RHYTHMS

RHYTHMS

The sweet spot in sleep comes
after the road up the mountain
to the temple.

Follow her up
to her little pretty place
of leaded glass & heirlooms of mahogany.

Wait as she fixes her bow
in the glass, looking out to where light
looms above the trees.

Soft hands cover the eyes in dreams.
Breathing breaks the surface
of shallow water.

Frist published in Ship of Fools, Jack Hart, ed. (2007)

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ALL THESE

ALL THESE

adapted from a translation of a passage near the beginning of “Boule de suif”

Earthquake burying a whole people
beneath the ruins of their houses
the river in spate sweeping away
bodies of drowned peasants
carcasses of cattle & rafters torn from roofs
& the victorious army slaughtering
all who resist, making prisoners
of the rest, looting by right of the sword
thanking their god to the sound of cannon—
all these terrifying scourges undermine
our belief in eternal justice
& all the trust
we have been taught to place
in divine protection
& human reason.

First published: Pegasus. M. E. Hidebrand, ed. (Spring 2007)

BAGHDAD BOUND

BAGHDAD BOUND
Andy writes

Hello All! This trip gets more intriguing
as it goes. Have been “in travel status” for 18 hours
and have only advanced several hundred miles
from Kuwait City
to Camp Stryker on the edge
of Baghdad Int’l Airport.

It is astonishing the lengths
to which one must go
to traverse this modest distance safely.

We are waiting with
50 colleagues and soon-to-be close confidants
in a “Rhino convoy” of busses triple wrapped
with a day’s production of the old Lackawanna works.
They run on odd hours.

After this, I will settle into a more normal
environment in the “IZ,” where coalition troops/ embassies
contractors, the UN, and a couple of Iraqi ministries are located
a 3-square mile zone surrounded by 12′ concrete T-walls
Baghdad’s ultimate gated community.

An interesting sight as we wile the hours
(on the baking tarmac) are the partially crushed
hulks of French-built concrete bunker-hangars
hit in Gulf War One when Saddam was
(briefly) using them to invade Kuwait. If this
were regular commercial air travel
I would probably be writing a long letter
to Customer Service
not to all of you.

How can I describe the scene
here at Camp Stryker?
a truly surreal vision, a standard KOA tent city
enlarged 20-fold where I am lost
for a seeming eternity like a 7 year-old.
I pick my way down dusty rows of tents
from the Dinning FAC to the Internet Café

to the Baskin Robins trailer, the non-stop
domino/ ping-pong hall. Add in
the roar and stench of massive generators. Take away
anything quaint. Think of
the desolate squatter communities
on the sand dunes
at the southern extremes of Lima.

Put it together with many large
lethal-looking tracked and winged vehicles
parked wherever they happened to have
stopped, endless
volleyball games under floodlights.
Travelers and troops all looking dirty and weary.
Folks stay civil and seem to pull together. But it is just a
weird, weird place.

Alas, photos are either not allowed
because of security, or rendered
impractical by the dark.

First published: Court Green Magazine 4. Arielle Greenberg, et al. eds. (Spring 2007).

CITY DANCES NIGHT AWAY

CITY DANCES NIGHT AWAY

On a late autumn evening,
in the shadows of the People’s Meeting Hall
about eighty folks line up
for a beginners’ class in tango
while more than two hundred others glide gracefully
across an empty concrete parking area.
In a city of ailing industries, night-time dancing
is within everyone’s reach.

Gao Xiuying, 42 years old, waiting his turn,
points out a middle-aged woman in a red sweater:
“She’s the most skillful. If she doesn’t come
the dancing is disorganized.”

Her name translates as “Dream of the Moon”
& she comes,
usually every night.

First published: House Organ. Kenneth Warren, ed. (Jan. 2006). Print.

At the Musarium [1201 – 1300]

for Sasha

These are the king’s woods, where sons
thick with song measure delight. Daily we file
through royal hills & shoulder our honest
fate, always quietly surprised. When birds
dropped from the highest forest they told
about a tall stranger who the rain failed
to comfort. He talked of freedom, the wealth
of nations, of faces events refused to honor, July
streets, rights fully obtained, though falsely
remembered, concerning a holy surface carefully
hung to aid fingers. Anyone will choose or accept,
seek or report, bank shut the bottom, or dare
blow desired points created in advance.
Otherwise there’s the gate, & a stream to cross.

Composed: 10-22-10
First published: Indefinite Space. Winter 2012. np. Print.

SIX INCIDENTS

SIX INCIDENTS

1.
A Baynes Street woman
walking Sunday
night near Baynes Street
& West Delevan was robbed
at the point of a shotgun
duct taped around its barrel
of $300 & two credit cards
by another woman
about 17 years old
wearing a black jacket
demanding, Yo, give me
your purse.

2.
Multiple rounds
from a large caliber weapon
penetrated walls
as a small silver vehicle
ran a stop sign
at high speed.

3.
Emergency crews had to pull
a woman from her car
when it became surrounded by flood waters
after she drove around police barricades.
The woman told police
she was on her way to her bridge game
at the Fox Club.

4.
A tall, thin guy
with scruffy facial hair
robbed a HSBC Bank branch
Monday morning, holding his left hand
inside his jacket sleeve as if he had
a gun, handing the teller
a note that read, “$10,000 or Bang!”
fleeing with three stacks of singles
& a single stack of fives.

5.
A speeding car
struck & killed a bicyclist
as the cyclist leaned
over a trash bin collecting
empty beer cans for the deposit.

6.
A patron was charged
with a series of misdemeanors
after refusing to pay
a restaurant bill
for coffee
soda
& chicken fingers
totaling $12.36
& yelling vulgarities
at patrons then swearing
at police from the back
of the police cruiser
telling them to shut up.

First published: Black Robert Journal(Feb. 2008).

LATE SUMMER RACKET

I hear the pry-bars of the roofers
ripping nail from board

& old shingles tossed down–plop
that the rain’d begun to rot
& shoveled into a dumpster.

So start up your hammers men
give new skein to the old abode
safety from the weather
from glaring stars, relief.
 
Frist published:
Buffalo Vortex. William Sylvester, ed. (1 Feb 2009) [broadside].

Song

Pretty little blonde girl
jumping on a bed
Pretty little blonde girl
forgot to take her meds
Pretty little blonde girl
out of her head

Pretty little blonde girl
singing to her dolls
Soon she’ll be a tall girl
screaming to herself
Pretty little blonde girl
ready for a fall

Pretty little blonde girl
found her on the floor
Pretty little blonde girl
had to break the door
Pretty little blonde girl
what for? what for?

Composed: 4-19-17

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