September 29, 2021

Poems on the Turkish destruction of Smyrna, September, 1922

Waiting

She is no one’s Madonna. She is
a Modigliani nude. High,
flushed breasts. Between her legs,
a dark thatch smelling of wood mushrooms.

A typewriter pounds night
and day. The checks come in steady.
A neat white blouse. Wild,
dark hair pulled back for work.

Copes with loneliness, has ouzo
in late morning waterfront cafés
on weekends. Vodka at night.

Drowned things speak to her.
Lights on black water. Fish bones.
Shadows in sunken boats who call
out her name:  Asazi.

After sex she has a cigarette.
Her mind a million miles
away. The man beside her asleep.
She won’t stay the night. He parted her,
drove his way in with all the finesse
of a hammer. Came in one minute.
He hasn’t touched her.

At work, the women all talk of marriage.
But she wants something else. Justice, perhaps.
Each day the streets crack open
more, crowds move by,
faceless, expendable.

Her parents didn't want her
to come to Smyrna.
She told them, It's 1921.
The world has changed.
~ .

Winged Lions


Asazi sits in her usual place, the same café.
Her hand around an ouzo. She rubs the glass,
coral-tipped fingers move slowly up and down, wishing
for the warm skin of a living shaft.
But not this cold glass. She sighs. Two men
had approached her. One of them fat, greasy,
a salesman who lived with his mother.
The other a married barber with a pencil-thin
moustache. No thanks, to both.
The oud player glances her way,
but she already had him, he's no good.
What do the stars care, if she's alone?
The humid Smyrna night swirls around her.
Heaven very far away. Her pulse beats,
and her topaz eyes shine
when a new man walks in. He is not Greek.
'So what,' she thinks. 'His manners? At home
anywhere, never at home. Sad.'
A rumpled jacket. A chiseled mouth,
the lower lip full. She would like to kiss it.

He looks up. Their eyes lock,
little bronze-tipped arrows pass
between them. She smiles. He hesitates,
gets up. Sits down by her. His eyes
so haunted it scares her. She's seen that look
before, men who came back
from the war. Trench fever. Cripples.
But this man — it's in his mind — demons
with long teeth, explosions of bone and dust.
She must be careful. He orders whiskey.
British. Of course, whiskey.
Ewan, he says. That's my name.

Her white throat looks to him
like a cool vase he wants to fill.
With himself. His seed. Musicians play.
Maybe it's the whiskey. Or the pliant wail
of strings. This was my life in England: always
hurting. My father's Manchester grocery — dusty cans
on shelves, penny candy in bright wrappers.
Sour orange balls when I wanted the world.
In England, if you're poor, you're thought stupid.
And at Oxford:  a handyman with pretensions.

My father, says Asazi, sells carpets.

Here's to commerce, retorts Ewan. Clinks his glass against hers.
And hard work. And to good luck.

What about love? asks Asazi. Quickly,
she looks down. That too, he whispers.

Do you know, I write for newspapers — It's the bloody
editors that foul us up, keep us from telling the truth.
I was in the desert. Somewhere near Syria.
I saw ovens. Turks had burned people in ovens. Can you imagine?
There were bones, piles and piles of them.
A railway was being built. And Germans stood by,
did nothing. Thousands murdered. Armenians.
My paper censored me. Can't talk about that, no,
not the ovens. Tried an American paper. Same thing.

His hand is trembling. She puts her hand
over his. The shaking stops. He kisses
her palm. He sees
winged lions in her eyes.
Lost rubies. The broken columns
of Persepolis. If she lets him,
he will cherish her.

And she, what she sees
in him is not close to art,
but simply this:  a good man
with a heart.

Time is nothing, they are in
the present tense of Smyrna
forever. That moment
of change. Swift embrace.

~ .


The Opening


Sometimes it seemed as if
a yellow dust settled over Smyrna,
things rotting from within. Intimations
of plague:  phlegm spat into a corner,
abscessed boils under folds
of white linen, beneath jewels. Broken shields
and helmets. Impermanence,
despite gods. And Asazi,
blissful, went shopping.
Bought bread. Kayseri cheese.
Dates. All to eat with Ewan.
Touched the taut purple skin
of an eggplant. Looked at the
wrinkled faces of old women, women
she once saw with distaste, and even a hairy mole
was softened by benedictive
light. In bed with Ewan,
she was perpetual spring:  folds
unfurling, thirsty buds always
opening. His foot
curled over hers in sleep.
She loved his jokes. His presents:  once,
a tambourine. Bracelets of gold filigree,
carnelian beads. Then a book
about birds, how they fly.
Her hands have unlocked
the last door of her childhood.
It opened out
into clear water. Endless sky.

~ .

The Vow

He only wanted to get home.
Pink buildings crumbled
around him. Tears came
when he stepped over a dead baby.
It was that damned war — no, he
was in Smyrna now — the Kaiser — we’re all
going to hell – and what had George Horton
said at dinner last week? — My friends,
we’re in the land of the Seven Cities
of the Revelation, of the Seven Churches,
the wonderful mystical poem of St. John
the Divine. Again and again,
Greek civilization rose in Asia Minor
to be crushed by Asiatic invasion.
Think of Permagus, Colophon, Philadelphia,
Ephesus, Halicarnassus. Christian Smyrna has brightened
the whole world.
 And in Asazi’s eyes
Ewan saw his unborn child.
That night held the sheen of gilt-edged plates,
candles in silver sconces. Fruit. Gone now. All destroyed.

One push did it.
His door was intact.
His heart was a raw piece
of meat hurting his chest. The rooms
were dark. Then she
was in his arms.
His Asazi. Two months
pregnant. He fingered
the maroon ribbon in her hair,
let the tip of his finger
caress its grosgrain length.
We’re going to Piraeus,
luv. With George Horton,
the American ambassador. I’ve got
the papers here. We’ll be safe.

Now they both cried
in relief, but also pain
for the change that came
upon them. And the dead.
Smyrna was theirs. Smyrna was home.
Ewan vowed, I will write of this
my whole life, what happened here.
Even if I am alone in what I say,
unpopular, I will continue to write.
I will leave here with my wife,
Asazi, and we both know the truth.
Never, never,
never will I forget Smyrna.

~ .

Dancing on Money

Who can do it? Not once,
but for always. A red curtain parts.
One fringed lamp, pale as an owl feather.
Outside, a damp harbor smell. It comes in.
Wisps of air come in. Inside, a room
of smoky incantations. The tubercular
accordion player. Guitarist with a scar
on his neck. Men walk in,
their eyes clouded by business.
The singer is at least forty,
her mascara runs, her skirt is too short.
And people sit alone, drink alone.

In everyone,
the past is heavy and full
on this Saloniki night. No one stirs, until
a thread of yearning, coaxed from strings,
rises. Pierces
what’s stagnant. Swells
to a fevered pitch. Goads
the lazy ones to listen. Wake up!
The music demands it. Wake up!
Your life is yours,
no one else’s. And too much time passes
by, in waste, in sadness. Wake up!
There was a time when mass destruction
flowed like water. Now that’s over.
Throw drachma notes to the floor.
Dance on them.
The dead are dancing too.
Believe it.
And those you love best.

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