by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
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And then what you wanted was salt, . . . but you could not turn to look. —Cecilia Woloch, “Salt”
My parents were deliberate about escaping their place of origin and deliberately "cast the black rock," as the Greek saying goes for not looking back.
What happens when anyone looks back? You could turn to salt like Lot's wife, who could not resist looking back on Sodom, her city. But I look up salt and find its multiple references in the Old Testament, a condiment and a food preserver, also rubbed on newborns to disinfect and ensure good health; also a metaphor for barrenness and desolation. The tale of Lot's wife warns of what can happen when grief overwhelms: it disintegrates the self, leaving salt remains. I have a memory of a rare time our family visited McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where my mother was born, a place she rarely spoke about. We were passing a patch of trees and houses that looked worse for wear but were nevertheless houses with their little bits of yard. She took a quick intake of breath.
“Oh,” she said, and under her breath, “I haven’t thought of this place in so many years. . . .” It stayed with me because she shivered and looked spooked.
Another memory: my parents dropped my two brothers and me off to stay with my Italian grandmother in McKeesport for a week while they traveled. We were ten, seven, and five. There was a donut factory (the name escapes me) that made special McKeesport donuts that were moved along on a factory belt in their shiny sugar glazes. The warm dough scents of the freshly baked donuts wafted through the entire block, and had us lining up to sneak off with as many as we could eat or grab.
My brothers and I never learned Italian, which we rarely heard anyway, but we could have learned Greek. Yet my Greek father insisted on speaking to us in English. Greek was the language of the country my father was forever escaping. One of the many who had fought in the Greek Resistance against the Nazi occupation during World War II, my father was viewed, like all on the left, at the end of the war as a threat because of the movement's Communist backing. To escape, my father turned his back on everything past and looked firmly toward New World beginnings where everything was in English.
Like Greece during the war, the mysterious house in McKeesport was never mentioned, and so it grew into narrative: the place where my mother's large immigrant Italian family lived; the place they were moved out of during the Depression years when she was a young girl. She had such a fear of losing things, yet never settled in any one house for more than a handful of years. I, on the other hand, because of our constant moves, came to Greece to settle where my grandparents lived, in the house my grandfather had built.
There is this passage from Czesław Miłosz's Native Realm:
Unless we can relate it to ourselves personally, history will always be more or less an abstraction and its content the clash of impersonal forces and ideas. Although generalizations are necessary to order this vast, chaotic material, they kill the individual detail that tends to stray from the schema. . . . Afterwards all that remains of entire centuries is a kind of popular digest.
Wherever he found himself in his long life and many travels, Milosz carried the scents and seasons and characters of his Lithuanian childhood with him: "If I mention my ancestors, it is because they are a source of strength to me." In this way, history for Milosz was never in danger of disintegrating into mere debris.
Athens, the city I have lived in for the past twenty years, is full of excavated historical artifacts (handsomely displayed in the city's metro stations and museums) next to buildings in all states of neglect and renovation. There are graffiti surfaces and newly painted Minoan ochres on neoclassical walls, as well as ancient columns used to hold up political banners and the latest strike announcements. Athens can look like a traffic jam of historical crossroads with those going in different directions demanding their right of way.
Table of Contents
- Duo Duo’s acceptance speech and biographical profile
- Duo Duo new poems, trans. Yibing Huang
- Michelle Yeh, “Monologue of a Stormy Soul: Duo Duo, 1972–88"
- Yibing Huang, "Duo Duo: Master of Wishful Thinking"
SPECIAL SECTION: Jazz Poetry
Guest edited by Lauren Camp
- Introductory essay by Lauren Camp: "What's in the Notes: The Sound of Jazz in Poetry"
- Poetry from Lauren Camp: “Thelonious Monk on a Subway” and “What You Might Hear” plus web exclusive audio clips
- Virgil Suárez (Cuba/US): “Latin Jazz on the Go in Havana”
- Adrian Matejka (Germany/US): “Behind the Yashmak"
- Nii Parkes (Ghana/Great Britain): “Our Love Is Here to Stay” & “Hymn"
- Virgil Mihaiu (Romania; tr. Adam Sorkin): “Finesse de Brasil," “Universal Canticle,” and a web exclusive concert recording.
- Author Profile: E.C. Osondu (Nigeria)
- City Profile: Seoul, South Korea
- First Words: Luma Sarhan, “Approaching Zainab”
- WLT Online Bookclub: The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi
- New books: recent translations
CRIME & MYSTERY
- J. Madison Davis, “Scarface Al and His Pals”
- Romeo Çollaku (Albania), Two poems, tr. Peter Constantine
- Stuart Friebert (US), “Good Leg Up, Bad Leg Down"
- Jan Wagner (Germany) Two poems, tr. Chenxin Jiang
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Erwin Koch (Switzerland) by John K. Cox
- Adrianne Kalfopoulou (Greece/US), “Ruin”
Web Exclusive: PHOTO GALLERY: Athens Street Art
- Web Exclusive: "But It Was Beautiful" by Erwin Koch
- Luay Hamza Abbas (Iraq), “Spit Out What Is in Your Mouth,” tr. Yasmeen Hanoosh
WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW
OUTPOSTS: Literary Events & Landmarks