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,
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. ~ .
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 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.
the past is heavy and full
on this Saloniki night. No one stirs, until
a thread of yearning, coaxed from strings,
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.
And those you love best.
Sharon Olinka’s poetry is in the anthology from Random House, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. Her work has also appeared recently in Long Shot, Poetry Wales, Luna, and ONTHEBUS. Her piece, “It Must Not Happen,” which appears in this month’s 12 section, is forthcoming in An Eye For An Eye Makes the Whole World Blind (Ed., Allen Cohen; Regent Press, Oakland, Calif.), an anthology responding to 9/11 and the bellicose Bush Administration).