The sky above Ithaca rolls out
thin clouds stretching a
sylph’s trail—pointing to
Hundreds of strangers in a tin can
trailing vapour. Untouchable,
like holding light.
I think I hear her call
and then an echo.
ii. Customs declaration
I want to pray to science
in my grandfather’s church,
to Ayia Marina, patron saint
of pregnant women and the dying.
When the island speaks, let me
hear ancient words.
Let me worm them out,
make something of them.
Let me take new words
home to my family.
iii. The ferry
We could be on the Interislander
but, as in a dream, I can’t
understand what anyone
is saying. Everything familiar
yet askew. Apó thálassa sto Vathy.
iv. The prayer
May I hold a part of all living things within me
and the wind take me to them piecemeal.
May I believe in the direction of my journey
and my children take their own paths.
May everything that ever was be here, now
with the constant flux and ebb.
May I reach the edge, with nothing lost
or found in the cosmos—
but a burst of heat escaping
like a pilot light, back to the ether.
v. Greek for Travellers
How much for this peach?
I would like a room.
What time does the bus go?
I would like a ticket to Stavros.
What a lovely day.
I am in pain.
Where is the police station?
I want to wash clothes.
vi. The landing
The truth about stones is some fit in your palm,
some you lay your palms upon.
If you press a stone with your finger
your finger is also pressed by the stone.
If you pull a stone on a rope
the stone pulls you back.
If you carry a stone in your pocket
you can smooth it with your thumb.
I collect pebbles from Ithaca
and intend to bring them home.
vii. Up the hill
The truth about raindrops is
they are not shaped like tears.
As raindrops fall they become balls,
burger buns, parachutes, then doughnuts.
Rain is only sad in wet places,
others greet it with euphoria.
Water is containment and travel,
it worries at earth and stone.
Things do smell better after rain, like
wild oregano up the hill from Vathy.
viii. The cave
Naiads in a fissure by
a long-leaved olive.
Bees storing honey in bowls
and pitchers of stone.
Perpetual streams run
at Ithaca’s harbour head.
Drink deep from the spring
and fatten on acorns.
I jump off a rock into the water,
not even a gasp as I slap.
ix. At the market
The butcher hangs carcasses
outside the door, hair still
attached and flies
busy on the flesh.
Three large bags of maize
on a motor scooter.
A man calls:
I come to your door
On the first day—a peach,
a nectarine, a banana,
an apple: 460 drachmas.
On the last: 230 with a hearty Kalimera!
Worry is a burden, let a donkey carry it.
This donkey, tethered in a yard with piles
of dung, joined by a black butterfly
with white spots, which lands on a pile.
The old man saddles up—bridle, halter
blinkers. He waits for me to take a photo
because that’s what tourists do.
Man and donkey fill my viewfinder
and for a moment nothing else exists.
I’m not sure what will be there
when I lower the camera.
But there they are—donkey and man,
and he rides side-saddle on the road
over to Sarakino Bay.
xi. Lonely Planet
Roosters and trucks
at six a.m.
on scooters, yelling.
Cicadas’ harsh metallic
chirps, like frightened frogs.
Locusts and grasshoppers
rattling in the scrub.
The angry buzz of Vespula,
black wasps trapped
in my empty soft drink can.
Then cicadas again,
in my head.
xii. Monastíri Katharon
The bus takes a series of tight hairpins
from Vathy to the old monastery.
We stop, reverse and try again
on the tightest corners.
Old bronze bells call us in to the priest
dressed in a huge beard and heavy eyebrows.
The others buy candles, write prayers
on slips of paper and put them in a brass box.
I imagine them clicking send,
an Orthodox email to God.
They make offerings of támata—
silver votive body parts—and hang
them under pictures of saints.
Arms, legs, hearts, eyes, babies
all miracles waiting to happen.
I’m not sure what needs mending.
I settle for a whole woman.
The bus ride home is all songs and laughter.
Hot and tired, I keep thinking someone
will pull out a guitar and sing ‘Hine E Hine’.
Blue-green algae breathing out
is the truth about life on earth.
Iron oxidises, rust flaking lets us
peel away layers of a ship’s bolt.
Air, a clear, light sky-blue
caused by absorption of red.
Sitting on the balcony,
the fish shop below not
letting me forget it—
the smell rising.
Ithaca’s pygmy queen was
a boastful woman
the length of your arm.
Houses were made of mud,
feathers and eggshells.
Little men rode on
the backs of she-goats,
fighting birds with spears,
close enough to the earth to
whisper to a worm: burrow, friend.
The truth about bones is
we hang on them.
transmute through bone.
The hammer hits the anvil
the anvil hits the stirrup.
What we measure depends
on the sensitivity of our instruments.
The thin crust rose and fell, stone
walls in the village won’t rise again.
I’m walking up the path
to the derelict little church
its white walls and blue door
protect sailors and fishermen.
Stopping at the well, I drop
a stone—just to hear the slap
and suck of the disturbed surface.
Inside there’s a fresco mostly still
in place despite the lack of roof,
painted in egg yolks and colours
taken from flowers. There’s been no
preservation, but what can be done?
I look up through the absent
roof to the huge bulk of the mountains
and above them, birds lifting on
the thermals. This is my eyrie.
I crouch by the fresco and pick up a piece.
I need to name the flowers.
I need to know them all—
crocus, dog violet, hyacinth, iris.
LISTEN to ‘Postcards’ by Helen Heath
Helen Heath’s debut collection of poetry Graft was published in May 2012 by Victoria University Press. Her poetry and essays have also been published in many journals in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009. Helen’s chapbook of poems called Watching for Smoke was also published by Seraph Press in 2009. Helen has been known to blog sporadically. She is currently working towards her PhD in Creative Writing at the IIML. Helen’s PhD research project explores how science is represented in the work of post-war, contemporary poets writing in the 80s and 90s. Helen won the inaugural ScienceTeller Poetry Award in 2011 for her poem ‘Making Tea in the Universe’ and Graft was selected for the NZ Listener’s top books of 2012 as well as winning a Post Graduate Research Excellence Award from Victoria University, Wellington.
Heath comments: ‘This sequence started life as a series of ghazels after Phyllis Webb and Dinah Hawken. Traditionally the ghazel is a love poem but I like to think that this is a love poem to both Greece and science. The poem attempts to bring together scientific facts—Newtonian physics amongst other things (“If you press a stone with your finger your finger is also pressed by the stone…”)—with Greek mythology and magical thinking. I wanted to show that knowledge (or the quest for it) doesn’t detract from the awe you can experience in the world; it only adds.
‘As a child, when my father showed me a butterfly, we didn’t just see its pretty colours and delicate flight. He showed me the beauty in the working of its rolled proboscis, we looked closer at the tiny overlapping wing scales, he told me how there are often ultraviolet patterns in the wings that we cannot see, but which may be seen by other butterflies, I listened to the beauty of Latin names. When I was older we discussed the “butterfly effect” and chaos theory… This is the experience of science I had in my childhood—the curious scientist seeking knowledge in an awe-inspiring world.’ — Booknotes, issue 176 autumn/winter 2012.
Ayia — Saint
Apó thálassa sto Vathy — Over the water to Vathy
Kalimera — Good morning
Ónos — Burden or donkey
Vespula — Wasp
Monastríri Katharon — Monastery Katharon
Támata — Silver votive body parts
Paleochora — Old town
Helen Heath’s website
Victoria University Press author page
Victoria University PhD candidate page