Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, and editor. She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently, Bright Body (White Pine, 2011) and Dear God Dear, Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2009), and the translator of The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy: A New Translation (W.W. Norton, 2006). Her first book of poems, The Real Tin Flower (Crowell-Collier, 1968), was published when she was 12 years old, with a forward by Anne Sexton. In 2014, Carnegie-Mellon University Press reissued her book, Madly in Love, as a Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporary.
Among her awards are a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Greece, the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship in Poetry, and a residency at the Anderson Center at Tower View. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she serves as Series Editor of the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation.
c’mon ladies c’mon girls
come taste my olives my little black pearls
c’mon come buy greens from my fields
hey my eyes hey my soul forget your grief
everything’s fresh fresh fresh
I’ve got arugula and spinach leaf
freesia red lettuce celery parsley basil dill
I’ve got the best quality hey little girls
the best deals if you will buy from me
wheel your cart over here my sweetheart
just picked today today today
rosy grapes black grapes green grapes
once we Greeks were slaves
now we’ve escaped all that
hey lovely girls look all’s so good
once our lives in Greece were poor
look here fresh fruit right off the tree
smell my oranges my sweet pears
three kinds of apples
and sticky black figs
c’mon ladies c’mon good wives
come to my stall look at all I have
sharpest knives mops and brooms
coffee pots and socks
dustbins dish towels and tablecloths
underwear t-shirts blouses beautiful scarves
hey ladies hey girls once all of us starved
and what did you eat today and what will you cook
come look I have flowers flowers flowers
c’mon my golden one my soul my eyes
see these pinks in pots for your garden
they attract butterflies
come take my flowers for your table
I picked them today today today
no more slaves no more lies
c’mon darling c’mon my soul
eat my souvlaki hot from the coals
listen my sweethearts my golden ones
long ago soldiers showed you their guns
and took your jewels in the busiest city square
hey ladies hey little girls
today all’s for sale in the open air
The Blue House
I can see a long way up here
where the blue house is balanced
on a bluff yellow with late summer
fields that extend to the city.
You can see me, for the door
and the windows are open to air.
I sit in a chair and hold a cup
of tea. Or is that you I see inside
and is that me, running downhill,
away from the house, on the path
lined with hip-high wheat.
Looming larger above me
the closer I come is the jumble
of buildings, a white cross atop
each sky-blue dome, the church
enclosed by Byzantine battlements.
Is that figure below the cathedral,
almost too small to see,
raising an arm toward the city
in joy? Or turning back
to wave goodbye to the house?
Why does the modest cottage
seem so isolated from town?
Why is it painted such a radiant blue?
The wood looks like the glass
of the evil eye, and the planes
aren’t square, but ramshackle.
The foundation is shored up
against the hill, on the brink—
I can see the danger now.
And yet the blue house
invites us to look in, enter,
have a seat and drink
a cup of tea that tastes
too beautiful on the tongue
when you exclaim, “Ah, the view!”
The house was not blue.
My memory painted it
the color of the morning sea.
Look, out there, far from shore,
the fisherman is
disappearing in his orange boat
that floats along a gray smear
of light, marring the sapphire depths.
In the impossible pigment
is the day we have to leave
for good, to find other refuge.
No, the blue house was not
a hue in nature, sea or sky
or a precious stone.
It was a color made
by human hands, like a home.
The Destruction of the Jewish Graveyard, Thessaloniki, 1942
In the churches with our tombstones mortared in the walls,
let the priests speak in tongues and let them sing
the psalms in Hebrew, not Greek. When they kiss the icons,
let their lips touch the lips of great-grandmother Miriam,
while, haloed in gold-leaf and hammered silver, Uncle Isaac
smiles his gentle half-smile. Let the painted wood, the polished
and sweet flesh of baby Jesus be the image of cousin Jak at eleven months,
son of Anna and David, born and died in 1912.
Let Herr Dr. Merten float on his back in his swimming pool, so he won’t see
the inscriptions rippling on the walls, only the sky above him
cloudless and windless and utterly peaceful, the pool compact and still.
From the corner of his eye, he’ll see the maid holding a tray
arrayed with steins of amber beer. Her starched apron is so bright,
a sun shines on her belly. Yet let him have no calm. Let him feel
incessantly the waters of the Danube pull him down
with the 5,000 who drowned on their way to Treblinka.
Let those who cross a threshold carved with letters of the dead
enter their homes and let the smells of cooking enter them:
oregano and dill, lemon and thyme, lentils and tomato, chicken
and chick pea, olive oil, capers, and parsley, sesame seed and honey.
Then they will remember we Greeks starved together.
And beneath the opulent scents of our shared cuisine,
let them smell a little gas leaking from the stove, just a little
poison gas, not enough to harm them in any way.
Then in the distance, maybe they’ll hear a train heading north.
Then again in the distance, they’ll hear another train heading north.
Let the professors and students in the university hear their footsteps
echoing in the marble halls above the bones of half a million of our souls.
Let them hear our music and dance in their shoes scuffing the floor.
Let the rhythm haunt them with a dream of our history
that does not appear in their books. And let them hear our names,
Zacho, Beni, Janna, ring out beneath their heels, Rebecca, Allegra, Vital.
Let them hear the families, Kohen, Perera, Molho,
once carved in stone, Russo, Torres, Ben-Ruby.
Let them read our names, Abraham, Bella, Bienvenida, between the words
giving them the knowledge to enter the trades the dead beneath their desks,
Modiano, Saltiel, Angel, once practiced here in Thessaloniki, though their bones
were turned over and over with bulldozers here in Thessaloniki, Mother of Israel.
A Yellow House in Thessaloniki, 1943
You won’t learn how the people vanished
by reading words on the train station plaque
mounted about two hundred meters
from the yellow house beside the tracks.
At a table men drink soda, smoke, laugh.
Only one wants to tell you the facts
of how the occupying Germans ran
the yellow house beside the tracks.
The grand villa was built so long ago
no railway ran through the flats.
Perfect for their purposes that chance
put the yellow house beside the tracks.
They rounded up the Jews at night. The station
wasn’t used, allowing public distraction
when they packed families in the basement
of the yellow house beside the tracks.
Look at that boxcar painted lime green.
It is an Army office now for the lower ranks
says the sign on the door that opened
to the yellow house beside the tracks.
The head-high window is fitted with bars
and a small screen. You see leaves, blue sky in slats.
How could they breathe in there, those herded
from the yellow house beside the tracks?
Upstairs soldiers processed papers. Downstairs
below the planks, they heard the smack
of stamps, and agonized what was next
after the yellow house beside the tracks.
They loaded them into the livestock cars
labeled with the number of people. Backs
aching, they stood headed toward the camps
from the yellow house beside the tracks.
In April yellow daisies do not toil. They grow
in the field, heads spinning, when yellow sun acts
on them. One spring yellow stars were crowded below
in the yellow house beside the tracks.
Day Breaks on Andros, 1944
When all at once dogs bark from the cobblestone
labyrinth in my nightmare and donkeys clop,
more burdened than ever, and the roosters panic
with church bells, footsteps, a screaming lamb,
I think, they know who I am, and they’ll take me away…
at last, they’ve identified me, however narrowly.
Cerberus howls his unwanted welcome;
the doves grunt with the weary souls
in the underworld.
Then just as suddenly I wake, a taste on my tongue
like something spoiled. The red hibiscus flowering
outside the window spins a second among sunrays,
then stops. A gust of wind.
I’m on the island, safe for now.
I reach for my glasses on the nightstand,
put them on, and the room’s colors shift into focus.
Then I turn my head slowly on the pillow,
almost afraid to reassure myself.
My daughter is asleep, there on the small bed
next to mine, her lips moving a little,
her braid coiled along her neck, her hand resting
on the chest of her doll.
I remember it is Easter Sunday and the scream
I heard was the lamb carried off to be slaughtered.
Today I will celebrate, too, posing as a Christian,
and I will call out with the rest, Christos anesti!
Christ has risen.
We’ve been passed over. I allow
sleep to lay its heavy body on mine
and I sink beneath it for a few more hours,
still and dreamless.
The shopkeeper’s canary warbles a few notes
and I sit up in my chair, waiting for his aria.
Through the transom window
the corner of the neighbor’s house
is a blank piece of paper
held up against sky.
My ear wanders narrow passages
of the village labyrinth,
spiraling streets where at noon
between whitewashed walls
sun and blue sky come to a crescendo.
So much sunlight tricks me
into forgetting a moment the chill
that keeps me indoors, away from the sea.
The canary stops.
I listen in-between
chirps of sparrows who chatter about nothing
except the joy of being in a crowd, I guess.
I heard my friend’s voice too briefly
and strain to hear him
again in the bright silences.
Red Picnic, 1946
We spread our picnic on a red blanket on the beach
and our daughter plays in the shallows where Chagall’s
paintbrush mixes ultramarine with sand.
You hold my hand and I feel my body rising
like a kite above us, above you and me
and our Elefthería’s joyous white splash,
and the red tile roofs of the village grouped
across the hills that embrace the beach.
There are no eyes peering out from the eaves.
There are no houses turned upside down.
There’s the carafe of burgundy on the red blanket
And just a little food. A tomato. An end of bread.
So much beauty, to name it feels almost like peace,
like sorrow to name it, too, as if my words
could save the picture of you smiling at us
or the wine warm in my throat, making my hip
curve upward just like your red grin, or my violet dress
fluttering against my skin like many wings,
or our daughter Elefthería in a ruby bathing suit,
her pale fingers waving from the sea,
the deep paint still shining blue and wet.
Then after the Germans left, we Greeks fought
each other and the children were kidnapped to the Balkans
to learn to be good citizens. I saw the sun was too bright
and cut like a blade in the street where a man hobbled
on one leg and a cane. A stillness came from out of time
and stood radiating on the stone, as if the sun, in a brilliant helmet
and resting his bayonet on his shoulder, gloated, triumphant
to shine where a man’s leg had been,
to warm the remaining foot in its boot, to heat the rivets
into two rows of absurd stars glowing on leather
while passersby carried home
bags of tomatoes, greens, and young zucchini.
Too many shoes, I thought.
They would be home before noon, I thought.
We Greeks know to wear a hat, to get out of the heat,
not to get sunstroke. Too often in the aftermath, when I opened
the shutters in the morning, angels crowded the sunlight.
I had to turn my face and close my eyes for a moment—
how could I help it? They were too bright and too thin,
striped cloth fluttering against the blue numbers on their skin.
Sometimes when I bent to put on my shoes, I’d find them
in uneasy sleep. There between the tongue and the laces,
there between the ground and the wire fences,
they were chilled and curled up, knees to chin,
among their crumpled wings, their translucent wings.
How could I put my shoes on then?
And was I crazy to walk barefoot to the sea?
“Where are your shoes?” the Greeks called out,
“Lady! Where are your shoes?”
Maybe I’m not a Greek. I lay down on the beach at noon
because I am a Jew and wanted to feel the hard sand
against my belly. The days the angels came I couldn’t eat,
though I wouldn’t starve as they did. I was empty
and the sun would make me sick. So I was stupid
listening to sea. Feeling the grit against my cheek,
the sand in my ear, I could hear muffled footsteps, orders, carts,
train wheels rolling toward me on waves marching in from the horizon.
The angels stood on my back and told me
the terrible things I didn’t see.
But I can’t remember them so well…the voices of the dead,
their shoes, and the sun too bright, too hot to remember.
The blacktop sleeps. It is the void roaming about
cities, fields, and mountains beneath a woman’s wings
that only unfurl on moonless October nights,
that are visible only to the ginger cat’s eyes.
Sometimes when I’m alone I strike the motherlode, swinging my pick-ax
at the past. There’s no certainty any of us will live
long enough to collect a pension. So few of the old
in skullcaps and headscarves survive the unsolved.
How the palm fronds caught a thundercloud.
Why all the food vanished
from our children’s bowls, even without a drought.
How the invading troops stole our heirlooms,
why they snatched even our sheets.
Why Rachel bled on the idols.
How Jacob made his pillow from the stone talisman
of the moon-goddess, then dreamed
the Lord’s angels climbed down a ladder
out of heaven and into his brain.
Why he anointed her remnants with oil.
How to lose without hate.
Why the mail arrives too late.
How to inscribe my face on the holy scrolls appropriated
by the orthodox or will myself calm, smooth
my collar when I am being lampooned.
Why some could unfit themselves for work,
let themselves be called good-for-nothings. How some starved.
Why some wrestle to be blessed,
how some couldn’t care less.
Now that I am feeble, now
that I wrap my knees in bandages to walk downstairs
and a sun-wrought filigree wrinkles the skin
around my dark brown eyes, should I be aghast
that I hardly feel the shiver of adrenaline
when I hear knocking at the door.
Is it a shame that I’ve collected rocks
because they are pretty in my garden.
For instance, the ore-stained sandstone contrasts
against silver lavender leaves and the papery flowers
of succulents called little beauties. They bloom in so many colors.
I’ve sorted through the heaps near the abandoned mines
to calculate the density of history in veins
of crystal amethyst, green copper, rusty iron, hint of gold.
I’ve lit lanterns and lain on my rooftop
and watched how heavy hues spread across the village walls,
how headlights steal across the panorama of roads,
how the hairpin curves interlace hills and houses
and sparkling windows and streetlamps, all the way to the sea.
Sometimes when I’m alone, my mind will exchange
my memories for what I see in the present.
Gone for a moment are the black-booted soldiers
whose helmets shadowed their eyes,
who assembled in the marble squares,
who stood on the jetty with their guns spearing the stars.
And now in the yellow glare of the harbor’s mercury lights
is stunning Ioanna, the port police officer
in her spotless white uniform.
Her eyes are so dark, she need not line them with kohl.
Her breasts are ample but her waist is not.
She is mindless of admirers,
for she averts the chaos of people loaded with baggage,
of motorbikes, cars, and trucks hauling goods.
She directs the lines onto the night ferry
without maybes, without a smile.
Poetry in this post: © Aliki Barnstone
Published with the permission of Aliki Barnstone