Foreign Cities, 1
Outside Vera, groves of olive trees dot a landscape dusty and otherwise barren. The bus that takes you into the heart of the city is an accordion bus with announcements made in an unpardonable tongue. The city has layers of history, but someone had to choose which layer to display. The sidewalks have random slabs of glass you can peer through to see excavated buildings from 100 B.C. You feel unsteady walking on glass sidewalks. In cathedrals, the devout kiss the icons of saints, leaving lip smudges on the framed glass. In cafés, wine is cheaper than water but you can dine with the ancient columns in view. The history that is told is more Judeo-Christian than Asian. There are more archaic torsos than pickpockets, more taxis than painted vases. The stream where the North Wind raped a river nymph lies buried under the orange line.
Foreign Cities, 2
Sometimes when you are traveling and have that sense that you’ve forgotten something, it’s nothing. Other times, it’s your wallet on the train, your jacket on the bed, your power charger in the outlet. Your name, your heart. The heart that tries to forget. The calming heartbeat. The eyes of St. Cecilia—blue disks on a white plate. Sunglasses and umbrellas left behind at the beach bar of Dara, a tiny town. The whole point of visiting is the sea. Sunbathing and swimming in the sea. The beach is silky smooth and pleasant to walk on in the morning before the sun bakes the sand. In the nearby taberna, you eat moussaka, pastitsio, and the owner’s big white rabbit hops under tables when she’s not in the shopping cart parked next to the entrance. Everyone tries to take a photo with the fluffy bunny. Meals last three hours and end with a sweet dessert wine, some fruit. As you stroll back to the beach, you have that sensation you’ve left something behind. Your beach hat, which you must walk back and retrieve. And more importantly, you’ve forgotten the clock, keys, jewels of blood. You’re as empty as the waves that will lull you to sleep.
Foreign Cities, 3
A young boy walks by pressing his shirt over his nose while adults ignore the stench hovering over the barely-moving urban river, packed with tourists, conventioneers. The stench of river and restaurant clean-outs oppresses in Santiago’s afternoon heat. The smell masked by the steak house and the café’s tortillas and beans. The sense of smell dulled by margaritas and beer. Even the bright orange pomegranate pompoms are wilting. Homeless people hold signs. “Anything Appreciated.” One man randomly shouts out curses. “Fuck you, bitch.” You do not take it personally. Posters advertise a jazz festival at a nearby park. You consider walking over, but remain alone in the cold, dark room overlooking tall palms. Named after a saint, the city is less heaven than purgatory. The Spanish missions long abandoned, the city’s gods are the tall basketball players covered in tattoos. Buildings have been re-purposed, the brewery now a museum, the quarry now a shopping mall. The military commands a presence. You are awakened by reveille and cannot remember what you dreamed or what drew you to visit.
Foreign Cities, 4
When you arrive in Anya, cobblestone streets wind around shops and taverns inside the medieval walls. No cars are allowed. The moat has been dry thousands of years. It was never filled with water. Like other port towns, cats slink under tavern chairs, waiting for scraps of overpriced seafood. The pistachio gelato always sells out. The melody from Zorba can be heard into the wee hours when men link arms to dance near the lighthouse and old men and women sit outside open doors, loudly debating who should be the next saint. Artists have painted a mural on Town Hall depicting the bloodiest battles. Over three hundred pirates have been executed, but the seas still crawl with them. The town pretends the problem is under control, but in fact it’s an illusion. The whole town is a permanent movie set, an illusion. Zorba is filmed day-in and day-out. If you visit, you can sign up to be an extra, can watch the sand waves galloping on fire in the sunlight. Mesmerizing gray-green-blue of stirred up sand, and the aqua blue past the buoys marking the swim area. Dark steel blue out to sky where there seems to be a line of light grey on the horizon. If there’s such a thing as horizon between water and sky.
Town Beach, Split
The teething baby eats rocks. Her mother scolds,
“Ne, ne, ne.” The teething baby’s name
is Lela. Crowded on the beach, sunbathing women,
with power to caress a scraped knee or warm thigh,
lead a lover to bed by the hand. Here by the sea
everyone smiles at children running and screaming
into the cold Adriatic. People eat apricots and leave
pits in the sand. The huge red billboard is for the local
beer, “Karlovačko,” bottle crowned like a king. “Spasilac”
says the lifeguard’s chair, and I think “spastic,” like baby
Lela choking on rocks her mother tries to dig out of her mouth.
The Croatian all around me is white noise
like the waves and screams and pebbly sand. Universal
language is touch and baby talk. Lela’s mother
says “Yummy,” and hands Lela a teething biscuit. Couples
stroll up and down the shore holding hands. Bars play
rock and roll. I order a cappuccino, distracted by English
lyrics that drag my thoughts up the stairway of Led
Zeppelin and dump me in the sea. I sink to the bottom
where sardele caress the nape of my neck, the small
of my back, nibble my ears like a lover I’ve forgotten,
children I’ve left behind, grape seeds I’ve buried in the sand.
The Gray Lady
The tide up, she took a curve too fast, drove into the Atlantic. As we drifted out, she said, “This is no good,” so there was nothing to do but swim out the windows and watch the car catch the Gulf Stream to California. My job was to pick up broken glass reflecting sunlight on the Nantucket beach like it was my fault. I wasn’t even driving, but there is no accounting for guilt these days. Later, drinking chardonnay by the blue and pink hydrangeas, we agreed it was an accident. We were close to disaster, but swam out the windows. With no other clothes, no shoes, we knew we had nothing to lose, so in town we bought black linen dresses and shot photos against the pink and orange sunset. It was the day Princess Di died, our hems dripping wet, the fog rolling in.
Note: Sailors called Nantucket “little gray lady” because the island was often shrouded in fog.
Early versions of these poems were inspired by travels to Slovenia, Croatia, and Greece in the summer of 2017, after a magical Vermont College of Fine Arts writing residency in Ŝkofja Loka and Ljubljana. During my two months of travel, I was steeped in history and mythology and poetry, surrounded by the influence of ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, as well as the bustle of people in markets, beaches, museums, and ancient sites. The “Foreign Cities” poems were inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, in which the cities are fantastical and don’t exist on a map. “The Gray Lady,” is a poem that weaves a more recent dream with a past visit to Nantucket, which sailors called “the little gray lady,” because the island was often shrouded in fog.
Above: "The poet in Dubrovnik and Split.
Susan Ayres is a poet, lawyer, and translator. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing with a Concentration in Translation from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a PhD in Literature from Texas Christian University. Her work has appeared in Sycamore Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Worth and teaches at Texas A&M University School of Law.