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Kalymnos: The Smooth and the Rough Poetry

© Chris Craggs

Sarah-Jane Dobner shares her second poetry collection, this time inspired by a trip to Kalymnos.

Over Easter, I spent two weeks on the climbing paradise of Kalymnos, a Greek Island off the coast of Turkey. Whilst Britain basked in a heatwave, 40 mph gales blew non-stop from the North. I was sick for most of the trip, yet climbed the hardest grade I've ever led. There are chapels everywhere on the island, but underneath, an Ancient brutality. It was a curate's egg.


9am, the threshold of Masouri

A parade of mopeds and pairs on foot

Headed for Grande Grotta, the Cave

Packing climbing helmets, lifeline ropes

Clipsticks poking out, periscopes


Each one on a diving escapade

Into scoops and pockets and tufas

Crags which seem to be

Underwater or underground

Dripping and seeping in the morning shade


Opening Up

Three-in-a-room, so I get up and out early

And sit in the café. Thirty-five years! the owner

Declares, as he mops the floors. One son

And three daughters! All here! I sit

Where the tiles aren't wet. Say my coffee

Can wait. His wife steps through the tables

Cupping a dish of burning incense and

Moving her lips. Sweeps the street

Noise of steaming milk. A customer, I get

Served first. Then they settle at the gold-lettered

Family-designated table, with ceramic mugs

They don't use in the café, and a stack of

Rich tea biscuits. It still smells of incense.



Each time I buy a single orange, or a handful of figs

Or a coiled-up Princess-hair-do of spinach in filo pastry


I stumble over this new tongue, blurt Gracias

Hold my hand to my heart, bow awkwardly


The shopkeeper (long-sleeved floral top

Pinafore, thick tights), takes a plastic bag bespoke


To that small supermarket, carefully presses it flat

On the counter, underscores each Greek letter


Whilst she slowly pronounces ευχαριστώ

The alphabet stuns me


Then she gestures to the printed Thank yous

In other languages, says Merci, merci!


I smile and point to Thank you in English lettering

We do this every morning



For all its apparent barrenness

The Kalymnian landscape is in fact

Mainly edible


The stones, you would spit out

But oregano, thyme, fennel, sage

Grow all over these hills


Figs and olives, the trees

Goats and sheep, free-range

And sharing the feast whilst making honey, bees


The island provides food with the least

Intrusive farming mechanisms. It all seems wild

Except the sheep and goats have bells


St Nicholas

At the quay-side church in the coastal town of Pothia

A painted Jesus preaches from a boat. One of the chapels

Features a scale model of a sponge-diving vessel

With miniature, real, sponges threaded stern to bow


Small helming wheels and large, local sponges

Are arranged amongst the mother-and-child iconography

Under high, blue-and-gold, sea-and-sun ceilings.

Tilted, yellowing candles burn down on a bed of sand




On arrival, I knew I couldn't stay here happily

Squeezed in together like stuffed vine leaves

Dim, north-facing balcony, non-working light bulb

Shower-hose hand-held in the toilet cubicle


Soaking the seat (before the shower head broke off

And landed with a smash in the porcelain) and the

Noisiest, stompiest, brashest matriarch

Yelling Greek at her husband and daughter and us


We looked elsewhere immediately. Saw hotel rooms

Without kitchens, places being Spring cleaned

Establishments with barking, chained dogs and then

Got yelled at again for looking. Word gets around


So we climbed. Now, a week later, plastic chair

Dragged to the patch of sun in a walkway corridor

Propping my tea on the out-of-date fire extinguisher

The power cuts, disappearing cooking pots


Lack of hot water, the way a full set of keys

For every apartment is left, publicly, on a hook

Our proprietress patrolling and yelling. I've become

Oddly attached, like one of the many stray cats


Etesian Winds

Shutters bang, doors thwack, glass panes

Jerk and try to jump out, buildings howl

Washing rips from pegs, hair needs disciplining

In plaits and hats; the hats blow off


Fig trees self-flagellate as if suddenly acquainted

With a horrifying knowledge

Palm fronds stream in a tinsel-like, mid-winter tangle

These northerlies defy


Thought, relaxation, sleep

Marauders, sunbathing, warm breakfast

Diary-writing, delicate slab climbing

Day after day and night after night, they do not relent



Resista, Ghost Kitchen

Pocket to pocket, chalked and rounded

Good footholds, easy clips and then

What? A blank gap, go across, shiny step

Sidepull and push, wild launch to the lip

Of a gigantic hole. You have it! move

Both feet, get in! get in! Leg, thigh, hip

Jammed knee bar, arm still twisted inside

Overgripping. Be smart! Resting and looking

Upwards at the headwall, 100% jugs!

She calls up, Huge jugs! Go, and

Keep going, big moves, big pockets

100% jugs, clip, another clip, and then

What?? What is this? A crimp? Where's

The jug? 98% jugs, 2% crimp! she shouts

What??? Panic first, swap hands, shake out, eye up

The next bucket, out left, tiny polished foot-spike

Stacked fingers of the right, cross-over

Sharp, chalked slot. 2% crimps then lunge

There's a Thank God hold! she hollers

What?!?? Where? This is it?! Not enough!

Grip peeling, so steep, crazy angle, still pumped

Switch hands, and again, heart rate down

Forearms blasted, almost at the chain

Concentrate! Look at the feet, everything

Sticks, trust your toes, make the moves

And clip. Lower off into air. Yellow-red

Bowl scooping up the sunset and

Serving it up. 98% jugs.


Resista at Ghost Kitchen.



As if the island itself is a boat

And hasn't had time to pull in at a marina and fill its tanks

Only salt water comes out of the taps


We keep forgetting, boiling the kettle and drinking

Half a cup before registering that salt is on the tongue

And not just in the air


Nothing dries. Towels briny-dank

Freshly-rinsed hair salt-sticky

Plates pre-seasoned


What if it never docks? Just holds its course

Through the Aegean, letting its cliffs billow

As it sails on and on and on




Over Mythos, Fliss suggests we invent Kalymnian Bingo -


Eyes down! Tufas, crozzly broccoli, drips, pipes, pillars, flowstone

Holes, pockets, scoops, slabs, stalactites, route-names painted on pebbles

Crimps, au cheval, heel hooking, knee bar, no-hands rest, safe bolting

Caged canary, tortoiseshell kitten, swordfish steak, a road full of goats

Balconies, sea, Greek coffee, honey, spinach pastries, oregano

Suncream, Sponges, Telendos Island, mopeds

(Without helmets) and Mythos, of course


Tick, tick, tick, tick, cross, cross, cross, cross……Bingo!




Good Friday

The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christ's resurrection a week later than the Gregorian calendar. Today is Greek Good Friday. Many shops are closed. Families are gathering, holding bunches of wild, white, fleshy-stemmed lilies. At St Nicholas church, a full-sized sailor doll is suspended, for the festivities, between a model sponging boat and the roof of the building. He swings in the breeze, more in limbo than resurrected.

The hanging sailor.

Emily and I climbed this morning, a 6b in the Coeur d'Armeos and a three star, joyous 6c through tufa overhangs, featured slabs, flowstone and ending at a huge roof buttressed by stalactite pillars. Around the corner from us, there was an accident. A father dropped his teenage daughter. Ten metre ground-fall. Fractured skull and blood from her ears. He'd forgotten to tie a knot in the bottom of the rope. These are long routes. One of our team was nearby, responded, administered first aid, holding the back of her broken head.

The girl was breathing. I hope it is a good Friday, after all.

Our best wishes go to Lena and her family.

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15 May, 2019

I was enjoying that until I got to the...

[spoiler alert]

...bit about the accident. As someone who aspires to taking his teenage daughter to Kalymnos and belaying her on 8as in return for her top-roping me on the odd 4+, that was a wake-up!

15 May, 2019

Didn’t really get this article at all.

16 May, 2019

I don't get the point of your post. Such is life.

16 May, 2019

Thanks Sarah-Jane, this was a lovely evocation of the place.

I think, having already lead the route, that if you read Resista you can't claim the onsite ;)

16 May, 2019

And yet you also felt the need to comment !

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