By Andrew Mossin
Art from Creative Commons
The Old World
I am unable—words can’t recover it. A landscape back of those who carried me through my first days: mother, that “she” who bore me. The extrinsic realism of these few facts I know and have preserved: I was born in the Hospital for Children in Athens, Greece on April 20, 1958. My mother’s name, Angeliki Sakkas, became known to me in my mid-20’s when my father presented me with my birth certificate and an index card on which her name and that of my father—Efthimois Kooroubis—were written. Initial knowledge of the circumstances of my birth parents came to me from my adoptive mother, Iris. I was perhaps five or six, had already come to understand that my place in our household was pre-emptive, uncertain, dependent on the fluctuations of my mother’s temperament. One understands so little at the time of each event, but I remember her hands holding the book close to me as we sat together on the sofa one afternoon (a cup of tea just made? some pieces of orange left on the plate from lunch? what did she wear? how did she move into the light from outside?) and she tried to explain my origins. In one version, my birth mother and father were peasants who lived in the countryside, not far from Athens. One day my father accosted my mother in an olive grove near her home and took her into the field and raped her. When she became pregnant, my father (who lived in a nearby town) refused to help and abandoned her to return to the city. My mother traveled to Athens to find him, without luck.
When I was born, she asked that I be placed in the orphanage adjoining the hospital and given up for adoption. Another version, supplanting the first: She traveled back to her native Liknon, and spent the rest of her life there, among her family. At evening traveling along the road she would invent her lover’s (my father’s) image . . . his manhood (my childhood) disappearing beneath the weight of the open sky. No one knew him, no one knew of her time in the city, without him. She had traveled and come back, the way was not to be revealed, she had traveled and come back without any one, no one knew of this time, no one examined her when she came back empty from the walk, the train ride that had taken six hours, leaving her without child, barely 16, starting again.
The story (or tale) has become apocryphal, with each re-telling gathering renewed force in a cycle of fatalistic mortality, fabulist morality, as my biological mother and father became both enlarged and diminished, brought to death’s table by Iris’s fateful reenactment of scenes that came not from memory, but from the distorted re-fashioning of a past she had no direct experience of, no language for but that of the made-up, the unreal and monumental. I was awakened, her name and mine emblazoned there, the first shroud, particles, her breath along the scarred surface of my back, mitera, nails, swirls of wordless beginning, mitera, blind source, two toned beginnings of a voice, summation then the collapse of our bodies, two into one, the prophecy without prophet, stopped by a road in springtime and gathered the pale leaves of olive… My mother was walking alone (her shawl draped across her back) in the olive grove and saw my father, a soldier, and seduced him. My father was an illiterate shepherd and found my mother alone in the fields one evening. On the cool grass near the house where my mother lived he had taken her and left her there, never to return. He was a soldier stationed at the barracks in town. She was a schoolteacher. They were Communists, his hair was golden, hers bright auburn. The fabulistic and fictive fused in my mother’s recounting of how I came into the world, how I would always remain a “bastard,” marked by events that had nothing to do with the boy I was named to become. And there is this: my father, years later, telling me the story of my arrival in this country, my first hours in America. He and Iris had driven from Washington, D.C. to JFK Airport in New York City, about a five hour trip in those years. They were prepared for the long journey, the hours they would have to wait before I was brought to them. When the plane landed and they came out onto the tarmac and waited at the bottom of the stairs I was brought down by a social worker who’d accompanied me on the trip from Athens, and I was placed in my mother’s arms and began screaming uncontrollably until given to my father, at which point I stopped. How true this story is remains less the point than my father’s need to tell it.
There was a father, there was no father, the play of lights on the water that was equally suggestive to him of whatever had passed their way, once, had entered the stream of his (my) abject mercurial memory. Recollection that now seemed partial beyond rescue, words that now were said by another, nearby, in undertones of admonishment, “I can’t keep you with me here, I can’t let you free, what you do will come back to haunt us both, there is only so much time left.” As if in accusation of the entire project, its spiraling immemorial belief system that could, at a moment’s notice, veer off, turn from the one he remembered to another enacting a play of roles without number or origin. How could he have understood what would come between them, what was coming between the dead figures inside his mind, now and forever lapsed representations of such ample and disguised injury. No, it wasn’t the same, to tell these stories now brought different consequences, different risks. Time moved as it did. The entropic wonder of memory theatre led to other less conclusive viewings of the past. He had not wanted to return to those who had become lost to him, yet in obedience had done so, fitfully at first, the pages accumulating over the years inside a drawer, his hands that reached in the automatic and prismatic night for some response, the fiction of a voice he had entertained once, now grasped for again: ludic, sparsely lit, entombed.
The magnolia leaves were torn into patterns along the pavement. In the house where seventh summer went into seventh fall, reverie had taken the place of actuality, the glimpsed-at hereafter for which he would gladly have renounced all worldly entitlement. The voice that was and wasn’t his told him: “If we are imprisoned, do you want to know the extent of the imprisoning, do you want to cleanse yourself, or shall you burn forever in memory of the glimpsed-at not-yet-resolved existence?” So that the usefulness of the memory would be put to question again and again, more than its truthfulness even, a report that lay claim to a part of his life that was and wasn’t actual. No matter: each recollection suggested a generative root encumbered by all that preceded it: the woman who was and was not mother to him, the father who was and was not father, each caught in the painstaking dead still aftermath that wasn’t even part of the record, existed as fragment, distended memory, the thwarted portrait of place, figures of initial impression…
Nothing could be said to comfort them, nothing could in time be done, or its reverse, sped back as if film were being ripped through the machine, and the figures that had once taken their place before the projector were now made capable of motion again, given back their consuming reality, identities tied to knowledge of what had not yet and would not ever occur, so that each instant of the lives on record was somehow exhumed, made extensive with the before and after affect of side-shadowed parallelism. The gist of story (trite in its barest outline: alcoholic mother, runaway son, non-present father) that would create the elements of necessary and illicit montage: webbed shell and sundial, bareness of a woman’s back, a room nearly emptied of light, space that confronts him as he enters, shot-through with scent of lemon and linseed oil.
I am aware, even now, of the impress of these memories, the combined twisting back of layers, not revealing a layer beneath, so much as creating a new layer atop each successive vision in a palimpsest of gestures, calls, devotions. To mend the retreat of my life, to adhere now to what was possibly real, impossibly other than myself, as in silence in a room once I knew her name, not mine, was distracted by the brilliance of the light that fell on both our forms, a union that forecast each successive union, as if in the film we watched the two, mother and son, again and again, meeting, not meeting, the blend of their figures: it’s summer, the high point of heat, someone is outside mowing the grass, my father isn’t there, nearly four o’clock, the air so stagnant in the house you can taste the dust motes on your lips. She’s sitting on the sofa, near me, I’ve just begun to read the a book pulled at random from the bookcase near the open window, when she takes a sip from her bottle behind the curtain, doesn’t think I notice, isn’t aware. I’m seeing her out the corner of my eye, the slow turn of her body, its half-expectant demeanor that is a signal, not so much of refulgent sexuality, but of languid and culpable reserve. I can’t recall, yet attend: her eye as it might have caught mine, inveighing some speculative desire, the were-you-my-love of an introit, not spoken, but essential nonetheless, so that it too would create the dormant after-impression of having been, of having known, the body of my mother, a swelling up of urgency, agentless desire, until I couldn’t determine the difference between us (a “he” and “she” melded in androgynous coercion). I wanted to lean down and touch her dress, I wanted to place my head on her breast and taste her sweat. She sat appraising me, I don’t know for how long, she didn’t say a word, the want spawning a history of silence.
Was it forgiveness or foreignness? The feint of appreciation or the idiom of disgust? It was my 13th summer, my face was feminine in appearance, so that I could be and often was mistaken for a girl. Yet even in that misprision of identities, I was aware of her sex and mine, intermingled. I was her boy/man, she my girl/woman, the fictive implantation of our beings in a summer afternoon, hovering past the mid-point, her breath gin-heavy, my hands in her hands, her eyes noticing what long ago had gone unrecognized: we were not of the same blood, yet bore a history that bred us to these actions, this place, conscious of the need to undo, un-create ourselves at the same time that we led and were led by a dance from within. The spirit split in two, the body carved from its arching limb, spread across an expanse of green water.
Doylestown, PA, 12 April 2007
Andrew Mossin is the author of six full-length collections of poetry and a volume of critical essays. His memoir, A Son from the Mountains, will be published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2021. He is an Associate Professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.
Originally appeared in NOR 2