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Athens: Peripatetic Fragments

A new world in the old.
Introduction

Athenians cannot be proud, the joke goes. Because if their nose is in the air, they won’t see the potholes under their feet. The sidewalk is the most dangerous place to walk: watch out for motorbikes, cars backing up, tree stumps, broken pavement, sunken entrances, marble slick as ice, stray dogs, other people who aren’t looking up.

Athenians cannot be proud, the joke goes. Because if their nose is in the air, they won’t see the potholes under their feet. The sidewalk is the most dangerous place to walk: watch out for motorbikes, cars backing up, tree stumps, broken pavement, sunken entrances, marble slick as ice, stray dogs, other people who aren’t looking up.

*     *     *

All street signs are in the genitive. The road of Heraclitus. So, too, are the surnames of women. She of Psaropoulos. Patronymics. Who are you=to whom do you belong.

*     *     *

Here is our blue-collar neighborhood, with its incongruous view of the Parthenon, and its butcher, baker, and candlestick maker (in that order) around the corner. With its farmers’ market on Mondays that trucks in at 4:00 am the autochthonous roots of things, like the roots of words, with the Attic and Laconic soil still clinging stubbornly to them. All the greens whose names I do not know.

*     *     *

Some call my neighborhood Neos Kosmos, the New World. But we are on the borders of Neos Kosmos. We live across the paved-over trickle that was the river, Kallirrhois (“the beautifully flowing”), from the old-town area of Athens, the Plaka, where, on Byron street, beneath the Acropolis, you can buy calendars with ancient Greek pornography. The real name of our neighborhood, known by the post office but none of the taxi drivers, is Cynosargous—the dog Argos, who waited on a dungheap for the exile’s return. The exile’s return, of course, is death.

Cynosargous is the ancient home of the Cynics.

*     *     *

We are a ten-minute walk from the Próto Nekrotapheío—the First Cemetery, on the Road of Repose. It is our nearest real park, that is, one without mopeds tearing past kids playing soccer in the dust (city grime, and the ochre dust from the Sahara that rains down twice a year), shouting Albanian obscenities. The cemetery is good for picnics: the cooing of doves under vaults of cypresses amidst the everyday bustle of death: priests, florists, marble cutters, the cafes that serve bitter coffee and brandy to mourners. Our neighbors include George Seferis, Heinrich Schliemann, and T.H. White. They are lucky: most inhabitants have to be dug up in three years to make room for the rattle of new skeletons. My therapist, Dr. Agamemnon, has his office overlooking the cemetery. Guilt, he says, is a poor counselor. O inscrutable gold mask!

*     *     *

“When will they return our lost marbles?”

*     *     *

More neighbors: Penelope has finished her web. She is cutting the threads, weaving in the loose ends. A shroud all along. She is one of those little old ladies dressed in black, in widow’s weeds, who elbow me out of the way in the checkout line at the supermarket. I must learn how better to take up space.

Laertes is already planted in the ground. His heart lies there, full of seeds, ready to break open like a grenade, like a pomegranate. They break them here for luck and for new beginnings. Pomegranates, I mean, not hearts.

Telemachus runs a moving company. His truck is labeled: Metaphors.

*     *     *

One word means both weather and time.

*     *     *

Strikes, riots, protests, sit-ins, byzantine bureaucracy, strikes. Two smells of Athens: the perfume of bitter oranges casting invisible grace over visible ugliness (cracked pavement, overflowing garbage, the myriad morphologies of dog shit), and the occasional whiff of tear gas blowing past the Temple of Olympian Zeus or the Plaza of Lamentation. (Protest destination: the American Embassy.)

We have an aristocratic Hungarian acquaintance who says (you have to hear the accent), You can’t trust Greeks with concrete.

*     *     *

Which is to say: the encircling marble mountains shouldn’t be chipped away for gravel and cement to suffocate the many-engendering earth.

But also: the road up and the road down are both lethal with potholes.

*     *     *

Toss a coin to the old crone before she lays the Evil Eye on you. The Eye is what looks on you with suspicion, because you are a woman, because you have blonde hair, because you are far gone in pregnancy, because you are a foreigner. Don’t compliment a baby: it can bring on the Eye. But it is only a superstition—phtou, phtou, phtou (turns aside, ritual spitting).

*     *     *

My son was born on the Road of the Muses. His name is Jason. (Hairdresser in Atlanta: But honey, why didn’t you give him a Greek name?) At our local playground, a mother is shrilling for Orestes to come home and take a bath, for Antigone to quit digging in the sand.

*     *     *

On the sidewalks of Athens, two cannot walk abreast: each of a couple walks alone.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

  • A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Athens: Peripatetic Fragments

A new world in the old.
  • A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

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