Poems About Greeks and Greece from Stepping Stones

By Alexander Karanikas, Professor of English Emeritus
University of Illinois at Chicago


Diogenes, the wily Greek,
Went out upon the marketplace
With burning lamp and faith
That added to the sun
His Light would find an honest man.

Today he drives a searchlight
Motorized, so huge the sun
Is darkened and eclipsed.
He wants to find a Hercules
To pull the dagger from his back.


Ages have come and gone since Athens reared her sons
Beneath the gaze of Pericles. The years
Of bitter wind and ice have beaten down
The timberlines; the tiny stream
Has nestled deeper in the rock; the soil
Has buried countless generations of the oak.
And yet each year has cut in deeper vein
Her memory upon the heart of man.

Once gaudy Egypt gone, and Babylon,
And where the songs of Homer graced Aegean winds
Great cities like great roses once were new,
Saw springtime, and have since left nothing
But their thorns. Rome fell the friendless
Lion in the night; and Charlemagne, Cromwell,
Kaiser Wilhelm, all these
Empire-builders came to leave a wealth of pain
In human hearts. Yet every year her glory grows,
Makes men think, “If ancient Greece could be so great,
Then surely we shall learn to build Olympia again.”
Today, new Caesars flash their swords, yell commands;
New bloodshed crusts the soil, new tempests
Thunder dropping iron rain. Yet the day will come
When man will shake the dust that clouds him,
Grasps his destiny reclaimed, and make
The world a mighty Athens for all time!


When you listen with an ashen heart
To the voices, voices,
From the restless winds;
And you hear at night, again at dawn,
A chorus of lamenting girls
Lost in the mothering sea;
And when you glimpse our blue-eyed tears
Worn like pearls by the mist
As by a lovely weeping ghost
Haunting empty, empty time;
Think of our dance, the bitter dance
Of the fair ladies of Zalongo,
Of the dead ladies of Zalongo,
Zalongo, Zalongo.

Cry not for us who have cried enough
To make Sahara's endless sand
Bloom like a king's garden in May.
Like roses we wilted,
We women of Zalongo,
Lost wives and mothers,
Daughters of Zalongo,
Who would rather die with our love
Than live with a tyrant
In our home, our land,
By the side of our clear, our Suliot mount.
One by one and one by one
As time kills days and hours
The enemy murdered our brave desires,
Swept down from Pindus slopes
With heroes on his pikes,
And grimly sought our flesh
To quench his lust inflamed.
And two by two and two by two
We climbed with babes at breast,
Singing the song of Zalongo,
To the cliff, the wind-made cliff,
Of Zalongo.

Have we food for a supper of tears
To nurse our little babes?
We have bountiful tears and warm
To feed our hapless babes.
Have we courage to take our lives
On the crown of rain-wet rocks?
We have courage to splash our hearts
On the gleaming rocks below,
For they are the rocks
Our feet stood on and our lips sang on
When we grew tall
As the beautiful maidens of Zalongo,
Zalongo, Zalongo.

We looked to the north and saw no north,
Just clouds of our despair;
We looked to the west and saw no west,
The sky was still and bare;
We looked to the south and saw no south,
The sun was all aglare.
We looked to the east; we saw the east.
The enemy was there!
The enemy was there!
And yet
We had found a road with our Suliot song
Where none could follow,
For who can follow death,
Sweet death?

So gather your woes for the dance, my love,
And darken your baby's eyes
With the shade of one last kiss.
Then take my hand in your soft hand
And place your foot near mine.
Now sing while the first of us to go
Leads round and round till she
Leaps from the cliff as a flute song ends,
On a high, a piercing cry.
And this is how we danced the dance
Of Zalongo, Zalongo,
We fair ladies of Zalongo.

*A cliff in Epirus where on December 18, 1803, fifty-seven Greek Suliot women leapt to their death to avoid being captured by the forces of Ali Pasha.


I had but evil dreams to lose
when raki-smelling janissary
roused me from the cot
to fill my palm with florins
so I serve the mad Ali Pasha.
"Mule skinner, come
to skin a Greek," he said, and nudged
my chin with blade of scimitar.
"We caught Andonis,

My knife that boars and jackals bled
I honed by chestnut fire, in wood
where like wise Persians
hooted owls,
and Ali's blackguards stood
hard vigil over wild and captive boy
to millstone chained,
blue welts on back,
and hatred in his dark Greek eyes,
the eyes of Katsandonis.

The night I martyrized the boy
with skinner's art,
my knife was shadowed shaft on trees;
it split the flesh from top of head
to anal cleft,
then down each leg;
and while it lifted off the skin
to leave the dying body peeled,
the janissaries drank raki,
they danced and harlots loved,
till on his mighty stud
Ali Pasha rode up,
at dawn, to view his victim's death,
the death of Katsandonis.

The savage lord of Yannina,
in scarlet garbed, with bullets belted
on his chest and empire in his eyes,
gave orders for the wolves
to feast on Greek.
Mark this for madness then:
he bade me sew and stuff the skin
with straw,
the skin all taut with golden straw
as gift to please, impress, or prove
to distant Sultan
that Ali Pasha had caught Andonis,

Far from these misty Pindus vales
the owls have gone,
the blood on millstone washed by rain.
Al Pasha, beheaded in revenge,
lies dead in frozen clay.
I have not skinned another man,
nor drunk raki, nor loved a girl;
but since that time when chestnut fires
made light for my cruel hand,
my evil dreams have eyes that cry
and curse my name
for what I did to poor Andonis,

*A martyr of the period before the Greek Revolution of 1821.


Baby, the Greeks were slaves, too.
Before Columbus found this land,
legs dragged in chains, huts burned,
blood oozed from deep cuts.
Your tale of woe so darkly looms
you cannot speak Hellenic pain,
nor can Black Studies teach
how savage Ottomans destroyed
the gilded towers of Byzantium,
nor can your poems
speak pillage in another’s tongue-
the Greek my tongue
that learned truth from Apollo’s lips
and beauty from immortal Helen.

You could not say bullshit
to a Turk,
and if you raped his daughter
or his wife, to liberate your soul,
he cleaved your sweetmeats
with a yataghan
and struck your head upon a pike
for flies to foul and crows to peck.
All this by way of crying, “Man,
the Turkish agha rammed his dingus
up your ass
and you no fag!”

Baby, the Greeks were slaves, too –
but how does one say bullshit
in the language of the gods?


It came to pass that Zeus on Mount Olympus
Gazed upon the weavers of the blue Aegean,
Liked so much their fabric that he placed
His symbol at a point most visible to touch.
Unmistakably the word jeans contains
The sound of genes meaning born in Greek;
And so it was that foam-borne Aphrodite
Wore them first pre-shrunk and tight enough
To make both gods and humans scan her crotch.

Not face of Helen but her butt in jeans,
Divided in two firm but fluid spheres,
Did launch those ships and burn those towers.
And Cleopatra, teeming with designs,
Had infinite variety of hip moves and disjoints,
Who walked the forum hand on butt
With Caesar, using pockets as excuse,
Until she saw the bulge in Marc’s toga
And bared her bosom to blue-tongued asp.

Then Joan, the maid of Orleans, sad girl,
Who heard the bushes say, “Wear jeans,
To scare the living britches off the British.”
And so her army with their shields at breast
Crossed over brook to face the wily foe;
And when she fried, alas, she fried in jeans –
The first pair to be martyred at the stake.
Thus goddess, lover, queen, and saint
Did sanctify the garment for our use.

Entranced, the poets see beauty in each move
And sing, “Whenas in jeans my Julia goes
Methinks her butt like juicy jelly flows,”
While others philosophical intone
That “Jeans do more than malt and Milton can
To justify the ways of God to man.”
And all our anguished youth demand
They have designer jeans, or they will die.

Tis clear no bible, bullet, brawn, nor brain
But surging butt-power dominates the wold,
To know defectors leave their native land
So they can wrap and flex their rumps in them.
O Zeus, now that your throne is merely rocks
And all Olympus echoes empty wind,
Where do we go from here when Jeans and genes
See far beyond our measure to control?
Can we but butt our poor souls to your grace?


Again the transient tyrant clutches
At the jewel of the ages, Greece,
Fatherland of all republics and creator
Of the arts, island universe
Where liberty is nourished by the blood
Of fallen sons among the rocks and olives,
Nation where the spears of modern Persians
Shatter on the dreams, the thundering hearts,
Of Hellenes once again in arms.

What evil conscience rides the earth
That death should stalk the home of gods?
That planes like harpies fire the hills
And cannon break the mountain walls?
What savage passion risen in the night
Sends maidens screaming from the well
And brings a blackout over old Thermopylae?
Be once again the vanguard of mankind;
Let torches blaze from Olympus to herald
For all time the peace of brotherhood
To all the sad and bleeding world.


Trees became serpents and brooklets blood
When the gods on Olympus were shot.
The devil rode high on a Panzer Division,
The angels in heaven were not.

Above the cannon, beneath the planes,
In the vast meridian of life,
The people of Greece again grew great
In the grandeur of noble strife.

All through the world like a rising tide
Grew hope that athwart defeat
Would strike the thunder of freedom won,
No more shall the truth retreat!”

What breath could inspire and flesh conceive,
What passion and mind could dare,
The Greeks did double until their blood
Was one with the mountain there.

Some day the serpents and bombs will go,
The swastikas and bars
Will ride the crest of the peoples’ wrath
Above and beyond the stars.
And then will liberty come again
From Olympus to the sea;
Our daughters and sons will love again
With the love of the brave and the free.


Since greater monsters have declared a war
Tell Theseus that he spare the Minotaur,
Leave Ariadne to her pain and woe
For into Athens has arrived a foe
Demands a tribute to make Midas seem
A thirst for water in a dream;
Comes with tongue bloated from the feast
Of tender nations in the East,
With bits of human flesh about his chin
To show the depths where fangs dug in;
With eyes that glare like lynx at bay
In fear of what his slaves might say.
Return, dear Theseus, that your giant fist
Might strike like thunder from the mist,
To save your sister’s menaced home
From the flames that ruined Rome,
From the blow and rape of Hun.
Come, my lad, and make him run.

O fool Odysseus, may your body rot
Where clever Circe has enswined your lot!
While clouds of grief besmirch your city
You wander hypnotized by woman's ditty,
Leave Penelope in moan and tears
To play with dreams for ten long years,
Gone to fight the myth of Troy
When you were still a robust boy.

Now that Nazis fester in our land
And we have need of your brave band,
You still chase wind and boodle,
Man without a soul and noodle,
Absent when your nation
Groans in blood and devastation.
Fool Odysseus, will you always be
Lost when your people struggle to be free?

Good Hercules, fine classic Greek in truth,
Here lies another burden for your youth.
Let Atlas take his worldly load,
For while you walked the Carthage road
A tyranny vaster than we've ever seen
Has brought an ugly Noah's flood of spleen.
Men weep at dawn, and under olive trees
Die from their sorrow on their knees.
Come, that you may really test the length
And breadth of all your strength;
Face with your usual derision
A German mechanized division;
Sweep out the Luftwaffe from the skies
As if it were a cobweb on your eyes;
Stand upon Acropolis and roar
Defiance toward the North, and more,
Stay from your travels that fair Greece
May from this day remain at peace.


Young glider from continent aflame, so swift
To be the arrow bedded in my heart,
Remember others lost in labyrinth of woe,
Gruff roar of Minotaur, the song of wicked Circe,
And all her youth that mated with the swine.
Remember dragon’s teeth and evil eyes,
The terror unexplained on shore of brooding sea.
Remember, too, the sudden revolution,
Risen from the moan, the catalyst of anger,
Risen from the buzz of harpies in the sky.
Think you it will not come again, come again?

I, broken beggar, taking pennies from your fear,
Your indecision, here where crossroads end
I ask where are you going? I Daedalus, unwept
In prison when the last true memory died,
Tell you no buzzard sheds a feather now,
No pine a drop of pitch, while sunshine sickens
Into mould upon the alleyways of life.
Your blizkrieg ends where tears begin,
Your victory with blood. Remember this,
Then glide into the copper sky and sea
Not now or ever on the wrath of Crete.

Young glider from the Pleiades of greed,
Know you some day Great Bear will crush your head,
Plunge you from Atlas on the Carthage rocks,
Make you coral, shark-gem, in the deep deep sea?
I Daedalus see a million youth rise to the sun
Like Icarus, proud in the plumage of desire,
Then crumble downward to the splash of death.
Remember this, and all the revolutions,
Risen in the heat of all the peoples’ hate,
Risen in the unity, the blush of blood and anger.
Think you it will not come again, come again?


My neighbor is a simple man
With simple, childish ways.
He had an accident one time
That left him in a daze,
And every little thing he does
Comes to him as a maze.

My father is a weary man
Whose work has been too hard.
He dreams of days when as a youth
He was a Grecian bard
And played his flute upon the slopes
Of mountains beauty-starred.

Both these men are old and poor
And both have children small;
And both so fear Fate’s harsh decrees
They shun life’s endless brawl,
But get together day by day
To make complaint of all.

They talk of subjects so involved
I smile to hear them rave.
They get excited and disclaim
With gestures strong and grave.
I know that with their robust tongues
They make themselves seem brave.

For kings and aghast fall before
Their rush of torrid words,
And kingdoms kneel before their hand
In sad, beseeching herds
And with denouncing, stinging blasts
They change their blood to curds.

Sometimes I smile into the book
I read as I give ear.
I pity them for their mistakes,
I cringe to note their fear.
Yet once I wept when to my heart
Their chatter came too near.


(To the tune of “My Country, Tis of Thee”)

Ahepa, we love you,
For you bring memories
Of days gone by.
Long may your banners wave,
Make every Hellene brave
For freedom and for joy to save
His true ideal.

We have you as our guide
And here we come in pride
To think of Greece.
We’ll work with hearts aflame
New glory to proclaim.
Our sons will make you be the same
As that of old.


After roasting ten thousand chestnuts
at the corner of Wabash and Lake,
by grace of Streets and Sanitation
he policed the city’s thruways
for lost pilgrims such as dogs and cats
that never made it to the Promised Land,
that ventured into heavy traffic
killed as stony-eyed commuters
rushed to earn their daily bread.
As one ordained by perturbed gods
to make the most of mangled souls,
each day he piled the stiff corpses
on his pick-up truck and brought them
to his workshop for recycled pets
where he washed and labeled them
and forced their frozen legs askew
to natural posture, combed their hair
and stitched their wounds, beribboned
them as lovely stuffed animals.
Then, being godfather, he named
them Petros, Yanni, Nick, and Gus
and left them at the gravesites
of children newly dead and buried.
Upon each mound he sprinkled salt
to foil the Evil Eye,
and made three-fingered cross
to bless the ones too young to sin.


At the hour of sun west and wind low,
the bees hive bound
and honey heavy,
Vaia died.
And the sons who came from afar
sat wan beside the still coffin;
and the husband who lost his bride
kept vigil with red-wet eyes;
and the friends made ovals of grief
with glum faces, taut hands;
and the song she had sung for others
became her dirge at last:
To the black soil we shall marry her,
marry her,
To the black soil marry her.
Shed black tears where we bury her,
bury her.
In the black soil bury her.

She was mother from Mount Olympus
by donkey cart brought and boat
to rich America.
And here she children bore to number ten
by midwife taken in the fecund night;
and meals on lagging flame prepared
were endless toil and peasant skill;
and garden weeded, berries picked
in sun with tactless joy in sweat;
and food we brought from field and hill
she dried, jellied, pickled, froze;
and apples stored, and linden tea,
and wood piled high for winter's blaze;
but most of all, with Da Vinci's art,|
she sculptured manhood in her sons,
this woman from Mount Olympus
by donkey cart brought and boat
to rich America.

Nine sons one girl, her given wealth,
made Vaia’s presence in strange town
near mount with Indian name and lore
we climbed to plunder eagle’s nest;
in vale where blessed river flowed
and magic joined with frolic mind
our wonder boyhoods to create.
At home her presence felt with touch
on check and footsteps past our bed,
with kiss on forehead feigning sleep,
and all rips mended, all socks knit.
To please her we brought money home,
long strings of fish, and hellgrammites,
and berries picked from misty bog,
a modest fame at school, and later,
wedding bells and babies for her lap.
And this was Vaia to us, a mother;
and to Stephen such a wife
to make Griselda seem a shrew.

Unmeasured gifts to Life
made empty Self at death;
and Self enriched her progeny
with fragments of itself;
that empty form alone
was gift to Death.
Thus Vaia yet endures
and lives in us
who walk and talk
for her, and smile,
and heartbeats feel
that mock her dirge;

To the black soil we shall marry her,
marry her,
To the black soil marry her.
Shed black tears where we bury her,
bury her,
In the black soil bury her.


At the hour of sun east and red glow,
the bees hive gone
and honey seeking,
Stephen died.
And the eight of us he sired
stared at his face with wrinkled eyes;
and the children who lost papou
sat proper in Sunday clothes;
and the villagers came once more
to mumble their last farewells;
and the dirge he had sung for Vaia
became his own in turn:
To the black soil we shall marry him,
marry him,
To the black soil marry him.
Shed black tears where we bury him,
bury him,
In the black soil bury him.
He was father from Mount Olympus
by stallion brought and boat
to rich America.
And here he planted dreams like seeds
when Vaia rejoined him from afar;
and toil he knew in mill, on sod,
made hammers of his subtle hands;
and cities fled to find a home
near river where the wild geese honked;
and mountains loved, and waterfalls,
and forests where the deer ran free;
and gold he garnered, gold he lost,
when Fate in mindless range grew hard;
but not till prostrate, minus speech,
did he relinquish flame and hope,
this father from Mount Olympus
by stallion brought and boat
to rich America.

Our heritage survived in tales he told
of gods and heroes, rogues and clowns,
of battles where the Persians fell
and Turks who killed with yataghan.
Sweet lambs he taught us how to roast
on spits before a fire of coals,
as he when young went forth to rob
and eat as brigand on a cliff.
To please him we brought treasures home
like coins from work and praise from school,
then, later, brides and agile babies
in whose eyes he saw his own.
For him time danced the tsamico
with leaps for joy, laments for pain,
till hands that hugged the earth
grew withered, thin, and eyesight dimmed.
And this was Stephen to us, a father,
and to Vaia such a man
to make Odysseus seem a twin.

If elegies are trees, our love
for him is rich remembrance
trapped inside this bark;
each year but drives it
deeper toward our heart.
Thus Stephen yet endures
and lives in these,
the words that speak
of him, and sing,
and cry his loss
beyond the grave.
They mock his dirge:
To the black soil we shall marry him,
Marry him,
To the black soil marry him.
Shed black tears where we bury him,
Bury him,
In the black soil bury him.


He knew that when he died
my pen would write a song for him
who booked the bands that brought
enticing romance to my youth
from Hanover on down
and up from Providence
to Kennebunkport by the sea.
And such a place was Hampton Beach
where myths of ocean mingled
with the dreams of revelers on shore.

Compliant stranger, how your lips,
your scented hair, your breasts
against my heart, do madden me
with need for love to still
the constant turbulence of blood.

So driven, we arrive in Hampton
at the purple hour, when gulls
make final glidings and cavorts,
sky darkens into dome of stars
above the empty sand, the lulling waves,
and distant blink of lighthouse lamp.

Yet these eternals we eschew
for traffic rush and crowded walks,
and raucous din like Mardi Gras,
where pleasure seekers ballroom bend
to hear the band that Charlie booked.

Inside, the varnished floor aglisten, waxed,
and speckled by confetti-colored spots
from turning globe. On magic stage
the leader taps baton, the downbeat sounds,
and bodily we surge to Guy Lombardo’s
Sweetest music this side of Heaven.”

Himself in Heaven now, my brother
joins with friends of old to sing
and clap hands to rhythms
from the big band booked by God.


For Phillip

If one in Heaven lives by soul’s desire,
then give him timberlands to cut
and wood to stack for winter’s use;
and if no blizzard ever roars
to shape huge drifts of snow,
then give him fields to furrow,
seeds for April rains to sprout;
and if crops bloom by will divine
and verdant valleys wait for toil,
then give him bins and barrows
that he fetch the harvest home;
and if blue plums and peaches rise
as if by magic to one’s lips,
then give him gold to gild the domes
where saints and angels sing;
and when all Heaven shines anew
from what his hands have done,
yet still he craves more joy of work,
then God Himself must pause to urge,
"Rest now, my son, as I did once
upon the last and seventh day:"


If saint she were on earth, then what
of heaven for her countless deeds?
But saint she would deny and smile
for having healed a shattered nerve,
or soothed a broken heart,
or mended wounded soul.

But healer, too, she would deny
for needs of others were the stage
that gave her privilege to be
a natural woman, not divine.

She would have done as much
for birds that gathered on a fence
to sing melodious songs for her;
for straying cats she loved to feed
to hear them purr their thanks;
for all the sad and lonely things
that sought a haven and a hand.

If what the poet writes is true
and heaven is but the best of earth,
then saint is properly the name
for Anna whom we knew and lost,
who gladly spent herself for us
as surely as the Nazarene of old.


The boy with the voyaging eyes
is a shape in the heart;
and the face we touched with love
is a myth of the earth,
and bluebirds sing his name.

The man that he would have been
is a form in the mind;
and the beautiful tallness of him
is pressed back into the mold,
and the lid is gently closed.

*Drowned at the age of five on the island of Jamaica.


For Nicholas D. Cheronis

Brought to us by a frantic boy,
in wilderness where winter cleaves
the rock and summer hastens
lilies to their doom, the news
about his death came like a shot
that splits the heart, that has,
they say, more sinews than the oak.
To us by a frantic boy brought,
the news that made us mourn.

We saw him in Greek gaucho stance
amid the fruit and vines he loved
to pester, prick, and bend to make
proud cod-pieces of cukes and corn!
Or standing by his mystic tubes
to teach the bright-eyed youth;
or laughing with his friends
that raucous laugh . . . as if he’d been
with Pegasus on some impossible prank!
We heard across the wild sweet land
the words that named him best:
filotimia, agape, hara.

The diction mingles with the man entire.
Filotimia, that gem of virtue treating self
and gods with equal hospitality,
that gives of heart and time to refugees
who pause to ask the way,
that makes of earth a home and tells
the newborn child, “Welcome, welcome,
this is life, and it is good!”

Agape, love, that more than wife
and children knew-they most of all!
This rough man had a tenderness
that made him seek the inner form
of Beautiful, that grew from people outward
to the secret moods of elements in earth –
a chemist’s love for magical truth
like flames on fingers, flames on lips,
and flames in a voyager’s maddened eyes.

And then hara. The joining of the two
to make a third that no one can define.
More than joy, for joy alone cannot embrace
the sweep of such a splendid man.
Yet joy it also was, the shrewd savoring,
the twirling of those shiny hairy horns,
the gusty appetite, the long stride,
the mind like seven rapiers sharp
by seven talents honed,
the hope for peace, goodwill to man,
the greeting that would shake me
with its blunt esteem: “Yiasou, palikari!

Brought to us by a frantic boy,
in wilderness where winter cleaves
the rock and summer hastens
lilies to their doom, the news
that made us mourn and mourn and mourn.

Editor's note: These poems were selected by the publishers from among the large collection in the author's publication, Stepping Stones (New York: Pella Publishing Company, 1993), available through the publisher or Greece in Print at