Everything changes; nothing does. I am back,
The doorbell rings, my heart leaps out of habit,
But it is only Kleo—how thin, how old!—
Trying to smile, lips chill as the fallen dusk.

She has brought a cake “for tomorrow”
As if tomorrows were still memorable.
We sit down in the freshly-painted hall
Once used for little dinners. (The smoke cleared
On no real damage, yet I’d wanted changes,
Balcony glassed in, electric range,
And wrote to have them made, after the fire.)
Now Kleo’s eyes begin to stream in earnest—
Tears of joy? Ah, troubles too, I fear.
Her old mother has gone off the deep end.

From their basement window the yiayia, nearly ninety,
Hurls invective at the passing scene,
Tea bags as well, the water bill, an egg
For emphasis. A strange car stops outside?
Here’s the client! Paint your face, putana!
She cackles to her daughter moistening
With tears the shirt she irons. Or locks her out
On her return from watering, with tears,
My terrace garden. (I will see tomorrow
The white oleander burst from its pot in the rains.)
Nor is darling Panayioti, Kleo’s son,
Immune. Our entire neighborhood now knows
As if they hadn’t years before
That he is a Degenerate! a Thieving
Faggot! just as Kleo is a Whore!

I press Kleo’s cold hand and wonder
What could the poor yiayia have done
To deserve this terrible gift of hindsight,
These visions that possess her of a past
When Kleo was in fact a buxom armful
And “Noti” cruised the Naval Hospital,
Slim then, with teased hair. Now he must be forty,
Age at which degeneration takes
Too much of one’s time and strength and money.
My eyes brim with past evenings in this hall,
Gravy-spattered cloth, candles minutely
Guttering in the love-blinded gaze.
The walls’ original old-fashioned colors,
Cendre de rose, warm flaking ivory—
Colors last seen as by that lover’s ghost
Stumbling downstairs wound in a sheet of flame—
Are hidden now forever but not lost
Beneath this quiet sensible light gray.

Kleo goes on. The yiayia’s warm,
What can it mean? She who sat blanketed
In mid-July now burns all day,
Eats only sugar, having ascertained
Poison in whatever Kleo cooks.
Kill me, there’ll be an autopsy,
Putana, matricide, I’ve seen to that!
I mention my own mother’s mother’s illness,
Querulous temper, lucid shame.
Kleo says weeping that it’s not the same,
There’s nothing wrong, according to the doctor,
Just that she’s old and full of spite. And warm.

Next day I walk over. Red-eyed Kleo
Lets me in. Beyond her, bedclothes disarrayed,
The little leaden oven-rosy witch
Fastens her unrecognizing glare
Onto the lightest line that I can spin.
“It’s me, yiayia! Together let us plumb
Depths long dry”—getting no further, though,
Than Panayioti’s anaconda arms:

“Ah Monsieur Tzim, bon zour et bon retour!
Excuse mon déshabillé. Toute la nuit
Z’ai décoré l’église pour la fête
Et fait l’amour, le prêtre et moi
Dans une alcove derrière la Sainte Image.
Tiens, z’ai un cadeau pour toi,
Zoli foulard qui me va pas du tout.
Mais prends-le donc, c’est pas volé—
Ze ne suis plus voleur, seulement volage!”

Huge, powerful, bland, he rolls his eyes and r’s.
Glints of copper wreathe his porcelain brow
Like the old-time fuses here, that blow so readily.
I seem to know that crimson robe,
And on his big fat feet—my slippers, ruined.
Still, not to complicate affairs,
Remembering too that gift of thumb-sized garnet
Bruises he clasped round Aleko’s throat,
I beam with gratitude. Meanwhile
Other translated objects one by one
Peep from hiding: teapot, towel, transistor.
Upon the sideboard on old me
Scissored from its glossy tavern scene—
I know that bare arm too, flung round my shoulder—
Buckles against a ruby glass ashtray.
(It strikes me now, as happily it did not
The insurance company, that P. caused the fire.
Kleo’s key borrowed for a rendezvous,
A cigarette left burning…Never mind.)
Life like the bandit Somethingopoulos
Gives to others what it takes from us.

Some of those embers can’t be handled yet.

I mean to ask whose feast it is today
But the room brightens, the yiayia shrieks my name—
It’s Tzimi! He’s returned!
—And with that she returns to human form,
The snuffed-out candle-ends grow tall and shine,
Dead flames encircle us, which cannot harm,
The table’s spread, she croons, and I
Am kneeling pressed to her old burning frame.

This Issue

June 18, 1970