Sunday, November 27, 2011

nicholas samaras: rebetiko psalm

Then, sing a psalm of the outsider race –
an entire nation of us without borders,
a conglomerate tribe of exiles recognisable

by the same light in our same eyes.
We were Anatolian and Greek under the Ottoman boot.
We were African and immigrant processed

over the waves of the flat, grey Atlantic.
We came from mainlands possessed by others.
Once native, we were suddenly ethnic.

We came from Alatsata, thrown out of our homes
and our country. Everyone was the Lord’s people –
but we were still cast off from even our Holy Altars, thrown

into the dust of the roads leading
out of every town, disinterred from even
the cemeteries of our ancestors –

evicted from the dust of the world
and plunged into the coldest harbours across the seas –
not even our own abroad wanting us – but repelling

us on from the pocked ports of Bodrum, Piraeus,
Liverpool, and Ellis Island, funneling to the factories of Woburn.
And in exile, what did we ever find but ourselves,

a stark room to decorate – the wind
chugging into our scarves, our rolled-up coats for pillows,
the damp wool souring our breath?

We became alienation and exile from everything we’d known.
We left behind the bones of our ancestors in graves
only the wind would comb.

We were emptied eyes and haunted souls
who established shanty towns outside of Athens, who sifted
into new ghettos of the Mani. What could we do

but become the other of ourselves, until we were irreducible?
What could we do but sing into the wind and darkness,
to cup the breeze of our leaving?

We were blues before blues. We were exile and alienation
until the blues were always with us, until
we couldn’t remember a generation or place or time

without blues. We became Rebetes who sang and played
for all the suffering and lost, played for survival and all
the rag-alley years of missing homes and homeland.

In this way, we lived through transit, subsisted through
the squabbled and claimed neighbourhoods of the world.
We lived through countries. We existed through dictatorships.

We endured through emigration and deportation.
The word was refugee, with no countries wanting us.
Our resting was brief – our homes became transit until

we were citizens of transience. Even the wind, empty of us.
So, we filled our emptiness. We were simple and ordinary souls,
some turning to the narcotic of sorrow for loss and misfortune,

some turning to the melodies of the melancholic and crooning –
a spliff of amnesia and a dancing for sorrow.
We tied up with the baglama. Our daily living became the minor

chords of the gittith. Rootless, we became a roots music,
full of grief and passion, romance and bitterness.
When our lives became a haze of coastal cities and alleys,

the cradles of the tavern and the den became our hearth.
The prison and the boarding house became our nests.
When all we could hold was our breaths –

we breathed Alatsata. We breathed ancestors.
Our breathing accompanied castanets and clattering glass,
the droning of worry beads tapped against a sweating drink.

We sang of Smyrna and Pontos. We sang and the songs
possessed us, so we could possess something –
a life, an identity held in our breaths, individuals held together.

We sang for generations, citizens in nameless countries until
we became our own country of song. Singing our breaths, we moved
into ourselves – singing our breaths to make sure we’re alive,

we were a universal tribe cast into the universe,
singing to be still, 
a soulful psalm of an outsider
nation singing to belong, to be home.


(an audio file of mr. samaras reading the poem can be found here - scroll down)