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by Aliki Barnstone


Because it's mid-March
and most of the snow has melted,
instead of boots,
you put on green shoes.
You go down the steps too happy,
not noticing the night made ice.

For a wild instant you're in air,
then you crash, stairs jabbing your spine.
All winter comes back
in your pain and in what follows:
the petty with the profound,
the woman who snubs you on the bus,

your curses at fifteen below
when the car can't start, the war,
the daily grief in newspapers,
the prisoner fearful of footsteps,
rubbing feeling back
into cold hands and feet.

The dictator lines up his band
tenderly holding their black instruments
and kneeling, they play a funeral march
as they're shot.
You hear the crazy music from above.
You're making love.

They're throwing the dead
from the windows.
You think, We're helplessly
walking on air-
the lucky stay awhile.
Then you see green shoes

and a woman comes out of the dark.
"Are you all right?" she asks.
She helps you up from the stairs
to your feet, touches your arm.
"I'm okay," you reply,
as you plant green shoes in ice.


No one says, "What a beautiful day!
The sky is so gray!"
So why should I feel bad for feeling bad
when the whole city is pale

as if God had stretched a cold, wet rag over our heads,
then clamped down with his enormous thumb.
And would it be easier if I believed in a god,
as the early settlers did? They understood

the soil here is good, extraordinarily good.
He ordered the seasons: this black earth rests
in winter, delivers its reward in summer.
and it is good to separate good from evil,

the now from the future, to know the virtue
of suffering without despair--
though the stiff photographs and newspaper articles
from the 1890's depict madness and suicide:

children lying before the family hearth, side by side
in caskets; the woman in the swamp, grinning wide,
her arms arched above her head,
snakes tight in her grasp.

She held their vileness high for the lens to record.
Now the local comic-strips joke
about our collective north winter blues.
Today I woke to iced-over windows and trees.

Darkness lingers all day as if night were a wave
that left its wetness and foam on the sand.
But night is not a wave and there's no ocean near.
Even the lakes are landlocked.

It all makes sense of the saying, darkness closes in.
The sun starts sinking at four and we're Mad City,
not the Madison named for the luminary democrat.
Atop the capitol the gold goddess of progress

almost gleams dully in the gray sky
while below her a roller-blader glides
beside the not-yet-frozen lake.
He moves fast but his lunges are slow,

graceful, easy, propelled by powerful muscles
and something in his dogged, forward posture.
From the sidewalk he'll soar into spring,
I guess, on still icy silver wings.


The horizon slides up and down as the ship rocks
on calm summer waters. Slightly sickening.
Relentless memory and worry. As if there were a crack
in my brain like this wake churning white
in the sea's restful darkness. I doze and wake,
doze and wake. Can't tell whether it's dark
or light that agitates me. Gulls follow.
Above, luminous edges of pumping wings.
Below, they glide along the water's surface,
mimicking dark wing movements of small waves,
swooping across the horizon, like a song,
like a sustained voice, rising, falling.

At last I see Serifos, island lovely beyond memory.
Ancient terraces, relics of cultivation,
meticulously lace the hillsides and hold narrow fields
of light. Rust of iron ore, gray-green rocks,
purple blooming herbs, olive and ochre grasses:
All complex but modest colors of the land
responding to the sea's vivacious blue.
The village is a white crown.
My house is up there, in need of a whitewash, no doubt.
Blue windows and blue door. Cool tile floor.
I'll climb the village stairs and swim in the sea.
Health. Clarity. Hope. Everything like the blue light
of sea and sky augmenting each other,
displaying somber rocks and ebullient daisies
and red poppies. A warmth calms my temples
As I lean on the rail, looking. Then shouts
of sailors handling line, anchors and chains clanking.
I gather my bags, stand with the others, and wait to land.


I don't want to hear the wind tonight
when blood on my thighs is a sigh of relief
and sadness that there will be no child,
when wind moans as my abdomen aches persistently,
waking me from dreams I'd rather not face.

on this island knows the wind carries the voices
of ghosts. So one wishes for comfort,
for the lovers' interlacing of limbs,
for that sweetness. But the wind is not easy,
it's exacting.

    It makes the shopkeepers irritable--
Anemos, polí ánemos they mutter as they hand me my change.
The old men in the kafenéon roll their dice
with particular and vicious fervor. I imagine
your hand, but the wind keeps asking
Whose hand? Which lover from which dream?

Today the children play soccer
in the marble square, chanting Exo! Exo!
when the ball is kicked out of bounds.
Now I chase the ball; now I've lost it.
Thrust out into the village maze,
I amble alone between white moonlit houses,
body hunched, jacket ballooning out behind me,
and the cool pressure of the wind's hand on my face.

Anemos Wind.
Kafenéon Café.
Anemos, polí anemos Wind, a lot of wind.
Exo! Exo! Out! Out!


The soundtrack of horror movies, the wind rattles
windows, pushes the door open a crack,
then shuts it with a shock, hisses over the roof,
knocks a tin can around the square,
shuffles grimy footsteps.

Spiros says vampires come out when the wind blows.
I don't believe that. Nor am I afraid of people
(though the wind's semblance of a person disturbs me).
I'm naked and alone in my bed, and stiff with terror:
What if the door flies open? What would come in?

The streetlight reflecting on the marble of the piazza?
I know the wind only gives voice to my fear.

The voices I hear are not sailors drowned in stormy seas,
nor village dead risen from plots
on terraced hillsides, nor abandoned gods
whose temple columns are the foundations of churches
and the supports of their belfries.

No. It is not they who call,
threatening to come in. It is the wind
and a thing inside me, flying against the walls
and wildly threatening to get out.

     Piazza is a Greek loan-word from the Italian.


We stand at the ferry's stern watching a long time.
     It's good to remember that those who say
the islands are isolated are mistaken.
     Islands aren't self-sufficient and never were.
The old men sit all afternoon in the kafenéon
     playing gin rummy and backgammon, smoking,
and drinking Greek coffee or ouzo and mezedes,
     small plates of cucumber, olives, feta,
and cubes of bread topped with sardines,
     all stuck with toothpicks and eaten slowly.
Sigá, Sigá. They can always tell you
     when the boats come and from where.

At each docking a crowd gathers to see
     who's returned, with whom, how many tourists.
In the ancient commerce between the islands
     friends and family depart and arrive,
to go to Athens or to fish. Lovers separate
     and in the journey there might be another.
There's always the possibility of return.
     On the islands, more than Athens and other cities,
people keep their greetings and farewells:
     blessings and good wishes for every time of day
and year, for health, a trip, appetite,
     a swim, and the long life of children.
Go to the bakery or across the ocean,
     and they say, Sto kaló. Go with the good.

When we left Serifos an hour ago,
     Kiría Marinía stood in Halídas's store,
her jaw shaking, and said slowly ,
     Go with the good and return with the good.
Cavafy writes we won't meet Cyclops or wild Poseidon,
     unless we bring them along inside,
and our souls raise them up before us.
     We are looking back to the village:
window lights gathered at the mountain summit
     and the lighthouse rhythmically
rolling its Cyclops eye, recalliing that on Serifos
     Odysseus blinded the monster. Look back
until the village--then the lighthouse-- disappear
     on while monsters call for notice--and we sail.
One day we'll wake safe again in the village
     where whitewash and blue sky fill the windows,
Where we go with the good and return with the good.

Kafenéon Café.
Mezedes Appetizers
Sigá, Sigá Slowly, slowly


Another day of silence between the walls.
Sunday, mail doesn't come. Morning light
wakens the gaps in the blinds. You stand
at the window, wishing for a change, thinking
you'd like to run away like the girl you spy
down there dashing through dried grass
and cypresses, with no thought of distance.
But fear you won't know where to stop
stops you. You see it block the door though
you know its shadow is a trick
you played with the darknesses. And you spend
another day of silence between the walls.


Danae's happiest days were on Serifos, free
of her father and her son, Perseus, the hero
and demi-god protected by Athena and Hermes.
After Perseus, the killjoy, left Serifos to kill
the Medusa, King Polydectus and Danae swam
at Psiliámos where the sand is fine and white
and the sheltering bay opens its eye
to the Aegean Sea. They ate and drank
as the full moon rose over the mountains

and reflected its own silver, winding streets
on the water and the archipelago,
distinct dark hills under the lighted sky,
floated around them. At last free
to be moved by such sights and by kisses,
She felt her body's verve spiraling
across sand and terraced garden plots,
the mountains, the caves, the ravines and sea.
Then it all returned to her,

her life's travels, her bounty,
And she danced lustily around Polydectus's love.
There were hours alone lying awake inventing her song
or walking mountain paths
accompanied by the mournful wind
and making the wind her guide
as she explored the night island.
She returned to her prisons, unlocking the doors
for pleasure, remembering the day

the oracle told her father, Acrisius, her son
would kill him. He locked her in a tower
to keep her lonely, silenced, and untouched.
But Zeus saw her through the walls, wanted her,
entered her chamber in a shower of gold,
enclosed her in his embrace and impregnated her.
Seeing his doom, Acrisius shut her
and the baby, Perseus, in a chest
and threw them in the sea to drown.

They landed on Serifos and found refuge.
She was no longer interned by the shame
of having engendered her father's death.
Hadn't the great god overwhelmed her,
a woman, a helpless prisoner?
Wasn't it the gods who infused
the hallucinogenic gases of the oracle
with the future's deadly secrets?
Why should she be condemned for life?

Now while Serifos prepared the wedding feast,
Perseus looked in a mirror, beheaded the Medusa,
then stashed her face in his sack
to use as a weapon against his enemies.
In Ethiopia he petrified the dragon,
freed sacrificial Andromeda from her chains
and made her his bride.
But a wife wasn't enough for him.
He returned in time to own his mother as well.

Perseus held up the Medusa head
and transformed King Polydectus
and all the wedding party into rocks.
Then he took Danae away from Serifos.
Some say that Polydectus besieged Danae,
that his attendants were not a wedding party
but guards and warriors keeping her in line,
and her brave son saved her from another cage.
Perhaps King Polydectus was no different

From Danae's father and son. Poor Danae.
Perhaps she never laughed and swam on Serifos
or danced or made love or howled
with the saxophone wind, her body a huge voice.
The oracle was right, of course,
and Perseus, showing off, threw the discus
and killed his grandfather accidentally.
Still, Perseus, like his benefactor Hermes,
flew higher and higher in his magic shoes

and was honored as hero, wise peacemaker,
the protégé of the virgin goddess, Athena,
a rescuer, the son of a silent, approving mother.
But if you come to Serifos, you'll see
King Polydectus and his friends
sculpted there on the stone mountaintops.
By turns the faces of killers and lovers,
these rocky peaks are stark, dramatic, lonely,
almost alive, the ruins of Danae's vast passion.

Aliki Barnstone's book of poems,Wild With It, will be published by The Sheep Meadow Press in 2001. Her previous book is Madly in Love (Carnegie-Mellon UP, 1997). Her poems have recently appeared in The New England Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and other journals. She teaches in the International MFA Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


Madly in Love (poems), Carnegie-Mellon UP or call Cornell University Press Services 1-800-666-2211

Voices of Light: Spiritual and Visionary Poems by Women Around the World from Ancient Sumeria to Now, (an anthology of poems) Shambhala Pubns, 1999

A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, (an anthology of poems), co-edited with Willis Barnstone, Schocken Books, 1992

Trilogy by H.D., with an introduction and readers' notes by Aliki Barnstone,New Directions, 1997

The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, (a collection of literary critical essays), co-edited with Michael Tomasek Manson and Carol J Singley, University Press of New England

Links: Aliki Barnstone's website is with additional information about her at

"Sky Burial"


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