Astyanax and Other Poems

 
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George Kalogeris

Art by Amy Jean Porter

 
 

ASTYANAX

Hector and Andromache’s kid, still young
Enough to panic at seeing the massive, swaying,
Horsehair plume of his father’s helmet. It’s then
The hero takes off the crimson-crested bronze,
And sets it down, and picks up his stricken child.
Homer says the doting parents are “laughing
Through their tears,” as if we could read the entire
Story of shining Troy in their doomed faces.

When I turned six my Uncle Harry gave me
His US Navy sailor’s cap. The pleated,
Snow-white cloth was flat as a folded napkin.
And sleek as a battleship’s prow at Iwo Jima.
Inside the brim, my uncle’s name, inscribed
With a black marker: KARANIKOLAS.
But O my covered eyes! How the grown-ups laughed
When my head was swallowed up by the sailor’s cap.

 
 

ASTYANAX

Hector and Andromache’s kid, still young
Enough to panic at seeing the massive, swaying,
Horsehair plume of his father’s helmet. It’s then
The hero takes off the crimson-crested bronze,
And sets it down, and picks up his stricken child.
Homer says the doting parents are “laughing
Through their tears,” as if we could read the entire
Story of shining Troy in their doomed faces.

When I turned six my Uncle Harry gave me
His US Navy sailor’s cap. The pleated,
Snow-white cloth was flat as a folded napkin.
And sleek as a battleship’s prow at Iwo Jima.
Inside the brim, my uncle’s name, inscribed
With a black marker: KARANIKOLAS.
But O my covered eyes! How the grown-ups laughed
When my head was swallowed up by the sailor’s cap.

 
 

MARSYAS

As if even in Greek he couldn’t come up with a word
For us to really grasp what he felt as a child,
My uncle stretched out his arm. Then shook it hard

To show how hot the kerosene was when it spilled
From the reading lamp that he accidentally broke—
His forearm sleeved in lava that never cooled.

In kindergarten, we weren’t allowed to look
At what we touched, but asked to draw in crayon
Whatever we thought we felt inside the sack

Of staticky burlap our teacher was holding open
As she stood beside each desk, imploring us
To “reach inside and use your imagination.”

No doctor could reach the peak of Ákovos
In the dark of night. But almost as skillful and calm
As golden Apollo flaying poor Marsyas,

Your father sliced the scalding flesh from your arm
With a shearing knife. And then, instead of gauze,
The wound was wrapped in chamomile and thyme.

When I reached down into the burlap’s bristling fuzz
It swallowed my arm. My teacher had pulled the drawstring
So I couldn’t look inside and see what it was

We could only imagine. I put my finger on something
That quivered like Jell-O. The clumps of something woolly.
A comb with broken teeth. A seashell. An earring…

In the homemade video of my Uncle Charlie,
My father’s brother, he’s in his suburban kitchen:
The youngest now the last one left, yet calmly

Detailing how, as a boy, he fled his mountain
Village, piecing together a story whose charred,
Unsayable bits I’d picked up on my own.

At the end of the tape, as if to show us he’s healed,
He rolls up his flannel sleeve and holds out his arm.
It glistens like wheat. And now we’re both the child

Who reaches down into the bottomless sack of a dream
For your mother’s voice, your sisters’ hair, black groves
Whose leaves still rustle from a phantom limb.

If I pull out my arm too fast, they’ll cling to my sleeve.

 
 

MARSYAS

As if even in Greek he couldn’t come up with a word
For us to really grasp what he felt as a child,
My uncle stretched out his arm. Then shook it hard

To show how hot the kerosene was when it spilled
From the reading lamp that he accidentally broke—
His forearm sleeved in lava that never cooled.

In kindergarten, we weren’t allowed to look
At what we touched, but asked to draw in crayon
Whatever we thought we felt inside the sack

Of staticky burlap our teacher was holding open
As she stood beside each desk, imploring us
To “reach inside and use your imagination.”

No doctor could reach the peak of Ákovos
In the dark of night. But almost as skillful and calm
As golden Apollo flaying poor Marsyas,

Your father sliced the scalding flesh from your arm
With a shearing knife. And then, instead of gauze,
The wound was wrapped in chamomile and thyme.

When I reached down into the burlap’s bristling fuzz
It swallowed my arm. My teacher had pulled the drawstring
So I couldn’t look inside and see what it was

We could only imagine. I put my finger on something
That quivered like Jell-O. The clumps of something woolly.
A comb with broken teeth. A seashell. An earring…

In the homemade video of my Uncle Charlie,
My father’s brother, he’s in his suburban kitchen:
The youngest now the last one left, yet calmly

Detailing how, as a boy, he fled his mountain
Village, piecing together a story whose charred,
Unsayable bits I’d picked up on my own.

At the end of the tape, as if to show us he’s healed,
He rolls up his flannel sleeve and holds out his arm.
It glistens like wheat. And now we’re both the child

Who reaches down into the bottomless sack of a dream
For your mother’s voice, your sisters’ hair, black groves
Whose leaves still rustle from a phantom limb.

If I pull out my arm too fast, they’ll cling to my sleeve.

 
 

WHEATFIELD WITH CROWS

When the Grim Reaper appeared on our back porch,
It was almost suppertime. But there he was
In the February cold, in his full-length cloak,
Complete with drooping hood and rusty scythe.
My little brother and I fled to the den.

Before he opens the door, my grandfather grins.
My mother goes right on stirring the egg-lemon soup:
Ela, Sotíri mou” she sighs through the steam.
And that’s when our prankster uncle, stepping inside,
Lowers the skeleton mask and bursts into laughter.

Ela, Sotíri mou…That hooded visitor,
Who scared the daylights out of us, but also
Our close relative, whose name meant savior.
Uncle Savior, doubled up with laughter…
It’s cold outside, yet even if evening comes on

With the very same frantic swarm of crows that haunt
What could be the final painting by Vincent van Gogh,
One cauldron-swirl of avgo-lemono soup
Is warm as the life in a sunflower’s open face.
That night the Grim Reaper hung up his rusty scythe

And sat down for supper with us. But how were we
As kids to know that happy-go-lucky soul
With the crooked gold teeth that glittered when he spoke
Would one day die of suicidal depression?
Or that in Greece there is no Halloween,

But the villagers put on their spooky costumes
In February, before the start of Lent?
Even so, just under the ragged hem
Of the hooded cloak you really couldn’t miss it:
The dead giveaway was his polished shoes.

 
 

WHEATFIELD WITH CROWS

When the Grim Reaper appeared on our back porch,
It was almost suppertime. But there he was
In the February cold, in his full-length cloak,
Complete with drooping hood and rusty scythe.
My little brother and I fled to the den.

Before he opens the door, my grandfather grins.
My mother goes right on stirring the egg-lemon soup:
Ela, Sotíri mou” she sighs through the steam.
And that’s when our prankster uncle, stepping inside,
Lowers the skeleton mask and bursts into laughter.

Ela, Sotíri mou…That hooded visitor,
Who scared the daylights out of us, but also
Our close relative, whose name meant savior.
Uncle Savior, doubled up with laughter…
It’s cold outside, yet even if evening comes on

With the very same frantic swarm of crows that haunt
What could be the final painting by Vincent van Gogh,
One cauldron-swirl of avgo-lemono soup
Is warm as the life in a sunflower’s open face.
That night the Grim Reaper hung up his rusty scythe

And sat down for supper with us. But how were we
As kids to know that happy-go-lucky soul
With the crooked gold teeth that glittered when he spoke
Would one day die of suicidal depression?
Or that in Greece there is no Halloween,

But the villagers put on their spooky costumes
In February, before the start of Lent?
Even so, just under the ragged hem
Of the hooded cloak you really couldn’t miss it:
The dead giveaway was his polished shoes.

 
 

FLUENCY

They first learned English by passing the funny papers
Around and trying to figure out what on earth
Those colorful characters were babbling on
About inside their dumb cartoon balloons.

Between the Great Depression and World War Two:
Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry.
Cartoon balloons to teach them their wobbly English,
And lift the spirit with zany, lighthearted wit.

And now, on those dreary days when Fluency
Is a foreign tongue, and everything I write
Sounds self-inflated, and lands like a lead balloon,
I listen for the voice of sweet George Hay,

That Winthrop townie, who once came up to me
At a wake, and shook my hand, saying: “I knew
The three of them, your father and his brothers,
When they had nothing but a soccer ball.

On Sunday afternoons, at Ingleside Park,
Those boys could keep it in the air for hours.”

 
 

FLUENCY

They first learned English by passing the funny papers
Around and trying to figure out what on earth
Those colorful characters were babbling on
About inside their dumb cartoon balloons.

Between the Great Depression and World War Two:
Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry.
Cartoon balloons to teach them their wobbly English,
And lift the spirit with zany, lighthearted wit.

And now, on those dreary days when Fluency
Is a foreign tongue, and everything I write
Sounds self-inflated, and lands like a lead balloon,
I listen for the voice of sweet George Hay,

That Winthrop townie, who once came up to me
At a wake, and shook my hand, saying: “I knew
The three of them, your father and his brothers,
When they had nothing but a soccer ball.

On Sunday afternoons, at Ingleside Park,
Those boys could keep it in the air for hours.”

 


George Kalogeris

George Kalogeris’s most recent book of poems is Winthropos (LSU, 2021). He is also the author of Guide to Greece (LSU); a book of paired poems in translation, Dialogos; and poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets. His poems and translations have been anthologized in Joining Music with Reason, chosen by Christopher Ricks (Waywiser, 2010). He is the winner of the James Dickey Poetry Prize.



Amy Jean Porter

Amy Jean Porter is an artist and naturalist based in Connecticut. She is interested in how nature and its patterns influence and intercept daily life and human culture. Her drawings and installations have been shown in solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris, and featured in publications such as CabinetLucky PeachMcSweeney's, and the Awl. She is the illustrator of the natural-history books FungipediaFlorapedia, and Insectpedia (Princeton University Press).



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