Dialogue with the Archipelago
By Suzanne Gardinier

"Dialogue with the Archipelago is full of private mythology Suzanne Gardinier grafts on to matters modern, Biblical, and ancient. She has invented a line appropriate to her poetry ruled by a two-faced moon that keeps and holds every word precious and resonant, broad enough to hold the surf of history crashing with an emotional sweep, depth and beauty few contemporary poets can provide. Of course, her moon makes for breakers mysteriously regular and irregular. Of course, Suzanne Gardinier's mind to her 'a kingdom is.'"
 --Stanley Moss

Letter August 19 2003 "Spent part of yesterday reading the 'Archipelago.' It seems to me a great public poem, a kind of cantata of outrage, grief and love. I can imagine a composer who would set it to music, but it already has its own music. I will nit-pick a little, but it seems to me you have fabricated (as in 'il miglior fabbro') something here which coheres amid incoherency, the arc holds from beginning to end." 
 --Adrienne Rich


 The title of this book arrived before the rest, as I took the train home from the memorial service for my beloved college French teacher Ilona Coombs. At the gathering I'd learned that in spite of her accent and her justice-minded elegance, she was not originally from Paris but from Greece:  born in Lesbos, her mother also, her father a Hungarian Jew. During World War 2 her father died of a heart attack as they hid in Athens; she and her mother were still there after the war had ended, in the new war between the Greek left and right, each backed by allies elsewhere, the left by Soviet-bloc countries and the right by Great Britain and the United States. At some point Ilona's mother was standing by their window in Athens, and was shot by a sniper and killed. She ran panicked into Syntagma Square and into the Hotel Grande Bretagne for help, literally into the arms of Charles Coombs, who was working for US intelligence services there; thirty years later he was still her husband, when I visited her house in Morristown, New Jersey, with so little idea of who she was. Dialogue with the Archipelago is a long poem puzzling over these mysteries: of those who come before you and those after, of identity, of love, of power, of Greece.

 

>>>A  G r e e k  A n t h o l o g y

>>>A  G r e e k  A n t h o l o g y


I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down.
 George Seferis

Présences je ne ferai pas avec le monde ma paix sur votre dos.
 Aimé Césaire

And so I walked back along those long and lonely blocks to the store. And in through the door. And up, face to face, with the member of that small community who owned the store. And I said: I stole this knife and I am sorry and I am bringing it back.

And he said: Thank you. The knife is not very important, but you coming down here and saying that to me is very important.

Remembering all that, I know why I do not want the empire. There are better ways to live and there are better ways to die.
 
William Appleman Williams, "Empire as a Way of Life"

Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you.
 Bob Marley

 


 

from  Dialogue with the Archipelago

Dialogue 29 / Metacomet

In school I learned my Greeks with my comrades/A cohort of half-made children fled
From various starving islands Trying/to learn to spell the land where we lived
The pines and the littered tidelines telling/another story in a cut tongue we knew
To ignore To acquire our inheritance/Blood wedding Stop talking Page sixty please

There the captain killed his daughter/and the mother killed the captain home
The son instructed Plant in your breast/the hardened heart that Perseus bore
A woman’s body is a trick The stained books/stamped and numbered and pressed in our hands
Just as we learned to touch each other/out of sight of the armies In cars in the dark

Parked by the beach the settlers called Egypt/to mean the dangerous enemy place
Like Persia in the pageant books/Your dangerous fawning Persian mouth
We kissed as if we’d invented it/while our fathers made Asian forests burn
A dangerous fawning mouth conflagration/While we practiced to see how lost we could get

The settlers’ children Brought every autumn/to view the rock where the pilgrim boot fell
Bored As good as deaf to the man/who walked soft-footed among the Greeks
Who paced the coast on summer nights/where the children of the Israelites kissed In machines
The smell of salt and pine/trying to remember him

His people sold into island slavery/His places razed and called new names
Shot in the summer woods His body/partitioned so the settlers could sleep
One hand to each capital London and Boston/His grieving angry intransigent head
Displayed on a pike at Plymouth Plantation/tongue-cut and staring for twenty-five years

We learned Agamemnon Iphigenia/Clytemnestra won in a war
Her son Orestes who cried as he killed her/No I am my father’s son
And we learned King Philip Terrible Accurate/Reader of the Portent of English Towns
But not the name his father called him/Maimed by someone bribed Someone he knew

Not the man at the edge of our lessons/muttering Wiping fever sweat
Who walked the towns spitting on inventions/Spitting into the fouled brooks’ foam
Who took back his tongue and kept using it/to stay in his places
To lace the land With messages Just out of hearing/With the presence of who wasn’t there

 

Descriptions of some statues / 1

On the marble balcony the children study him/This naked white man made of stone
Shod Helmeted Stone cheekpieces/Stone sandals Stone thumbed sword
His face small and calm Gazing at a woman/whose head hangs from his outstretched hand
Her face twice the size of his Distressed/He can’t stop looking at her

The wings on his helmet lean in her direction/He’s young Knotted sandals Knotted drape
Blank innocent knees The museum orchestra/opposite his prominent place
The gray evening pressing at the entrances/The clank of cutlery The children led to look
A little crowd of them with sketchpads/Is she his mother someone says

 

Dialogue 22 / Apricot

Eve has saved two apricots from her lunch/Hold them in your hands Don’t they feel good
The soft amber skin with washes of red/Small weight Subtle scent Firm flesh
How can they grow them when it’s winter/The package said Turkey I think
I gave them to you to eat not to write about/You’re silly You write about fruit

The flesh inside rough where the pit was/You look like a tiger eating it
Teeth tearing The fine hairs against my tongue/Are there any more tigers Yes A few
These are the color of tigers aren’t they/Somewhere there was a tree of them Before
Did someone pick them in winter/The color of tigers between the stripes

I know what to do Speak three languages/All right Then it’s time for bed
What three languages Pig Latin/No Snake Sanskrit No Bird Greek
We saw a dead bird today on the playground/The teacher tried to cover it but there was a puddle
So I could see its head before we went inside/I saw the reflection of the face

 

Dialogue 8 / Adam dancing

Adam is learning Civilization/Ancient Mesopotamia
The Sad Story of Majnun and Layla/Persian Miniatures The Role of Rain
His Halloween costume a newspaper/read by a horse who is a rich man
Slippers and pajamas to indicate leisure/His mother’s bathrobe His swimmer’s shaved legs

All his life he has made a study/of the intricacies of his mother’s hair
Brushing it Braiding Weaving in tinsel/Now he’s begun to study his own
In the mirror Reciting a poem for Latin/Arma virumque cano Making
His face blank as he lowers the helmet/of the white plastic horse’s head

If one of his sons will kill the other/forever no one has told him yet
But he knows Spain The First Modern Empire/Great Britain Empire of the Sea
The plots of television commercials without number/The fever song his mother sang
The ants go marching one by one/Hurrah Hurrah in his mother’s voice

This apple makes me happy he says/before he gallops out the door
To ask for treats and threaten mayhem/To dive and catch other apples in his teeth
When he comes home chewing gum from Italy/The business section folded under his arm
He says I was the only horse at the party/and the only boy who danced the whole time

 

Dialogue 24 / Anonymous

From his place by the inlaid doorpost he watches/Who comes from plainness From sea salt and rags
At the edge of embroidered draperies/The tables spread from huge fires built by slaves
When asked to come forward he’s embarrassed by his sandals/Stained by everywhere he’s been
Between this palace and the beach in Smyrna/where he started Where his mother begged by the square

He is not a mother He is not a soldier/He’s an inference A stony path A way
Son of the river Playing wisdom music/Making his grammar of the centuries
The grandmothers say the oaks were the first mothers/Would that woman had never come to be
But those later He begins in a place they love better/and the first word he gives them is Rage

 

Dialogue 25 / The poet’s dream

His clothes stank Slaves felt free to insult him/Princes called him animal names
One hungry evening approaching a palace/he passed a bruised man tied to a tree
In the banquet hall he sang the glory/of princes and soldiers By the threshold he slept
Where they told him and dreamed a tree shaking his shoulder/Leaning and saying Sing this

 

Dialogue 28 / Palimpsest

Near the beginning some of the people/lived near each other without enslavement
And the land that sustained them was not a garden/because it had neither beginning nor end
But lush there and sweet and their nakedness/lush and sweet and the only bitter
The sprinkling of grave ashes/falling on all just the same

Where did he come from The Captain The Master/Señor Herr Padrone The King The Lord
Who found her under the tree and took her/Who made her and her people wear shame
Instead of the story The grief story Stealing/the words from their mouths Their tongues Their teeth
So they cursed each other and quarreled divided/and the land became a waste place to use

And the fruit was poison in the new story/The pleasure of their bodies a curse
Because it kept telling the old story/Before the taking The lush way lost
As the apple tree told it In blossom In autumn/In winter The branches a text against the sky
In dialogue with the new desolation/Remembering shame Remembering whose

 

Dialogue 41 / Eve doing homework with a soccer ball at the kitchen table

The six-year-olds stitch the hexagons she says/But the last part needs littler hands
So kids who are three do that And no talking/And they hit the grown-ups and don’t let them pee
Even the grownups get six cents an hour/and no days off The kids get less
You can’t even find food with six cents right/It’s a company called Pakistan

This happens in a lot of companies/We learned about it in child labor
There are only five kids in our group It’s too sad/So we try to figure out what we can do
Yesterday we made a union/Sofia’s father works in one
His name is Ed He came and showed us/how some bad things can come to good things

He pretended to be the boss He was selfish/and we stayed together and said what we wanted
Bathroom breaks No hitting Let us talk/And more money so we can have enough food
Ed said no so we went on strike/and pretty soon we got arrested
We broke the law but we tried to help/Even when we were in jail we sang

We Shall Overcome Do you know that song/Oh deep in my heart I do believe
Me and Maya and Akayla got arrested/because we spoke up and stood in the front
Then nobody was making soccer balls/and Ed started to lose all his money
So he agreed to change the problems/When we got out of jail I shook his hand

Tonight we have to make a good factory/and color in the companies
She taps the page Here will be a vent Here good windows/Here an elevator in case of wheelchairs
Plenty of people have that wheelchair problem/Here’s a doctor’s office A workers’ room
Her mother the doctor is calling Did you finish/coloring your countries The bath water’s on

The yellow marker for Pakistan Orange/for India Red for Bangladesh
When she returns damphaired and gleaming/she makes the page the color of flames
Why did the police work for Hitler she asks/changing markers Not looking up
Why does everybody do what the boss says/even when the boss is wrong

Do you remember that demonstration/Do you remember those rows of police
Some held up their sticks but some didn’t/Some were smiling Some looked nice
But what if they were in Pakistan/What if the boss gave them the order
Would they arrest the workers for wanting/a regular life Would they arrest me

 

Dialogue 43 / Plan

The trucks appeared and took the children/in that part of the night they always sleep through
Limp and heavy in the arms of the agents/Without voices Without alphabets Without rhymes
Each fetched in soft clothes and placed with the others/You knew this day would come didn’t you
What else were you expecting What/did you think you were planning for if not this

 

Dialogue 44 / Feast

I dream my children are guests at a banquet/where the plates and utensils are made of bones
The food they try to eat turns to dust/The water makes them cough black in their hands
The banquet hall between two dead rivers/Napkins smeared with oil and ash
They sit and recite the courteous collaborator/words The words I taught them to say

 

Dialogue 46 / Adam and Eve brushing their teeth

A: Why are you in such a bad mood
E: I don’t think I want to be here
A: So go to bed
E: I mean in this world

 

Dialogue 37 / Peach

The peach half this morning on a small white plate/We have large plates for large food Small plates for small
The sharp September light falls on it/through an open window on the eighth floor
The orange flesh The ripped scarlet where the pit was/A ladybug walking along the edge
I’m reading the paper Oh fly away home/Your house is on fire and your children

 

Dialogue 47 / Letter

Come closer I keep saying but you can’t/or I can’t Will you send instructions 
Do I need to learn some new language/Are there still words where you are 
For now I pretend Kissing photographs/Smelling your shirts Setting your place 
I had a dream of an orchard When they crushed it/the fruit stayed whole as the trees fell

Did they think they’d erased you or parted us/Was that the idea Do they think that still
Are they there with you Is there a place/for those who come to the orchard with blades
Does someone kiss their hands until tenderness/rushes back from wherever they sent it
So the blades burn and they drop them Their project/failed and the trees stand together again

I have other dreams Your voice that morning/turned into petals of steel and dirt
The gash across your mouth so I can’t hear/you Your wrong angles Your burns
Come closer It’s a code It means Stay in the orchard/even when the blades come
Can you hear me It was a code/even when you were here

 

Dialogue 34 / The odd man

When I called you were gathering poems/for the island children whose parents had died
Today I drove past where we used to live/Rolled the windows down to let the wind touch my face
The wind that had touched the doorstep The bent walk/then this beach Do you remember
It’s silly I know It’s all right You can say it/When did it last cross your mind

That afternoon here with friends Taking pictures/The air soft like this October like this
The heat The tall corn The crowds departed/Bees rolling in the goldenrod As today
The long rutty road to get here The blaze/of blue and muttering at the end of it
When we were young enough to make promises/When the sea spoke and we heard nothing it said

Someone is running on the beach now Not hearing/No children No gray in her hair
Did the big wind carry the ashes out this way/Did the events of September happen here
Someone is swimming It looks like the odd man/He’s taken off his farmer clothes
He still runs that vegetable stand We called him/the odd man because of how he looked at you

Stopping whatever work he was doing/as you slammed the car door and crossed the road
Your hair pulled back or loose against your neck/Sunglasses Bare shoulders He wasn’t there when it was cold
He watched you step into the shade of the awning/as if he’d never seen a woman before
Astonished Guarded A convict A sailor/slackjawed at home after months at sea

He couldn’t talk and he couldn’t stop looking/The vegetable bags trembled in his hands
Do your husband’s hands make paper bags tremble/when you come home now at the end of a day
Maybe this was your son’s first language/Looking up at you with his mouth at your breast The armpits of his shirt darkened wetter/He could hardly breathe looking at you

 

Dialogue 65 / Majnun

He said her name to rhyme with his breath/Everything else was lost to him
Until he came to be called Majnun/Madman He lost his other name
He lay in his tent thinking of her and breathing/They sent him to Mecca but he wanted no cure
He laughed at the holy stone Forgive me/I have seen her I have seen her face

Sometimes in the cool darkness she finds him/Her hair falls against his cheeks
Her nipples brush his mouth He’s thirsty/so he makes songs and drinks them when she doesn’t come
She sends notes then Shall we pay a ransom/to the thief who has stolen our secret place
Under the olive Where we touch each other/He closes his eyes Where we’re free

Of course there’s a battle The angry fathers/turning the morning to iron The night
Bitter in a way familiar to them/The elders tossing war dirt on their heads
He weeps for the enemy because they’re her people/He’s an absence A song where a man should be
He grows thin saying her name Layla/Who loved him Who came to the prison with a key

In the cells of her father’s house she remembers/the way he trembled His translucent voice
His ignorance with the ways of killing/Majnun who couldn’t walk the straight way
Majnun starved for her nearness Who stumbled/on both sides of the desecrated field
Weeping and calling so she could hear him/in the prison In the market In the secret place

 

Dialogue 72 / Agamemnon

One boy at school is called Agamemnon/and none of his friends abbreviates it
Agamemnon Do you want to meet me for breakfast/Nice shirt Agamemnon Is it new
His hair long enough to touch his neck/His hands full of Malcolm and Virginia Woolf
And acorns and identification cards/Morning coffee and morning milk

Agamemnon straggle-bearded leaning on an oak/laughing What were his parents thinking
Did they see it He and his old name/gassed at the antiwar demonstration
Agamemnon facing the armored men/with his mind His laugh His integrity
Telling the story later laughing/so hard he wipes the tears from his eyes

 

Dialogue 73 / I am waiting

For the day my children will turn to me/and ask How could you have permitted this

 

Dialogue 80 / London newspaper photograph of mounted Greek soldiers en route to collect government bounties, 1947

They pause and smile holding the severed/heads of female Antagonists by the hair

 

Dialogue 82 / On the train

We travel pressed together Downbound/Ashen So close we wear the same face
Touching The woman beside me at hip/and elbow and shoulder When she breathes I move
Southbound Downtown To where the train ends/She’s holding copies of a printed page
With a photograph and a man’s name/He’s disappeared and she wants to know where

He’s missing She is missing him/The tattoo of a bird on the back of his thigh
The scar on his left knee He wears the ring/she wears In her lap he’s laughing and strong
Her eyes are red Her hands nervous Her hair/smells of hours of cigarettes
The train can’t move fast enough for her/All the trains are local now

She slept through the earlier stations El Chorillo/Cuzcatlán Quetzaltenango
Buenos Aires Santiago Saigon Jakarta/Léopoldville Tehran Athens Berlin
The other pages of missing faces/flutter in their thousands as we pass
She’s not sleeping now Her face lit with agony/She hasn’t slept all night

 

Dialogue 83 / The testimony of Chifwalo, a sixteen-year-old preacher in Mwana Lesa’s movement, Zambia, October 1925

I know what an aeroplane is It is/a thing made by white men that flies and kills people

 

Dialogue 87 / Four hunger songs

1 How beautiful the loaves in the market/Can I steal one without being taken
2 The favored ones take loaves home in baskets/Something old is wrong with me
3 Something’s wrong The loaves are spilling/and my belly is empty and the bellies of my children
4 Where is the torch to burn this world/that lets my children starve beside food

 

Dialogue 95 / Letter from Helen to the Spartans

The artillery has broken the mirrors/so I don’t know what I look like anymore
I read the old tributes Like a flock of doves/turning in the battlefield’s pink mist
Like the parts of soldiers’ bodies they hack off/then look at with rage and longing and disgust
Like the fresh loaves and coffee after the killing/Like a room with a bed before the house burns

I have a room by the National Gardens/Not far from Constitution Square
In Athens Your enemy but you would like it/The shuttered bakeries The tanks in the streets
The German guns on the Acropolis Then the British/The shared lists of local Antagonists
The police station near the Hotel Grande Bretagne/where people are tortured on the fourth floor

When the Germans left we danced in the plaza/and I could see what I looked like then
In the mirrors of the other faces/Mask after mask of fear and bone
And lifespark The part you hate Unruly/Mr Churchill didn’t like it either
When they shouted Laokratia he said/It’s a captured city in rebellion Put it down

It rains in Athens all through the winter/I know how to say This is not my home In four languages
  Did I tell you I’m leaving/for Smyrna Where I will have no address
Where Adam learned to bake bread from the angel/Where Agamemnon brought his soldiers to heal
I will be honored as a princess there/Daughter of a woman raped by a king

Among rushes Rosemary Kestrels Sparrows/Pelicans Myrrh Salt cress Streets
Cobbled when Hector played with his mother/Poppies along the white outskirt paths
Cheap dockside rooms Smyrna erased/by fire Here’s a new word you might like
Desaparecida Where you can’t touch me/Where the citizens are divided from their names

Hunger makes you dream with your eyes open/Last night of a fig in a rock cleft
A paper nest heavy with honey/A jar of clean water Round loaves Milk
But these are for Smyrna For now artillery/at the summit of all human endeavor
Antagonists shot in the curfew plaza/For now this from Athens Palimpsest Whirlwind

 

Dialogue 60 / Testimony of Pericles

They took me to the Asphalia building/just off Bouboulínas Street
Near the American embassy/The others had already cut my hair
In the back seat on the way over/Hair offended the Fatherland
And sleep and food and speaking without shouting/They marched bald to my cell every night

And brought me to what must have been/a laundry once Basins on a roof
Women must have worked there in daylight/I could smell terror and shit and soap
They tied me to a bench barefoot/and beat heel to toe Attention Attention
To make the welts look like rows of soldiers/Like mirrors Did you forget who we are

The guardians of civilization/You wet faggot Antagonist bastard
With their permission a pack of jackals/ran into the drilled regiment of wounds
Their skeleton coats flecked with metal/They liked the beating It was what they had
Instead of a place in the living world/Sometimes they sang in English Sometimes Greek

I listened as I lay like a piston/in the groove provided But not moving
Studying the map of the factory/Deviance and Antagonism pouring from my soles
Demonstrations Degenerate art/Men who touched with tenderness
Sand in the bearings Broken towers/spiraling down the laundry drain

On the roof of a building in the heart of the city/A short walk from the sidestreet cafés
Where people I knew were waiting for their sisters/Impatient with the unexplained delay
I had no sister but I made one up/in the helplessness of my Antagonism
We sat beside each other in the morning/and drank coffee and ate sweet bread

This sent the jackals into a frenzy/They shrank to a handful of coins on the floor
The soldiers called my sister names/but I refused to be parted from her
They wore out their hired arms I had learned/the lesson but not the one they intended
Antagonist Primer To defeat the jackals/Love your sister Eat your food

 

Dialogue 55 / To be continued

Once upon a time there was or there was not/a woman who stirred and opened her eyes 
On a world that did not include her enslavement/A world that did not consist of this 
Who woke in her ordinary nakedness/Who looked on her nakedness without shame 
Her nakedness without mutilation/Her feet Her clitoris Her unbound hair

Did you see her Undivided unsold daughter/Would you recognize her if you saw her again
What was she called Do you remember/her way of walking The words she said
Who closed her eyes in the darkness pressed/to the land to which she belongedwith the others
A woman whose tongue made council and pleasure/A woman who was free

 

October 2000 - June 2003
New York