Are YOU a Christian?

The too loud music that came from the dusty field behind the University apartment complex that would become my home for the next three years grated on my nerves. It was late summer afternoon and I had just arrived to take up a teaching post in Ankara, deposited miles from the city in what felt like the middle of nowhere by a helpful student who then hastened away. My eyes stung, for this was still in the days when, believe it or not, smoking was allowed on international flights. The combination of the dry, smoky atmosphere inside the plane, together with a virus I must have picked up the day before saying good-bye to my infant niece— worsened by the fatigue of my voyage and the stress of encountering an new life alone in a foreign land—was beginning to inflame them with conjunctivitis. As I kept scratching, I made an inventory of my clean but meagerly furnished flat, from its drab institutional carpeting to its beige painted walls, from the two forks I found in a drawer of the narrow kitchen, to the three plates in the cupboard. I stretched out atop the rough woolen blanket covering the twin bed and tried to ignore the relentless pounding of percussion, the screeching of unfamiliar instruments, and the shrill voices keening an incomprehensible language. I moaned and covered my ears and somehow, as darkness finally fell, with no letup in the din, I managed to fall asleep.

I woke late in the jet-lagged morning to someone knocking at the door.

“Merhaba. Gunydin. I am Ali, your kapci.” He was a youngish man, handsome, with jet black hair and thick moustache. He had come to welcome me and explain his function. As kapci—key man—he was in charge of the building and grounds. He would be picking up the trash when I left the blue plastic bucket outside in the hall, and, he added, looking down at my feet, that he would also shine my shoes, if I would leave them by the door.

I asked him what was with all the noise last night? A party for the workers and their families, he smiled, given by the Rector. I went out back and saw barbeque equipment still set up on the slope that led up to a construction site. A few older men wearing gray caps and gray moustaches gathered the remaining folding chairs to load in a waiting truck. Party trash had been raked into a large pile. The parched brown grass had been heavily trampled. There had been food, music, dancing—drink, probably.

“You should have come to join us,” said Ali. I probably should have.

As it was, it took me a some time to appreciate Turkish hospitality, to manage the give and take of bargaining at Maltepe pazar, to understand and exchange Turkish greetings, to get used to Turkish customs such as the fasting at Ramazan, to recognize in the call to prayer a ritual that marked the rhythms daily life. And it took me quite a while indeed to warm up to the beauty of Turkish music. Schooled in Western harmony, my ear was baffled by the complete absence of counterpoint. Put off by a melodic structure that violated normal temperament and lacked chordal accompaniment, I hastily judged this unfamiliar music to be primitive, stuck in the evolutionary past. Consequently, I was deaf, whenever I heard it, to its melodic intricacies, rhythmic complexities, and emotional intensities.

Yet, in time, I adjusted. The campus pharmacist knew just the right medicine to fix my eyes. Ali showed me the pleasure of having polished shoes to wear. My students helped me do marketing and invited me home to Turkish meals where, after dessert, everyone was invited to sing his favorite song. The university offered classes in Turkish language, and I learned from Father Leighton—the Irish priest who taught history and said mass at the Vatican embassy—that Ramazan ends with the Feast of Sacrifice—a celebration commemorating the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac—a founding myth of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam.

As for music, my friend Pierre took me one evening to a lokanta downtown that served beer on the terrace and featured Turkish musicians playing inside. Pierre was from Luxemburg and a pioneering professor of Computer Science. It was one of the unexpected realities, living at Bilkent, that it was possible to make friends not only with Turkish students, professors, and staff, but with teachers from all over the world who often took pleasure in sharing their Turkish discoveries. Life as a foreign professor in Turkey had its headaches—bureaucratic obstacles, unpredictable bus service, the lack of any nearby grocery store—but they were more than offset by the richness of an unparalleled cultural milieu.

Pierre was a tireless adventurer. He would mount his bicycle on the roof of his car and spend his weekends touring the countryside with a Turkish colleague. He was the one who led excursions to Ankara’s oldest hamam (Turkish bath) and was planning to spend the next bayram (a religious holiday when there’d be no classes) visiting Iran. The more he poured out his tales, the better the beer went down, and the better the beer went down, the better the music sounded. As I took in the joyous chatter of Turkish voices around me, I became aware of the heady rush delivered by the Turkish musicians reaching swell after swell of melodic climax repeated time and again.

Edwin, another new friend—he taught painting—took me up into the Ankara citadel, the old Byzantine fortress within whose walls—many of whose blocks were salvaged by builders long ago from even older Roman ruins—meandered narrow lanes left over from the medieval Ottoman town whose houses still lined them. Edwin was a scholar of Byzantine art, and as we looked down from the high ramparts, he explained the history of the peoples layered beneath us: the modern Turks atop, the medieval Ottomans, atop the mysterious Seljuks, atop the artful Byzantines, atop the conquering Romans, atop the clever Greeks, atop the forgotten Persians, atop the ancient Hittites, all the way back to the dawn of civilization.

Towards the end of term, Edwin invited me to come with him to Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican embassy. The Vatican embassy exists on embassy row in one of the most plush sections of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. To get there we crossed town from the bus stop, on foot, through the modern commercial heart of the city. Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but they celebrate New Year’s, and the streets were decorated with lights much as any city in the US would be. In fact, the season has become a commercial holiday in most places of the developed world. As I walked along with Edwin and his wife, passing vendors selling roasted chestnuts, Edwin voiced his belief that what happens on Christmas Eve becomes an omen that predicts what will happen in the coming year.

There were a hundred people gathered in the chapel, maybe more, dressed in their best, seated at pews that circled around the central altar, among them many families with children for whom Christmas is a perpetual wonder. Our friend, Father Leighton, said the mass. The familiar carols, the bright faces of the kids, my satisfaction at having made new friends, the Christmas message of peace on earth, together with a bit of home sickness, made me sentimental. Although I had given up going to communion long before, I decided, in the spirit of the occasion, that I’d participate now. I felt a little awkward, though, not quite up to speed on how taking communion was done these days, it had been so long since my altar boy days, so I hung back a little and watched what the others did, taking the host in their hands and accepting a sip of from the chalice.

There would have been no problem had I been in the line that led to Father Leighton, but I was not. Instead, I was in the line that led to a habited sister, who when I approached a bit nervously, did not voice the expected invitation, “Body of Christ?” Instead, she challenged me in a tone of surprised incredulity. “Are you a Christian?” she demanded.

This was not at all a good omen. And although it was only an awkward moment and the good sister soon offered me the host, the experience has always bothered me. I see it today as a bad omen. It spoke ominously of the inherent suspicion many westerners harbor against Muslims. Yes, I am olive-skinned enough to resemble a Turkish citizen, and sure, I had neglected to shave that evening, but what reason would I have had, Muslim or not, for taking communion other than a desire to share in the ritual? And who was she to think of denying me communion, of denying me belonging?

There are many Americans today who, knowing little of Muslims or Islam beyond news reports of terrorist attacks, see Islam and the West pitted against each other in intractable conflict. I would ask them to study history more carefully in order to understand the common ground of Mediterranean culture we share and the legacies of ancient science, art, and religion we enjoy. What stands between Islam and the West is not alien otherness but a kind of reciprocal mixing. I would invite doubters to visit Turkey to see this kind of mixing in action. If Turkish democracy is now being challenged by authoritarianism, and it is, this seems only one more way our cultures can be seen to resemble each other. Am I a Christian? Yes, and a Muslim, too.

Linguistic recklessness and the political norm

Dear Readers,

My most recent posting from the series At the Musarium may very well have been my final posting. For reasons both creative & political, the series has probably run its course.

Creatively, the experimental impulse that has fueled the series for about eight years has waned. For the last year or so, certainly, the results of the experiments have often seemed repetitious and margins for variation have felt thin. When a poet recognizes this about his work, it is time to move on.

More crucially, given the current state of political discourse, I have come to question the value of the quasi-nonsensical fun I’ve been having with words as represented in the At the Musarium series. I by no means disavow the fun that was had, but only point out the work to be done. For what good is to be expected from calculated recklessness with language, when a very similar strategy has become the political norm?

I would have been delighted, until recently, to have heard a reader describe my verses in terms of “raw, unedited, stream-of-consciousness riffs that teeter on the edge of incoherence,” but not when these are the terms used by respected journalist Michiko Kakutani to describe “Donald Trump’s Chilling Language, and the Fearsome Power of Words.”

[http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/donald-trumps-chilling-language-and-the-power-of-words].

How can I continue to write “sentences . . .  stuffed full with shaggy-dog digressions, frequent narcissistic asides, false starts, odd qualifiers, and free associative ramblings” when this is exactly what results from Trump opening his mouth & moving his thumps?  What Kakutani identifies as the confusion caused by Trump’s “word salad” style & what linguist Andrew Hines calls the “sort of metaphorical chaos” nesting in his rhetoric are very much the kinds of disruptions my experiments willingly courted.

[http://theconversation.com/donald-trumps-chaotic-use-of-metaphor-is-a-crucial-part-of-his-appeal-61383]

Trump’s rhetorical collage of right-wing fear mongerings—juxtaposing building a wall with draining the swamp, set against a graveyard backdrop of abandoned factories dotting the landscape like tombstones—have had a sort of mesmerizing quality that Kakutani sees as having penetrated “our A.D.D., information-overloaded era in which the loudest, shrillest and most sensationalistic voices tend to be the ones heard above the din.”

This is the political context that makes this poet’s experiments with syntax, metaphor, malapropism, and various poetic voices conjured out of the associative stirrings of lexical frequency seem superfluous. When “word salad” has become the status quo, dishing it up can no longer be considered subversive. The necessary experiments are not any more ones muffled by surrealism but ones engaged in a more determined commitments to say what is meant.

Thanks,

Peter J. Grieco

At the Musarium [8301 – 8400]

[8301 – 8400]

Those ineffable suns, that crackling out
of the surly blouse of the Southeast chafe
inscrutable Halifax & absorb
its hazy draughts, that meditate upon
its arable but unbearable nucleus
of disciplined enlightenment before
vanishing in a fickle secession
from kingly courtship & consistently
oblong completeness, that then switch back from
fir to primrose—oughtn’t they be bothered,
as I am bothered, by dejection, by this
unprecedented sabre of indictment,
by these scissors of stupor & retribution?

Composed: 12-31-16

At the Musarium

[7601 – 7700]

Sagacious, inexperienced, downcast
bent over the archives of a stalwart
witchcraft, weaving a Breton tapestry
out of woollen yarn & conveniently
pompous appellation, Mia unlocked
injunction from its subterranean
illegal sandstone compartment beneath
a Brooklyn sidewalk. It smelt of sulphur
of gunpowder, like a brace of onion
or congress of manure. Restlessness is
a tumultuous barbarian, a
timely lunatic, tracing nuisance from
its whereabouts among the firmament
to an attic nook in the closet
of acquiescence.

At the Musarium [6301 – 6400]

[6301 – 6400]

From bachelor to bridegroom, his fondness
for Sophia was no affectation.
As he sez in his diary, “No mere
bluff, her sagacity would dwarf a Montague.
Her temperate mien as chaste an offense
[sic] as filthy cigars in the winged
puzzle of diversion.” As they, so we.
We mourn each elementary unit of
fearless utility, each inference
of olive, rusty with a tint of dal.
We un-cork the burgundy & sneer. We
vanish, convicted, as in the fable of Mabel
& her sweetheart, Otto, & marshal all
against the appalling rats of Amsterdam.

Composed 10-22-16

At the Musarium [5901 – 6000]

[5901 – 6000]

How joyful, Antonio, to crash
an elephant into Jupiter! To barrel
energetic through majestic Quebec.
Amazing to have tasted the courteous
displeasure of revolutionary
Milan & salute the repetition
of palaces & thieves. How fortunate
for swimming trunks & democratic im-
provements, that warlike Edgar choked down
repentance, his lungs decorated with
tranquil lays of granite & ivory.
How, unexpectedly, then, will she impress
a needle or compel a fold, & detach
herself aloft, away from mute torment.

Composed: 10-15-16

At the Musarium

[22101 – 22200]

Heavy-hearted & auricular, her
etymologies spank with gristle the
lorgnette sternum of the islander,
Carabao. “Ugh,” sortes he, at the uncalled-for
jab, his kinetic masculinity undiluted.
How pleasingly shaped is this trickster,
Melancholia, her acrobatic
mammalian periodicity, her
mementoes that unwind & inveigh
suchlike disjunction, & then suture, cupped
& disorganised, a grapevine of cluck &
fleck. “Yah, my sumptuary tadpole, my
cup-bearer, my dogcart, why girder this
lying-in? Why stereotype this searing
nova with coronal beeswax?”

Composed: 11-21-11

At the Musarium [4301 – 4400]

[4301 – 4400]

Phil & Allen, Caroline & Allah
acquire a lantern factory, casting
the vexed sadness of candles under the
carpet. Honestly, how beautifully they
blaze from the ceiling in the parlor, their
mirth spreading wildly across the lawn
by the pool at dusk, winning glances of
intimacy akin to what woke the goddess
from piety. But aren’t we forgetting
the treachery that dresses attraction,
the organs that beef up the soup, the wolf
in the architecture, the ceremonies
of sovereignty that successively mask
an alternate network of corruption?

Composed: 9-17-16

At the Musarium [21901 – 22000]

[21901 – 22000]

Sisyphus overslept, then moped about
cyberspace only to liquidate the
database. Perspire as he may, he still
outran his coverage. “Calliope, turnover!
Your pokes paralyze.” Ogling e-text,
they vitiate colorful alphabets as
a cantankerous snowfall agitates them.
Buckshot & incandescence whittle options.
The gawky Choctaw nursemaid & her roommate
inveigle the native-born whoreson of his deficits
& dialectics. They, too, seethe as they crumple
the tricolor. Or was it croupier the coupon?
The cornea? Mollusk? Molar? Scutcheon?

Composed: 5-1-09
First published: Spirits Arts Literary Magazine. Clint Wadsworth, ed.
(Spring 2010): 10. Print.

At the Musarium [3601 – 3700]

[3601 – 3700]

Pot stirring, thirst bending, & threatening
excess, Juan danced at one of our thirteen
fortnightly Friday meetings, solemnly
in consolation, hideous to his foes,
all dumb sweetness to his niece, Clara, with
everyone shaken from smallest to strongest,
clothed in a tight scarlet shirt waist, his guarded
tribute to the rocky sweep of Portuguese
mothers, sinking down holes where the unjust
mob transcribe crimson prose into blank virus.
Therefore, whip up from your sofa, mount
the ridge over the creek, convert your
notions, relieve your periodic disgust,
bargain with your impressions, & accomplish
as much.

Composed: 9-3-16