Concerning the Ancestors
If I wake early when the water is motionless,
the sun still soft, the surface almost perfectly a mirror,
my neighbors asleep, not out for their morning walk,
perhaps I’ll escape my bed in time and my pillow
won’t be the landscape of my ancestors’ history—
the giving up so I could be born after their deaths,
the treasures left behind, the belongings saved, passed down
as an inverse birthright, a retort to the chanting mob,
their torches and flags, their vows to ban us and wall us in,
the obligation to live, not to live to work but to work to live
with all our senses sharp with desire, memories glimmering
on the other side of my age, whatever age I am,
the photographs painstakingly labeled in another language,
the photo of teenagers picnicking on a hill in the old country,
the one tilting her head who looks like my daughter snapped back
to the past, the shame of not knowing, the shame of elusive
fluency to decode and adore the mystery of family,
the bile and rage sickening me when someone gets it wrong,
the wrong name, the wrong story, the wrong fact—I have the decree
upstairs in my files!—the euphemisms for catastrophe—
the death march, the fire—the claim there might be two sides.
If my daughter could be protected in the understory,
the way old growth oaks and sycamores bend over
redbuds and dogwoods flowering resplendent in spring rain.
If I could stop myself giving her a handful of pebbles,
instructing her, one for each headstone, stone on stone.
Your great-great-grandfather this, your great-great-grandmother that.
Do this, not that. If a tattoo you spit on their graves.
You’re already tattooed. Your skin lucent with youth
cannot disguise these insistent letters and symbols
inking the quietist hours with their voices, sorrow
and pride and, piling up in the corners of your rooms,
their relentless gifts waiting to be opened.
Some Version of Hospitality
Something creeps in when you open the door,
wishing for guests, fear that waits in the borders
of rugs’ swirling florals, in the dust beneath
the vacuum can’t reach. Maybe something glimmers
in rusty coffee you slopped in a saucer,
grateful you didn’t stain the tablecloth’s
lemons, impugning your own possessions.
You wander a maze of tasks in your planner,
inscribed the Book of Ordinary Life,
putter around, and keep the houseplants green
while time ruptures incrementally, Bardo
in microbes on the plastic orange juice
bottles you place in the kitchen sink, spray
with disinfectant. You wait for hot water—
something delivered, something liminal—
and soap your hands, attending to your nails
and your fingers’ lengths, free from rings for months now.
For twenty seconds, you flirt with the myth
wobbling in the bathroom mirror, sing hope
under your breath—“happy birthday to me”—
or else you hear the dead in running water,
apocalypse in meter, and you recite,
“some say the world will end fire,” pretending
you feel the oracle, a brutalizing
mystery in steam vapor. You unfold and
refold the numbered days of history,
not sure if it’s the paper or you gone blank,
unwritten, or if mockery and anger
usher in an unwelcome, lucid stranger.
Aliki Barnstone is a poet, translator, critic, memoirist, editor, and visual artist. Dwelling (Sheep Meadow Press, 2016) is the most recent of her eight books of poetry. She translated The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy (W.W. Norton, 2006). A bilingual edition of her translation from the Modern Greek of Liana Sakelliou’s Portrait Before Dark came out with St. Julian Press this spring, and Sakelliou’s translation of Barnstone’s Eva’s Voice is forthcoming, also in a bilingual edition, in Athens with Vakxikon Publications. Sakelliou and Barnstone both lived through the Greek military junta (1967-1974) and are working on a collaborative book on those brutal years. Among her awards are a Senior Fulbright Fellowship in Greece, the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and residencies at the Anderson Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri and served as poet laureate of Missouri from 2016-2019.