Monday, November 14, 2022

Red Letter Poem #135


Red Letter Poem #135





It’s a phrase that’s always intrigued me: native tongue.  Of course, it simply refers to that earliest of languages we inherit: from our mother’s morning table talk with her sister, perhaps, while our own little mouth was awash with milk.  Or from our father arguing sports and politics with his friends, our eager ears entranced by the give-and-take rhythms.  It’s that primary dialect which connects each of us to home, homeland and – as we only later discover – to the fog-wreathed province of the self.  I love how the term reminds us of the physicality of utterance: what the tongue is trained to do, writhing in the dark of the mouth’s cavern, shaping syllables.  And all the while, thought somehow manages to follow an invisible thread from the brain down to the throat and finally out into the shared world.  It’s this lingual practice that, as children, we took as almost an act of faith – yet something, perhaps we intuited, that might lead us out from the baffled labyrinth (what some of the grownups were calling the soul) and back into sunlight.


In so much of George Kalogeris’ writing, both the English and Greek tongues of his childhood experience interweave.  In today’s new poem, we meet once again a member of his family and discover how she helped imbue a young poet’s developing diction with the energy of two worlds, not to mention that most bittersweet of mysteries.  From the first time I read this piece, his description of that “tight little skein of vowels” threw open the doors of my own heart and gave voice to the complex familial inheritance I believe each of us carries, though we rarely stop to appreciate.  This poet certainly does – and the poem that results is heartbreakingly beautiful.  Poet, scholar, educator, and translator – recipient of the James Dickey Prize and the Meringoff Prize for Poetry – George is currently an Associate Professor at Suffolk University here in Boston.  Winthropos, (Louisiana State University) not only creates an Old World/New World mythology from his coastal Northshore town, it reminds us with dozens of utterly intriguing poems of the gift/burden of our own legacy (our shifting assessment influenced, I’m sure, by mood, weather, and the day of the week.)   He’s the sort of humanist thinker that reaffirms the intellectual endowment of ancient Peloponnesia as essential in both our cultural tradition and contemporary discourse.   


The Three Fates making an appearance in this poem (who also, according to myth, had a hand in creating the alphabet), convey one sort of knowledge about existence; but the poet’s Greek aunt provides a very different understanding about the preciousness – and fragility – inherent in what the heart claims and is claimed by.  Love, it becomes clear, is George’s native tongue.




Aunt Leuco and the Fates



“Our thread is cut like that.”  My loose translation

Gets the clipped expression, and even implies

The scissors-motion of fingers—but renders nothing


Remotely like the eerie sound of the Greek.

Just listen to how its tight little skein of vowels

Unspools: ée skeenée mas éenai léegee.


It’s what I heard, as a child, when my grandfather died.

Though I wasn’t allowed to the wake, or the funeral,

No open casket was ever more starkly real


Than the level way my aunt intoned, to none

Of us in particular, that scary line—

The one that said our thread is cut like that.


Let Clotho spin, Lachesis allot, and prompt

Atropos sever all she wants—for me

It’s terse Aunt Leuco, my mother’s youngest sister,


Keening ée skeenée mas éenai léegee.



                                    ––George Kalogeris




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