Friday, July 1, 2022

Selected Works, George Kalamaras



Vassilis Tsitsanis, After a Night of Performing Rembetika, Sees a Photo of the Poet Anthoula Stathopoulou and Falls Madly in Love

It was the eyes, he swore, that tore
into his chest and bore both darkness
and the other dark. Yes, he’d seen
beautiful women before but never
one who looked like a divine turtle
sunbathing a rock with shade
from the underworld. The entire Aegean
there between his heart and the places
within his ribcage he knew were swollen.
He had to sing about her, he knew.
Rembetika, the street music
of the underground—brothels, bars,
and back-alley smoke. Where were her poems?
he wondered. How and why were they
lost? How might the Aegean
inside her words wash over him,
imbue? He knew only she and her poems
belonged in his mouth. Forever.
That owl-wing sweep of her midnight
hair. He put down his bouzouki.
He put down his hash pipe. He exhaled
the moon’s slow smoke. Words flowed and glowed.
Slurred and blurred. Words he searched within
to uncover the meaning of all sound.
To capture the divinity
of the dead. When at only age twenty-seven
she left the body after a brief bout
of consumption. Her age—two plus seven
in numerology—adding up to nine. The sacred
number. The nine syllables within each line
of her poems. Nine beats in a rembetika
lament. The nine heart-wrenching lightning strikes
in his chest whenever he considered
her labored breathing. Whenever
he gazed upon her
photo and fell into the swampy dark
of her eyes. He pulled his bouzouki down
from the mantel above the burning,
easing it from the fireplace
wall, and called her
again and again back from the dead.
And every evening hence he sang
to her and about her and through.
In tavernas, in brothels,
in back-alley smoke. And cafés
stirred with his words—all the housellings
of the rembetika mouth—the ash
of each of her lost poems he lamented
but no one seemed to know. The bouzouki dirge
of his longing. His urge that he nightly sang
again and again that she would not—
did not—die. Ever. But would remain
the everlasting life of his life.

Mikis Theodorakis Contemplates the Rise and Fall of the World

It was a cypress or a willow. He lifted himself into the tree
as a child and heard a piece of perfect music.

Lately, his liver keeps telling him to cleanse the world
with a word. Lately, he sets human suffering to song.

And the wind foraging his mouth makes its way
into back alleys and coffee shops, pharmacies and free

clinics, searching for the proletariat. Birds sound
like Dmitri Shostakovich awarding him the 1957 Gold Medal 

at the Moscow Music Festival. How can then be now?
The years keep bringing poverty and loss. Once, he lay

on a beach, with Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas, composing 
the theme to Zorba the Greek in ways the sea and its stormy 

foam told. When he climbed trees he heard Greek folk music 
and the Byzantine Liturgy both. How to forget? How to forget

being arrested during the Civil War, deported to Makronisos? 
He tells his grandchildren to listen to the wind when the rain

falls. To light a fire and read the poems of Ritsos only when
the embers sink. To give a slice of water, a cup of bread,

to the poor. They don’t believe him and grind their teeth
when he tells of how he had been buried. Buried alive. Twice.

His throat stuffed with dirt. His music left for dead.

The Song of Love

     based on a painting, The Song of Love, by
     Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Let’s say there’s a Greek sculpted head, a surgeon’s 
glove. A small green ball, threatening as an almost-tornado
sky. Let’s say all three could crowbar the mind apart

like the fortuitous meeting of a sewing machine
and an umbrella inside a dead pigeon. No wonder
André Breton gave his wife, Simone, a photograph

of this painting to commemorate the night they merged
with the moon three times in just three hours,
thirty-three minutes. Two of the three objects

are mounted on a wall. Was he telling her
the third time made him round as the color green
absorbing stormy Earth’s sound? In the distance,

a locomotive. Always, for de Chirico,
a locomotive. Somehow the smoke
of arriving was always a form

of departure. He came into this body
part Greek. When he left, the world
knew him only as Italian. The way

Breton entered the marital bed
a Surrealist and emerged a Java sparrow
inside the woman inside his satisfied man-body.

Let it rain, de Chirico once said,
when he meant to say the word love.
Touch me where it hurts, he blurted,

when he longed for love and its desperate
wing-beat release. He was a Surrealist
before the Surrealists. Like being Greek

prior to the plains-torn wars
at Marathon. At Thermopylae. Like a song
in which we float many months

before we emerge, screaming and weeping,
from the woman’s dark. Like a classically
sculpted head before thoughts think us

into the terrible tissue of night.
This was Giorgio de Chirico.
Part howl. Part vowel. Part Greek

without the ruins of Rhodes to confiscate his calm.
Like The Song of Love, known to Breton
as Le chant d'amour. Seen in the endless smoke

of arrival and departure. Of a name. Of a dead pigeon.
Of being Greek. Of the cradle and its earthy urge. Stirred
inside the stirrings of the moon with Simone Kahn as the word

love. Before the painting’s building and its dark
arches—to which we are always nailed—
fall in concussive collapse.

Twelve Reasons Why Ritsos Wrote Scripture of the Blind Only for Those Who See


  1. In the dark, it’s easier to see the number one once than to see the number two twice.


  1. Let’s say the inept Colonels of the 1960s were quite similar to the Metaxas Generals of the 30s, except with fewer medals and shoulder patches. Let’s say every freedom lover named their first born boy Lefteris—short for Eleftherios (meaning free, the liberator or bite this apple with your termite ear or with the left ventricle of your heart).


  1. Because when we look in the mirror with only one of our eyes, what stares back is the other eye, somehow floating there, disembodied, broken.


  1. If you read the lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot you understand what a non-precious metal silver really is, Ritsos said to no one in particular.


  1. During a military coup, and in the afterbath of rain, we might beg lightning to cache itself comfortably in our mouths.


  1. Blind Man’s Bluff is more a game of deception than bonding, Lefteris thought. The population in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is even less than that in Scottsbluff, Nebraska—though slightly more than that in Bluffton, Indiana.


  1. Let’s say the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (even with its ten missing pages) was the one most read during Sunday mornings at five—the time of both the resurrection and of the house arrest of all the red biting fire ants, which seem to espouse communism as they collectively carry away a twig from a termite mound fortified within a statue of Athena.


  1. Because when George Seferis looks in the mirror, first he sees the smoldering coals of his pipe. Then comes the splintered moon from his birthplace near Smyrna, the moon aching through the bones of Odysseus Elytis, whom Seferis is certain is hiding, there, behind him, in the knots in the knotty pine walls of his study.


  1. We might call yesterday, yesterday. But only if we begin doing so three and one-third days after tomorrow.


  1. Counting each of Jesus’s twelve very capable disciples, we wonder what prevented anointing Lazarus as a thirteenth—to follow the Christ, even write a Gospel once he relinquished the stench of his previously dead mouth. Was Lazarus busy writing his own Scripture of the No-Longer Dead?


  1. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know why they shot me, Lefteris winced, leaning across the Athens bar. And now I can’t tell if I’m living or just slightly more alive.


  1. In the dark, it’s much harder to count to thirteen than to twelve, Ritsos proclaimed, as if in reply. As if a zodiac of words. As if a zodiac revealed itself, there, in star charts in the slope of a bee intestine dissected by a recalcitrant astronomer.


  1. Look at the night sky through the aroused navel of your belovèd. Count—there—each of your fingers and toes. It all adds up to an angry weather pattern we might leave as luck in a trashcan waiting at the curbside to be nominated as the only sane member of the Divine Trust of The Sound and Sacred Word. Epaulets, say, disguised as a vague mustache. The scriptural equivalent of the blind little brother of The Sacred and the Profane.

George Vafopoulos Contemplates the Sea Below His Tongue

Time, he knew, stood running. Still,
it seemed, he held a jellyfish in his mouth.

A stingray from the coral reefs of the Aegean.
There, very near his tonsils. Primordial time

nourishing, perplexing, his words. Diced cubes
of sea cucumber he consulted as an oracle,

knowing the Orthodox faith
and the wisdom of Mount Athos

were part of the wind that was part
of the trees that seemed to be part of the everlasting

sea grass. Everyone seemed to know Ritsos
was a Red. Theodorakis too. That was fine, he thought.

But what color in the midnight dark, he wondered, was he, 
George Vafopoulos, when he waded this way, that—

knee-deep in his own mouth? Was he Aegean
blue? Parthenon white? The trembling

sea-cucumber green of the cross troubling the waves
of the Greek flag? Color was mischievous. Was always 

changing shades in sparkling sea light. Could account
for the way his mouth. For the way his mouth

started. Stopped. And mimicked, sometimes,
a startling rain battering the beach.

His month on Holy Mount Athos meant more
to him than that recurring dream of lobsters and squids 

guiding him to a chamber where perplexity dissolved.
Than his sudden beard, say, some mornings,

whenever he wrote a poem about a ship or the wind or sea 
anemones flowering his brain. Whenever, in the narthex

of the church, he lit a candle before the icon of Nicholas, 
seafarer saint. This was the world that was below his tongue. 

This, the world, of Athos. Surrounded by sea, by creatures
he could not quite name. A world that might allow the night

sounds of stars crushing into themselves.
That nightly repaired itself, even as it tore

itself apart. He was convinced that if he got the words
just right that the jellyfish swimming there

below his tongue might stop stinging him.
And with their gelatinous, medusa-phase

bodies bring back the dance of the dead 
in one translucent streak. Telling.

Telling him what and where
he had been. Been before

he had been forgotten. Had forgotten
the sea and all he had borne in being born.

Maria Efstathiadi Confronts Time in the Bending of Rain

The transgressions
The transgressions, you thought
Which start in the legs
The fire-driven thighs
The inattentive brain
The transgressive act of loving
Simple things like rain
Like coffee, say, or tea, clocks that have stopped
Sentences without end, without the words, word or thing
Dreams with no names
Naming us when sleep sleeps
Naming you naming me
With their fog
With their thick animal mist
You and the holy ones, Maria
The dead see things
We don’t
Care to even want to know
The dead are thriving inside
The living
Partitions of our mouths
Words our words work and want
To break apart each time a moment is ignored
Each time the tongue gives up
On us and tries to wag loose
All it tries to say
In the driving rains 
That hammer at and lament and bend us
Like broken clocks 
Whose hands, contorted, have given up on them
Entirely, giving in, to the stiffening drift of time

Alexandros Panagoulis Weighs the World One Word at a Time

Count the rat turds in your food, Alexandros,
and you can notch the calendar with another sun-sunken

moon. You wrote your poems on the walls of your jail cell,
sometimes with your own blood. It is difficult for me

with my air conditioning, shelves of books, and full belly
to completely grasp that writing with your blood is not

a metaphor. I weigh the world one word at a time. I weigh
the world of the literal and the bee swarm in my mouth.

It is like, I begin to say to you. And then I stop,
gutted with guilt for your years of actual walls

and blood. Tell me, what is it like to be the sea
inside the sea? To be the strength of the current

preventing you from swimming to your comrades
waiting in the boat after you tried to kill the coup?

You could not swim strongly enough. The Colonels put you
in that place of assassination. I see the walls and say, walls.

I see walls and say, trees bending away from the fire in your mouth.
I cut a finger while carving a carrot and say, blood of my blood.

I read your poems and ask what you coughed up upon
your cot before the Angel of Amnesty arrived? What finger

did you use to soak your grief forever into concrete?

In the Time of Borges and Calm

Then I awoke as a splinter of dawn in the arms of a young mother from Argentina.
I cried and cried and pissed my pants, and she said soothing things to me, singing village 
   folksongs with gentle coos.

There was a murmuring of milk. Wind in the pampas. Cows lowing in moonlight.
I grew calm at her soft brown breast and was certain I wanted more.

Then time stood dead.
Part of me was scarred, beyond repair.

I turned to climbing trees, to wrestling birds from the chest of a jaguar. 
I learned how to count to twelve so that I could watch my life pass, hour by hour.

Someone read me a poem. Then the stories of Aesop. Then the biography of a wolf.
Newspapers came to claim what common sense I had.

I learned to recite the alphabet.
But I dwelled time and again on the first letter of everyone’s name.

There was M, of course, for Mother and her milk. And E, with her electric schoolyard 
     voice. And K & L, who even into my adulthood, had been forever kind.
And they all came—these and others—to know me as Aleph, the lonely letter I heard and 
     was and upon which I seemed to dwell.

And the libraries of Buenos Aires settled their dust and lent me books, as if I were stung 
     by bees or remained full of cemetery madness.
And I once saw the man, Borges, himself, who stopped one startling moment one 
     afternoon as I entered a department store behind him. And he kindly held the door for 
     me. One wind-struck instant. As if forever asking my name.

We Knew Something Good

We absorbed the wood of the splintered moon.
We moved inside the aching rain as one way to become tiny Surrealist suns.

There had been Magritte, of course. And Joan Miró.
There were also parts of Paul Klee transparent against raindrops on the sliding glass.

We were broody and worthless all afternoon.
We ate pizza every day topped with caramelized onions and sautéed eggplant.

We knew something good by the amount of pain it held.
We measured it by water. Restless water. By what was drank and what was drunk.

None of the verb tenses fit. None could be decided upon.
None of the tiny suns burst upon our chest as a notorious nest of gnats.

We searched for a tense called the future past’s future.
Branching out backwards seemed the best approach.

Then we were summoned by an old green truck with a bed of sand and mud for ballast.
Would we ever be seen again, we wondered, on this route or that? Clear as a smeared 
     shadow in the blowing rain turning to snow?

The Fifth Manifesto

We move through a beautiful urge of words.
There are streetlamps, antique tongues, lovers without mouths.

The moon filled the moth wings with illicit body smoke.
Everything I touched had somehow already touched me.

I asked the astrologer whether our mutual past might have something to do with the rise 
     of Bolshevism in Tanzania.
She thought the past should stay in the future. That we should learn to let sleeping dogs 
     experience flight.

One of the main points of Breton’s public attack on Desnos in the Second Manifesto was 
     Desnos’s practice of drinking food and eating water.
The story about his fondness for composing alexandrines was a metaphor to disguise 
     Breton’s gastronomical disgust.

Transparent feathers vibrate little-known cages.
We allow our association with knives to prepare the maps for our adventures East.

I woke unto the throat and asked about a beautiful deformity of quite-crippling rain.
I have so often dreamed of walking out of my life.

Michael Mitsakis Thought That Every Six Was a Nine

Some have claimed I am as mad as Michael Mitsakis.
Some have searched the annals of Greek poetry to see if it was me and not Mitsakis 
     locked all those years in the asylum.

I admit that I have measured the moment of my mouth against a fully dark moon.
I promise you that I have gone to the swamp many midnights to pray for the welfare of 
     all sentient beings.

It has been a long slog to come up from my amoeba self into this fully human form.
I have served many midnights in the luminous rib of an owl, nourishing it with my 
     mouse-bone self.

Yesterday, I read a news article in the local paper that said I have never existed.
It began, Once upon a time, lightning came as thunder as words as a swarm of bees upon 
     this man who supposedly visited our town.

All I can say is study the poems of Robert Desnos, and you will find true love for  
     termites and ants in his unrequited love for the dancehall singer, Yvonne George.
If you go to the wall calendar, you will see that I have marked out the sixth day of every 
     sixth week—just to see if I can get the year to add up to nine days in the river, nine 
     months in my mouth.

We Remember the Subject of Love

The sky happens from all continents at once.
We remember the subject of love.

Stretch a flag, exuberantly, across a few minutes of a street.
Later, the momentum of the most tragic poems explodes.

Memories mill in the beginning noise of clocks.
I’ve had an unrequited crush on a certain woman for three incarnations in a row now.

Still silent, you have to push night into my belly.
The object of torment is banished to a storm.

Say knives pierce a second infinitude.
Say Antonin Artaud transgressed even the blotting sounds of cruel, spiritual love.

Garbage kissed every corner of my mouth. 
My poems—not me—stood up like a god.

George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016). He is the author of twenty collections of poetry—twelve full-length books and eight chapbooks—as well as a critical study on language theory and the Eastern wisdom traditions. A recipient of various national and state prizes for his poetry, he spent several months in India in 1994 on an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he taught for thirty-two years. He lives with his wife, writer Mary Ann Cain, and their beagle, Bootsie, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

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