges, feed our lust for sky, the temptation to outdo the gods, until like Sisyphus we’re put in our place, until like Sisyphus we can claim our rock, the body that tortures and limits: “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing…The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” (123)
Agios Pevmatos is the day of all souls, it falls on Sunday June 7, my last day on the island. I only realize it when I see a group of villagers from Hora gathered at the small chapel outside Stella’s house. The men are drinking thick Greek coffee in the morning sun, visibly sweating in their starched shirts. Village women are serving the coffee from a pot, smiling. They tell me the blessed bread, artos, is in the church on a platter if I’d like some. Theologos is there too, and I tell him I like everything he’s done with the house, the slabs he’s laid over the avli makes everything look more spacious. I realize the uncanniness of my having a conversation with Theologos — the word-of God, on all souls. He is happy to have managed to finish the work before my visit. I tell him it’s beautiful and realize I’ve made an obsession of constantly fixing the house, of trying to improve it when it is more than fine with its panoramic view of the Aegean and its shaded spaces under two lemon trees. It was Stella’s idea that I turn the outhouse into a room, use the plumbing that was already there to build a tiny shower and toilet and whitewash the space. Then Theologos suggested that the stone slabs covering the floor spread out into the avli to create a sitting area.
As I am sipping the mud-thick coffee I tell Theologos I will deposit part of what I owe him once I get back to Athens. He lifts his head in a backward shrug and says, “Don’t be anxious. I know I won’t lose my money.” He laughs as I smile. “Give it to me when you can.” This was our agreement from the beginning but I am moved to hear him repeat this, knowing he cannot be any less in need of payment than I would be for a job completed. As if he is reading my mind he says, “I’ve been lucky in the last couple of years. I’ve had good clients who have paid me. I don’t owe and they don’t owe me, so I can do side jobs like yours and wait to be paid.” I am grateful; realize Theologos is telling me his needs are fulfilled enough so he can offer me the ability to satisfy mine without anxiety, and wants me to accept the offer. This too is philoxenia, making a friend of what could estrange; it is also and at the same time philotimo, the giving of timi, respect, to a friend.
I go to say goodbye to Stella who is in tears today. It is the seventeenth day she’s been bedridden; last night she couldn’t’ bear it anymore, forced herself to walk to the bathroom and almost fell. Now she’s worse off than she was a week ago. Maria is trying to call a doctor at a hospital in Athens. I tell her no one will answer, it’s a holiday. Everyone’s off. There is a name and a number she has and asks if I’ll take the x-rays with me to Athens and hand carry them to the doctor. “You need to talk to the doctor first” I say. She says she did and he said he couldn’t tell her anything unless he saw the x-rays. I suggest she see a physiotherapist; maybe there’s someone local. Maria’s husband comes in with a piece of artos from the church which he gives to Stella. She thanks him for the bread, takes a bite, and says she wants him to take her to Corfu, Kerkira; she’s heard from a neighbor that there’s a doctor there who has a machine that will work her muscles and relieve the knot at the bottom of her spine. Someone else went to him, and now he’s fine.
Maria’s husband nods, he’ll call the man tomorrow. Stella looks at me, and lets me hold her hand. Her room is cluttered with comforts she barely makes any use of, an air conditioner she rarely uses because of the expense; electric blankets someone sent her from the States still in their boxes. When I visited in early spring she insisted I use one of them when I said my room was cold. There are framed pictures of the son she lost in his twenties in a motorcycle accident. The loves and losses surround her; bedridden, her body is unable to move beyond this accumulated life, her rock is stalled, and her fate beyond what her hands can literally grasp. I leave Stella and tell her if she comes to Athens she can stay with me, she says she knows that, and reminds me to take some of the food on her counter still in their Tuppers. She looks at me seriously; it is important that I take some of the food, to acknowledge, and respect (“na timo”) appetite. Maria follows me into the kitchen to make sure I take some of it. I tell her I’m carrying everything by hand, that it doesn’t make sense to take food to Athens, a 7 hour boat trip and then a bus ride home. “Take these at least,” she says, stuffing two heads of lettuce into a plastic shopping bag, and several fresh zucchini. “Don’t you want some of these apricots?” I say okay, but that I have no idea when I’m going to cook the zucchini. She laughs, “I know you’ll just throw it all into the oven, and whatever comes out, comes out.” I nod and smile. “Maria,” I repeat, “I really don’t need any of this, but thank you.”
“Tou Theo,” she says, “Of God.”
All poems/text on this post: © Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Published with the permission of Adrianne Kalfopoulou