You Animal Machine

By Eleni Sikelianos

Coffee House Press
June 2014


The first Greek known to have set foot on the American continent was Don Theodoro, who traveled here along with Cabeza de Vaca on the Narvaez expedition. They were beset by hurricane, disease, attack, malnutrition. Of six hundred crew members, four survived. Don Theodoro, having been taken one day by Indians to seek water, never returned. (Cabeza de Vaca wandered the desert naked for nine years, sometimes enslaved, sometimes a healer, a child of the sun.)

In 1768, Greeks from Crete, Smyrna, and the Mani settled in New Smyrna, Florida. All trace of them has been lost.

In 1864, the first Greek church on American soil was built in New Orleans.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Greeks founded over six hundred diners in and around New York, the equivalent of one diner every other week for twenty-five years. What does a Greek say when he meets another Greek in the new country? Να ανοιξουµε ενα ταβερνα; Hey, wanna open a diner? (aspirate the H heavily if pretending to be Greek).

The first Greek to settle in Cleveland, Panayiotis Koutalianos, was a circus strongman. In my mind he looks like Fellini’s Zampano and bursts thick metal chains from his chest while Giuletta Masina, the woman with the most living sap under her skin in a thousand years, sheds a crystal tear.

The first Golden Greek was Jim Londos, a pretty Greek not too good at wrestling who hailed from Argos, a city favored by Hera.

I cannot say what year my mother’s grandfather arrived, or from where; he came wrapped in the ragged dark, with the stealth of someone with everything to hide. The secret is ink-scratched on the bones of his spine. He burrowed up under the map like a mole and burst the topography, shredding the paper, blasting a man-sized hole in the earth at his exit point—a hole in which no daughter can hide. Since he is a lost man, everything in this book is speculation.



(κατάδεσµοι; Defixionum Tabella)

Pella curse tablet, circa 375-350 BCE

He spoke in the language demons understand. Bazagra, bescu, berebescu.

He learned the voces mysticae from the curse tablets placed with the dead to keep the Turks from moving their bones.

He tried to appeal to the gods (Charon, Hermes, Hecate, Persephone), but everything he spoke turned to lead not gold.

“Bind the speech of . . . bind [bind] the tongue . . .”

He forgot to write the love spells. He possessed no special knowledge. He put his daughter on the wrong side of her magic. Let him listen to Diamanda Galás till the end of time.



One by one children were born, then the Spanish flu hit; Bertha was too sick to care for them. Someone dropped them off at the orphanage. Why were they never picked up?

(Liberty went smashing through a window when the train she was riding slipped off its tracks.)

(Beatrice or Audrey stumbled through thin winter ice outside the orphanage and disappeared.)

Helene was born after the epidemic, and was kept (her talent for dancing helped).

(She found her brother, another Theodoro, forty years later in the desert, where he built windmills by daylight and gambled all night. Later his son tried to grab my crotch in the pool when I was eight, and at night shoved his tongue down my throat.)

Of the others, she found no trace or story. What were their names? Where did they go?

Give each a beautiful name and beautiful life. Calliope, Penelope, Aléxandros, Persephone, Dímitra—gods and goddesses all.

but if pimp is the god is the devil is the pimp is
the dad is the pimp is the god is the devil

bring him out into the light

give him the paradox hex around loving     give him the x  axe

In the Greek tavernas of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, John Diamond played the santouri and Helene rattled the tambourine and moved her hips and feet, collecting coins in the stretched skin with its jangling metal disks. Bertha singing the Greek songs that, like their American blues counterparts, require the wound that opens once you’ve brushed mass death.



if you want to know what happened to your daughter, ask the Sun

(all things happen under the sun if they do not happen in the dark)

to keep from losing your daughter in a gaping wound

dirt gash

keep corn seeds hidden in the ground

suffer not the seed to grow

who best understands a woman’s work

who knows what happens in closed rooms

don’t let the corn-mother catch you pulling poppies, pulling corn-flowers

don’t let her catch you rye-mother barley-mother

beat those sheaves and drive that corn-mother out!

thresh it, dress it up, strip the corn-puppet-mother, place it on the pyre

All we know of the one useful goddess (her vegetal service matched by her suffering): worshippers were shown "an ear of corn which had been reaped in silence."



In the settled hours, between gigs, Bertha wrote astrology columns and read the cards, advising her readers to "be still and wait for your lucky star." What card is missing? Taraka (Arabic), "to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind." She is not lacking the Devil (as in the nineteenth-century deck), not the Tower, not the Money’s Horse (missing in the Visconti deck). Father/Fool: Zeus is too busy receiving feasts from humans to hear his daughter’s screams. But when the earth gives no more fruit or flower or grain: what will they have to feed him?

No bird of omen came to her as a truthful messenger

For so long hope charmed her strong mind despite her distress

The goddess of anyone grieving a daughter

goddess of anyone gree

No bird of o

No o of     no tru       her strong mind her di s

Bertha drank ink, hoping the lead would finish it.

Can you die from drinking ink?

I am nott verry shore, I do not recomnd drink. Doant drink it.

If you drink an ounce, you drink a gallon. A gallon of ink will stain her skin. An ounce of ink will blue her mouth and stop her heart, her hurt, but first her liver.



"I don’t know why Bertha fell for John’s tricks," her uncle told me in our apartment in California around 1981. I was sixteen. I guess Melena had already died. He was visiting from his pecan farm in Texas, traveling around, meeting all the distant relatives. He talked about the Black Forest, World War II bombers, pecan groves, and Bertha. He’d brought his son, a pimply-faced kid who looked like every other American I’d seen outside of California, and a bag of pecans. "She was wise to tricks. Why, when men walked around with a flask a brandy in their back pocket, she knew what was what." Actually, I don’t remember him saying that, but it’s what my mother says he said. All I remember is a dim old man with a wide waist in our dim living room that jutted up to the parking lot and the words "Texas," "Black Forest," "pecan." It’s enough to go on. I think Diamond John had more than a flask of brandy in his sack of trouble, but I don't know what. I know he locked his daughter in the closet with a loaf of bread and a jug of water, but I don’t know for how long.

But this is not a tragedy. It’s the tale of the toughest, hardest-assed woman to ever eat wood and bite nails on the face of the earth: Melena the Cat Lady, Woman-with-the-Bullets-over-Her-Breast, the Leopard Girl, Marko, my grandmother, the Golden Greek.