The shapes of Lesvos


Lesbos, or Lesvos. Shaped, as written by Odysseas Elytis, like a platanus leaf, which “some god, in order to have his fun, severed and blew away in the middle of the ocean”. I see more of a resemblance with a fig leaf. A romantic symbol picked up by tourist brochures, conjuring up images of late Mediterranean summers, softness and sweetness. There’s also a part biblical, part political metaphor in there about how a continent or nation uses its satellite islands as stopgaps, or to cover up its cracks. I resist the temptation to develop this image, given its vulgar implications; there are many more possible shapes to be seen. A moth, a tent, a lifevest… and if you zoom into the northern coast, a boat touching down on land, with a head popping out.

According to some sources, Aristotle and his wife Pythias arrived in Lesvos as political refugees in 345 B.C., from across the Edremit Gulf, fleeing the upheaval of Assos following the assassination of ruler Hermias, Pythias’ father or uncle. Lesvos’ symbolism as a haven for refugees continues through the ages. It is said that over half the population of Lesvos descend from the Greek exodus from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna, today’s İzmir. A legacy that the new generations have not chosen to forget, particularly in Sykaminéa, one of the villages closest to the Ayvalık coast, and a very literal beacon of contemporary hospitality.

The poem below, part of a series on island shapes, should have been written two years ago, following a visit to Lesvos for a conference on borders. Whilst travelling around the island I filled half of a little red New Internationalist notebook, but lost it on a train a few weeks later. Hence, perhaps, the fixation on names, words and letters regrettably erased.

Maltese original first, followed by the English adaptation.

Lesbos S

Il-forom ta’ Lesvos

Baħrija żebbuġija
bejn tittajjar u titterter
fi mnifsejn id-debba tal-Anatolja.
L-għeruq u z-zokk imqaċċat
ta’ siġra ppetrifikata,
kull ċirku jirrifletti
millenju mewġ mellies.
Lambda mnaqqxa fil-ġebel,
xi ftit mittiekla:
Lesbos, bil-b,
bħall-baħar ibaqqan il-blat,
jew Lesvos, bil-v,
bħar-riefni jvenvnu
fil-golfi u fil-fliegi.

Iċ-ċattra sorġiet fuq iċ-ċagħak –
bejn Tsónia u Sykaminéa
tisponta ras b’miljun wiċċ.
345 Q.K., Aristotli u Pythias
jaħarbu t-taqlib ta’ Assos
wara l-qtil ta’ missierha.
1922 W.K., Ariadne,
Vasilikí, Yiannis,
imkeċċija mill-ħuġġieġa ta’ Smyrna.
Mill-2011 sal-lum, Azra,
Badawi, Jamal, Dunya,
f’kull ċattra abġad sħiħ,
fost alfabeti oħra,
jirkbu l-gomma
biex ma jitħassrux biċ-ċomb.

Lesvos, tripied tal-fotoġurnalisti
imdaħħal sew fir-ramel
bil-lest għall-ispettaklu.
Lesvos, tinda ma tingħalaqx
minn quddiem jew minn wara,
daqqa mogħtija n-nar,
daqqa mtaqqla bil-borra,
daqqa tberraħ il-gwienaħ, ittir,
u teħel mal-fildiferru.
Lesvos, ras ħoxna ta’ mopp
timsaħ l-ittri mill-art
biex tlaħlaħhom ‘l hemm,
forsi jonqsu ftit in-numri
fuq l-ispreadsheet
tal-Ministeru tal-Intern.

F’Efthaloú, f’Paliós, f’Mitilini,
ġakketta tas-salvataġġ
mitluqa fuq iċ-ċagħak,
titgerrem minn baħrija,
tikxef karti tal-gazzetta:
stampa ta’ ġemgħa tiġri,
tbassir tat-temp, bil-mappa msaħħba,
u fuq sfond aħmar u iswed,
kelma bajda, Hürriyet,
niedja, imċappsa,
u mkemmxa sew.

Map of Lesbos by Giacomo Franco (1597)

The Shapes of Lesvos

An olive-green moth
fluttering or shuddering
below the nostrils of the Anatolian mare.
The roots and stump
of a petrified tree,
each ring reflecting
a thousand years of incoming waves.
A lambda sculpted in stone,
slightly eroded:
Lesbos, with a b,
like the billows battering the beach,
or Lesvos, with a v,
like the Vardar winds
venting over the valleys.

The craft disembarked onto the pebbles –
between Tsónia and Sykaminéa
emerges a head with a million faces.
345 B.C., Aristotle and Pythias
fleeing the turmoil of Assos
after the slaying of her father.
1922 A.D., Ariadne,
Vasilikí, Yiannis,
ousted by the fire of Smyrna.
From 2011 to date, Azra,
Badawi, Jamal, Dunya,
in each boat an entire abjad,
among other alphabets,
journeying on rubber
so as not to be erased by lead.

Lesvos, a photojournalist’s tripod
steadied in the sand
in preparation for the spectacle.
Lesvos, a tent that will not close
on either side,
now set ablaze, now laden with snow,
now opening its wings, taking off,
now stuck to the barbed wire.
Lesvos, the head of a mop
rubbing letters off the ground
to rinse them away,
and perhaps subtract a few numbers
off the spreadsheet
of the Ministry of the Interior.

In Efthaloú, in Paliós, in Mytilene,
a lifevest abandoned on the pebbles,
chewed by a moth,
revealing crumpled newspaper:
the image of a running crowd,
a weather report, with a cloudy map,
and on a red and black background,
a white word, Hürriyet,
sodden, smudged,
and full of creases.

Lesvos SE tipTurkey in background

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