Helen Heath


i. Journey

The sky above Ithaca rolls out
thin clouds stretching a

sylph’s trail—pointing to
her destination.

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!

x. Ónos

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.

Italian tourists
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,

relentless tambourines
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’.

xiii. Breathing

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.

xiv. Burrowing

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.

xv. Vibrations

The truth about bones is
we hang on them.

Vibrations transmit,
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.

xvi. Paleochora

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.

Author’s Note


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