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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

The Poetry of Nicholas Samaras

Nicholas Samaras was born in England and has lived on the island of Patamos, in Wales, Switzerland, Austria, Yugoslavia, Jerusalem, and America. As a consequence, he describes himself as writing “from a place of permanent exile.” Nicholas writes, he says, “to rescue” and “to make things more real.”

The son of a Greek Orthodox bishop and theologian, Nicholas was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1991 for his first book of poetry, Hands of the Saddlemaker.

I had the privilege of publishing eleven poems by Nicholas Samaras in Issue 16 (2010) of Ancient Paths, and I nominated “Easter in the Cancer Ward,” which you can read below, for a Pushcart Prize.

The eleven poems of Nicholas that were selected for issue 16 make life, faith, and the spiritual realm “more real” to the reader. They reveal meaning in the common place; they plumb the world for reverberations of God. Ultimately, the reader journeys with the poet in a process of becoming. Read the other ten poems by ordering a copy of the magazine.

Easter in the Cancer Ward by Nicholas Samaras

Because it has been years since my hands have dyed an egg or I've remembered my father with color in his beard, because my fingers have forgotten the feel of wax melting on my skin, the heat of paraffin warping air, because I prefer to view death politely from afar, I agree to visit the children's cancer ward.

In her ballet-like, butterfly slippers, Elaine pad-pads down the carpeted hall. I bring the bright bags, press down packets of powdered dye, repress my slight unease. She sweeps her hair from her volunteer's badge, leaves behind her own residents' ward for a few hours release. The new wing's doors glide open onto great light. Everything is vibrant and clattered with color. Racing up, children converge, their green voices rising.

What does one do with the embarrassment of staring at sickness? Suddenly, I don't know where to place my hands. Children with radiant faces reach out thinly, clamor for the expected bags, lead us to the Nurses' kitchen. Elaine introduces me and reads out a litany of names. Some of the youngest wear old expressions. The bald little boy loves Elaine's long mane of hair and holds the healthy thickness to his face, hearing

her laugh as she pulls him close. "I'm dying," he says and Elaine tells him she is, too: too much iron silting her veins. I can never accept that truth yet, in five months, she'll slip away in a September night--leaving her parents and me to bow our heads, bury her in a white wedding gown, our people's custom. But right now, I don't know this. Right now, we are young, still immortal and the kids fidget, crying

out for their eggs. Elaine divides them into teams; I lay out the tools for the operation. I tell them all how painting Easter eggs used to be done in the Old Country. Before easy dyes were common, villagers boiled onion peels, ladled eggs into pots so the shells wouldn't break. They'd scoop them out, flushed a brownish- red, and the elders would polish and polish

them with olive oil, singing hymns for the Holy Thursday hours. The children laugh and boo when I try to sing. The boys swirl speckles of color into hot water, while the girls time the eggs. When a white-faced boy asks from nowhere if I believe in Christ and living forever, I stop stirring the mix, answer, "Yes, I do." I answer slowly

and when I speak, my own voice deafens me. The simple truth blooms like these painted flowers

riding up the bright kitchen-walls. I come to belief. I know that much. Still, what a man may do with belief demands more than what he says. Now, the hot waters are stained a rich red. The eggs have boiled and cooled. To each set of hands, Elaine gives one towel, three eggs. I pass the pot of melted paraffin, show these children how to take the eggs and dip them in and out. While the wax hardens to an opaque film, we hum

Christos Aneste and the room bustles, ajabber with speech. Holding pins firmly, we scratch out mad designs where the color will fill. Small, flurried hands etch and scrim the shells. Everyone's fingers whorl and scratch in names, delicate and final. Edging the hall's threshold, an April's allow- ance of sun filters through tinted windows. Faces furrow in solemn concentration. Looking to Elaine, my thoughts clamor

for what is redemptive in illness, for having a Credo to hold these people to me. Etchings done, everyone immerses the waxy eggs in the pooled dye. We ooh together when transfigured eggs are spooned out, wiped and dried on the counters. Soft wax is peeled gingerly, flecked away; more oohs for the tracks of limned lines, testimonial names. We burnish the shells with olive oil for a fine sheen.

For a moment, the cultivated, finished eggs hush the room. Then, every child goes wild in a rush to compare, to show the nurses, each other. The bald boy taps my waist. Lined up and speech- less, they present me with a bright, autographed egg, communally done. Elaine makes me close my eyes and laughs when small limbs push at my back to follow her. They shove my hands in the cool, wet, red dye. The hollow-

eyed girl squeals till tears streak from her laughing. Another child cries, "You'll never get it off!" And today, I don't want to. Today, we've painted eggs a lively color, not caring about the body's cells and the cells' incarceration. I lift my arms to embrace Elaine, dab her nose and chin. And my hands are vivid red. My hands are bloody with resurrection

and we are laughing.

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