Sunday, May 14, 2017

"I Can't Remember if it Was my Dream of my Mother's": A Poem for Mother's Day

"Matrilineal," drawing by Aliki Barnstone

I Can’t Remember If it Was my Dream or my Mother’s

Once recounted, the dream runs constantly beyond
me or her. I creep up a stone stairway, fever
pushing me higher up than I can bear to go.
I’m afraid of heights. Far below
my cliff-walk, the lake is rimmed with mountain pines,
and my mother stands willowy in a full skirt, calling me.
I can’t catch my breath. Her voice is a breeze
rippling the water and merging into twilight
that blurring all, exasperates me.
I want to go to her yet keep climbing toward
fireflies and ferns, hot and chilled—
and still she hollers my name with the crickets,
step down, darling, step down to Mama.

My footing’s lost.
The stones are slick with moss, little waterfalls
surround me, too beautiful, disorienting.
If only my head lolled against her shoulder or
my cheek pressed cool against the car window,
and patches of cloud hovered over the dirt roads of Vermont,
then slipped through the radiator grill or
beneath the carriage of our Buick Skylark,
 we’d say we’re riding on clouds and hear
the tires roll onto our gravel driveway.
The porch light would part dusky velvet curtains
and the windshield be a movie screen where maples,
each leaf-point star-tipped, welcome us heroines home.
Then I drink the Milky Way, my mother leaning over my bed
to shape the holy sign over me three times
and make me feel God’s names hymning in my skin.
She lays a washcloth on my brow, and I breathe
her perfume, the lilies of the valley on her wrist.
My mother says fever tangled my yellow hair
and stained the dress she made me before my brother’s birth.
In case she died, she said. A whirr. A seam
stitched in seconds. She works fast.
My grandmother’s even hand finishes
the velvet piping around the collar, cuffs, and placket.
My buttons are askew. I can’t remember
if it was my worry or my mother’s, which of us acts,
sketches the scene, recalls, and calls cross over

 from sickness to health, come back to me.

This poem appears in Dwelling

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Waiting for the Barbarians" by C.P. Cavafy, tr. Aliki

C.P. Cavafy, 1900


—What are we waiting for, gathered in the agora?

            The Barbarians are arriving today.

—Why is nothing happening in the Senate?
    Why do the Senators sit making no laws?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today.
            What laws can the Senators make now?
            When the Barbarians come, they will make laws.

—Why did our emperor wake up so early,
    and, in the city’s grandest gate, sit
    in state on his throne, wearing his crown?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today,
            and the emperor is waiting to receive
            their leader. In fact, he prepared
            a parchment to give them, where
            he wrote down many titles and names.

—Why did our two consuls and the praetors
    come out today in their crimson, their embroidered togas;
    why did they don bracelets with so many amethysts
    and rings resplendent with glittering emeralds;
    why do they hold precious staffs today,
    beautifully wrought in silver and gold?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today,
            and such things dazzle them.

—Why don’t the worthy orators come as usual
    to deliver their speeches and say their peace?

            Because the Barbarians are arriving today
            and they are bored by eloquence and harangues.

—Why should this anxiety and confusion
    suddenly start. (How serious faces have become.)
    Why have the streets and squares emptied to quickly,
    and why has everyone returned home so pensive?

            Because night’s fallen and the Barbarians 
                              have not arrived.
            And some people came from the borders
            and they say the Barbarians no longer exist.

    And now what will we do with no Barbarians?
    Those people were some kind of solution.

Tr. Aliki Barnstone, 

The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy:
A New Translation,
Translated by Aliki Barnstone,
Foreword by Gerald Stern
W.W. Norton, 2006

Constantine Cavafy with cane and hat in hand
 Photograph dated 1896, Alexandria, Egypt

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"A Little More Mindful," a Poem from Dwelling for Palm Sunday

Archaic Attic black-figure lekythos (perfume vessel).
Attributed to the Amasis Painter, 550-530 BC. Metropolitan Museum #31.11.10


—busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff…
for war is man's matter…
—Iliad, Book VI
If I could be a little more mindful,
groom my dogs’ fur, remember
to shelve my books, shut the closet
and cabinet doors, hide away
my mess of clothes and dishes,
and graciously address every annoyance
(or worse than annoyance), perhaps
my sandals would glide up marble steps
and I’d find myself idle,
holding my peace, my desperate
thoughts left to themselves
at the bottom of the hill, while I turnover
in my palm some stones that hold
the spirits of those who do not cry out
praise for a king riding a donkey,
clothed in garments his mother wove,
her design covering his flesh from birth
until he hugged his shroud
on a road strewn with rags and palms
and wept over the city:
                        “If only you knew
on this day those things creating peace.”

Centuries before his word, their spirits dwell
in rubble, for countless wars
knock stone from stone.
They perished so long ago, their wanderings
and homes are the work
of archeology. Their pots are dust
the Athenian shopkeepers sweep away
each morning, along with the art
of their looms: the saffron
and hyacinth yarns spun for the owl,
chariot and wingéd horses
on Athena’s raiment, the story-cloths
on which the Fates dance and lament,
and teach child-bearers
            to weave defiance in a double purple web,
their textile and text incomprehensible to men.
Soldiers cannot divide the seamless robe
passed from mother to daughter,
mystery in a single thread.

Dwelling, by Aliki Barnstone

Dormition of the Mother of God
Church Filipovo Palm Sunday Icon

Friday, March 31, 2017

"Eva's Voice": Ekphrastic Poems

Marc Chagall, "The Poet Reclining"
In 2003, after seeing Chagall exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I began writing a sequence of ekphrastic poems, "Eva's Voice," in the voice of an imaginary poet, Eva Victoria Perera,  a Sephardic Jew from Thessaloniki, who survives the Holocaust. I was awarded a sabbatical from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (where I taught at the time) and a Senior Fulbright Scholarship for my project. As a result I was able to spend nineteen months in Greece, from June 2005 to January 2007, working on "Eva's Voice." You can read an essay I wrote about Eva and Marc Chagall, "How Eva Victoria Perera Learned to Fly with
Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion"
in The Drunken Boat. If you scroll to the end of the essay, you’ll find Eva’s bio. In the same issue of Boat, you can also read an essay I wrote about the problem of writing about the Holocaust and other such catastrophes, "In Defense of a Poetics of Witness." Here are three ekphrastic poems from "Eva's Voice," "The Blue House, "Day Break on Andros, 1944," and "Red Picnic, 1946," all of 
which appear as a section in my book Dr. God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (the Sheep Meadow Press, 2010), along with some of the paintings that inspired them.

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.

Marc Chagall, "The Blue House"

Marc Chagall, "I and the Village"

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.

Marc Chagall, "Easter"

Marc Chagall, "The Promenade"

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.

Marc Chagall, "Table Laid with View of Saint-Paul de Vance"

Marc Chagall, "Double Portrait"