Ambassador of the Dead

By George Kalogeris

Featured Art: The Artist in His Studio by James McNeill Whistler

My parents were never crazy about Cavafy—
They didn’t know much about poetry, at all,
And barely had time to read anything but the papers;

Though sometimes a poem they liked would appear in their
Beloved Hellenic Voice. (A poem that was always
In rhyming stanzas, and deeply nostalgic.) Or else

I’d show them one of the Modern Greek poets that I
Was trying to translate, and ask for their advice
About a line. “Is this for school?” they’d say.

My parents were never crazy about Cavafy—
To them he was too refined, too ALEX-AN-
DRIAN, and they were only peasants, xhoríates.

And there was no Ithaka for them to go back to.
When I’d beg them to read the Greek, they’d balk when they got
To his purist kátharévousa diction—they just

Couldn’t stomach its formalist starch. His poems were never
Demotic enough, never trapέzeiká:
Songs to be sung across the kitchen table.

And if I read them Elytis, Odysseus Elytis
Too was too elitist to trust, too drunk
On the island sun of his own Ionian vision.

To people for whom elevation meant being raised
In the steepening shadows of Peloponnesos.
(“The great Odysseus,” my father would chide.)

And if Yannis Ritsos spoke their working-class language,
And his poems weren’t hard to follow, still, once they heard
That Ritsos was Marxist that’s all they needed to know.

But read us some more Seferi, I hear them say,
As I sit and write at a green formica table,
The same one where we sat together and ate

In another century. Was it Mandelstam
Who said that poetry, to him, was bread
From the kitchen table, but that his words were dead

If he tried to start a poem by looking up
At the stars? Osip Mandelstam, who wrote:
The evening stars against the horizon glistened

Like salt on the blade of an axe. I think my parents
Would’ve liked that verse, and called it trapέzeiká.
Saying that, their shades appear in the table’s reflection,

Looking up as if they were thirsting for something to drink.
Read us some more Seferi. Noblesse oblige
Sefériádes, that haughty diplomat who,

In his British banker’s suits, had seen the world.
French Symbolist figs and Earl Grey with Eliot.
And stones too heavy to lift without his learning.

But also deep silence as old Europe explodes.
And crowded refugee ships as a form of transport.
Ambassador of the high Modernist, ancient Dead.

Read us that one about Stratis, you know, Stratis
Thalássinós, I hear my parents intone,
Their voices, as soft as the hiss of the surf in Seferis,

Calling from the floor of the Dead Sea, though the smooth
Formica shines green as the placid Aegean of poems.
And then my mother returns to her ironing board,

The steam-iron dipping like a prow that’s driving
Through choppy waves, the pile of freshly laundered
Butcher’s aprons as white as white-washed Piraeus.

And now my father’s back at his block, still reading
The smoking entrails. He has turned the victim’s head
So that its eyes are facing Er.bus. Or Smyrna.

I’m spreading sawdust, and watching it soak up the blood.

George Kalogeris’s most recent book of poems is Guide to Greece, (Louisiana State University, 2018). He is also the author of a book of paired poems in translation, Dialogos (Antilever, 2012), and of a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer, 2006). His poems and translations have been anthologized in Joining Music with Reason, chosen by Christopher Ricks (Waywiser, 2010). He teaches at Suffolk University.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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