Canadian author Steven Heighton’s poem Christmas Work Detail, Samos has been shortlisted for the £10,000 (about $17,000) Moth Poetry Prize – one of the biggest in the world for a single unpublished poem. Based in Kingston, Heighton won the 2016 Governor-General’s Award for poetry for his volume, The Waking Comes Late, and has published four novels and three short-story collections. His poem – and three others – were among thousands of entries. Next month, the shortlisted poems will appear in the Moth, an Irish quarterly art and literature magazine, and the winner will be announced at a ceremony in Dublin. Previous judges include Billy Collins and Deborah Landau.
Christmas Work Detail, Samos
Eid milad majid*
In the olive grove on the high ground, facing west
into rain, we dig graves for three men drowned
in the straits – Syrians, maybe, dispossessed
of everything by the sea, so there’s no knowing
for sure. This much you can say for any grave,
it’s landlocked. And these men will lie a decent
distance uphill, out of sight of the beach
where on Sunday their bodies washed ashore
in plausible orange life-vests (ten euros each)
packed with sawdust, bubble wrap, rags. These rains
haven’t softened the soil, yet digging up here
feels only right; the waves that buried them
terrified them first, and we guess, again
that they – like the ones the crossing didn’t kill –
were from desert towns, this sea inconceivable
as the Arctic. And each cardboard casket,
awaiting its patient passenger, looks
almost seaworthy after the cut-rate raft
they fled in, and which, deflated, washed in
after them, silent, as if shyly contrite.
It seems we’ve failed them, despite the safe graves.
In a grove this untended the ground is brined
bitter with black fruit rotting, and on islands
nowhere is far enough from the waves
*Arabic for Happy birth feast, or Merry Christmas
Christmas Work Detail, Samos is so vivid with detail: Samos, Sunday, the terrain. Was it influenced by a particular image?
A few Aegean islands, including Samos, were the epicentre of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugee influx that peaked in October. I went to Greece to volunteer that November (Lesbos, not Samos) and stayed until just before Christmas. Some days we stoked fires out of discarded life vests, many of them useless fakes, as we waited for refugee rafts on Eftalou Beach. Other days we served food, cleaned up, dispensed dry clothes, and helped to get families onto buses in a transit camp created in the parking lot of a deserted nightclub. Like other volunteers, I was sometimes deputized into roles for which I was totally unqualified: paramedic, carpenter, customs official, etc. And one day I heard a volunteer mention how, on Samos, others had had to help dig graves for some unidentified, drowned young men. Along with those life-vests stuffed with bubble wrap or sawdust, the other detail that informs the poem is the rain that pelted down for two days in the transit camp and turned the parking lot into an icy quagmire. Families who’d arrived, hypothermic, a few hours before in rubber rafts had to line up for the buses that would take them on to Moria, the island’s main camp. It was awful to watch them become steadily wetter and colder all over again.
Which part of Christmas Work Detail, Samos required the most work and why?
Getting the movement right. The poem is a lament, a dirge, so I wanted it to move the way a grave song or eulogy does. Solemn, dignified, respectful. I wanted the punctuation to impose small, pensive pauses, a bit like the hiccups of in-drawn breath that seize you when you’re very cold – or overwhelmed by grief at a funeral. Above all, I wanted the poem to feel as close to silence as a thing of words can, so the text is whispering, not speaking.
Is there a line you’re particularly proud of?
After two years and some 20 drafts, I feel not pride but relief that I’m letting the thing go.
What do you want readers to take away from this work?
Primarily I want the poem to move people. But I also hope that what I’m writing about Lesbos will remind Canadian readers that the crisis is huge and ongoing, even when it vanishes from the news cycle. Many of us here live in a coma of complacency, insulated from foreign crises while ignoring our own local ones. Every person has a life-lie and so does every country. Ours is that we’re the good people – less brash and imperialist than the Americans, less class-ridden and historically racist than the Brits, etc. It isn’t true and never was. And the shadow of effortful niceness, of cautious propriety, is a frightening spectre. But as a rich country we have the time to change and the resources to act.
What books are on your nightstand and why did you choose them?
Yara El-Ghadban’s Je suis Ariel Sharon, published by Mémoire d’encrier in Montreal. A Palestinian novelist imagines what’s happening in Ariel Sharon’s mind during his eight years in a post-stroke coma. Contrary to what some might expect, the book is in no way dogmatic or narrowly partisan. El-Ghadban, like any good novelist, is on the side of everyone who’s suffering, so all her characters feel real, contradictory, flawed and alive.
This interview was conducted by e-mail.
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