Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On The Altar of Greece - Donna J. Gelagotis Lee (Gival Press)

Today's book of poetry:
On The Altar Of Greece.  Donna J. Gelagotis Lee.  Gival Press.  Arlington, Virginia.  2006.


Donna J. Gelagotis Lee's On The Altar Of Greece is a series of Polaroid camera shots of the blue-sky blue-sea wonder of Greece.  Lee turns living in Greece into a poetical travelogue - but do not think white beaches and late night ouzo.

Lee is a full commitment type poet.

She inhabits Greece like it is a marriage between her and the land itself.  Every day she learns some new thing about custom, tradition, language, feral cats, filia/"friendship", the way of things in Greece and the way of things in the rest of the world.

Not Another Ordinary Day

The pots clang against
          the outdoor sink -- the water runs.
It's morning -- these are its sounds.
         Voices from the footpath. The sea breeze
carrying the donkey's bray and farmer's call
          of the day's produce --
melitzanes, maroulia, tomates, lemonia.
          The milkmaid greets me
in the hallway -- her wide girth takes up
          the space between me and my mother-in-law,
but her smile relates the news of a story --
          ehis megalo mouni*
I'm struck by the translation, thinking
          I misunderstood, but her face
reveals the truth. And I wonder,
          How does she know?
Her eyes never leave me and then
          she touches my arm,
as if to verify what she already knew,
          her familiarity almost violative,
but the ease of these women checks
          any ill feeling, and I brush it away, as I do
the hair on my face -- a simple
          act, though the words remain.
And I begin to wonder how this woman
          who milks goats knows about vaginas--
I eye my husband with slight suspicion,
          then quickly erase the thought. The intimacy
of the women of the village has surprised me--
          they reveal their sex lives
as casually as they would
          a daily routine -- and sex
often is, a neighbor explains, routine,
          obligatory. Gamos, as one young Greek man
told me, means wedding,
          and the slang word gamo, to screw.
Having children, the milkmaid explains,
          makes a woman's life worthwhile.
Big teat, lots of milk: big vagina,
          lots of babies? Nice to know I meet her approval,
as I am still childless -- this justification
          proffered, that I would have a good mouni.

* You have a big vagina (mouni: slang for vulva, vagina, female genitalia).


Sometimes Lee learns more than she bargained for, more than she wants to know.  But she shares.   As a fearless woman and poet, Lee walks that jagged shore as sure-footed as a barefoot Helena, born to the rocks and sea.

Many of the poems explore the quiet work of woman.  Through these poems Lee sees and shares the essential labour of community and how so much of it comes from the uncelebrated labour, the worn hands of women and girls.

It would have been helpful to know

that winters on the island
seize the breath and hurl it
over the sea, which
sends it back again to lodge
in the throat. It would have
been helpful to understand
bitter autumn, its fruit laboring
on the tree, fat, black-
blue, the strange green of spring
still lingering. In the fields women
curl, down on their knees,
combing the earth for olives,
branches swaying overhead
from force, the arms of men,
the arms of trees, all strength
and heaving. It would have been
helpful to know summer's
undertow and the tenuousness
of the black sea urchin,
only its needles moving with the waves
but ready to release. While I ate,
iodine-red stained my fingers,
the caviar of the sea urchin
rolled on my tongue like clear
words, raw antiseptic. I
scooped them out. It would have
been helpful to know
how to hold the probing
needles back, to keep them
from stinging.


On The Altar Of Greece alternates between lovely and breathtaking technicolour moments of a tourist's island journey and a seat of the pants, black dressed, olive permeated daughter of Greece.

Lee has, as much as possible, made herself a natural citizen of her adopted land.

On The Altar Of Greece is probably one the more honest/honed/heartfelt portrayals of real life in Greece that we are likely to see in poetry for a while.  Lee adorns absolutely nothing -- but she does fine and share beauty in the most tranquil and human places.

Woman in Ano Glyfada

Kerchiefed. Tendrils
of silver
touch her face;
she hauls firewood
on her back, lifts
bricks to fill
the shadows
at the base
of her whitewashed home.

Wooden clothespins
wedge my fingers.
Wind hurls sea spray
up the mountain. The sun
places it
on my cheek.

She hesitates,
breeze catching the grape vines
of the trellis, peaches
threatening to fall.
Her eyes
keep their silence
and traverse the boughs
of her tree
where its pears ripen
my balcony.
Doulia, doulia.
Ti na Kanoume?*

Her lips reach back
into a smile,
the weight
of a fallen axe
on the words
I no longer need
to translate.

* Work, work. / What can we do?


Today's book of poetry really liked the hard work Lee did here.  This is a different appreciation of Greece, a different conversation.  This is a conversation that celebrates women, looks at the world they take care of while the rest of us spin around outside, but controlled by the gravity within.  It is likely as close as I will get to a Greek kitchen even though I was transported back to our happy days in Samos and Paros.

I remember watching two cats fighting in an alley behind our room in Samos.  I sat on the porch, in the shade, and drank ice-cold white wine that I had poured out of a 2 litre plastic pop bottle.  There was a little wine shop right at the bottom of our stairs (all of Samos, the city, is on hills around the harbour), where I could get a plastic pop bottle filled for about fifty cents.  A local retsina, crisp and clear, like pine-honey.  I watched those two cats fight, drank the local, saw that blue sea under that blue sky.

Se parakalo - if you please.

On The Altar Of Greece won the 2007 Eric Hoffer Book Award: Notable for Art Category.

It was nominated for:
2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry/Literary Criticism
2007 Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry
2007 Writers Notes Book Award for Art: Poetry
2007 Levis Reading Prize
2006 Pushcart Prize
2006 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award for Poetry
Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry
2006 National Book Award for Poetry
Donna J. Gelagotis Lee
Photo by Alicia Kozikowski (Pryde Brown Photographs)

Donna J. Gelagotis Lee earned a B.A., cum laude, in English and creative writing from Sweet Briar College, where she was a Davison-Foreman scholar. She lived in Athens, Greece, for many years. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly publications, including CALYX: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Feminist Studies, The Massachusetts Review, The Midwest Quarterly, the Seattle Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. 

Lee was a finalist for the 2007 Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize for her poem "Docking at Limnos" ( Her poem "The pines" (published A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments) was nominated by Simmons B. Buntin, editor and publisher of, for the Best of the Net 2007 anthology by Sundress Publications.

"Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s On the Altar of Greece actually does place its reader before, or on, an elevated place where the ceremony of everyday sublime life in Greece plays out. Without resorting to prefabricated classical references we’ve already heard to the nth, she includes us totally in everything she experiences and sharply senses there, the orange-turned-yellow air, corners of walls, the shaded grove of stone men, the dark beach, a thread through looped thread, Poseidon cracking a wave, goat bells, 'the speech unfolding / that flung dice against the white walls / until they wore eyes.' Then, as important, there’s the undertow of her subtle and deft suggestions of how the people in these scenes relate, and of the intriguingly close connection she herself has to them. Ms. Lee shows us a new, vivid, freshly layered world inside an ancient and long-known one. With her eyes, strong mind and solidly classical style of picturing in new terms this historical place turned myth turned real again, the journey of our time at this altar offers us a striking, immense set of views of a world we thought we knew, and still, wonderfully, do know in much richer ways by the end."
—Don Berger, Judge of the 2005 Gival Press Poetry Award, Poet Laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland, and author of Quality Hill and The Cream-Filled Muse

"Award-winning poet and longtime resident of Greece Donna J. Gelagotis Lee presents On the Altar of Greece, a free-verse poetry collection that explores the majesty, venerable history, and wonder of Greece from an American woman's perspective. Poems contemplate mundane aspects of daily life such as food preparation or the relationship between neighbors, as well as holiday celebrations and the taste of simply experiencing a different way of life. An evocative and memorable tribute. Remembering You: 'Gamma, epsilon... / Slowly your name spells itself / to me, my tongue catching the letters / along the contours, bulging through / interior openings that flip the letters / onto their backs. And I have / forgotten what they said to me. / I have forgotten the taste of your alphabet.'"
—Susan Bethany, Midwest Book Review, March 2007


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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