“Late January Thaw, Refugees, Fragments” by Aliki Barnstone

Aliki Barnstone


The Christmas cactus opens like white gulls
diving toward the sea, their red beaks leading.

The late January thaw gives my muscles peace
and I put off deadlines.

If I could join
my breath with others
across oceans, if we
could share the air,
atmosphere be
love’s common lungs.

The student recently released from solitary in Iran says his cell was six by seven,
and he’s over six feet tall. There was no bed but he took comfort to know others
in the building, also in solitary, were journalists, professors, artists, thinkers, poets.

Five geese walk in unison over ice.
Others drift in the oval where ice has melted.
Near the lake’s far shady bank still others rest,
heads tucked into their bodies.

My feet are cold when his radio words enter me.
My toes curl beneath my chair.
My socks and sweater are navy blue and soft.
My black cat in the seat beside me purrs,
mewing a bit, and bumping the top of her head
against my elbow.

A fragment.
A boat sinking
off the coast
of Samos.

All at once the whole flock rises,
their wide wings flickering
shadows on ice.

Gusting wind.
Rusty oak leaves wobble wildly
but do not fall.
Oppressed on Lesvos, Sappho wrote her daughter,
I have no embroidered headband
for you, Kleis …

Fragments of clothing, plastic, or wood
on the water’s surface.
24 dead. 9 of them children.

The tea kettle wails to my soul,
Aflame, aflame.
A video shows ambulances racing from the quay.

A fragment
of understanding.
Words in Arabic,
Greek, English.
Fake life preservers
piled on the beach.

Tamman Azzam (musical name) photoshopped
Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss over a bombed out
Syrian building.

Ancient walls
or new.
Fabric of craters.
The Kiss
on ghosts
of living-

Even so, the parents tie a bright ribbon around their little daughter’s head
before they board the unsafe boat.

Today the sun makes gray ice and clouds
luminous silver, though some would call it white.

Today an African violet bloomed and looks out
from a corner of windowpane at bird feeders swinging in a breeze,
geese huddled on the ice.

Tonight another freeze.
The hours of sun become
glowing fragments
in wintertime.

A crowded raft.
Another raft behind it.
Rescuers with red cross vests wade out.
A bottle of water.
A snack.
Some dry shoes and clothes offered
from bins lining the beach
where once were chaise lounges
and generous umbrellas.

Samos, Rhodos, Kos, Leros, Lesvos.

In the State Historical Society of Missouri hangs the painting, Order Number 11.
The guides explains the self-emancipated slaves, who are fleeing toward us, out
of the picture plane, are refugees.

A boy and a man.
A man who hides his face
in his hands.
A wide-eyed boy
in rags.

The candles burning on my dining room table are for memory,
Oh, transporting scents.

No. The little flames
focus attention
inside where
there are no

House sparrows fight over birdseed.
They came from Europe.
They kill off the native bluebirds.

Somewhere in Syria, Yazidi women are slaves.

The enterprising refugees
gather discarded pool toys,
life preservers, so-called,
fashion them into purses
and messenger bags.

The sewing machines—
gifts from the people of Lesvos
where Sappho wrote poems
not intended to be fragments:

The bright
ribbon reminds me of those days
when our enemies were in exile.

On the high hill above the beach and ruined rafts and wooden boats
and full graveyards, people from all over the world gather
life jackets and water wings and form an enormous peace sign.

A sign made
of wrecked
life preservers.
Preserve life.
A sign to be
seen by people
from the air,
breathing air.

Poets Respond
January 31, 2016

[download audio]


Aliki Barnstone: “Like many people of Greek descent, I come from refugees. My mother was three months old when she and her family were thrown out of Istanbul during the ‘population exchange,’ which Greeks call ‘The Catastrophe.’ The refugee crisis is personal. I know the land and seascape and the spirit of the people who are fleeing, as well as the people who are helping. Greece is going through an economic crisis that is worse, according to studies, than the Great Depression was here in the U.S. Nonetheless, every day, Greeks are saving refugees, providing them with water, food, dry shoes and clothing, medical care, and, tragically, burying the dead. All my waking and dreaming hours, the tragedy of the refugees is in my consciousness, along with my ordinary, daily life as a professor at the University of Missouri. The refugees, too, once had what we consider ordinary lives. In this sense, a peaceful life with food and shelter is extraordinary. One of the videos I saw showed a young boy who said, ‘We need peace in our country. We don’t want to live in Europe. We want to live at home.’ The people are so desperate for their lives that they board unsafe boats with their beloved children and babies, in winter, in high winds. One of my friends, John Tripoulas, is a surgeon on the island of Ikaria. He had to examine the bodies of drowned refugees to do DNA testing. One of the little girls, he wrote, ‘was wearing white boots, pink gloves, and there was a Mickey Mouse patch sewn on her sweatpants.’ Many of the refugees land on island of Lesvos, also known as Mytilene, where Sappho lived. The translation of Sappho in the poem is by my father, Willis Barnstone. He read me Sappho ever since I was a little girl, so her work is etched in my memory. And John’s description of the way a little girl was dressed for that deadly boat ride reminded me of Sappho’s poem about her daughter’s headband. I wrote this poem after I heard the news that 24 had drowned off the coast of Samos. That was Thursday. On Friday, at least another 37 drowned off the coast of Turkey, among them children and babies, trying to get to Greece. 244 have died in January alone. As of this writing, 55,528 have entered Europe, most of them through Greece, and now the rest of Europe has stopped welcoming them. If you are moved, please donate to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees or another group that is providing help.”

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