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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





                    It is a terrible thing
                    To be so open: it is as if my heart
                    Put on a face and walked into the world.
                               —"Three Women," Sylvia Plath

Other people's lives have an intimate smell.
The woman I work for has rows
of clothes, so many colors hang in her closet. I wear
my black jersey skirt, my jean shirt.
Aubergine she said.  Aubergine is what I remember
the night I stay to baby sit the child. 
For these hours I own the quiet.
The light from the night lamp turns the color
brown wine, the color I put
against my skin, Aubergine.
I always put the underwear back in the drawer.

The sheets begin to smell of my tears.
The old lady tells her daughter
she cannot sleep at night
because of my tears.  She is very old,
at night she makes the throaty sounds of the dying.
I think her smell is always on me.
I go out to the tiny balcony
to breathe, but the smell clings.
There is none of this in my letters to Katia.
I write as I spoke in the war.
Without food or hope I spoke of food and hope.
They must manage without me.
It's like I have died, but I speak anyway—
The money is sewn into the pillowslip.
Buy shoes.  Send your uncle the pills…courage,
remember we have survived war.
My leaving Tbilisi was easy
then worse than the war; I could not touch
my daughters' faces.

The wind blows red
island dust, dirt, my face clogs
with the red in my pores.  Red water
comes off my skin.
For months even the towel comes away
We had good jobs in Bulgaria.
Then everything closed,
we had to find work
in fields where dirt
flies in your face like a blown shirt.
The color of the sky when I left Georgia,
the color of war, the color of mornings I had
to think how we would eat, the color
of vegetables in oil, vegetables in salt,
wilted vegetables, the color floods me.
I would say "eat," I would say
"I'm not hungry."  Katia would say
"no Mama, eat.  You work."
"I'm too tired," I would say and think
they are growing, they need the food, I would
even laugh. I'm always telling lies to feed them.
It is a deep, bone deep loneliness
as if light alone
clothes me.  I admire the ochre
shaping what my body is.
The walls shaped in this
light hear me as I pass them
to work, every day an impossibility
I enter, ordered to
by God who will not return me
to Bulgaria.  He will
have me travel this land that doesn’t
belong to me.  I cannot
turn back, like Lot's wife
I will disappear if I turn.

They do not know this: how I clean
another person's house
like it's my own. I was raised to live
in my home.  What could be wrong
in the old woman's world?
She worries about her floors, the dust.
I say, "Tamara, you have this dust
in Georgia.  You are cleaning your home in Georgia."
In my dreams
my house is coated in Georgian dirt
and smells of rain.
This morning I didn't want to wake from my dream.
I was sleeping with my arms around my son.
I could smell his hair, an ash-tree smell.
I could smell his skin, vanilla and bitter lemon.
I could touch his arms, long tender lengths.
I could warm his skin, the coolness behind the knees.
I am a refugee in open space.
This is who I am now, a color like
the poppies in spring.  Lilacs
and wild daisies
climb the embankments.  One day
the line is somewhere on a far mountain,
the next it is drawn across
another mountain.  The flowers grow wild everywhere.
We travel the lines,
gather cloths, our blankets,
red like the poppies, yellow like chaff.
I sew dark yellow lines
around the flowers.
They've bombed a factory
next to an orphanage
in Kosovo, now it will run its chemicals
across the lines.  People are so stupid.  There will only be
one color in the end,
a single dull rust
everywhere.  Not even red, after the flames and blood
this color will be
a smell that crosses lines.

I am so many pieces
anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore.
What's one more lost tooth,
one more meal of potatoes
and days-old bread.
I am heavy with days-old bread and potatoes,
starve with them.
When I touch
my girls I'm full, I'm Tamara.
Now I'm losing
the last parts of Tamara.

No more blood, I tell her,
no more red.  She cannot understand.
It's over, I say.  The red has stopped.
She says she knows
because I'm from Sofia.
She says Communism is finished.
It's not Communism I tell her.
What? she says.
My blood is over.
Your blood?
Yes, I say, I’m 38.
I cannot have babies anymore.

In all my dreams Katia is speaking
Mother you have been everything we know the world by…
Ruska is practical.  She writes of how many
blankets to send, she writes of my brother's leg.
I must send bandages, medicine, even
cotton with the doctor's pay.

The TV, the small vacuum cleaner,
the dollars Ivan managed to find, all our
drachmas exchanged for dollars,
stolen.  He stood in the kitchen with a smile,
a knife in his hand, telling us to leave.
The educated schoolteacher,
the schoolteacher criminal.  No,
just the criminal.
If he was a schoolteacher in Albania,
he's a criminal now.  He laughed,
his wife laughed.  Ivan, my husband, tried to talk.
He told him he didn't want a fight.
The criminal laughed again, played with the knife,
leaned against the kitchen counter,
told us he was tired of living with us.
Ivan said we'd pack our things.
The criminal said everything stays
with the house.  Ivan tried
to talk to him.  He just laughed again.
Then I started laughing
loudly.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.
Tears were in my eyes and my stomach
ached.  I didn't stop.  The last thing I remember is
Ivan sitting me down on a bench
where people passed, staring.
I was still laughing.
Ivan called Thanassi, the man
he works for in the car repair shop.
Ivan, pale in the street light,
pale when he sat down next to me, said
Thanassi would help me
go back to Albania.
The result is the same, even if
she was polite. She asked me to leave.
I'm not a beggar.
I will find work; I found
fields ripe in olives, red dirt.
I didn't realize
I banged the door as I left, let it
swing into a curse.  Words.
I went to a church to calm the words,
light a candle.
A child lay in a basket,
the priest's sleeve
brushed against its cheek.
Children cradled candied boxes.
The baby cried,
the poor thing
has no idea
incense smells, candle smells,
altar flowers
in vases,
will not soften
the shock.  Naked,
baptized or not, it will learn
a name.
Christian, Greek
or Russian,
Muslim or Jewish, everyone fights
for a name they believe holy.
I shouldn't have come
to church, shouldn't have
banged the door.
My name is Natalia, it means
nothing on this earth,
the fields will bury it like all
the fallen olives.

Katia's letter says my brother died,
even with the money
I sent for the leg operation.  It's the first time
I didn't cry after a letter from Katia.
I will go back to Georgia now,
to my daughters' full embrace,
the fertile land, the rusted spades,
the blue plum trees, back
to tomatoes and corn and potatoes,
to pickled vegetables in jars,
to milk from the old goat, back
to the exposed brick walls of the apartment,
to toilet paper so thick it scratches my skin, back
to boarded up porches, ripped plaster
ceilings, to the dimness of 30-watt light, back
to braids of red pepper, to laundry
on balcony rails hanging
above gardens, many-colored and everywhere
strung across window frames.

Note: After the fall of the Eastern block there was what continues to be a steady influx into Greece of Albanians, Bulgarians, Russians and other nationals from the Balkans looking for work and repatriation.

© by Adrianne Kalfopoulou


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