Poetry: Images of Istanbul by Simon R Gladdish
IMAGES OF ISTANBUL
BY SIMON R. GLADDISH
IMAGES OF ISTANBUL
Following on from the critical success of ‘Victorian Values’ and ‘Back to Basics’, ‘Images of Istanbul’ is the author’s
third collection of poetry.
In many ways it marks a new departure as it is essentially a
travelogue of the poet’s lengthy sojourns in Istanbul and
Kuwait City although a couple of the poems (‘Foxes’ and
‘Telephone’) were written whilst at home in Wales.
For my much-missed mother Enid and father Kenneth (fellow author), my brother Matthew and his family, my sister Sarah and her family and last but never least, my wife Rusty, without whom there would have been nothing.
Simon R Gladdish was born in Kampala, Uganda in 1957.
His family returned to Britain in 1961, to Reading where he grew up.
Educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he trained as an English Language Teacher, a profession which enabled him to live for years in Spain, Turkey, Tunisia and Kuwait. He now lives near Swansea, Wales.
His poetry has been warmly acclaimed by many other poets including Andrew Motion, the present British Poet Laureate.
He has published eight volumes of poetry so far: Victorian Values, Back to Basics, Images of Istanbul, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Original Cliches,
Torn Tickets and Routine Returns and The Tiny Hunchbacked Horse jointly translated from Russian with Vladimir and Elena Grounine.
I arrived last Sunday;
I’ve been here a week
And Turkish is a code
That I don’t speak.
My linguistic incompetence
Is causing me distress;
It’s one of those languages
You can’t even guess.
Sly street vendors
Are aware of this
And taxi drivers
Queue to take the piss.
I’ve got my phrase book
And I’ve got my guide
But have I got enough time
To reverse the tide?
I think I’ll have grown
An extra pair of lungs
Before I make myself known
In this strangest of tongues!
For colourful rulers,
We must look to the east.
Compare and contrast
Our bland western leaders
With their oriental counterparts:
Ivan the Terrible,
Vlad the Impaler,
Selim the Grim,
Saddam the Madman and
Boris the Drunkard.
The price of democracy
Is eternal vigilance
And the sly elevation
Of John the Modest
Over Suleyman the Magnificent.
Soggy snowflakes slowly swirl
Like listless dervishes
Around the Ottoman blocks
Although the press of human traffic
And the heavy tramp of booted feet
Give them little chance to settle
The water was turned off again today.
As I reluctantly rejoined company
With my soiled apparel
I noticed the woman opposite
Washing her windows
For the third time
In as many days;
The imaginary grime,
She reached into every clean corner
Before carefully rehanging
Her opaque net curtains.
105 IZZETIN SOKAK
Our flat is in Kadikoy near the docks.
It’s a bit basic. In fact it’s crap.
It smells of air-freshener and mouldy socks.
We don’t have any carpets;
Well, we’ve got one moth-eaten old rug in the lounge
But most of it is sandy coloured blocks
With matching curtains –
All the rage in Moscow, circa 1950.
The main entrance is tastefully painted two-tone
In curdled cream and dog-shit brown
With an appropriate accompanying stench.
(I don’t know if it’s the gas
But there’s always a lingering malodour of
Cabbages, rotten eggs, urine and decomposing food.)
To the rear we have a narrow balcony
Overlooking a wasteland wilderness
With some ominous cracks near the back door.
(That’s the end we reserve for visitors.)
Speaking of which,
One summer evening we had some guests over for drinks.
Suddenly, something fell from the ceiling
And brushed past my left shoulder.
When it landed, I saw that it was a dung beetle
With fiendish looking pincers
And a tail like a question mark.
After I had crushed it with my carpet slippers
I gave it a closer inspection and realised to my horror
That it was a scorpion which had left a pool of yellow venom
On the living room floor.
(It went a treat with the curtains.)
I thought the women took it very well –
They didn’t all leave immediately.
As you can imagine it worked wonders for our social life.
(Luckily we prefer our own company anyway.)
The funny thing is,
I really like this flat.
I feel remarkably at home here.
I’ve just had a ten-minute shower
And spent an hour mopping it up.
I can’t help thinking
It would have helped a lot
If they had placed the spray
Over the tray
Instead of on the opposite wall
Several feet away.
I walked beside the Bosphorus
And bought a box of phosphorus
In order to ignite
The living-room light.
And when the lamp was lit,
I spelled the word ‘kibrit’
On that little box of phosphorus
I bought along the Bosphorus.
You can see the minarets
Stabbing and probing the heavens
And the sleepy solitary fishing boats
Bobbing gently on the placid waves.
What you see is what you get
Staring out across the Bosphorus;
The celebrated spiky silhouettes
Of Istanbul’s most famous sacred mosques.
The sun begins to set,
Lassoing the city in a loop of light;
Pools of coral-pink and purple-violet
Briefly defy the jet-black curtain of the night.
An everyday scene for an Istanbulite,
But for me a transcendental sight:
The subtly fading contours of the star-strewn skyline
In the dusty pastel colours of Turkish delight.
THE BLUE MOSQUE
Even the moon
Was crescent-shaped and supine,
Lying on its back
Staring at the stars
As it hovered over the Blue Mosque.
It took a while to enter;
We had to cross with silver
An army of extended palms
Before taking off our shoes
And stepping inside.
The carpets ruby-red and sumptuous
Competing with the soaring azure arches
And delicately patterned
Turquoise stained-glass windows.
The colossal columns purposeful and stately
Supporting the noble forehead of the dome;
The wide-eyed windows of the clerestory
Admitting shafts of artificial light
Illuminating the gold on black on gold
Carefully chosen suras of the Koran.
No Muslim I,
Yet can concur with Keats:
Beauty is truth; truth beauty.
That is all we know on earth
And all we need to know.
THE HAGHIA SOPHIA
I was disappointed by the Haghia Sophia.
An ugly brick-red colour
It is imposing without being attractive
And none of the minarets match
Having all been built at different times.
(An elementary error, dear Watson!)
Less like a mosque than a power station
(Byzantine wattage converted to Ottoman voltage?)
You half expect to see thick black smoke
Come belching from its ill-assorted chimneys.
The interior is spacious, light and airy
And contains the fading vandalised remains
Of several magnificent mosaics.
In one of them Christ raises his right hand
In a gesture of blessing
While his left holds a Bible
With the Greek inscription:
‘Peace be with you. I am the light of the world.’
The problem with the Haghia Sophia
Is that it has too many influences
(Roman, Byzantine, Greek and Ottoman)
In a pointless pseudo-synthesis.
The carpet shop was empty
Except for us.
We entreated the proprietor
Not to make a fuss.
We begged him to regard us
Our finances dictated
It was only an inspection.
Still we got the spiel,
We got the feel,
We got the apple tea,
We got the smiles,
The salesman’s wiles,
The in-house lavatory.
We got the chat,
The patterned mat,
The kelim and the rug,
We got the price and the advice,
No wonder we felt smug.
We have to go,
It’s time to catch the ferry.
We’ll be back in a while
For your virgin pile
When we win the lotterery.
Last night we went to see
The Istanbul Symphony Orchestra
Playing at the Ataturk Kultur Merkezi.
What a treat!
They began with a composition by Friedrich Gulda.
The chubby cellist looked like a rotund version
Of Groucho Marx in his owlish gold-rimmed glasses.
Talent? I’ve never heard such talent.
The music poured forth
Like a high-fidelity compact disk
From a quadraphonic sound system
And his hands were just a blur.
He was slightly overweight
And started to sweat under the lights
But his lubricious perspiration merely served
To enhance the overall performance.
Clap? We thought our hands would fall off.
The real star of the show, however, was the conductor.
Elderly, somewhat stooped,
Attired in a white suit with a crimson carnation
And a jaunty cravat wound round his scraggy neck
He was a showman to the tip of his baton.
Charisma? I’ve never seen such charisma.
During the Brahms Gypsy Dance he snatched a fiddle
From one of the lady violinists
And played a whole section
Facing the audience.
Laugh? The whole place erupted.
Then, during the Strauss Spring Voices Waltz
He executed a little soft-shoe shuffle on the stage.
Applaud? We went wild.
The final number was Hayman’s Hoedown,
You know that American piece with all the rodeo noises.
Anyway, on the final note
The drummer produced a pistol
And shot the conductor at point-blank range.
He lay there for a long time and the audience left.
I assume he’s alright;
He’s performing in Prague on Sunday.
Mehmet may not be the best hairdresser in Istanbul
But he’s certainly the cheapest and the most honest.
Actually I’m just being flippant – he’s excellent.
He’s a craftsman, an artisan, an artist.
He doesn’t simply shear hair,
He shapes it, moulds it and sculpts it
Like a topiarist transforming a privet hedge.
He smells of cigarette smoke and eau de cologne
And keeps breaking off to answer the phone.
The first time that I met Mehmet
He ran his fingers through my hair
Before I’d even got into the chair
And kept winking at me,
Obviously trying to put me at my ease.
He’s terribly friendly
(I’m surprised he hasn’t found himself a wife)
Still, he seems quite happy.
His hands are two feathery little sparrows
That dart and flutter round your head
Like a soft and gentle breeze.
The fact that I hardly speak a word of Turkish
Doesn’t inhibit him from carrying on
A convoluted conversation in that esoteric tongue.
All too soon it’s done.
Out come the tissues and the brushes and the mirrors,
The ultimate flourish of eau de cologne
And the final proprietorial pat on the head.
The best part of all
Is that when I pay him (bahshish included)
He lays his hand on his heart and gives a low bow.
How’s that for service?
(You’re lucky to get a nod in England.)
I’m going again next month.
I’d go every day if I could afford to.
Lying in bed late one night,
A strange inhuman cry
Percolated through our slightly open window.
‘What sort of a bird is that?’ I inquired.
‘It’s a cat,’ my wife replied.
‘I’ve never been much of an ornithologist.’ I sighed.
‘It’s an easy mistake to make,’ she lied.
I tried to teach the bird to talk
But he stayed as dumb as a piece of chalk.
I opened the cage to set him free
But he didn’t even look at me.
I opened the cage to free the bird
But the blinkered budgie never stirred.
I clasped him firm and held him high
But the barmy bird refused to fly.
I put him on the window-sill
And I dare say he would be there still
If I hadn’t replaced him in his cage
And braced myself for heaven’s rage.
FLOCK OF BATS
At night the block of flats
Becomes a flock of bats.
A crowd, a black cloud
Wheeling, whirling, spiralling
Round and around
Seventy feet above the ground.
Sinister, sightless and sad,
The blind leading the blind
In a circular pageant.
Neither bird nor mouse,
The topsy-turvy tenants
Of a haunted house.
Using auditory vision
And radar for flight,
They spin out their lives
In perpetual night.
I saw a rat the other day.
It was about a foot long
And that was just its tail.
It was nonchalantly sauntering
Towards an open drain,
Had a leisurely look round,
Twitched its whiskers and sighed
Before reluctantly deciding to return
To the sewer.
It must get a bit boring
In the bowels of the earth.
Even rats appreciate
The wind in their fur,
The sun on their backs
And a necessary change of scene
From time to time.
Probably just stretching its legs
After an afternoon’s love-making.
Everyone who saw it laughed
And a couple of Black Sea sailors
In their resplendent gold-braided uniforms.
A wind-borne insect blew in
Through our open window,
Its legs so thin I could barely see them
But that didn’t stop it running around
Flapping its gossamer wings,
Tiny yet bent on survival.
Single-mindedly searching for food and sex,
Air and water;
Keeping a wary eye out for larger predators
It didn’t realise it was in no danger.
I watched transfixed,
Aware I was observing
A minute miracle.
Spain has the Alhambra,
Yugoslavia had Tito
And Turkey has as many mosques
I was woken at five o’clock this morning
By the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer
And the high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito
In my right ear.
I found it difficult to disentangle
The pricking of religious conscience
From the persistent fizzing
Of the insolent insect.
All I knew was that I had lost a beautiful dream
And was unreasonably upset.
Vengeance would be mine.
At length I arose
Not to attend the mosque
But to attend to the mosquito;
My mission to seek and destroy
My bloodthirsty tormentor
(The least of Allah’s creatures)
And give it a taste of its own scarlet medicine.
The red smudge on the bedroom wall
Almost rebalanced the scales of justice.
Life is a problem,
A conundrum, a paradox,
A brain-teaser, a black-box,
A maze, a mirage, a labyrinth,
A Chinese puzzle, a riddle, an enigma,
A mystery; some would argue a cosmic farce.
Allah created the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars
Then hid Himself away in his seventy-seventh Heaven
Where even nuclear physicists can’t find Him.
The rocket scientist and the village idiot
Waver between the same two choices
We have always had:
Or blind faith.
When God made us,
She made us blind;
Unable to unravel
The process that produced us.
When God created humankind,
Her superior intellect
Totally traduced us.
When we try to understand
The way the universe was planned,
We find ourselves unmanned
By ontological constrictions.
Our intelligence is dim;
The Almighty’s slightest whim
Can ensnare us in a maze
Philosophers like Kant
Knew less than my great aunt
Although his published works
As for Berkeley, Locke and Hume
Who opined from womb to tomb,
They knew about as much as my mate Trevor.
Why did God make Mohammed?
Because he wanted to make a prophet.
Why Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus?
Because he wanted to warn us.
You love this fleeting life too well
(Wrote Allah in His holy Book)
Yet don’t forget the Gates of Hell
Stand open. Take a closer look.
The Gates of Hell are gaping wide
For all who live in sinful pride,
But anyone who is generous, wise
Shall surely enter paradise.
The next life is the one where we
May live in peace and harmony.
In this life we must sweat and toil
And spill our seed on barren soil.
So that’s why God made Noah, Moses,
The Heavens and the earth, the rainbow and the roses;
Whales and crocodiles, camels and horses
And the sun and the moon pursuing their courses.
On a dazzling Mediterranean morning
The scent of baking bread wafts mouth-wateringly
Along the still silent streets mingling
With the perfumes of mimosa and jasmine
Gently suffusing the sun-filled gardens.
The world sleeps on sublimely unaware
Of the workers toiling in the boiling bakery.
Darkling-dim and stifling hot; smoke-blackened beams
Snow-smothered by the flour-laden air.
Moustachioed men, loose-clad in cotton whites
Dash quickly back and forth in practised moves;
Hardly speaking, muscles rippling, backs complaining,
Straining to lift the scores of golden loaves
Out of the yawning furnace.
Teeth flashing, faces grinning in the gloom,
A familiar fragrance fills the dingy room.
Suddenly, without ceremony
The patient townsfolk
Step from the shadows
Eager to snatch up the yellow treasure
Spilling from the glowing cavern.
They rush outside
Clutching their bounty,
Racing down sunlit streets,
Feet pounding on uneven pavements;
Tossing and catching the baguettes
Too hot to handle or to hold.
The sun climbs high in a sapphire sky,
The day already glistering like gold.
Whilst the neighbourhood is still asleep,
A brown-skinned boy with broken teeth appears,
Knees buckling under the burden of a bulky tray
Precariously balanced on his head,
Piled high with quoit-shaped sesame-seed buns
Which sparkle in the early morning sun.
The townspeople are stirring in their beds,
The simit-seller’s song resounds through empty streets.
The neighbours are resistant and reluctant to awake
But the simit-seller is nothing if not persistent.
He is rewarded by a window in the wooden house above
Flung wide. A tousled head blears out
Bat-blinking at the unaccustomed light.
She holds up all ten fingers
And lowers her wickerwork basket
Bouncing and rebounding off the rough uneven walls.
With an acknowledging call
She hauls up her family’s simple austere breakfast.
The brown-skinned boy is smiling now,
Revealing his decaying sandstone teeth.
He carefully secretes away his daily bread
Then continues on his way, his strident propaganda piercing
The hungry subconscious of the slumbering neighbourhood.
Further down the street more windows swing and baskets fall
To receive the fresh elusive flavour of a new-born day.
Did you hear about the Turkish baker
Who worked night and day
And still never made enough dough?
He became a poet,
Callling himself Selim Bulent Yeast.
Here is an example of one of his early efforts
(Indeed his only composition to date.)
The translation is literal
Rather than literary or lyrical.
‘Turkish bread is very good.
It tastes as freshly baked bread should.
It doesn’t taste of shredded wood.
It tastes instead like real food.’
Selim assures me he’s got a lot more
Poetic buns in the oven.
Congratulations on your new career, Selim,
But don’t give up the day and night job just yet!
Octogenarians throw away their canes;
The blind develop second sight.
Pregnant women outsprint Olympic atheletes.
Has Jesus Christ returned? Not quite.
The citizens of Istanbul
Are attempting to cross the streets.
Turkish traffic needs to be perceived
To be believed or even conceived.
There are no laws, rules or regulations
Apart from resolute action-stations
And the survival of the quickest.
Traffic lights are just abused,
Zebra crossings lie unused.
Yellow taxis swarm like angry wasps
Scattering pedestrians like pigeons.
Private motorists hold a cosmic grudge;
Public vehicles cover you in sludge
And it would be quicker to push
The average dolmush.
You can taste the pollution
And the only solution
Is to stick to the uneven pavements
Where the worst you can sustain
Is a broken ankle
Or some lumber pain.
The world slips past in a profusion of colours.
The ferryboat glides swiftly through the waters
Pursued by a stiffly blowing breeze.
The sunlight sparkles on the stunted wavelets
Tinted green and grey and blue.
Seated on the grimy decks, our hands clasped round our knees,
We gaze dreamily at the distant shore
Where the floating palaces, gleaming like ivory
Lie in stately elegance, glistening silently.
Seagulls hover hopefully above the hold,
Jostling and crowding each other like hungry schoolboys;
The ship is humming with a multitude of voices.
Clutching favourite toys, exclaiming in delight,
Children, shouting joyfully into the wind,
Lean recklessly between the safety rails,
Gripped by indulgent over-anxious parents.
The insistent cry of the tea-seller mingles with
The excited murmuring of the holiday throng;
Manoeuvering his delicately balanced tray
Covered with crystal glasses half-filled
With pale-green apple-scented tea,
He plies the gangways calling out his song.
The simit-seller with broken teeth
And tray piled high with sesame-seed buns
Stacked carefully on his head grins shyly.
Gracing the banks of the Bosphorus
Stand old Ottoman houses built of wood
Stll flawless having stood the test of time and watery decay.
As it threatens to get dark
We dock with an almighty thud against the tyres
Suspended from the quay
And, chattering like chaffinches,
It was hot this afternoon
When we wandered into town.
I went to the Kitapchu
And bought myself a Turkish Bible.
I couldn’t understand a word
Though perhaps one day I will.
Then we walked along the quay
Looking for a suitable café.
Eventually we found one
That was reasonably empty.
We ordered a couple of cans
In front of us
A bottled blond
And smoking heavily
Was tossing her nicotine-stained hair
Like a horse switching its tail.
Like most Turkish women
She was painfully thin.
I never know whether it’s fashion
We tipped the waiter out of guilt
Who responded by making us
A linguistically impenetrable offer.
Tempted to accept
On the number of times
We’ve been fleeced
And politely declined.
We both sighed and crossed our legs.
It hadn’t been a perfect day
Although it had been perfectly O.K.
In the sleepy sultry afternoon
Heavy with soporific heat,
Cats lie sprawled in the shade
Of the broad-leafed fig trees
Keeping a lazy surveillance of the dusty street.
Kids muck about in the gutters
Playing football and leapfrog and tag;
A woman pulls open the shutters,
A vagabond drags on a fag.
Mosques silhouette in the distance,
Cupolas outreaching the trees;
Flags feebly flap from the buildings
Stirred by a half-hearted breeze.
Fairly soon the moon will rise up full
And conclude another slothful afternoon
The glinting grey domes of Suleymaniye mosque
Ascend above the city’s skyline,
Brooding and omnipotent in the sultry summer haze;
The muezzin’s mournful summons echoes in the maze
Of bustling, teeming streets swarming with market traders,
Their strident voices vying with the holy exhortations.
Inside the mosque the stone is cool and atmosphere is still,
A soothing tranquil balm to calm our jangled overheated nerves.
Footsore and weary, tourists drooping like lilies in the heat
Ease off their dusty sandals from tired feet.
Awestruck they stand, staring in wonder,
Stunned into silence by such sumptuous splendour.
We linger under the central dome,
Necks craning, eyes straining to gaze up at man-made miracles.
Muted sunlight streams through stained-glass windows
Throwing vibrant glowing colours at the gloom;
We pause amazed at walls ablaze with blue ceramic tiles
Like gentians in full bloom.
Our adoration is abruptly interrupted
By a flock of Japanese tourists;
Childlike voices chattering and purring with delight,
Cameras clicking and whirring as they sweep past
In a flurry of flashes, hurriedly herded by their guide
Who rushes them off to the next mosque.
We follow them out of the main gate with the chiselled inscription:
‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet’
And wander slowly home through crowded city streets.
‘In 1539 at the age of 49, after being appointed
chief of the imperial architects by Suleyman I
who appreciated his great talent, Sinan created
his magnificent buildings. In his lifetime he
built 80 large mosques, many schools, hospitals,
palaces, bridges, aqueducts and turkish baths.’
Sinan meant to Istanbul
What Wren would later mean to London.
He turned an average town into an imperial city;
The mercury of mediocrity
Into the sublimest silver and most glorious gold;
Ideas into reality, dreams into buildings, visions into stone
And civic architecture into a soaring Saracen symphony.
Sinan died in 1588 aged 98
And was buried in a simple grave
Beyond the outer courtyard of the Suleymaniye mosque,
His place in paradise and history as solidly secure
As the firm foundations of his own creations.
Today is National Children’s day
And Turkish banners drape from every window.
The crescent moon protecting the shining pentangle
Like a pair of headphones,
An open parachute
Or even a blood-soaked bandage,
Brilliant white against a crimson background.
What are we make of this?
It’s only fair to point out
That Turks are not particularly nice to children
(Or anybody else.)
They send them out to play or beg
In deepest darkest winter,
Thrash them when they complain
And herd them into overcrowded classrooms
Manned by suicidal undernourished teachers.
On the other hand
Such instinctive support
For so worthy a cause
On the radio today
I heard that another batch of Kurdish terrorists
Had been executed
And a couple of investigative journalists
Patriotism, nationalism, chauvinism, jingoism, ethnic cleansing
Is all a matter of degree;
Call me a sceptical Englishman
But rather you than me.
I wish I could write
Like Guneli Gun
But I can’t
As well as her aunt.
Drinking in a crummy bar,
Wearing a filthy mac,
A girl walks past the window
Her blond hair streaming down her back.
Music pours through the speakers,
Turkish and incomprehensible;
My feelings about this country
Are frankly indefensible.
Third world chic and Black Sea cheek
Are not what I am after;
Please take me back to the pool that’s black
And sand and sea and laughter.
PARTY AT GOZTEPE
Two nights ago I attended a party at Goztepe,
Got blind drunk and profoundly offended
A woman I don’t even know
Which just goes to show
The dangers of drinking immoderately
And acting irresponsibly.
I identified her as a feminist
And heaped on her the sort of ritual abuse
That insecure males reserve
For such occasions.
(I’ve always been a bit uncouth.)
Too late to apologize,
Unable to find her,
I feel the burning brands of shame
Behind my ears
And the bitter taste of ashes in my mouth.
You high-bosomed houri
With your tray of sherbet,
Your long dark tresses
And your bashful smile,
Your shyly sparkling eyes
And your milk-white teeth,
Your hot black coffee
And your bunch of purple grapes.
Am I dead already?
Did I pass the test?
Or in some seedy café
In old Istanbul?
You bow your head and whisper
In a voice like tinkling silver
That I’d better get a move on
Since you close at twelve.
Last night I dreamt about a perfect poem.
It was only one page long, that is
Length played no great part in its immensity
Yet frightening in its intensity.
It reminded us
We are but shadows fencing on a summer lawn
Condemned to die as soon as we are born,
Patiently awaiting the explosion of the sun.
It reminded us
That liquid splashes
And love and passion turn to dust and ashes.
It reminded us that all is vanity
And the quest for permanence, insanity.
We are human flotsam scattered by the wind
Into the whirlpool of nothing.
So true was the poem
That the words hurt
Like needles driven into flesh,
The metaphors timeless yet still fresh
Mocking us as much with their antiquity
As their immediacy.
I wish I could remember how it went,
Or if it rhymed or if it bent
This way or that but can recall
Almost nothing save for its existence.
Such abject failure of my memory
Makes it impertinent of me
To scribble even these few lines
In pathetic apology
And clumsy mimicry
Of my dream poem’s authenticity.
IMAGES OF ISTANBUL (HAIKU)
A haiku is a Japanese poem
Composed of only three lines
And no more than (say) twenty words.
The Judas tree is flowering
Pink blossoms luxuriate in the sunshine
Soon the petals will fall and form a carpet.
A sudden storm detonates
People cower and run for cover
The thirsty earth opens its mouth and drinks.
Cats howl at midnight
Screaming like abandoned children
Scratching out each others’ hair and eyes.
The family opposite
Can see right into our apartment
Luckily they are Turkish so it doesn’t matter.
A scorpion scuttles across our bedroom floor
Thinking it a beetle
I squash it with my bare feet.
The trader gave us a grudging discount
On two pairs of sandals
Which fell to pieces when we wore them.
The weary potato vendor
Wears out his voice and shoe leather
Before trudging home to a plate of cold chips.
So much depends upon the red tomatoes
Glazed with rainwater
Beside the white mushrooms.
The simit-seller is a charming fellow
Whose accomplishments are stellar
Though his teeth are rather yellow.
Istanbul taxi drivers have no sense of direction
They always go the wrong way, apologize profusely
And then charge double.
Turkish flags float from every window
Scarlet and white like a bloody bandage;
Tourists smile indulgently.
I noticed an attractive young woman
Wearing a black headscarf and veil
I smiled, she blushed, we both looked away.
The fishmonger pours tapwater
On his catch to keep it fresh;
The fluttering fins and cloudy eyes register grim approval.
The Bosphorus is a sheet of glass
The ships, insects crawling across it;
The centipede, a Turkish galley.
The ferry steams from Kadikoy to Eminunou
The passengers outnumbered
By shrieking seagulls, cormorants and guillemots.
After the football match
Excited supporters fire their guns
In celebration of their comprehensive defeat.
Most people are sheep
They follow the herd and always seem amazed
When the end up in the abattoir.
The sky fades over Istanbul
In the smoky Ottoman blocks
Lonely orange windows light up one by one.
The night wraps Istanbul in a velvet cloak
The minarets puncture the indigo fabric
Creating tiny pinpricks of light.
Turkish, unlike Arabic
Is a mellifluous language
Beautiful and incomprehensible in equal measure.
I saw a fox this morning,
No, that’s not strictly true;
Under the spreading apple tree
I actually spotted two.
Blissfully unaware of me
They made no attempt to hide;
One was coiled upon the bench,
The other alongside.
Among the foxgloves and the buttercups,
Muscles twitching, ears rotating,
The morning sunlight on their backs
As bronze as copper-plating.
Delightfully at rest,
Nudging and nestling further
Into their chestnut fur,
Their gingery hair,
The white blaze on their chest;
Their pointy noses quivering,
Questing the scented air.
Relaxing after hunting
With no cares in the world,
Their bodies sleekly slumbering,
Their brushes neatly furled.
Eventually the lower one
Got slowly to his feet,
Sniffed the air, twirled round three times
And went straight back to sleep.
Later, when I peered again
The bench was quite bereft,
Aurelien and Reynard
Had evidently left.
Believers boast of miracles,
Of water into wine
But the Holy Book of Nature
Remains the Creator’s greatest sign.
The telephone dismembers the silence
Like a spoilt child demanding attention.
(I am already engaged.)
I break off what I am doing
And amble slowly towards it.
(The telephone and I are old adversaries.)
As I stretch out my hand
To squeeze its plastic throat
It dies on me, its final convulsion
Merging with the serenity it has abruptly ruptured.
I should resume my former task
But the interruption has upset me.
Was it my wife, my mistress, my father, my boss?
I ought to ring round and find out
But I can’t be bothered
And anyway people would think I was mad.
Sighing deeply and
Pausing only to curse the inventiveness
Of Alexander Graham Bell,
I return to my work.
Kuwait’s an interesting country:
There’s sand and sea and sun
And soaring, gleaming grey skyscrapers
With cockroaches inside,
And lugubrious camels
Munching the threadbare scrub
Along the margins of the desert.
Kuwait is an interesting country
With its dish-dashas and car crashes,
Flowing white robes
And open-toed sandals,
Square squat modern blocks,
Kiosks and mosques on every corner.
Its pylons and nylons,
Rayons and crayons,
Prayer mats and stray cats.
Oh, I almost forgot
The millions of gallons of oil,
A veritable mass
Of petrol and diesel and gas;
The substance below,
The odour most definitely above ground.
Kuwait is an interesting country. Just Q8.
Hanadi, you are black
And the abaya on your back
Your smile as radiant as the stars,
A crescent moon slung like a hammock
Between Jupiter and Mars.
Your salt-white teeth
As precious as the milky pearls
Your forefathers used to dive for.
When I see you in the classroom
Demurely seated to my right-hand side,
My weary spirits lift.
I, a harassed teacher
Dreaming of yards of untouched yellow sand,
Miles of waving, dimpled denim sea
And Copacabana cocktails in the Caribbean.
Only one thing saddens me, Hanadi.
Why is there always an empty space
Between you and the other girls?
Even stars have companions.
I arrive late and sweating,
Push open the door and enter the room.
The others are already there, seated.
The atmosphere is tense, moody, profoundly irritable.
I don’t want to look at them
So I stare at the floor.
The stale air tightens like a noose.
Slowly I raise my head
And peer apologetically around.
I see their grim, pitiless faces
And read the contempt and hatred
Written in their eyes.
They make no effort to conceal
Their intense loathing of me
And everything I stand for.
They obviously believe I’m guilty
And I’m beginning to wonder
If they don’t have a point.
The blood hammers in my temples
And my heart smashes against my ribs
Like a caged cockatoo.
I try to speak.
Inarticulate sounds gurgle in my throat.
I try again and can just discern
A thin, reedy, strangulated voice
I barely recognize as my own.
‘Good morning class. Please open your books at page 13.’
Five times a day the muezzin calls.
His summons shakes the city walls.
It’s frankly getting on my nerves,
But never mind.
And as the world is new and old
The self-same story must be told
To draw the faithful to the fold
In harsher voice than any bell
(Designed to scare the infidel)
He frightens us with scenes of hell
(It sounds a bit like EFL)
The endless repetitions till
Our bones are seized with rust
And our mouths are stopped with dust.
We know we do not stand a chance,
Our fortune is to sway and dance
To the rhythm of creation.
Five times a day the muezzin calls.
His summons shakes the city walls
To their foundation.
I envy bakers their daily bread.
I envy those already dead.
I think, as I’ve already said,
I envy them.
Diplomats with their pretty wives,
Aristocrats with their easy lives,
Almost anyone who survives
The butchers with their steely knives.
Everyone who hasn’t a care,
Anybody with plenty of hair,
I envy them.
I envy those who are blessed with luck,
The idle rich who don’t have to work,
The feckless poor who don’t give a fig;
I envy them.
Children who are loving and giving,
Parents who work hard for a living,
Atheists who end up believing;
I envy them.
Sensation-seekers in faraway places
(Especially those with beautiful faces)
Winners who’ve been dealt all the aces;
I envy them.
I saw a woman with a family to feed,
I watched her care-worn fingers bleed,
She had no time to play or read;
I didn’t envy her.
I saw a child without a limb,
Blown up by a home-made bomb.
He’d barely left his mother’s womb;
I didn’t envy him.
When I’m in the bath
I could be in any bath,
Anywhere in the world.
And when I’m in bed
I could be in any old bed.
And when I wake up
I could be absolutely anywhere,
Anywhere at all.
And when I’m in the kitchen making tea,
I could be in any kitchen
In the known universe.
And when I drive to work
I could be in any country
(That drives on the right-hand side.)
And when I’m in the classroom trying to teach,
I could be in any secondary school
On the planet.
It’s only when I’m in your arms
That I realize I’m completely lost.
The eye is the enemy of seeing,
The ear of hearing,
The tongue of tasting,
The nose of smelling,
And the fingers of touching.
Reason is the enemy of understanding
And logic of comprehension.
Sex is the enemy of love
And children the enemy of freedom
Which is the enemy of fatherhood.
When you see an enemy
It is something you wouldn’t wish
On your worst anemone.
My enemy is dead
I think, I believe, I wish, I pray, I hope
He doesn’t read this poem.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend
And we are all
Our own worst enemy.
SULTANS AND SLAVES
Whilst we cower beneath life’s storms
Before becoming food for worms,
Sultans and slaves
Sleep in their graves
The wind and the waves.
Poets are poor
And live in hovels
Because they’re too lazy
To write novels.
Novelists are rich
And live in chateaux.
‘Another glass of port, please
To accompany my gateau!’
Life is cruel
To poets in garrets.
They subsist on gruel
Made of mouldy carrots.
Lost in thought
On a southbound train,
I add a pointless adjective
To lengthen the refrain.
When I look in the mirror
I see lines of age
But it’s better than staring
At an empty page.
Until we’re buried
In the barren earth,
The thickness of our wallet
Is the measure of our worth.
I too could have been
A famous novelist
If I’d spent fewer evenings
In an existential mist.
The right of Simon R. Gladdish to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.