Monday, October 3, 2022

Writing for the Community: Penelope Karageorge’s Poetry: Belonging to New York City and Lemnos

After living in the United States for more than 35 years, I now connect with two cultures. Writing in two languages, I find meaning in my American, Greek American, and Greek lives. When I am in Columbus, I miss my Greek friends. When I find myself in Thessaloniki, I miss the OSU library. To be a Greek American is to live the complexities of dual affiliation.

To understand this complexity, I regularly turn to fellow travelers who write about their Greek American journeys. I particularly love reading diaspora poetry for its power to evoke the nuances and subtleties of dual belonging.

In this piece, I turn to the poetry of Penelope Karageorge. A resident of Manhattan who spends her summers in her grandmother’s home on the island of Lemnos, Karageorge utilizes both the American cosmopolis—New York City—and the ancestral village—Lichna—as settings to explore questions of belonging. Her insights spark reflection. Both NYC and Lichna are felt acutely as homes but are not idealized. They may offer deeply moving connections but also frustrating experiences.

New York generates ambivalence. It is both an exhilarating and challenging place to live. Everyday experiences, like riding the elevator, can be suffocating, straining one’s sense of private space:

“Life instantly becomes small as a steel box, / body pulled up straight, fork in the drawer, / and nothing extra’s allowed in, nose to back, / clutching pocketbook, only eyes move.”

In her “New York Love Letter: P.S. You’re Crazy,” the poet expresses—stanza after stanza—her grievances about the city, only to conclude about its power to still pull her to it:

“Talk about egocentricity. Actors. poets, / painters, kooks bulge out / . . . / New York you overdo “new.” New. New. New. / You make me nervous. /. . . / Your personality is driving me up the wall. / Adjust, please. / If you do, I suppose I might leave you.”

Spending time in the ancestral village can also be challenging. A Greek American may know the language and have a general understanding of Greek culture, but decoding Greek everyday interactions may strain one’s sense of belonging:

“… cousin Emmanuel comes to / borrow my step-ladder to inspect his newly / acquired house for water damage, / . . . / Or just anxious, perhaps, off-balance / about life away from Summit, New Jersey. / He knows the language, but with his American / psyche, can’t read the signs. I warn him / to be careful on the ladder. He could fall— / and tumble into a Greek nightmare, or dream.”

The Lemnos ancestral home, which the poet inherited from her grandmother Sevasti, looms large in Karageorge’s poetry. The home still bears traces—albeit feign (smells in linens)—of the deceased grandmother, compelling the poet’s desire for tangible connections with her beloved yiayia.

“When I return to my Greek house in the village / of Lichna, the stones await me. / I swallow them with salt and greens and weep. / Yiayia, I live in your house. Exile. Reject. / Abandoned by your husband, you embroidered tears / into linen. . . . / Yiayia, I came to rescue you, . . . / [you] who was forced to cook for occupying Nazis, / who died alone on my birthday while / I crayoned pictures of you in Newburgh, New York.”

“In my grandmother’s house / I play with ghosts, / lick baclava off windowsills. / Embroidered dreams / weave and unweave. / . . . / Yia yia yia yia yia yia / I’ll wear your gold-rimmed / glasses, and drink / from your bittersweet cup.” (“Baklava Dream.”)

Karageorge’s poetry explores a powerful dimension of the diaspora experience: connecting with more than one place. In her verse, belonging to the ancestral village involves an emotional connection with a beloved ancestor and frustrations due to cross-cultural misunderstandings. Belonging to NYC can be intense but an experience dotted by the absence of beloved relatives and the stimulating senses and culture of the island. Belonging to the Greek village and the American cosmopolis is always partial but enticingly powerful.

Yiorgos Anagnostou
Ethos Magazine, Autumn 2022

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