Ange Mlinko's "Bliss Street"
From this balcony the sightlines are clear to the rooftop volleyball court
of my son's elementary school
(From its mesh cage the kids at PE class raise a right ruckus)
—I look over; is he up there now? No; his is a different period
I'm squeezing some orange halves on a cheap plastic boat with a dome
like a parliament and teeth at the spout to catch seeds and pulp
Dragging a haul of juicing oranges all the way down-campus in my bag
stitched with the word "Cyprus"
I recall the oranges were mostly on the trees in Cyprus
It was the potato we were about then: The famous Cypriot, grown in
red dirt and baked "in its jacket," fluffy as a buttered cloud...
We would pass the fields of red dirt and then a schoolyard and wonder
what it would be like to be a child raised on an island like this
Squat between sun and sea, never an ice age, abounding with
indigenous flowers evolving freely, without extinctions
But, oh yeah—massacres
Barbed wire slicing Nicosia in a crescent ghetto
My grandmother picked potatoes on a collective farm at the age of
nine, after her father died
But the funny story she told was of having shut herself inadvertently in
the potato cellar while her mother was ill with pneumonia
The eldest child, she knew that if her mother died as well it would all
be on her shoulders—the infant, the other children—
And already terrified to begin with, she began bawling
But you know, someone let her out after a few hours
Her mother survived the pneumonia
She survived the potato farm
Then when she was eighteen and working in a hospital kitchen her
supervisor—Psst!—opened the pantry and gestured toward the
potatoes, pocketing some in her overcoat
She was terrified all over again
If she did help herself, their boss, a kind man, would find out
If she didn't help herself, her supervisor would know she knew
She didn't take the potatoes and she didn't get fired, and decades later
she would return to the scene of demoralization, her version
of: THE STALIN YEARS
The volleyball court has gone silent
The PE teacher, whose name I don't remember, rests his arms against
the ledge and overlooks the street, the campus, my building, in
which I sit, stuck in a thought about potatoes
He stands there a minute or two, in repose, then turns and walks away,
leaving the scene unpopulated as in some sketch or exercise
by a painter removed from the north to a Mediterranean
Arcadia full of ruins and cypresses
Oh it would be an exaggeration to say it's full of ruins here!
More like one of those mythological scenes with youths and gods in a
Bliss Street overflowing with students slowing traffic as they drift
across the road, scooters clustered outside the gate inscribed
with the motto "That life may be lived more abundantly"
Perfect motto for a university. Perfect
As the fig trees were perfect that grew all into one boxy wreath round
the dry fountain the kids on rented bicycles circled madly
That survived the civil war by the looks of their thick trunks, ringed by
apartment blocks and antennae raised into a looming cloud the
color of putty. Putty, not putti
(Originally published in the New Yorker, October 2010)
On "Bliss Street"
"Bliss Street" was written in and about Beirut, where I lived for about a year, in faculty housing of the American University. My husband was teaching law, and I was tending to our two young sons. My first-grader was in the American school, which abuts the university campus; I was able to see a fragment of it from my balcony.
This set-up was very cozy on the one hand; on the other, the atmosphere of the city was thick with anxiety, and the sky was frequently abuzz with military aircraft. Beirutis were used to it, though, and they carried on with extraordinary panache.
It is difficult to write a good travel poem; it is even more difficult to write one about a place like Beirut. I'm no war tourist. I didn't bring my kids to a place chock full of soldiers with Kalashnikovs because I wanted to—I didn't have a choice. How to convey both the sense of damage and gaiety that pervaded the atmosphere of Beirut? How to convey the awesome perdurance of the city? Very lightly, I decided. Too many serious poems are ruined by their sobriety, and if I believe anything it is Pound's dictum that poetry is an art "originally intended to make glad the heart of man."
By maintaining a certain skimming quality, I was able to pack in a good deal of information. I didn't want to be weighed down. I told my grandmother's double-bind anecdote with as much economy as possible. I think I was aiming for the unself-pitying, matter-of-fact tone she would use when telling her WWII stories. (She was a Belorussian refugee who experienced what the historian Timothy Snyder calls "the bloodlands.") Bringing her in, and bringing in divided Cyprus, was a way to distance myself from the intensity of Beirut and remind us all that violence and tribalism are part of the human condition.
The play on P's and B's in this poem provides something like a musical tonic. It relates to the idea of the potato: in Lebanese Arabic it is batata, which is also a word I grew up with, since my grandmother spoke Portuguese to me (Brazil was a ten-year waystation en route to the U.S.) and whenever she made French fries she called them batata. The potato also relates to the putty at the end. The real world is potatoes and putty, pure matter to harvest and ingest, destroy and rebuild, an unending cycle. No room for self-pity here. The abundance and anarchy of life leads to a Nietzschean feeling of exaltation—the bliss of Bliss Street, which connects the university to the neighborhood of Hamra. Bliss it is to be young, and alive—and a kind of potato to boot.