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For an interview with Aliki in this issue.


For Aliki's paper on A Poetics of Witness


This talk was originally presented at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in Vancouver, B.C. March 31, 2005


How Eva Victoria Perera Learned To Fly with Chagall




by Aliki Barnstone


My language is the eye. —Marc Chagall


      You may think what I am about to say is a strange way to begin. Aliki Barnstone did not write this talk. Her heteronym Eva Victoria Perera did. Perera is an imaginary poet whom I, Aliki, created. My friend Eva, a Sephardic Jew, was born in Thessaloniki in 1917. Until 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, Thessaloniki once had a large and thriving Jewish community. For more than 2000 years the city was so shaped by the Jews that it was known as the “Mother of Israel” and “the Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Paul lectured there in the Roman Synagogue. It also was the seat of the Sephardim, who settled there after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Eva will speak about her friendship with Marc Chagall—who was a Russian Jew and a Holocaust survivor—and how his painting generates her poems. Here's Eva's talk.


* * *



      I first met Chagall in 1952 when he visited Greece, three years after the end of the Greek Civil War. He gave a talk to the Jewish Community in Athens, and I attended. Some us from Thessaloniki survived the Shoah by buying false Christian identities and leaving our city. After the occupation, my family and I could not bear to live again in Thessaloniki—what was there to return to? At the talk Chagall read a poem that “appeared in his mind,” on June 4, 1946, when he walked off the ship that carried him from America to liberated France.
Only that land is mine, which dwells in my soul.
Like a native without papers, I walk into it.
It sees my sadness and my loneliness.
It puts me to sleep and covers me with a fragrance-stone.
Orchards blossom within me, my invented flowers,
My own streets.
Only: there are no houses.
They were ruined since my childhood. . .
Their inhabitants stray in my air.
They seek a dwelling؏they live in my soul.
Hence I smile when my sun shines a bit,
Or I cry, like a quiet rain at night.
Once both faces
Were covered with a love-shine
Night and Space. . .
Now I imagine:
Even when I walk back
I go forward to the road of high gates—
Beyond them, wide steppes spread out,
Where exhausted thunders spend the night
And broken lightnings.

( Tr. Barbara and Benjamin Harshaw)
Then when there was peace, going about my daily life, walking to the market, smelling the bounty from the Greek soil freshly harvested, the eggplant and zucchini, greens and lemons, peaches and oranges, or when I was cooking a meal, or sweeping the floor, I found myself listening to the silence of the dead. They spoke to me through the scents of food because they had starved. Or perhaps like the gods they were nourished by the steam of our meals. As I cleaned, I saw them in dust and ashes because the beloved dead were dust and ashes, with no tombstones or graves. Slowly I began to write poems again because as Chagall put it, the inhabitants of the ruined houses, “stray in my air / They seek a dwelling—they live in my soul.” Here are some lines from my poem, “1949,” into which some of Chagall's angels flew:
           Too often in the aftermath, when I opened the shutters
in the morning, angels crowded the sunlight.
I had to turn my face and close my eyes for a moment—
how could I help it? They were too bright and too thin,
striped cloth fluttering against the blue numbers on their skin.

Sometimes when I bent to put on my shoes, I'd find them
in uneasy sleep. There between the tongue and the laces,
there between the ground and the wire fences,
they were chilled and curled up, knees to chin,
among their crumpled wings, their translucent wings.
How could I put my shoes on then?

       Chagall, a painter of witness who celebrates life, creates an iconography of a Holocaust survivor's psyche. Chagall said, “Concerning the so-called 'literature' in my work I sometimes feel that in the use of pictorial elements I am more abstract than Mondrian or Kandinsky. . . What I call 'abstract' is something that rises spontaneously from a gamut of psychic and plastic contrasts, bringing to the picture and to the eye of the spectator realizations of the unknown objects” (78). To enter his painterly realm is not necessarily like reading literature in the narrative sense, for his canvases—replete with color, panorama, surreal visual juxtapositions—unite the internal and external worlds, memory and the present moment, which is full of loss. I want to say that in his work I dwell in the architecture of dream, which is out of time, but that is not exactly right. I agree with Chagall when he says, “I am against the terms 'fantasy' and 'symbolism.' Our whole inner world is reality, perhaps even more real than the apparent world” (77).
      In our conversations he pointed out that “the war . . . destroyed not just cultural and material values, but also internal humanism” (112). While he expressed his fear, he also exhorted me to be brave and to counter evil with our creative power “that can first save the human . . . then rebuild the ruined cities” (112). And when I rolled my eyes and clicked my tongue, the Greek gesture for no, and turned my head toward the wall, he said, “there is too much calm among us, people have got quiet and are hiding in the corners . . . Let us light the lanterns and illuminate our faces” (112).
      His image of the illuminated faces made me recall with anger that when the Greek Orthodox Christians light candles before the icons, and kiss the images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, they kiss the faces of Jews. We both grew up in Christian orthodox countries, where the icon is omnipresent, not just in churches, but in homes, shops, and restaurants. The icon, with its flattened and disproportionate images, eschews verisimilitude in favor of portraying the spiritual. In “White Crucifixion,” as Jean-Michel Foray observes, surrounding the crucifixion are “events from Jewish history: the destruction of the temple, the burning of the scrolls, the lamentation of the elders . . . the figures populating the work [are] Jewish . . . As in Christian crucifixions the Latin inscription INRI (an acronym for 'Jesus of Nazereth, King of the Jews') appears in above Jesus' head, but a Jewish prayer shawl takes the place of his loincloth and a menorah burns at the foot of the cross” (178).
      As Marc and I talked, I saw I wanted to honor the memory of the dead by creating with words the plasticity of the people, the culture, and the Jewish city that was obliterated by the Holocaust. Later I wrote a poem about the destruction of the two-thousand-year-old Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki. Every piece of marble and brick was used as building material: the marble of the tombstones was used to repair churches damaged in the Italian air raids, as doorsteps of homes, to construct roads, and to build swimming pools for the Germans. I use the Christian icon, as Chagall does, to unite Judaism and Christianity by showing that Christianity is a development of Judaism, and to criticize Christian anti-Semitism. Here are a few lines from that poem:
In the churches with our tombstones mortared in the walls,
let the priests speak in tongues and let them sing

Greek prayer in Hebrew. When the pious kiss the icons,
let their lips touch the lips of great-grandmother Miriam,

while, haloed in gold-leaf and hammered silver, Uncle Isaac
smiles his gentle half-smile. Let the painted wood, the polished

and sweet flesh of baby Jesus be the image of cousin Jak at eleven months,
son of Anna and David, born and died in 1912.

My poems arise from a descent into wordlessness, into the sensory and visual, which can be as fearful and painful as it is joyful. I have come to regard naming the physical world as preservation and as memory. I wrote this homage to Chagall in part to ask, How else can we survivors be redeemed?
            Red Picnic, 1946

We spread our picnic on a red blanket on the beach
and our daughter plays in the shallows where Chagall's
paintbrush mixes ultramarine with sand.

You hold my hand and I feel my body rising
like a kite above us, above you and me
and our Elefthería's joyous white splash

and the red tile roofs of the village grouped
across the hills that embrace the beach.
There are no eyes peering out from the eaves.

There are no houses turned upside down.
There's the carafe of burgundy on the red blanket
And just a little food. A tomato. An end of bread.

So much beauty, to name it feels almost like peace,
like sorrow to name it, too, as if my words
could save the picture of you smiling at us

or the wine warm in my throat, making my hip
curve upward just like your red grin, or my violet dress
fluttering against my skin like many wings,

or our daughter Elefthería in a ruby bathing suit,
her pale fingers waving from the sea,
the deep paint still shining blue and wet.
       In the poem, I have tried to depict ordinary, domestic life as beautiful and strange and to create an ominous quality in the negatives, “There are no eyes peering out from the eaves // There are no houses turned upside down.” These frightening images come from several of Chagall's paintings, particularly “The Green Eye,” a pastoral twilight landscape, with a bright yellow moon shining above a woman who milks a grinning blue cow. In the eaves of the farmhouse the evil eye of surveillance dominates the canvas, as if to say even the most peaceful scene can be invaded and destroyed. In my “Picnic” I am trying to reassure myself that this scene of simple familial happiness is safe. I also want implicitly to ask the questions, “Why them and not me? Why do I get to have a picnic after the war, when others were taken away, their homes pillaged?” I worry that too much beauty may diminish the Holocaust. But I also worry that the images of the sick and starving, the piles of corpses objectify those who suffered by erasing their subjectivity—which is precisely what the Germans sought to do with the Final Solution. Those who were sent to the death camps were robbed of life and the pleasures of life, to which they had a right. In my poems, I want to paint a full picture of an annihilated life, people, and city, and such a portrait includes not just the terror and death of the Shoah, but beauty and love. In Chagall's work I find a way to mourn, witness, and celebrate. In his painting, “Around Her,” the lovely Bella, looks out with dark eyes, which somehow are both profound and vacant, as I suppose memories of the dead must be. She sits on a cloud. Beside her the city hovers in a bubble. Above Bella, gliding on bowers, are the bride and groom. The bride's veil slashes the canvas in a white diagonal, like a shaft of light or a sign of danger. Everything is floating, unstable, except the artist's body which is grounded in the shadowy blue corner. His cocked head is upside-down. The psyche is upside-down when I see the dead, “stray into my air,” seeking a dwelling in my soul. Then my hand moves.


***


Works Cited

Jean-Michel Foray on “The White Crucifixion” in Marc Chagall, San Francisco
       Museum of Modern Art, published on the occasion on view at
      the SFMOMA from July 26 to Nov. 4, 2003.

Benjamin Harshaw, ed. Marc Chagall on Art and Culture. Stanford, CA:
      Stanford University Press, 2003.


***


Biographical note on Eva Victoria Perera,
An Imaginary Poet created by Aliki Barnstone

Eva Victoria Perera (1917-2001) was the daughter of a well-to-do jeweler and importer, Jacobo Angel, and a pianist, Sophia. Jacobo was a descendent of the Sephardic Jews who came to Thessaloniki after 1492. He met Sophia in Vienna where she was studying piano. Jacobo traveled widely and was passionate about the arts and intellectual inquiry. An unconventional man, he rejected subservient roles for women and was attracted to Sophia's strong will, humor, and musical talent. Both parents were ambitious for Eva, their only child. With their encouragement, Eva began to write and paint when she was very young. She devoted herself to poetry and considered herself only an amateur painter. Yet she was greatly influenced by the visual arts; she felt a particular kinship to the iconography of Marc Chagall.

In 1927 the Angel family hired a governess for Eva, Hope Parker, a grand-niece of the fiery Transcendentalist preacher and reformer, Theodore Parker. Fascinated by ancient Greek culture, Hope had came to Greece on a spiritual quest and as a rebellion against her New England roots. While in Thessaloniki, Hope fell in love with a charismatic Rembetis, who abandoned her when she became pregnant. When the Angel family took her in, she had an infant daughter, Ariana. As a result, Eva was trained in classical Greek and European literature, and more unusually for a Greek, in American literature. Through her mother, she heard classical music; through Parker, the underground music of Rembetika. Eva was fluent in Greek, French, Ladino (old Spanish), and English.

In 1937, Eva married Isaak Perera, a piano student of her mother's. In 1939, their daughter, Elefthería was born. Isaak became an architect, but he was a talented pianist. The young couple lived with Eva's parents after their marriage. As Eva writes in her poem “The Piano,” their home was filled with the music of Isaak and Sophia, until the family fled Thessaloniki.

When the Germans invaded Greece in 1942, Jacobo had the wherewithal to buy the immediate family false Christian identities. He took them all to the island of Andros, where they were taken in by Christian friends, the Haralambos family. Andros is a green island, full of gardens. Though all of Greece was pillaged of food by the Germans, and many starved to death, the families managed to grow and keep enough to stay alive and relatively healthy.

After the war, Eva's family returned to Thessaloniki. Nearly all their friends and relatives were dead; 50,000 Jews from the city known as “the Mother of Israel, ” perished in Auschwitz. Eva, Isaak, and Elefthería found the ghosts too painful and they left Thessaloniki to settle in Athens, where Isaak established his practice. Eventually, they bought land on Andros, and built a home there; the island that had been their refuge during the war became their sanctuary from the city. Eva wrote poetry all her life, though like Cavafy she never printed her work for the public, only for her friends (who included some of Greece's greatest poets of the twentieth century, George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos). After Elefthería grew up, became an architect, and joined her father's practice, Eva spent most of her time on the island, though she traveled occasionally. She met and befriended Chagall in 1952, on his first visit to Greece. She spent her last years devoted to “growing an Eden” in her garden, where she loved to have outdoor dinner parties for her family and friends. She died among her fruit trees and flowers on August 15, 2001. In 2003, a volume of her collected poems was published in Greece, edited by her daughter, Elefthería, and her granddaughter, Sophia.