Mister T. by the Sea
Katerina Iliopoulou

He picks up a pebble from the shore.
Notices the pebble has the remarkable property
Of not having an inside and an outside.
The two coincide.
As he cannot think of anything else.
He decides the pebble is an enemy of the world and throws it away.
The pebble’s fall creates the effect known as “a hole in the water.”
Mister T feels immense attraction and an inexplicable envy towards the pebble.

So he picks up another pebble and puts it in his mouth
At first it is salty.
It is a sea-thing.
Shortly after that, it is nothing.
A hard lump of silence in his mouth, absorbing his voice.
Nevertheless, to his surprise, he realizes
That even without a voice, he can still speak.

Evidently his invocations are granted.
A flock of sea-birds lands by his feet.
When the fly away they leave behind an illegible text.
Mister T. bends down and begins to study it at once.

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After navigating the diagonal side streets of Athens that weave mindbending triangles of muted ochre taxis, tram wires, and outdoor stands serving instant frappé coffee, I stepped into The Free Thinking Zone, a bookstore and cultural think tank, for an evening poetry reading. The featured poets, Katerina Iliopoulou and Yiorgos Chouliaris, read a selection of personal works and spoke informally about their process and influences. They invited the listeners to exchange reflections and pose questions. We sat around a common table that seemed secluded from the rushing cars and ticking traffic lights just a few meters beyond the panes of the bookshop’s swinging glass doors. Ignorant of the rich literary scene of modern Greece, I expected contemporary Greek poetry to be a reiteration of the ancient epics before I heard Katerina and Yiogos read their works. Before arriving in Greece, I wondered if Athens itself would be a city of crumbling monuments and encircling cruise ships. The Greece and modern Greek poetry I found, however, are more vibrantly alive, complex, and engaging than any reality I was capable of imagining before my short visit last Fall Break with the Princeton Council of the Humanities.

“Whoever carries the heavy stones will sink,” Katerina said later over a dinner of spicy feta cheese and fruity red Moshophilero wine. “And I do not want to sink, I prefer to float.” For most readers, the idea of a Greek poet evokes the name Homer and, in the modern day, C.P. Cavafy. The legacy of the Greek poetic tradition imposes a profound weight on the modern poets of Athens, and modern poets must consider it with care. I found the two poets’ approach to the ancient Greek poetic tradition to be both serious and ironic. Katerina described great works of ancient poetry to be like foundries in which contemporary poets meld old material to create something new. Katerina addresses sublime and critical questions in her work but her poetry is not beyond the scope of her modern readers’ imaginations. Her first anthology, Mister T, traces the journey of a tall, thin, and solitary man through a textual landscape of his mundane activities like waking up and going to the sea to pick up a pebble as well as revelatory moments in his loss and discovery of identity within an inconstant reality of Katerina’s invention. Katerina’s poems that I have read are meandering, part of Mr. T’s odyssey, but tangible, grounded, and innovative. Her aporetic poetry is one of fits and starts, dead ends, inconclusive moments paired with epiphany, of being guided through the world from a perspective as radically different from her own as she could imagine.

As the evening slipped away, I listened to the writers speak about poetry, film, literature, and Greek politics. Though we contributed thoughts around a common table, the conversation was a window into a world of someone else’s creation. Like many travelers, I left no trace in Athens but I gained a tremendous amount by listening and observing. After the evening reading, I stepped back into the winding Athenian streets clutching a new book of poetry and sifted through my muddled thoughts. Though I never would have expected it, my evening at the informal poetry reading stands more clearly in my memory than any other experience I had in Athens.

~ Irene Burke '16

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