Out here the world
has no need of you.
You can be here –
the world readily accepts you –
but you enter at your own risk
at your peril.
There are no spaces of ensconcement –
everywhere you are exposed
against the sky.
To write poems to the sky is the body’s
To write poems
is to carry the world inside.
I don’t need to bring my books.
Poetry is wherever I look.
You are everywhere
Everywhere the soft grasses
speak of you
of a father’s embrace
Here there is nowhere to be ensconced.
The people even have a joke about it:
Q: What do you do if you are lost in an Icelandic forest?
A: Stand up!
Out here the world
has no need of you.
If the world coughs, you are gone –
cast out to sea
on the cold wind.
Out here the world
belongs to the birds.
Kría, kría, hrafn,
kría, kría, kjói.
carve the silence.
I have come here to find you.
I have come here to lose myself.
I stand up.
There is love and then there are islands.
There are islands and then there is water.
There is water and then there is sky.
There is sky and then there is horizon.
There is horizon and then there is melody.
There is melody and then there is song.
There is song and then there is body.
There is body and then there is ground.
There is ground and then there is shore.
There is shore and then there is peninsula.
There is peninsula and then there is promontory.
There is promontory and then there is mountain.
There is mountain and then there is lake.
There is lake and then there is house.
There is house and then there is window.
There is window and then there is sea.
There is sea and then there is love.
There is love and then there are islands.
The problem of islands is that they are binary. There is the island, and then there is the sea. If you are not on the island then you are in the sea, or you are elsewhere altogether.
To come from an island is to have attachment anxieties about place.
To come from an island is to live in a perpetual either/or (either you are there, or you are not).
To come from an island is to know about edges and to trace these edges with the soles of your feet.
To desire is to know that bodies have edges.
To desire is to follow the example of the mariner or the migratory bird in learning to unsee these edges.
To desire is to know about edges, and about water. To see the face of the other on the surface of the water, and to reach down from your fragile bark to stroke the cheeks. To reach the edge of visibility when the face dissolves in a ripple, and then to see only depth – only endless depth – and to feel compelled to go under and retrieve the image. The terrible moment when you realise that you will dive, and you will drown -
that you have dived, and you have drowned.
To come from an island is to make of departure a refrain.
To desire is to measure distances by triangulation.
To desire is to sing three-edged songs to your island heart, who will not easily let go her lust for edges.
To come from an island is to commit flyways to memory.
To come from an island is to know the sea.
To desire is to wonder whether the sea will hold.
The pain of being away from home is something like a menstrual pain, first pulling down from the centre of my body, then liquefying me in all directions like the cellist of Dalí’s Araña de la noche. I wake up, roll up the blinds, look out over the glassy sea and feel it right away. I remember a friend and casual lover, to whose bed I return regularly but infrequently, whose name, in a delightful reversal of the order of things, is Odysseus, who once said to me – πόσες φορές εν να πρέπει να σε αποσσιαιρετήσουμε που την Κυπρο; / how many times will we have to see you off from this place? He knows, like I do (perhaps even better than I do) that home is there. He sees me return every year, now twice a year, hears me rhapsodise about the blissful solitude of my grandmother’s house, which is nestled into a village five kilometres from his own, at the edges of the Machairas hills and the Troodos Mountains. We discuss questions of home and relationships (which neither of us can seem to navigate, but my failures are always more operatic than his) and what it means to make a life there, on our island. Then he watches me leave again, sentimental and teary-eyed, slipping back into the familiar clothes of melancholy.
Home is not where I live. It is not even the place where I was born, and neither is it the country of my first language. It is the place I lived from aged six to aged eighteen, many of those years being troubled and deeply unhappy. When I arrived there in 1992, I spoke the English of North London Cypriots, the language of my mother and her generation. She and my grandmother immigrated to England in 1957, two among 1,450 Cypriots who emigrated that year. The journey took place shortly after my grandfather died, in 1956. When I ask my mother about the journey, and about her father’s death, she becomes instantly befuddled, her face clouding over into a frown. She once answered with a melodramatic “that whole period is black to me”.
Melodramatic but truthful. She does not know what exactly caused her father’s death. She does not even know whether the silence around it was the result of taboo or ignorance. She was present when he died – if memory serves me (both hers and mine) she was the first to discover him dead. My mother and I are distant. We meet only at the edges of our territories. But when I think of her, four years old, witnessing her father succumbing to an illness she had no understanding of, and then shortly thereafter crossing the Mediterranean to acquire a new home and a new language in a city so unlike the village she knew, I am heavy with empathy. She did not have the luxury of a knowable boundary of language and land, and, as a result, neither do I. Her origin is loss, lacuna. A hollow carved into limestone, quickly covered over with cement.
The first book I wrote took up this theme of lacunae. What hides in the edges of the manuscript is the notion of etchings, engravings, epigraphs. First, the notion of language and memory as an absence, and then, gradually, the notion of this absence as a cradle, a bed in which to sow new and old seeds. And so after writing what was not, I now seem to be writing what is, carrying out in my own private anthropology Blanchot’s hypothetical history of the book:
[…] the first person who ever wrote, who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, was far from responding to the demands of a view that […] changed all relations between seeing and the visible. What he left behind him was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less – a subtraction of matter, a hollow in relation to the relief. Then what was it? A hole in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing that was invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by that non-absence, but without knowing anything about it, and there was no second reader because reading, from then on understood to be the vision of an immediately visible – that is, intelligible – presence, was affirmed for the very purpose of making this disappearance into the absence of the book impossible.
Writing leads me invariably to think about time. This was not always the case. Once I wrote a book, and it had a form that was given by chronology; memory was an issue, but time itself not so much. It was more that the writing took place in a space conditioned by the assumption that considerable time had elapsed between the moments I was configuring in words and the present moment. There was the vertical contingency, down into the well of the past, and there was the horizontal one, that of the plurality of memories, the knowledge that others had experienced the same moments and carried them too in some configured or pre-configured way, in their bodies. The book was written when I still believed in the linearity of process, an ignorance resulting from a trick played on me by time – I had simply not yet lived long enough to experience the violent ingress of old oceans. Now it is not so simple. I am still attracted to unfolding morphologies, gradually expanding from a single kernel into ever more minutely detailed webs, branches, conches, tendrils. But it doesn’t seem possible to write this way anymore. Time has become a problem. So, as with all problems, I try to listen to what it wants to tell me.
While taking a break from this listening I tune in to a podcast on the Laxdæla Saga. In it Gísli Sigurðsson remarks on how temporality and memory are the stage on which the transition from oral to written story-telling is performed. In fact the sagas themselves were written at a time when the situations they configured were no longer a present reality. The old days were gone, cast to the bottom of the pool like so many pagan idols at Goðafoss. People were eager to document the glory of their ancestors, and to set down in writing their wealth of oral lore. The temporality of the sagas bear this mark in their narrative logic, telling you how a certain character came to live in Iceland, whom she married, how many children she had, what kinds of strange and prophetic dreams she had, who helped her decode these dreams, which of them came true, how many husbands she had, which of them died and how, which of her children were slain in a feud, how she died, and so on and on. They have the form of tributaries, of a handful of glass beads cast on the flat ground. It is also a particularity of these Icelandic stories that they have an origin; the finitude and remoteness of the place and the mode of its settlement mean that when you stand here you can think back to an originary moment of the meeting between this land and a body more or less like yours. Like the modern literary culture of Iceland, the Sagas have a knowable boundary of language and land. This, I think, is one of the things that people find so fascinating about the place, one of the many faces of Iceland in the minds of others. Roni Horn, who, through many long chains of causality is the reason I am seated here looking out over the bay towards the Westfjords, wrote “I come here to place myself in the world. Iceland is a verb and its action is to centre.” It seems paradoxical that this volcanic accident hanging out somewhere near the Arctic circle should be in any way a centre, and yet I feel it too. I suppose it has to do with both the geographic and cultural phenomenology of the place. Out here you see the edge. If you cross the water in any direction, you will hear a different language, see different birds, read different books. There are many bizarre similarities between Iceland and Cyprus, but this is not one; in Cyprus we share many aspects of our language and culture with another land mass, not too far away. Once upon a time Iceland would not have been so unique. But these days it is a rare thing, when both the language and geography of a place are bordered on all sides by a sea that stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. There is something seductive about this singularity. It seems to offer the fantasy of the umbilical unity of Shinar, a land before Babel.
In 2018 I fell in love with an Icelandic man, an experience which refracted me to myself. It is not uncommon that the encounter with a lover causes me to see myself in a new light, but it is normally precisely that, that a new light is being shed on me, and I want to bathe in it. I want to acquire – to learn, to embody, to internalise – what the other has. Not to be like the other, but to also have what they have, like a magpie or a bird of paradise gathering trinkets for their nest. But this love was different. In this love he was a prism to my light, which shone forcefully bright and split itself into a rainbow, so that I could see, suddenly, painfully, mournfully, just how much I already am.
From where I am sitting I can imagine, in good weather, seeing the island to which you fled last June, to escape both our troubled togetherness and your own demons, which seemed to haunt you most at home, where you are surrounded by yourself. You went there, to invisible Flatey, to write a book about things that are disappearing. I always found it paradoxical that you lamented the disappearance of old things, like baby naming customs, and the introduction of new ones, like the Alaskan lupine. Paradoxical because sadness and lamentation are your colours, they identify you. Without your sadness you would be something entirely different, invisible even. And so you depend for your identity on the loss that your writing laments.
Some years ago I wrote about loss and printed it in a small book bound in olive-green linen, which I assembled with my own hands. There was a line in it you liked, that moved you – each image soft with the glow / of this, the longest / of never ending seasons. This line found its way into your writing last summer, disguised as Icelandic, so that I am now a footnote in the book you wrote while I slept in your bed, on sheets infused with your scent, without you.
Stykkishólmur is a magnifying glass, magnifying my interiority as each action and thought of mine falls onto the ground under the unforgiving sky, with nothing to hide or obscure it. It has become clear that the book (as it was) feels like a pernickety sort of statement about things, and my voice, and song, is the truth, is what I really want to say. And it’s not the text of the songs that is the truth, the truth is not propositional, it is in the form that utters it, in the gathering of my muscles and my body’s knowledge, and in the way the thing is built, through repetition, through sensation, doing a thing so many times and in slightly different ways each time, and what my body likes, it retains, it incorporates. I don’t want to go back into the neurotic space of writing, where everything is immanent, where the creation and execution all happen on the inside, and the page, and the book, are a meagre gesture to externalisation, a token that must be enjoyed privately and exchanged in secret. If I am to write I want to write like I sing, from my body, from my body’s knowledge, vocal, incantatory, I want my words to repeat the words of others, to step into the same and yet a different river and move for a while with the current, the current that is always the same and always different.
I recognise in my thoughts an echo of Socrates’ mistrust of the written word, of a speech that cannot defend itself, is always the same, cannot be replied to, has the attitude of life and yet is silent. As Thamus said to Theuth: not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, not truth, but only the semblance of truth. For Socrates, the written word forecloses rather than unfolds, fixes rather than unlatches. Either/or. And then, of course, I look up from my writing table and see Marguerite sitting at the other end of the room, smiling, looking at me with a gaze that says “so why are you writing?” I haven’t figured out the answer yet, but I suspect it has something to do with the spirit of the act, the air that passes through it, that billows the body. If we catch the right wind we can speak truthfully, for a moment.
What does it mean to have tradition? I have come to an island far, far from my own, with different birds and different grasses and food I can’t afford to eat and which doesn’t appeal to me anyway, and at night when I lay down to sleep I dream of my grandmother’s house and my mother’s cooking, of pastichio, which is not a Greek word but an Italian one, and it means a mess, things thrown together. In my dream it wasn’t made how I like it, but how I have to make it in Yorkshire – with penne or rigatoni instead of Cypriot or Turkish brands of tubular pasta, a kind of long ziti. And she had made four, and I had to choose which one I wanted to eat from. When Anne Carson was here in Stykkishólmur she wrote a poem called ‘Wildly Constant’, in which she speculates on Anna Freud’s statement in your dreams you can have your eggs cooked as perfectly as you want but you cannot eat them. Something has gone awry in my dreams, where my favourite foods are cooked imperfectly, and I have a number of imperfect versions to choose from.
A few months ago I dreamed a similar thing – that I was in a cake shop and could not decide which cake to buy, that I wanted to eat them all, but for some reason I knew it didn’t work that way (not for lack of money or hunger, but some other reason) and that I would have to choose just one. “You cannot eat two cakes at once, two pastichios at once, once cannot be in two places at once, speak two languages at once,” say my dreams. “There can be many of these things but somehow they all have to happen one at a time.” This singularity is troubling.
What does it mean to have tradition? To carry knowledge in your body, sometimes limited, incomplete, not as thorough as the others, but undoubtedly there? Embodied knowledge of the graceful and elaborate dance of exchange. When we perform our traditions we are affirming one another and ourselves. We step out of the facticity of our existence and into exaltation of it. The Greek Orthodox Easter liturgy that last hours into the night sings ‘I am here and you are here, and we will die, but God will not, God lives, God is risen!’
What is it to have tradition, to have language? What is it to know that the prefix ‘a’ is a negation, that you can press it up against death, ‘thanatos’, to make immortal, ‘athanatos’, a cunning trick of language that turns death sunny side-up, the moment in a magic trick when the hand turns supine and there is your token, you have won, you have beat the game. And to know that this same prefix can be affixed to Lethe, the river of forgetting, to make ‘aletheia’, unforgetting – truth. And that this word makes its way into the choreography of presence that is the Easter ritual, in the moment when I send my father a text message, because I don’t want to speak to him on the phone, because it’s too painful, but I want to reach out to him anyway, because he is a source and a carrier of all this that is in me, so I write, at 11pm Icelandic time, which is 2am in Cyprus, “Xristos Anesti!”, Christ is risen, and he writes back the next morning, in Greek characters, «Αληθώς ανέστη!» and I have forgotten why we say this so I look it up, and there’s that word again, that word that Heidegger turned over and over like a rare seashell, aletheia, alethos – truth, truly, verily. So the affirmation has been performed, and we both know that we are here, that we still live, staring out over different seas, with different gods sitting up on the mountains on the horizon, different birds carving the air with their cries. Apart, distant, but each carrying our copy of the key that lets us back in to togetherness.
But is it a copy? Is that the sort of thing we are dealing with, original and copy? No. Tradition has the being of the spoken word – it has its correlates in the written word, the dictionary definition, the form of the letters, the etymology, the cognates and sister words in other languages, use value and context, but its being is not these things, and cannot be reduced to any of them. Like the spoken word (the sung word) that cannot be tethered, that always breathes, always has the same and new air and light passing through and pressing up against the corporeal matter that produces it, as sound or sign, tradition is the moment of poiesis in which it is performed, and in the body’s techniques of and capacity for performance.
My father and I communicate bilingually. He speaks Greek (mostly) and I speak English (always). Although he is from Greece (born in Crete and raised in Athens), in recent years he has started incorporating words from the Cypriot language into his speech, such as δαμέ / dame for εδώ / edo, ‘here’, or his more convoluted adaptation of Cypriot εν τζιαι / en je for δεν είναι να / den einai na, meaning roughly ‘it’s not that…’, as when providing further explanation for something; this he adapts to εν κε / en kai, because the characteristic Cypriot pronunciation of the written letter κ / k as a j is a step too far for him, it seems. He does not really code-switch, it’s more that his speech is here and there peppered with Cypriotness, always unmistakably passing through the filter of his Greekness. It seems to reflect a general softening in him that this has started to happen only recently, in the last few years, despite the fact that he has lived in Cyprus since 1991.
Code-switching is engrained in me at a more or less fundamental level, despite my inflexibility when speaking to my father. I am bidialectical in both my familial languages. In the case of English, this is because my mother spoke a variety of British English, while I was educated in a school with a U.S. curriculum and predominately U.S. and Canadian staff. At school I was in a minority of students with any affiliation to the U.K. (there were two of us, I believe) and for most of my secondary education I had one accent for my school life and another one for my home life. At some point at around age sixteen I began to feel uncomfortable with this, and started to reverse, one at a time, some of the more obvious adjustments I had made to my speech. /kænt/ for /kɑːnt/, that sort of thing. My peers immediately picked up on this, of course, and took pleasure in mocking and imitating me. But by then I felt I had a secure enough position in our little society to be able to cope with being marked as somehow other. I was safely in on the joke, rather than the butt of it. It only took about five or six years to find this security.
The school I attended belongs to Esol Education, an enterprise that is the offspring of a bizarre marriage between capitalism and post-colonialism, owning private schools (charging substantial yearly tuition fees) in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Hong Kong, Egypt, Cyprus and Lebanon. The organisation claims to “effectively integrate a local context with high quality international curricula”, but the history, language and culture of both Cyprus and Greece were entirely absent from the curriculum I followed. I studied U.S. history, the Chinese revolution, the Mexican Civil War, the entire 20th century history of Russia in excruciating detail, both world wars, the Spanish Civil War, 19th century European nationalism, German and Italian unification – but no one told me the first thing about the circumstances around the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, or the five centuries of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot intercommunal living – at times peaceful, at times deeply troubled – that preceded this event. I studied French instead of Greek, acquiring an extensive analytical understanding of the French tenses, while the complex case structure of my parents’ mother tongue remained a thing I navigated through intuition and imitation. Just two kilometres from the classroom where I sat studying French was a border dividing both the town and the island, bestowing on Nicosia the dubious honour of being the only divided capital in Europe. But no one taught me about this either. Sometimes I meet other alumni of English-speaking international schools around the world. I often recognise them quite easily. They carry the same nowhereness about them.
Even the name of the city I grew up in is haunted by ambiguity. The Greek name Λευκωσία / Lefkosia is of doubtful origin; some sources say that it comes from λεύκα or λεύκη / lefka or lefki – the Greek name for the poplar trees that apparently once lined the city. Other sources say that Lefkosia was a siren, the daughter of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, and the river god Achelous. The city is indeed built on a river, Πηθκιάς / Pithkias in Cypriot or Πεδιαίος / Pedieos in Greek, which originates in the Troodos Mountains, close to the Machairas Monastery. The English name Nicosia is derived from Nicosie, which seems (no one is sure) to be a corruption of the Greek name Lefkosia by the French-speaking rulers of Cyprus, who acquired the island when Richard I foisted it on Guy de Lusignan in 1192, after a few tiresome and expensive years of trying to subdue local revolts against his rule. The reason for their peculiar misnomination is entirely unclear. There is a ‘Nicosia’ in Sicily, perhaps they had them confused? In any case, the name persisted through centuries of the island changing hands, and was retained by the British in the period of colonial rule. Cyprus became independent in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1995 (when I was nine) that government officials decided to end the 35-year practice of referring to the capital city as Nicosia in the Latin script and Λευκωσία / Lefkosia in the Greek script. Officials decided that in order to ease the transition, the city’s name would appear for a time as Lefkosia followed by Nicosia in brackets. There was no decision on the duration of this period of double-naming in the Latin script, but one official said ‘until people get used to the new name’. It is now 2019, and I am still getting used it. If I am speaking English, referring to my home town as Lefkosia feels like pretence, while referring to it as Nicosia feels like betrayal.