I like to characterize Aliki’s poetic “ear” as the equivalent of a musician’s perfect pitch. Her poetry is incantatory, lyrically grounded in the observable world but opening resonantly to the metaphysical or political questions that concern her. She’s not only saying something in poetry; she’s hearing something. For over a decade, Aliki has been writing variations of ambitious poems about her roots in and experience of her motherland, Greece. Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak includes poems which excavate a little-known history, that of the fate of the Greek Jews in Nazi-occupied Greece (see the attached video for a clip of Aliki reading one of the poems from that series). Aliki’s Greek family was greatly affected by the Occupation, the after-effects of which she is exploring in poems that link the personal and historical. Dwelling, her most recent collection of poems, is a loving tribute to a family distinguished in both its maternal and paternal legacies. As Aliki and I have discussed this feature over the past weeks, I’ve been excited to read poems from a new collection, Happenstance (in progress), which begins with the Greek economic crisis and ends with the death of George Floyd during the pandemic. Persimmon Tree is lucky to be able to include two of those poems here.
I met Aliki twenty-five years ago in a small town in central Pennsylvania, when she reached out the hand of friendship to me – I was seriously ill at the time, isolated and struggling in an unhappy marriage. Since then, she has been not only warm and generous, as she is through and through, but a brilliant inspiration as well. I hope readers will be inspired to seek out the works of this marvelous poet. For now, I’m delighted to introduce you to Aliki Barnstone, who will introduce the beautiful poems featured from the Central region, which she has selected for this special winter issue of Persimmon Tree.
One of the gifts of aging, we’re told, is that we gain wisdom. Yet while culture reveres older men, conferring them with distinctions both interpersonal and professional, we older women notice that we’re passed over as if we were invisible. The attention we endured and sometimes enjoyed in our childbearing years culminates in disregard, as if our value lay only in reproduction. Ironically, we discern that at sixty-plus-years-young, we’re at our best, free and excelling. As these splendid poems attest, we know exactly who we are and what we want.
The pandemic has pushed us to the edge of consciousness while we dwell in isolation. Emily Dickinson famously wrote “My business is circumference.” The world’s circumference seems to simultaneously shrink within in the walls of home while expanding outward with the 24-hour news cycle and social media to encompass an immensity of human suffering and death unseen in our lifetimes. These poets frame, unframe, and reframe, expressing an urgency in a full spectrum of subjects, styles, and registers of mourning, praise, longing, song, and humor. Each of the poems I’ve selected contests even that verb; instead, it was as though they selected me to sit together beneath the Persimmon Tree canopy. Now you’re invited into the circle.
Litany of Druthers
to hard earth in winter
The sublime stew of affection
to a diet of isolation
Samaras on a wind journey
to wingless leaves encased in ice
I prefer nature without scruples
to unrestrained moralists
Midnight’s ink in midsummer
to December’s dusk at 6 pm
Life thick as a southern vowel
to the austerity of grief
I prefer to be where grass revives the stone
to the forced air of egos
People who don’t take life personally
to those who often hold high office
I prefer everything and its opposite
to a day filled with waiting
I prefer the false enlightenment of 4 am
to somewhere between pride and shame
Lying in the fat of the afternoon
to recoiling from the day
I prefer contemplative silence
to noise gnawing at my bones
if it were a person,
it would need soft cushions
on which the hair-braiding
six hours, your hair, parted
in two parts, on your large head,
and done are just
few long braids.
five hours, and you’re only
halfway done. But your
taught you how to sit forever.
Momma taught you
to be a girl.
is the language of the sea.
What remains rarely uttered
(though felt) is
(that baffling, dazzling, escaping
say, perversely, some beach
such as “San Souci”),
the unarticulated tongue breaks
that audible, changing hiss
of the seen drag and play
of sand and water—
of dying and giving,
of taking and leaving—
a finally unspeakable
cleaving color of tumbling turquoise.
A Box That Once Held Chocolates
was designed for expensive truffles.
Potassium and calcium phosphates
rest in there now, ground into sand
from the ulna of your wallpapering arm
and phalanges that plucked guitar strings,
the well that held your deep-set eyes,
the hips of your swivel, teeth of your smile,
an elbowed rib. The skull that guarded
your brain the only way it could.
All these bones that wore your skin.
I like to picture inside this chocolate box
crimped brown paper cups containing
the sweetness of the body you left.
you with your newly shaved head, and when
I introduced you, Sister Boi and Sister Peace,
likewise bald, embraced you.
every day hotter than the day before.
Something lives in our walls again,
scrabbling behind the bricked-up fireplace,
and ants spill out from infinitesimal cracks
in the corners. Apricots rot before they’re ripe.
Covid be damned, the kids are in the bars again.
My days in near seclusion
creep through the hours and surrender to sleep.
Or to twitches, as if I’m a rag doll shaken.
I can’t tell you how I miss you.
I keep wanting to phone you,
ask something you would know,
with your elephantine memory—
what year our father went to Korea,
when and how our grandparents died.
To ask if you remember all that past—
But one night, as I lay there twitching,
trying to sleep, you came and passed
through the shining membrane
between life and death, so that I saw you,
and was you, gaunt edifice, cage of bone,
and the clear, diminishing flame
that was still, in that split second, recognizably my sister
the carpets rolled and stacked along the wall.
They work through the rooms one at a time,
grunting, their fat bodies out of breath,
their shirts clinging to chest and back
in wet swaths of sweat and grime.
In the master bedroom they remove drawers
from the chiffonier, whistle and oolala,
fondle silk chemise, bra, and panties,
giggle and talk dirty, then kiss
the soft fabric they press to their cheeks.
In the parlor one lifts the lid of the piano,
thumbs a loud glissando up and down,
then fingers random keys while the others
lumber around the room, their rubber soles
squeaking the hardwood in a crude dance.
They unhinge the spine of the lid,
let it slap down over the keys
then roll the dolly onto the truck.
In the dining room they ping the crystal,
and one picks his teeth with the tine of a fork
before it goes back inside its felt-lined drawer.
Lullaby for Grandson Gavin, on His Seventh Week
Big sister Sweetie Pie is three years old, wears every necklace from Grandma’s basket, has a dance party in Granddad’s study. Jingle jangle. And nap time is lap time with my little boy blue, already in the six-month size pajamas.
Rocka baby and read my phone. Ads just for me dangle earrings that shine like the northern lights, then the amazing eco-jet personal butt cleaner.
Rocka rocka, baby, rocka rocka roo
Mice sing to each other. We cannot hear them. In the wild grasses and leaf litter they lilt, ending always in an upward note. Ultrasonic, recordable.
Ah rocka rocka, baby, ah rocka rocka roo
Trees send aid through the fungi of their roots. Mother nourishment vibrates upward in saplings drawn in the network we cannot see. Crowns tower in the canopy just shy of each other. The root embrace is enough.
Ah rocka rocka, baby, ah rocka rocka roo
Fish become dogs if you feed them at the boat slip. Their eyes open, mouths flipping up to your hand. Pet them on the head. Gently gently, the current swift at the center.
Ah rocka rocka, baby, ah rocka rocka roo
Wind cuts from the west across the caged tomato vines. I shield your sister’s slender form cupped in my bending body. We are picking all the green ones before the killing frost. Leave the smallest for the squirrels, the rabbits and mice. Littles for little mouths, she says.
And rocka rocka, baby, rocka rocka roo
Filaments twist across the universe holding galaxies unknown to us. Lullaby. Night is rolling ash wind over cold clay. I will keep you hidden from virus, flame, and poison. You will bury me someday.
a chartreuse fluttering
beat against the window, attracted to
the saffron light
of the reading lamp.
I thought it would beat itself to death
the way an anorexic refuses the universe
and the laws of physics.
I turned on
the porch light to draw it away from
the window, and watched it fly
a crazy circuit around my porch
finally settling on the deck-edge
before flying off into dark woods
perhaps attracted to fireflies along
For a while, before I fell
asleep, I could think only of the creature’s
greens—limes, willows, verdigris.
And in my sleep, Degas’ Swaying Dancer,
her green skirt—
An eclipse of moths
behind her fluttered like a corps
of thin, hungry dancers, their costumes
full and fanciful—
A whirl of girls that flew
on a strong night breeze into the dark.
I don’t know how they survive.
Music to Warm Up The Winter Holidays
Poem with Synonyms for Afterlife
Late afternoon’s soldiers lengthen in the grass
near the maples, marking time before twilight.
Leaves wave like epaulets as ranks prepare
to surrender the colors. It’s our season of small
endings – chrysanthemums deadheaded, burning
bushes darken like quiet ash, garden soil turned as a tired
mother away from winter’s windows. Squirrels never tire
of preparation, as we do in the throes of mid-life.
They gather, bury, steal, and forget beneath ancient oaks
and hickories. What they miss the deer find. The old buck
stops by to feast, magnificent and still, a specter in rising fog.
With each mouthful, bittersweet hanging from antler tines
quivers. As perhaps we will someday, hands trembling
with the lift of spoon to mouth or withered fingers reaching
to a forgotten face. On this neutral ground, what retreating
mist would frame us better, my love, than this autumnal light
radiating gold, le petite mort as we succumb to November.
Bad Mood at the Office Party
for a stiff drink. You need
a hundred. The beer fumes
like urine. A toast—but Dixies
don’t clink. Even the crepe paper
sags. Is this better
than working? The clock’s hands
cover its face. What did you do
in some past life to deserve this
rubber cheese, these cardboard
crackers? You don’t fit
among the beanpole women
and stumpy men, knocking knees
on the dance floor. Try the bowlers,
hurling cannonballs; each pin crumples
like an innocent murdered. You squat
to knot the harlequin shoes. The ball
is Sisyphus’s boulder, rolling
backward, again. You want
your husband, your paycheck;
of reading in bed. The score looms
like God’s tallies in the Days
of Awe. You’re roped
into confessions. A stranger
offers a hand, chill and limp
as buffet celery. No one else
wore a cocktail dress. Dry heat
curls from radiators. The tree
weeps needles, insulted
by its ornaments. Cue up
another tune. You duck
a velvet blockade. The corridor’s
empty; the carpet spreads
like a rash. You pass
a janitor, sneaking a smoke
and a Fresca. The exit sign
glows. Outside, snow eddies
in streetlamps. The lot,
slathered with slush, stains
your party shoes. Under
your wing, a White Elephant
gift: tumblers embossed
by a team that isn’t yours.
During the Long Stay-at-Home
their puzzle picture within its edges?
Each piece on the table resembles
a little country, its borders
formed by a snaking river, war
or surveyors’ calculation.
So many uneven bits to eye
or jockey into empty spaces.
Based on size, color, striation,
or what-the-heck good luck
we tuck one or two into place
each time we pass the table
with the box cover propped up
to show us a future
where life is whole again,
red flowers blooming on a trellis,
birds free to congregate
and fly whenever they wish.
The Final Leaves
after bolting down a wet slide,
body thunking ground, a mud
ball stomped flat. Not lungs
knocked loose from their frame.
Not the salty blood of jarred
teeth, wads of puke and snot,
vacuum of air. This, a child’s
panic, premonition of that
blinkered last gasp.
Neither a classmate’s meningitis,
fatal, just before the busses
resumed the late August routes.
Nor Kennedy’s brain exploding
the air waves three months later.
The years that carried these dead,
graceless in their stricken arms,
seemed to me spare and light,
ghosts to be swindled, outrun.
Even a ravaged uncle, chestnut
eyes sealed, slack mouth sutured
shut—for me he lingered, endured,
his loss a book only my mother could parse.
When the volume engraved with her name
arrived, she pressed it to her chest like a child,
studied its sequence of pages, held it
open, collapsing into the final leaves.
I watched it absorb her, become her.
I squinted to read this text,
trifocals firm on my face,
skewing the words that erased her.
Trying Things On
traffic to escape being the woman scorned
for the nth time. She drove from Stone Mountain
on Decatur Road all the way to Georgia Tech.
She drove in with her bad leg, not being
used to driving, and became the secretary
for the architects. They loved her.
“And I can wear pants to the office!”
They were working on plans
for people who were handicapped
by life. Maybe, in the job qualifications,
they had mentioned their openness to hiring
employees like her. And so my mama’s limp,
her built-up shoe, were helpful for the first time
in her life. They consulted her about their plans.
They went out to lunch together. Maybe,
if she had stayed, she would have gotten
her doctorate in architecture.
I wanted her to stay at that job.
I had split up with my husband, too.
I had a job at the Emory Library, so
we could afford to go shopping together
at Rich’s Department Store. How can I explain
how much I loved her when
we’d be sliding hangers across from each
other? The sound was meditative, companionable,
like someone playing strains on a guitar.
Our browsing together had a lilt to it
like conversation. I’d see her through
little forests of dresses and pants—
Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein.
I wished I could buy her everything.
Love, most times, is shy as deer—
and only shows itself in such glimpses.
just to remember you by.
This earthy scent, this dark
you dabbed behind each ear
and on the pulse of your wrists
seems to rise up out of the ground.
I have only to breathe, and you
are alive in hose and heels,
rhinestones and red lipstick.
Your permanent wave swirls
to conceal your face, and you
breeze out in a blur of Tabu.
Rose, jasmine, orange blossom,
amber, oakmoss, musk.
Even as a child in pajamas
I knew the secret smell.
Now you are again forbidden,
concealed in the cloak of your death.
You’ve closed the door of your room.
The tender voices are muffled.
And I am left with the bottle
I found in the drugstore, cheap,
boxed with dusting powder,
beside other passé perfumes
worn only by the very old,
or the forlorn daughters of the dead.
Letter to Myself, 15
2. Jeremiah hears the Lord say “those who turn away from the Lord shall be like a shrub in the desert…and live in the parched places of the wilderness.”
3. A painted marble sculpture of the most lifelike eyes—a thank you to Asklipios for healing sight at Epidaurus.
4. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
5. Delicate wingéd words fly into the ears of every soul in the amphitheater: healing dramas.
6. Jesus wept.
7. The jealous gods killed Asklipios when he healed humans immortal. Humans killed Jesus when he promised them immortality.
8. Take away the stone: Lazarus walks from the tomb, shedding burial cloths.
9. Once diseased people dreamed among non-venomous snakes. Asklipios listened, one hand grasping his snake-entwined rod, healing the sick by reading dreams.
10. In Death Valley, a rare abundance of rain makes a super-bloom. Millions of seeds wait for years to cover sands, valleys, and hills with flowers. Though their time is brief, they will shrivel into millions more seeds a rain will make live and bloom.
Things on June 2, 2020
2. A parking lot is where you gather and fall to your knees.
3. Once upon a time, will we bend the arc of justice without breaking our backs?
4. A population is scissored from the pursuit of happiness.
5. Horses know us yet if we lie down on asphalt they may not disobey the phalanx of police spurring them to trample us under.
6. Black clergy gather and sing “We Shall Overcome” at the site of injustice once again and once again and once again.
7. What a spiderweb of history in a name.
8. A car is for a commute not to ram into a crowd of protesters.
9. Tear gas drifts from the street into residences where children wake but cannot open their eyes and vomit blinded on their Winnie the Pooh sheets.
10. With his last breath George Floyd called out, “Mama!”