Under an Istanbul sky: Andrew Wessels & Nurduran Duman
Andrew Wessels is one of the first poets I met here in my home city of Los Angeles. He and his wife, Zeliha, had just been married, and they glowed with such possibility and good will that I couldn't help but embrace two people who, only moments before, had been two strangers. They had driven through hours of desert and Friday night traffic to arrive at the immortal Beyond Baroque in Venice, all of us gathered to hear Donald Revell and Claudia Keelan read poetry.
The evening held that sense of pilgrimage.
The small black-walled theater of Beyond Baroque was filled with dedicants, each giving presence to the words in the room—the humans who had made them, and the humans receiving them as we sat in those familiar, well-worn seats.
I use the word familiar because if you love poetry, Beyond Baroque is likely to feel familiar even if it is the first time you enter, which is the strangeness of recognition, kismet, déjà vu. And also of destiny to come.
Or maybe destination.
Andrew and Zeliha now live part of the year in Istanbul, from where Andrew recently wrote with news of a suicide bomb attack at Sultanahmet Square, something I might have missed, tucked as it was inside the pages of my daily newspaper. That morning's front page had been filled with ecstatic football fans, celebrating the return of an NFL team to Los Angeles.
Adoration comes in many forms. As does impermanence. According to that same newspaper, the history of Sultanahmet Square "goes back at least 17 centuries, predating the city's days as capital of the Byzantine Empire. . . . Among the square's features—a stone's throw from the site of the explosion—is a 3,500-year-old obelisk, imported by the Romans from Egypt."
As I read Andrew's reflections of the city, his experiences translating the poetry of Nurduran Duman, his account the of the Hippodrome, I imagined thousands upon thousands of humans gathered to watch horses or chariots race around a circle. As Andrew notes, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was in fact a circus.
Originally constructed in AD 203 and renovated by Constantine the Great in AD 324, the site is estimated to have measured 450 meters long and 130 meters wide. A modern-day American football field is 110 by 48.76 meters; a Canadian one 137 x 59. Oval in shape, Australian fields have no fixed dimensions, though typically range between 135 -185 meters from goal to goal and 110 -155 meters from wing to wing.
Such is the grandiosity accorded nations, continents, civilizations. When something is said to be an institution, we understand it to be established in a deep-rooted way, as if it will always stand. In speaking of Beyond Baroque, I used the word immortal because, for so many poets who live close to a small section of the Pacific Ocean, it seems an enduring fixture. It certainly felt that way when I met Andrew and Zel that night. Or maybe it's the poetry that endures.
Immortality belongs only to the sky.
Letter from Istanbul | 13 January 2016
by Andrew Wessels
Yesterday morning, a suicide bomber detonated himself in Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, the city where I now live, write, and work. At that moment, I was in my apartment in a distant corner of the city. My plans later in the day were to meet with Nurduran Duman, whose poetry I translate, to discuss both our work together as well as literature and life and the sky. That day the winds gusted, and I had to constantly reattach the screens to the window frames to keep them from blowing away. The few clouds above moved across the horizon seemingly in the span of a moment.
In The Patria—a history compiled in the tenth century of Constantinople pieced together from myths, legends and the threading of various preceding texts—a reason is given for the founding of the Hagia Sophia, the great church turned mosque turned museum in what is now Sultanahmet Square:
In the fifth year of the reign of Justinian the Great, after the massacre had happened in the Hippodrome—thirty-five thousand were killed there, because the two circus factions had proclaimed as emperor Hypatios, the patrician and faction leader of the Blues —so in the fifth year of his reign God inspired him to build a church such as had never been built since Adam’s time.
Five years ago, I sat a few yards away from where the bomb would explode and began writing the middle section of what will become my first book, A Turkish Dictionary. That same summer, I began working in earnest with Duman, compiling early drafts of the translations that has become her first chapbook in English, Semi Circle.
Whenever Duman and I met, we always ended up talking about the sky above Istanbul. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Houston, a uniformly flat city, but the sky here that overlooks the Bosporus, the Golden Horn, and the many hills of the city always centers itself in my attention when I open my eyes. Or, as Duman phrased it during one of our meetings: The sky presses down upon us.
The final question in the prompt for this commentary—nearly all of which I’ve largely wandered away from—is: “[Would you like to share s]omething you find crucial?”
Instead of meeting with Duman yesterday, I remained at home and worked on this stanza from her poem “Deniz Dili ve Edebiyati 6” (“Sea Language and Literature 6”):
sonra tüm gölleri kucakla
gülleri, gleri, gülmeleri
yeni bir atlas dikmişim
iki nehri eksikmiş, umursama
In my first pass at a translation, I came up with:
then embrace all the lakes
lilacs, la’s, laughter
apparently I constructed a new atlas
the two rivers missing, don’t give a damn
Today, again, I remain at home to write and translate. Last night it rained and now the winds have died down and the clouds hang static over the Bosporus. I find myself returning to my previous translations, searching for something I’ve found before. The sky is a completely wondrous and frustrating thing—it is undeniably there, it can be felt and tasted, but it escapes the grasp.
I find myself with Duman’s “Renklerin örgüsü”:
âşık her sabah saçlarında günbatımı
dolaşır saçaklarına kırmızının, ışığın
tan yerinden çıktı diye her ok
örülür akşam öğleden sevince
hüzünden geceye… bir ters bir yüz
herkes bilir ki paylaşmak kutsaldır
ölüm yeşil bir bahçe ödülü sonsuz
yaprak ve söz çürümesin tek
kaynar sulardan buharlaşıp göğün yüzüne
mavi çalanlar var, ki yağsın
ağaç diken de sonsuza karıp kendini
yağmuru seven de var bilmeyen de sevmeyi
Which, in work begun five years ago and continuously accumulating through last fall, I translated as “Weave of colors”:
caught every morning in the lover’s hair, the sunset
circulates through its strands of red, of light
because every arrow emerges from the dawn
evening is weaved from midday to joy
from sorrow to night... an opposite, a face
everyone knows sharing is sacred
if leaves and statements don’t decay, then death
is a green garden, its reward infinite
people evaporate from boiling water to the face of the sky
painting the sky blue so it rains
the person who plants the growing tree is mixed with the infinite
there are people who love rain and also those who don’t know how to love
Andrew Wessels currently splits his time between Istanbul and Los Angeles. His first book, A Turkish Dictionary, is forthcoming from 1913 Press, and Semi Circle, a chapbook of translations of Nurduran Duman's poems, is available from Goodmorning Menagerie. His poems, translations, and collaborations can be found in VOLT, Witness, Fence, Tammy Journal, Faultline, and Colorado Review, among others. He is an editor at The Offending Adam and Les Figues Press.
Albrecht Berger, Accounts of Medieval Constantinople the Patria (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013), 231-233.
Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2016. Online, no byline.
Wikipedia, for more about football stadium sizing and the difference between hippodrome and circus: "According to Edward Gibbon, in Chapter XXXI of his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Roman people at the start of the 5th century: 'still considered the Circus as their home, their temple, and the seat of the Republic.' "