This essay and series of poems was written in the summer of 2013 and was first published in the sixth issue of The Cyprus Dossier.
In Cyprus, as it is the case in other places of the East Mediterranean, it is held by many that one’s fate is inscribed in the residue of one’s coffee cup. “Reading the coffee” is a variation of tasseomancy that found its way here through Turkey and the Middle East. Unlike other fortune- telling methods, tasseomancy is by definition circular, it has no beginning and no end, like the coastline of an island. However, there are various methods for mapping the cup: some use the ear of the cup as a starting point for a one-way reading; others divide the cup in regions, like upper and lower, or left and right, assigning positive or negative meanings to these areas. In any case, the hemispherical form of the cup provides an open plane suitable for non-linear readings, an inversion of the dome of stars above – the humble cup and the heavenly bodies are thus magically connected.
The imagery compiling the extensive vocabulary of symbols for coffee-cup reading is not unusual, yet very particular: animals (local and exotic), doors and passageways, faces and figures of people, letters of the alphabet, all these can be seen in the dry coffee grounds. Some symbols connect to those next to them, lending them additional meaning, others stand absurdly alone – in a similar way that symbols appear in dreams. We could say, that the cup is read as a solidified dream of the querent (the person whose cup is being read): the images of the “dream” are spread across the brown-and-white landscape of the cup’s interior like a surreal tapestry depicting events in another dimension. It is the job of the reader/seer to make sense out of these random images, and then provide the querent with information, advice and news of either good fortune or emotional distress.
Reading the cup is a way of explaining the world, and locating the self in the world.
In the cypriot dialect, the word used for luck, chance and fate is the same: týchi. When someone is asking the fortune-teller to “read his coffee” or “tell him his luck,” he is in fact asking about his fate. The querent wants to hear a version of the world, is asking for someone to create for him a meaningful narrative out of the overwhelming randomness of human life. Reading the cup is a way of explaining the world, and locating the self in the world. In that sense, the vocabulary of signs and symbols for coffee-reading is a time capsule of knowledge of and biases towards the world and the way we inhabit it. That, unbeknownst to him or her, makes the fortune-teller the cultural safe- keeper and identity-maker of the community, the one who articulates – and thus organises – the way people see the world and live within it. Like scholars, artists and educators do.
Part holiday pass-time, part literature experiment, I read my coffee cup for seven consecutive days during my summer holidays in Cyprus, writing a short text to accompany each reading. In doing so, I broke a very basic rule of coffee-cup reading, which is never to read your own cup. The inaccuracy of my divinations notwithstanding, the whole project resulted in a series of short texts that contain the images and moods triggered by the cup. Surreal, magical, fragmental, coherent or not, these texts are more abstract poetry than anything else, a very personal – if sacrilegious – exploration of an ancient tradition, infused with summer heat and holiday frivolity.
Note: The stories given here are not in the order they were written.
IN still monochrome waters a solitary rock stands – a rough pillar that is clean but dirty in its cracks – we are underwater so we cannot see its peak – an enormous fish is swimming slowly behind it – its belly has long thin stripes and there are small triangles on its back pointing downwards – a prehistoric beast with a long tail, neither fish nor mammal – a fish-reptile, its four hind legs hanging useless – a fold of time it seems – time here flows like Maeander, turning back to face itself – it bites its tail silently, obediently – an ouroboros of the sea – returning to face again, again – a centennial vertigo – the sea is time.
THERE is a long slope which you need to climb, a distant mountain with a flat peak of white marble – there you will meet a lady dressed like a byzantine empress – she knows what Beauty is – behind the mountain there is a beautiful bay surrounded by a pine forest – a giant lives there, who stands in the water up to his neck and only his head can be seen – he has a giant heart, as big as his whole chest – he wriggles his toes in the muddy sand; the fish like that – he lost a sphere of pink marble in the sea, but he can’t swim, so he can’t retrieve it – beyond the bay there is a cave with four pillars, and you enter as a black-faced wolf – you pass through the cave and you exit as a white cat – a serpent wakes up underground and slowly finds its way to the light.
A wave breaks ominously – there’s noise like oil spilling down a marble staircase – from the depths of a mountain a something rises, rumbling – it could be a volcano or a meteorite in reverse – sisters of flame, two figures burst out of the mountaintop laughing – they have escaped – in the distance a traditional stone bridge arches over a small calm river – the road leads to a vast wetland, a marsh covered in soft grey clouds – still waters, cranes and herons stand quietly in the mild warm rain – the frogs are croaking.
A pure black circle like a total eclipse – a beautiful bay with a smooth white sandy beach, like soft ground ivory – small waves from this shore depart calmly, drawing dancing lines of light on the sand below them – passing over white shells in the shallow waters – a bit further an ancient tree is growing in the water, dark – a choir of shamans is singing in the bark of the tree, their song one of purity and peace – their voices rise louder, a pack of dogs run out of a cave into the harsh midday light – the road to the desert is guarded by a swarm of wasps – they form a cloud with a face of someone you know on it – the distant is white and inviting, completely blank but warm and flat – a cat sleeps on the garden’s wall, its tail hanging.
IN a dry salt lake – the sun is low and the dunes cast long shadows – to the left, a dirt road with scattered pebbles – it disappears behind a mount of rock and soil with no plants on it – where does it lead to? – the silhouette of a pigeon approaching a Greek island – the dark spots in the sea are the reefs – the god’s view of the world is perpendicular to the horizon – spin, there is no void, even when things appear empty – someone pours golden sand from the top of a cliff – glistening winds – the trail of the dove is the rainbow, remember – ruins of an ancient temple, only the steps remain – the snake will eat that wasp.
A squid with big raised eyebrows, the Pleistocene is returning – it is your deathbed, Phaethon, the flaming sky – solar flares impregnate fishes of shallow waters – a camel and its calf are not departing – the child of a shrimp and a slug throws itself in burning tar – chunks of regret detach from the bottom of the pool, and surface – goddess Diana unarmed reprimands – as a priest with a beak attempts to convert her – amongst the hills your molten house – black coral reefs have never been fierier.
I wish I had someone to send a love letter to – ivory arms flat like a whale’s and skin transparent – the heart and lungs, internally displaced – the torso contains a factory of love and hate – kneeling in the mud, arms hanging, head down, hair loose – like collapsing from – a faun without horns, or Saint Sebastian – we digest love, as we do beans and bread – a peacock escapes from my hair – if light was black, the shadows would be white – facing the whiteness, as I descend – we can assume that the sun is behind me.
All photos copyright Petros Koublis.