Essay

Crossing Borders

A.E. Stallings bears witness to Europe’s refugee crisis.
Migrant children play near the tents they are living in at the port near huge ferry boats and cruise ships, on April 9, 2016 in Athens, Greece.

Migrants have arrived in Greece since Hesiod’s time. Certainly, tales of treacherous Aegean crossings fill the pages of Homer.

The poet A.E. Stallings has been a student of the classics since her Oxford days, but Homer and Hesiod didn’t prepare her for the hands-on experience of volunteering with refugees during the disaster that has engulfed Europe. Stallings, who was born in Decatur, Georgia, and has made Athens her home since 1999, found herself passing out shoes, serving food, and managing children during the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

The International Rescue Committee estimates that 1.3 million refugees have passed through Greece since 2014, the majority escaping violence and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. More than 62,000 refugees are still stranded in Greece, a nation that has not yet recovered from the paralyzing 2008 economic crisis.

Today, Stallings figures she spends half her social life with refugees and volunteers. “That may reflect on my lack of a social life,” she said lightly, though her experience has been anything but lighthearted.

When Stallings received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2011, the Foundation noted, “Through her technical dexterity and graceful fusion of content and form, Stallings is revealing the timelessness of poetic expression and antiquity’s relevance for today.” She translated LucretiusThe Nature of Things in rhyming fourteeners, recently finished a new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (forthcoming from Penguin Classics), and completed a new collection of her own poetry, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“Translation is about crossing borders,” Stallings explained at the West Chester University Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia in June. But rather than inhabiting Lucretius or Hesiod, she feels now that she is living in a poem by Cavafy, the Alexandrian poet, a Greek who was obsessed with classical themes—“at least in the sense that they're often about the Levant, often set in Damascus, Antioch, and often about exile,” Stallings said. She wrote a poem, first published in Subtropics, that riffed on Cavafy’s cryptic “The City” and read it during her keynote speech during the conference:

But you can’t get to another land, you’re never going on.
This is your future, where so many others are unemployed.
The smugglers will sell you lies, their faux passports are void.

Stallings’s reading voice is matter-of-fact, wry, without ornamentation. She’s not trying to impress and she's not one for drama—unless it lands on her doorstep.

*

In late 2014, Syrian refugees began camping out in Athens’s Syntagma Square. The square is a major tourist attraction, the site of the Hellenic Parliament in the Old Royal Palace. Guards wear elaborate uniforms. “My two children could see children in tents, and they’d ask questions: ‘Is this war coming here?’ They were very aware that kids very much like themselves were displaced and in Greece,” Stallings said. The conversations continued with their Greek grandmother, who had lived through civil war and famine. (Stallings’s husband is an Athens journalist.)

For a while, the borders were still permeable, and people were moving through, often to Germany or other European countries on buses. Stallings remembers when her friends began distributing baby carriers to refugees who were walking to the border with young children.

Within a year, families were camping in Athens’s Victoria Square, a landmark in the center of the city. By October 2015, about 400 refugees were camped out in tents, mostly Afghanis, Stallings said. “It was a shocking thing—hundreds of families living rough in a central European square.” Soon Syrian and Afghan refugees fleeing war and famine were joined by Iranian Christians fleeing persecution, Iraqis, Somalians, and Yazidis. “‘Syrian refugee crisis’ is a misnomer. It’s a general crisis,” she said.

With her friends, a loose community of expatriates and local artists, Stallings was pushing herself to assist the refugees twice or three times a week. “Everyone was giving everything,” she said. For example, a family had arrived with children whose ages matched those of Stallings’s own son and daughter; could she provide a change of underwear for the newcomers? A car rolled up at midnight to collect the clothing. Or an expectant mother had to be rushed to the hospital to give birth, and one of Stallings’s friends volunteered. Another friend, a poet, regularly chauffeurs refugees to the dentist.

The visits left her so drained that she would “take to bed,” she said, borrowing a phrase from her Southern roots. She found herself writing—often short poems or epigrams. “I could write them as things were going on, while I was still processing,” she said. For example, in “Nothing to declare”:

As if in a sea of red tape
The faulty life-jackets tossed:
There is no custom house, no guards,
At the border these have crossed.

Then in March 2016, “suddenly, the borders slammed shut,” Stallings recalled. The renowned port of Piraeus, a tourist attraction, was transmogrified. “Within two weeks Piraeus was a tent city of 5,000 people. Nothing in the way of a government response,” she said, adding that she was grateful, at least, that the government didn’t interrupt the work of the volunteers. “Every time we went out, it was exponentially worse. People were still arriving in large numbers. It was overwhelming, and things were becoming intense in Piraeus,” she said. “Tensions were mounting among ethnic groups. Five thousand people, three volunteers, no police presence. What could go wrong?” On occasions when the police did arrive, they came without translators and so were helpless to intervene.

Stallings and her friends helped a group called “Piraeus Solidarity,” the non-hierarchical, largely unheralded organization that managed the refugee situation at the port and was in touch with volunteers’ groups on the Greek islands. She would meet refugees at the disembarking areas and, with her friends, pass out shoes and serve food. Facebook groups spread the news that 2,500 people had arrived at Piraeus, survivors of the dinghies that washed ashore at the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos, and were moving on to Athens. Or that 20 families had arrived in the port and needed sleeping bags, clean clothes, food.

“It was quite unreal. Two thousand people walking out of a war zone, with muddy feet, poorly dressed,” Stallings said. “Some with wounds, others in fur coats or rags. If you had anything you would wear it. Some people would be coming out with wheelchairs; some were carried out. Others came with a dog or cat. Some had a taxi waiting to take them to a hotel. Others would be walking to Hungary.”

These were the lucky ones. As Stallings wrote in an epigram with a title almost as long as the poem itself: “From an autopsy report of an unknown drowning victim, Ikaria”:

Female. Nine years old. Found wearing a blouse,
And a pair of sweatpants patched with Minnie Mouse.

Epigrams were often the form she chose to express the horror and humanity of what was happening around her. “I wanted them to be sharp,” she explains. “Something that had distance, irony. The reality was too overwhelming for a sonnet. These are real people. The situation is bad enough that you don't have to poetify,” she said, stressing the last word with a little self-mockery.

On land, the adults were bored and anxious, and the children more so. “The worst part is being in limbo and waiting. The uncertainty is really unbearable for people,” said Stallings. “This is their life. Instead of finishing their law degrees, they're wearing ill-fitting shoes.” She remembered, in particular, a Syrian graduate student who felt his youth was being frittered away. From “The City”:

“I want to go to another land. I want to cross the border,”
The young man out of Syria said. “I’m tired of being stuck.
Sure, Greece is nice enough if you can get a job: good luck.”

“The saddest cases are men in their twenties. They don’t want to fight for Assad or ISIS. Their youth is being eaten—and they don't know what will happen.”

Stallings and her friends brought supplies—crayons, Play-Doh, markers, bubbles, and pipe cleaners—to keep the restless kids busy as they waited day after day to learn their fate. “We’re the artists, we’re the painters, we’re the poets. We can do this,” she said. “I’m a mother; I can yell at kids in four languages.”

Then they began developing informal activities for adults as well as children, including knitting and chess instruction. Stallings began teaching and coaching baseball. “The people from my high school would laugh at me—but I know much more about baseball than the average person from Kabul does,” she said. “You bring what you can to the table.”

But the children began drawing massacres they had witnessed and drownings at sea—the sea, in particular, haunted them. “Every single displaced person has arrived in a dinghy,” Stallings said. “Every single person has risked drowning.” When the refugees first wash ashore, they are unsure whether they have arrived in Greece at last. The pilot is often steering a dinghy for the first time, and many of the passengers had never seen the sea before. The volunteers arranged outings for them to meet the sea on more friendly terms.

Today, about 3,000 of these refugees now live in 15 abandoned buildings called “squats,” according to the New York Times. The most famous, Number 5, opened last year in Exarchia, a few blocks away from Stallings’s home, in an erstwhile secondary school where Stallings now volunteers, working with families for a longer duration—months rather than days or weeks. “I pace myself a bit more now that I get to know people. Someone gets their asylum application papers. There’s a birthday party for someone turning 12.”

She also started a poetry program at Melissa, a renowned center for refugee women in Athens. The program is popular among women who come from Afghan, Persian, and Arabic cultures that have a storied tradition of poetry. She often asks the refugees to write “list poems,” which are comparatively easy with limited English. “When you ask them what home is about,” she said, “they list words like shower, goldfish, perfume, kisses, music.”

Even her recent trip to West Chester University kept the refugees squarely in focus. Before she hopped on a plane, she posted on Facebook to tell conference participants she was bringing an extra suitcase. She invited them to donate items that she would take back to Greece—books or magazines in Arabic or Farsi, make-up and toiletries, perfume samples, hair-coloring products, crochet hooks, bamboo or plastic knitting needles, children's baseball caps, and children’s baseball gloves. The women long for the niceties that women everywhere want—in particular, they want to color the roots along their hairlines, which are visible under the hijab.

The effort is much more than an aesthetic exercise, however. Stallings points out that many of the refugees come from places under Taliban rule—she thinks of the persecuted Hazari Afghanis, fleeing a land where poetry and lipstick are forbidden. “These are not luxuries; these are powerful statements,” said Stallings. “It’s not frivolous; it’s subversive.”

*

Auden’s famous line “For poetry makes nothing happen” isn’t always true. R.S. Gwynn, director of the West Chester conference, moderated this year’s symposium on “Poetry and Global Responsibility.” Gwynn noted that poetry can do much to inspire and shape the zeitgeist: think of Emma Lazarus, whose “Give me your tired, your poor” on the base of the Statue of Liberty defined the national ethos. She knew what she was about when she wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883. Although she herself was from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family, she was staggered by the poverty and miserable conditions that Eastern European Jewish refugees from Russia faced. She volunteered at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and wrote powerful poems about social conditions, immigrants, and anti-Semitism.

Another example, from another land: the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died earlier this year, is best known for a poem that brought to light a World War II atrocity. In 1961, the young poet visited a ravine outside Kiev known as Babi Yar. Twenty years earlier, on September 29-30, 1941, German troops aided by Ukrainian collaborators had killed 33,771 Jews there. A memorial plaque? Nothing marked the spot. So Yevtushenko created his own memorial—in words. In the Soviet Union, the massacre was still contextualized within the “Great Patriotic War,” but Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem broke the code of silence about what the place and the occasion meant to Jews and hence what it ought to mean to non-Jews, such as himself.

“I was so ashamed that I wrote this poem very quickly,” he told NPR in 2000. His shame is perhaps something to treasure in a world where there is so little of it.

In the weeks following 9/11, W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and Adam Zagajewski's “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” were famously read, cited, clipped, and pinned to refrigerator doors with magnets. Yet the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova had reservations about turning suffering into art. In so doing, the poet gets admiration and a nice little ego boost—at the expense of integrity. When asked about Akhmatova’s point, Stallings paused a moment as she considered. “I think you have to be careful. Everyone has to make their own peace with that.”

But Stallings aspires to nothing so grand as global responsibility. “I think poets have to do their job: write good poems, use language precisely,” she said. “That plays into the situation too. Whether you use the terms migrant, expatriate, refugee changes how people relate.”

She was initially hesitant to write about what she'd witnessed. Poets must find a way to write from their own perspective, she said, and they must be honest about themselves and their motivations. She concludes her own poem, “Empathy” (first published in Literary Matters) , with ruthless self-awareness:

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
Originally Published: November 20th, 2017

Cynthia Haven has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post Book World, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2007 she received a Milena Jesenská Journalism fellowship with Vienna's Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Haven is the author of Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations (2006) and Invisible...