Karen Van Dyck

Karen Van Dyck

Karen Van Dyck is a poet, translator, and critic. When not teaching at Columbia in New York City she spends as much time as she can in Greece. Her recent translations include Austerity Measures (Penguin 2016), The Scattered Papers of Penelope (Graywolf 2009), and The Greek Poets (Norton 2009). Her poems, translations and essays have appeared in the Guardian, the LARB, Tender, and World Literature Today as well as other journals. This year she is a fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris where she is completing a book on the multilingual literature of the Greek Diaspora and its lessons for translation.

 
Procrastination

I don’t want to go to Aegina
to sit under the pistachio trees
where the rose stucco wall
meets the dark green table
and the poet strokes her dog
because I want to finish my book.
In Aegina there will be distractions
like flies and retsina and the door that bangs
and needs fixing and the hammer
that is nowhere to be found.
The dog will get sick
and everyone will have to look
for the phone number of the vet
and when she finally dies
digging her grave in that dry red dirt
will not be easy.
But then again this isn’t easy either
this sitting all day at a desk
far away from the sea
sifting words from one page to the next
as if there was something to find
a nugget, a right way of saying things,
an ending, like the dog’s,
to this summer that isn’t
where it should be.
I don’t want to go to Aegina
where life is slow and thick like honey
and the open-air cinema and motorcycles
send everyone spinning into summer time.
I want to be still like the gold digger
in the photograph over my bed
with the patience to wait since childhood
for something no one else has found.
I don’t want to go to Aegina
but I can’t finish my book
because I want to go to Aegina.

 
Biology

Ten days after you were conceived
your mother went to visit an old friend.
Ostensibly a business trip,
but I knew there was something on her mind.
It was that time of year, that time of month,
we didn’t know you were on your way,
and your mother was going off for some fun.
Now this guy was a wild guy,
not the type to settle down with,
not the type to live with every day.
In fact he wasn’t her type at all
and that’s why she married me.
But every once in a while
she had this desire to see him,
to get caught up in his life for a few days
so off she went.
Usually this didn’t interfere with us
but their frolicking
at that early stage of your life
seems to have had a permanent effect
most of all because he was Greek.
Now I’m not trying to tell you
you’re somebody else’s son,
but I want you to know that somebody else
had something to do with you at a formative age.
It’s clear you’re mine – that lip, that chin.
No, I’m talking about something else that crept in
while they were lying around
in that northern Greek town by the sea.
The way you have of getting into things
and whooping it up: that’s him, not me.
I’m not saying I don’t appreciate his talents,
that I don’t appreciate them in you
just that it’s time to own up
to what’s his, what’s mine
so you will know the dancing, the computer savvy,
the way you tell people exactly what you need
are him, not me, and if I get impatient
with your exuberance, it is because I am jealous
that I have no part in that part of you.

 
Praeteritio

Sometimes rules
prevent us from saying
what we want to say.
Here is a way to say them
while pretending not to:

I don’t ever think of you
when I’m away.
I don’t hope to see you
on my morning swim.
Not every red car is yours.

Some belong to other people.
When I see two chairs
backed up against each other
I don’t imagine
you behind me.

I don’t wonder
what you’re wearing
or reading
when we’re apart.
I don’t recall the light

in the bathroom at dusk
when you followed me.
I never consider
the way you prop
yourself up

or what we talk about
in bed because
when I’m not with you
you’re completely
out of my mind.

 
Adequacy

Went for an early morning swim
to say goodbye to this summer.
What you said about making sound to stop experience
is true. Like what you said about writing down dreams
when talking about desire replaces desire.

Swimming this morning was the opposite
like having you inside. Under thick water
at midnight, à côté de toi quand tu parles français
lying in that cool hotel room, standing
in the afternoon light

just my body pressing against the water
so that when I began to cry, salt met salt
and burned. You said wear goggles. Sobbing under water
made me see what sound is when it has no audience
when it is a body speaking without expectation.

I am thankful for this summer so intense
I would sea-cry. For saying a ten-minute argument
on the phone with my husband is enough. Forty minutes,
too much. For looking forward to Fall
and wearing sweaters.

What you said about self-loathing or what I said
about blame didn’t really add up.
Perhaps the part of each of us that felt inadequate
wasn’t a part of what we were this summer. Thatʼs why
we couldnʼt talk about it. We were adequate.

 
The Unburied Dead

I have walked by the dead
in the fish restaurants of Syros

Leonidas waiting for the boat
hat propped against his case

Kathy reading Kathimerini
A glass of wine with gavros?

Maria in the kitchen washing up
Can you give me the keys, please?

Arthuros said you’d have them
Enzo with that vacant look

But are they dead if they don’t know?
If they wait and read and wash up plates
look out to sea, but don’t see me?

 
Post-mortem

Ferekidis, cave in
give me back
the time I lost
caring for the dead.

The goat heard
everything you
muttered:
the bleating peak

to peak,
time capsules
pixelating
ridge to ridge,

the kri-kri
that scamper
on the dry
burned soil.

Ferekidis, if time
is everything
give me back
the hours I lost.

Give them to me now
so I can sing
a new song
that is ours.

 
 
NOTES

Procrastination: Aegina is an island near Athens where the poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke lives. The name also sounds like the verb “I became” in Modern Greek.

Adequacy: The French phrase could be translated “next to you listening to French.”

The Unburied Dead: The title is a translation of the Greek Atafoi Nekroi and refers to the problem that crops up in literature since ancient times when the dead aren’t properly buried. Think of Antigone with regard to her brother Orestes. Kathimerini is the name of a Greek newspaper. Gavros is the name of a small fish.

Post-mortem: Ferekidis, a 6th c. BCE philosopher, lived in a cave in Syros. The locals say he invented time. Kri-kri is a wild goat still found on a few Greek islands.

 
All poems on this post: © Karen Van Dyck
Published with the permission of Karen Van Dyck