Her Landscapes: New Poems

Becky Dennison Sakellariou banner.

The slow expansion of the crack in the ancient Rift Valley will tear away the Afar desert and the horn of Africa from the rest of the continent. That alone doesn’t make an ocean but it gives us pause as we navigate the traffic of our lives, trying to imagine right behind our house a massive chasm more than 50 feet deep . . . .”—Becky Dennison Sakellariou

Where Words Go 

By Becky Dennison Sakellariou

The remains of the Turkish aqueduct, near Mytilini, Lesvos. (Photo: From the portfolio, “Monuments, by Panos + Mary/ Panos Charalampidis and Mary Chairetaki.”)

Becky Sakellariou

ATHENS Greece & New Hampshire—(Weekly Hubris)—1 July 2021Elizabeth Boleman-Herring: Poet Becky Sakellariou writes: “I have lived most of my adult life in Greece. I start with this statement because of the unexpectedly vast impact and weight this fact has had on my world views, how I ‘translate’ and survive in my surroundings, and, naturally, what—and even how—I write.

“The cultural and physical landscapes of New England, where I was born and raised, and those of the Greek/Mediterranean where I have lived for so long, mingle, merge, and even coalesce in intriguing and often inexplicable ways in my poetry. I might begin with a winter New Hampshire image, and a thread of Greece will attach itself to the image and pull it in another, surprising direction.

“I always trust these interventions, these visits; they inevitably create rich narrative tapestries. I believe they are also a large part of why I write, not only what I write. In the past few years, world political events have also empowered my writing, infusing it with tension, contradiction, and sometimes even mystery. Most recently, my writing has centered around the refugee situation in Europe, specifically Turkey and Greece, and my own experiences in the camps and with the immigrants themselves.

“I have worked in teaching, writing, editing and counseling; I have also published seven books of poetry, one of which, The Possibility of Red/Η Πιθανότητα του Κόκκινο, published by Hobblebush Books in 2014, is a bi-lingual edition in English and Greek (translated by Irene Theotokatou and Maria Laina). I have won a number of poetry and chapbook contests and prizes and have been nominated for the Pushcart Poetry Anthology twice; my book is Gathering the Soft, an art/poetry book that circles around the subject of cancer, was put out in 2016 by Passager Books.” 

Writing since she was seven, Sakellariou has, over the past two decades, published poetry in a wide variety of journals, including “Common Ground Review,” “White Pelican Review,” “Dos Passos Review,” “Beloit Poetry Journal,” and “Passager.” Her chapbook, The Importance of Bone, won first place in the Blue Light Press Contest in 2005 and was published that year. Her first full-length book, Earth Listening, was chosen by Hobblebush Books of Brookline, New Hampshire in 2010 as the second in the Granite State Poetry Series. Her third book, What Shall I Cry?, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013. In 2014, Hobblebush Books published The Possibility of Red. In 2017, Blue Light Press released No Foothold in This Geography. In 2018, Kelsay Books issued Undressing the Earth.

For readings by Sakellariou and interviews with the poet by NPR’s Peter Biello, go here: “The Bookshelf: Poet Becky Dennison Sakellariou,” and here: “The Bookshelf: A Poet Reflects on the Migrant Crisis in Greece. For the poet’s amazon.com Authors’ Page, go here.

The following four poems are from Sakellariou’s collection titled until the tree grows, towering.

Her Landscapes

I did not know that a bird’s bones are hollow,
that they fill with air so she can defy

gravity, that the weight of her bones is less
than that of her feathers,

and that her backbone is fused
so she can fly straight alongside the horizon.

I do not know if her landscapes
are in black and white,

nor if she eats
locusts and wild honey.

I cannot tell if there are stones in her mouth
when she flies over the sea,

or if her eye sockets
are empty.

I do not know how she sees the world
or what inhabits it,

or if she hears the rustling of bird spirits
around the edges of the empty places.

How do we know which tree
is the one that will catch her, hold her,

or if she will ever surrender
to the flaming sky?

The Great Deep

Clouds form on the wing
of a plane like ice,

like silvered-gray wrinkles
of someone who has given up

or long finger bones of an intact skeleton
in an unmarked grave.

Here, many things come to mind, mostly
to do with death, in one form or another.

What the day says. My poetry.
The news. Music on the radio.

The loon chicks are late to migrate,
cannot get up enough speed

in the few bits of open water
to be airborne above the early iced-over pond.

They will become easy prey for eagles
or die in the cold.

*

Yesterday. My friend in the ER.
Sudden Hearing Loss. A vestibular schwannoma.

*

The slow expansion
of the crack in the ancient Rift Valley

will tear away the Afar desert
and the horn of Africa

from the rest of the continent.
That alone doesn’t make an ocean

but it gives us pause as we navigate
the traffic of our lives, trying

to imagine right behind our house
a massive chasm more than 50 feet deep

and 50 feet wide, weaving its way
through prime agricultural land,

new faults and fissures, fossils of early hominids
and their great horned beasts.

*
The tiny, fragile bones in my middle ear
have shifted, leaning against the acoustic nerve

strangling all sound and song,
whispers and tuning forks.

. . . still awaiting the fire
            Why, then, do we not despair?
                      Anna Akhmatova

The landscape I come back to
is sepia, lean and measured,
       moving from color

toward colorlessness, the mosaics
of fading russet and copper
       oxidizing under my boots,
the years, repeating and repeating.

I have walked this one before.

I leave behind humans
dragged from their moorings,
       wandering half-blind through bedlam

and turmoil, lost in the terror
of who am I now?
       a language shattered in pieces
by deafening smiles.

Memories drown in deep-troughed waves,
cold, metallic blankets
       handed out by Norwegians,
unfamiliar words breaking from their lips.

Today, those rescued are warm and dry
sitting on the dull blue carpet
eating nan, drinking pale tea,
       gesturing their lives in circles,
calling to their missing dreams.

The quiet symphony of decomposition
fertilizes the season to come,
       the woodpile
dusted with dried ants, sleeping spiders,
desiccated bodies of baby mice,
    still awaits the fire,
the ash to be shoveled into the wet earth.

Unseasonal thunder is muffled
around the roof of my mouth.
       We imagine stews of thick meat sauce,
round-cut potatoes, parsnips and carrots.

We know there will again be a radiance
shining through the blanket of coming snow,
        a shroud for the next world.

As Martha Goes

As she moves toward death,
she begins to hold my hand
as if to comfort me, to steady my erratic heart.

As she passes, we turn back, straggling,
struggling across the bridge
we had entered to go to her,
to cradle her toward death.

We are facing what we had left,
a world going on with its business
with or without us,
benign, routine, quotidian.

The archeology of her life calls
as we restart ours
after this long walk with her.
We do not forget,
we inhabit her houses, we
stand at her windows,
her voice catches us.

I remind myself,
Martha no longer has to do any of this,
not the dishes, the checkbook,
endless relationships with the children,
not that massive tempest of being.

Editor’s Note: The black and white photograph illustrating this column derives from a portfolio of images of Lesvos titled “Monuments: 2009-2010,” created by the Greek artist/duo Panos + Mary. See more of this work here. About “Monuments,” they write: “The following images are our contribution to a project about the Byzantine, Paleochristian, and Ottoman monuments on the island of Lesvos.  The project was an idea and was assisted by the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities of Lesvos.”

About Becky Sakellariou

Becky Dennison Sakellariou was born and reared in New England, but has lived all of her adult life in Greece. Of late, she has been “making her way home” to New Hampshire, where she now spends half of every year. Writing since she was seven, Sakellariou has published poetry in a wide variety of journals. Sakellariou has written and published poetry for many years; her chapbook, The Importance of Bone, won first prize in the Blue Light Press (San Francisco) competition of 2005 and her full-length book, Earth Listening, was published in 2010 by Hobblebush Books of Brookline, NH. In 2013, Finishing Line Press (Tennessee) brought out her chapbook, What Shall I Cry?, which was followed by a two-year long collaboration with Greek poet, Maria Laina, for The Possibility of Red/Η Πιθανοτιτα του Κοκκινου, a bilingual edition of eleven of her poems, also published by Hobblebush Books. In 2015, Passager Books (Baltimore) brought out her art/poetry book, Gathering the Soft, a meditation on cancer illustrated by Tandy Zorba. Sakellariou’s latest book, No Foothold in this Geography, is a collection of the last five years of her work. Sakellariou has won a number of prizes from individual journals and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Anthology. “At present,” she says, “I am madly in love with my three grandchildren; you can find me either in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I am endlessly amazed by the clouds, the snow, the trees, and the power of memory; or in Euboia, Greece, where I putter around my one acre amongst the olive, fig, almond, pomegranate, lemon, apricot, and eucalyptus trees, drawn by the senses and the mystery of place.”For a compelling introduction to Sakellariou's work, read her blog entry at "Off the Margins."
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3 Responses to Her Landscapes: New Poems

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    Becky, I love these poems! The combination of geology with geography, the human as landscape, the landscape as a thing with bones — this is a poetry that writes itself and the poet doesn’t exactly translate it, but offers herself to embody it. Thank you!

  2. ann saunderson says:

    I have read the first one before. The one about the bird’s hollow bones. I especially love this one. I love learning this way…and you present it with such wonder.
    I so often feel wonder. I think I’m lucky that way.

  3. Don Schofield says:

    Good to see these poems, Becky. As always, that sure, delicate touch.

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