Bosphorus Bohemoth & Bo-Rings

And In The Beginning There Was the Bosphorus…

chit akash and cloud-cover

Our new digs are on the shore of the Bosphorus.  How many shipwrecks have occurred here? J wonders.  I imagine strata of stray naval parts, fathoms deep, wherefrom stories germinate, bubble towards the surface, and escape like a fart in a bathtub.  The passenger ferries plow right through them, serving chay and strange cookies as they zigzag from Eastern to Western shores of Istanbul.  Here, where light oozes amply, poetry reasserts its empire without walls.

“This is how we live on earth, a flock of sparrows.

The darkness, a magician, finds quarters

behind our ears. We don’t know what life is,

who makes it, the reality is thick

with longing. We put it up to our lips

and drink.”

—Ilya Kaminsky

reality on caffeine

Sometimes poetry wants to break my heart, so I have to tell it: get in the queue! The eggplant and the afternoon fog and mortality are all ahead of you!  As usual, enjamber-bar-none, it simply cuts the line.  Dickinson and her dashes, so much cutlery set into the meat of life–

You want to express heartache?  A vowel is the first thing that happens. The prehensile poet in each of us is onto that devise, which can hardly be considered a devise at all: Ah! Turkish, which I’m treating like an abstract drama, has an inbuilt phonemic feature called “vowel harmony”, whereby only certain vowels can follow other vowels.  It’s a beautiful way of sustaining the link with music, and anyway, God’s got a good ear, the world is full of noises, so why be abrasive in speech?

The geraniums in our window are holding out, more as a principle of their allegiance to red than because the weather is in their favor.  Men occasionally pass in the quiet way below pushing empty wooden carts in front of them and crying out their wares.  I think this is a relic rather than a necessity, as no one rushes down from the wooden houses to make (invisible) purchases.  The human appendix, however, perks up: it is vaguely interested in that which seems to have no point.

And I truly love watching the Turkish do whatever it is the Turkish do.

Seriality & Surreality

let there be--

Today is as washed-out gray as yesterday was whorishly Mediterranean.  I’m about to set out to return Rumi to a local bookstore, conflating capitalism’s loophole and Sufi sacrilege. It turns out I’m more in the mood for the tiger snarling in Borges’ sarcophagal library than in Seitan Soup for the Soul.  In the States, B&N once requested my stats to ensure I wasn’t a “serial returner.”  I gave them my dead grandmother’s phone number.

Rumi:  He’s from these parts.  But you know him, I think, because he also occupies prime real estate in every B&N poetry section.  Born in what is now Afghanistan, the bulk of his spiritual education took place in the East of Anatolia, culminating in a loaded five minutes (or so I imagine) in which the whirling dervish got dervishly whirled.  If his metamorphosis was a movie, it would be Unrated.  His encounter with the Friend and subsequent denouement into all things Friendly occurred within my geographical purview, though Turkey is bigger than I’d realized.

And by “Friend” I do not mean his “um-friend”—i.e. cryptic-speak for a shagging succubus—but his archetypal Pal, who got him drunk on Love Without Limit.  If that sounds like an 80’s song or self-help psycho-pop, it isn’t, because in this case, one sip of the stuff, and there is no self left that requires help.  As Rumi’s preface to his couplets warns, “This book if you open, read, entreat,/ Your life’s a mendicant in the street” (trans. Shahriar Shahriari).  Imagine a book that taketh.  Just enough self remains, mendicant but in tact, to squeak out an rhythmic dose of bliss to which even the unschooled eye can hazily attend and from which life expands, albeit marginally, its cramping horizons.

But what if life just doesn’t stop expanding, like water seeking the shape of a container when there is no container in the first place?  Can we fathom, with or without the words, a life that expands and expands until it’s center is, actually, everywhere? Would it look like God wet the bed?

center seeks same

Like This?

I look out the window.  As far as I can tell, the Bosphorus is the only whirling anything in situ.  Its currents make the ferries have to sweat a bit to stay on course.  The stray cats, yowling in curlicues, mount one another in the courtyard outside the mosque: holy is as holy does.  The world is one excessively long sentence, reeled in like a fishing line by the Punctuation mark at the end of all of our days (a period, a comma, a dash?)—and it makes my head whirl just contemplating the excess.

In “Rumi Nation,” David Barber marvels at the market mania for the watered-down mystical yearnings that we are currently offered in spades as “Rumi’s” own ecstatic poems: loose translations, at very best.  Which part to fasten onto? He wonders. His vituperative strikes point out that the popular renditions available in your local B&N hold the original thrust and form of the poems about as well as a zip lock with a broken seal will hold your new pet goldfish.

Goldfish, meet oxygen; oxygen, meet goldfish.

But, so what? Might not the words, however inaccurate, however unfaithful to their parent poem, send you through the great paramita portal nonetheless?  What matter if they Pledge Allegiance to the Gag and to the Big Shtick for which it Blands?

Besides, this is pretty good:

“When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
Like this?

KAZAM!  (from “Like this, Rumi”, trans. Barks)

Robinson, Prince of Leaves

Before coming across Barber’s studied ire, I’d bought one such fuzzy-wuzzy Rumi trans-crib-ation, the latest by eminent Rumi-ist, C. Barks, in a fit of nationalist tribute. This was to serve as poetry-bait for my kids—couplets written in joyous, even hallmark-y quotidian, lexically and emotively devastated by longing, like a teenager separated from her iPod.  The volume came from my newest, local crack-house: Robinson Crusoe Bookstore, an elegant, small establishment on the main shopping drag which, disregarding the implications of its nomenclature, steals (well, just a widdle bit) from the rich to give back to the rich.  But it’s worth it, because their books and all the felicitous recombinants of thought-matter they suggest are so damn alluring.

is there room for me?

Due to the lack of public academic libraries, the liber doctus (“learned book”) here mingles with the pagina voluta (faux-Latin: “page-turner.”  I would pat myself on the back but I type with both hands). The mute shelf holds, in egalitarian manner, both Genius and Schlub alike.   Side by side, the books stand there, wheat-n-chaffing it.  And who’s to say that Baudrillard has anything on Dan Brown?  To philosophize is to learn to die, Cicero said, while peering down his nose at the chick-pea-shaped wart—not melanomic, turns out, but then again, he wasn’t Jewish.  He was drawing butterflies on his toga with his middle finger, as he was wont to do while orating.  He could have said: To turn pages is to know you’re still alive.


We live temporarily in Cihangir, where, as one gregarious Turkish salesman tells us, “All the men who have mistresses go.”  I look down at my hand; it seems to belong to someone else.  The other hand holds it as if a purse.  We have heard certain punctual moaning in the flat above us—it’s a funny world in which the timeless convenience of the backyard harem has been dissolved but infidelity still runs on schedule.  If you wonder how people sustain such clockwork lies, recall how easily fiction, brightly coloring its bright colors, convinces; if the writing is good, it always manages to bleach out attendant circumstances.  Try looking up from your next favorite novel; the “real” world likely feels a sham, as if it is poorly written with an impoverished vocabulary, as unremarkable as observing a blizzard through a dirty window.

Store Antics

But the new books in my bag make noise, like good books should; in fact, they set off the detector when I enter our local grocery store.  As well as the afore-snickered Rumi, I have a collection of Orhan Pamuk’s most recent essays, Other Colors, and wonder, given the political trouble he’s faced for outing his country on the Armenian “question” (because genocide is so subtle, no?), if there isn’t some kind of radiant Pamuk-detector at the lip of most establishments.  A cheery-eyed Turk prances up to me—yay, thrilling day: a pilfering Westerner!—takes my bag and runs my books through their cash register’s scanner—but this is the grocery store?  He hands them back, brimming with pleasure.  I try to mime that I bought these somewhere else, i.e. at an establishment that actually sells books.  He walks me out of the store by my elbow.

I try to enter the grocery twice more and, predictably, I set off the alarm two more times.  Let me get this straight: you can board a plane with explosives sloppily hemmed into your underwear, but I can’t get into the grocery store with two paperbacks?  Got it.   Then, somehow, after being treated twice to their back-flaps denatured against the scanner, my books go mute.  What, has the literary peanut gallery been floored by the almonds in bulk?  I have an affinity for books that cause problems, the little instigators with tough spines, flexible, like ours, only to a point.

I hit the next grocery store, where the not-spinach-but-sort-of-spinach looks more alive—in some places the vegetables are so vivid that vegetarianism is elevated to a form of cruelty, and it is said Pythagoras preferred to commit suicide rather than walk over a field of new beans—to see if my books would provoke further emergency.  But this shop isn’t upscale enough to be outfitted with a detector.

Instead, the matronly register attendant asks, per store etiquette, do I want a bag for my stuff.  Some questions are obvious in any language, like Rumi’s ecstasy.  Trying to say “no”—hayir, in Turkish—I goof, and said “yes”—evet—while shaking my head.  She corrects me, we laughs, and then she feigns me eating the money.  Is my GI tract the punch line?  It’s only a single Turkish lira for the purchase, less than a dollar; I laugh again and heartily feign eating the money: so delicious! A little al dente! When in doubt, choose symmetry.

strange symmetry


If there is an occasion to rise to in the pre-dawn, for the first time in a long time I’m not really rising to it.  Affedersiniz?  My head is full of Turkish words—for god’s sake, I can count to five (besh! besh!) and it all sounds a bit like trying to rhapsodize on consonants with your mouth full of tahini-n-matzoh sandwich, with emphasis on the sand.  I’m flabbergasted by the very fact that day keeps re-beginning.

It gets light late.  The mosques across the strait glow in strict flirtation with the moon, who is fuzzing out.  There’s a muse about, I swear, an Anatolian one, and she’s marking time on the water as it roughens with traffic, throwing pomegranate seeds at the fishing dingy.  I watch the boats pass, a habit I’ve immediately inherited by living on the populated shoreline.  The calls to prayer have jiggled the morning into motion and the ferries cut in with their long boaty moans, like laboring elephants.  I do the usual thing: drink ginger tea slowly, set about practice.  The sky frequently steals attention from my breath, a fundamental openness that make all my attempts at openness seem like…bad translations.  Still, breathing makes things happen.

Someone in the dream world is pummeling me; I wake full of aches and wait for the adhan to separate the day from the dark, listen to J’s breath—ah, the breath, again, has beat the prayer to the punch, mnemonic device for the astonishing fact of being alive.  I wonder if I believed in God Proper what this call to prayer might do to me.  Maybe my dream assailant is the big G, after all, meeting me fists first on the somatic plane.  Our muezzin wails the adhan; he’s wildly melismatic.  How much liberty is allowed?  How much personal inflection?  The loudspeaker makes other people’s prayers your priority.  “Prayer is better than sleep” goes one part of the call.

Or: sleep is better than prayer.

Or: sleep is a good time to pray.

Our tour guide in Morocco, in the open court of the Madrasah, told us that when he complained about going to prayers as a kid his father would say, “God has given you your whole life, you can’t give him twenty minutes?”

Nice try, Dad.

Or: nice try, God.

I max out at 19 minutes.

let there be--


Looking at the Bosphorus is, in fact, sufficient.  I could station myself here and learn everything I needed to know, though I might not know what it was I was learning.   O It makes me wanna hollah! I say (not Allah) while looking at the currents in the blah shade of blue, the sea which remains, and always will, somewhat cryptic to all non-amphibeans excepting Homer. I owe Big G, Zeus the Zinger of Zingers, some mail, having cameo’d HimHer in my blog so many times its almost exploitative.  So I begin my missive on the balcony, with the strait as my witness, using as my template the end of a letter to god written by Ramesh Balsekar, an Advaita master who died this past year.  He says:

“Finally, it occurs to me, if You were to design for Yourself a life in phenomenality, could it have been much different from this one?
And, for this thought, no tears are enough to wash Your Noumenal feet.”

Wait, you mean just like this?  This?  Evet?

In the streets, there’s garbage sticking out all over the place, from every cubbyhole in the crumbling neighborhood.  The cats are eating a spread of macaroni.  Plastic bottles crop up like a 5 o’clock shadow of litter with which the city seems quite comfortable.  My world here is small as a baby’s closed fist.  This, then, must be life in phenomenality.  Which returns me to what has been bothering me most: the denigration of the ordinary.  We do it all the time, finding the mundane a kind of poverty in need of enhancement, augmentation by whatever means, be it food, sex, adulation, achievement.  I don’t want to grow abstract: unembellished life is as welcome in its own naked state as a cockroach in the caviar.

But it is so awfully beautiful here, and in the worst of ways!

a worldly rainbow, no?

The gulls rise up from the strait as if the sea were tossing them into the air, all of a sudden.  Outside, kids walk s l o w l y to school.  They won’t be able to tell their own kids it was “uphill both ways” but rather “it was extremely uphill one way, and slippery cat-shit downhill the other…”  They won’t be lying, and I’ll come round to testify when they are accused of one-up-man-ship.  Anyway school, from what we can see from our balcony, seems to consist mostly of the national anthem and then seamless recess.


Habitual denigration of the ordinary is something I catch myself doing too, and it burns me up.  I cringe at the criminality: as if we, in all the fantasticalness of consciousness, are lacking something to make it better. Hayir, hayir, hayir! I suspect, under the burning feeling, that there is really only one choice: whether or not we will choose to practice love, which includes, I assume, love of the ordinary for what it is, as it is.

Love, writes Alison West (go study yoga with her, folks in NYC) Loand behold!


Pamuk confesses that he finds everyday life as it is so fundamentally boring it requires continuous escape via making art.  This, in fact, was one reason why, quite pissed off, he started writing books in the first place, wherein which his characters had to deal with their own boring microcosms and sometimes escape it in tragically fantastical ways.  It’s like this: in the hierarchy of tedium, we’re all on a flat sea in a shabby life-boat with a lethargic, halitotic tiger (a bow to Yann Martel), and so we amuse ourselves by making pointless philosophical forays into why this might be so. A structured Inquiry, say, made by the most bored soul ever incarnated: What Is The Ontonlogy of Boringness? An exposition in fifty, courier-font tomes and fed, one by one, to Borges’ Ephemeral Beast as literary fiber, engendering the worst case of mammalian acid reflux ever fictively recorded.

The standard response to the bored student’s protestation is: if you’re bored, you must not really be paying attention. To this, the student’s come-back is usually a well-concealed extension of the middle finger. But the chastisement is heinously accurate. As troubled poet Paul Celan said so perfectly: Attention is the natural prayer of the soul. If practiced seemlessly, like prayer, attention instantly reveals the shipwrecks and ecstasy bubbling up in the marine of the Mundane.

Near is Far, Far is Near

Plus, focused thought is a kind of contact and intimacy, even with the shit-piled hamper of the ordinary.  J is on the sultan’s couch reading to me, and I read to you: Heidegger via Berger: “Thought as coming into the nearness of distance.”  But what do you do when distance is the nearest thing you have?  Where are you then?  I imagine this must be true for many who have relatives whom they cannot reach in Haiti, people whose well-being may be profoundly compromised or even moot: what they have is a disconsolate intimacy with distance.  Kunitz (original formatting is botched! seek out the poem “Testing Tree”):

In a murderous time

the heart breaks and breaks

and lives by breaking.

It is necessary to go

through dark and deeper dark

and not to turn.

I am looking for the trail.

Where is my testing-tree?

Give me back my stones!

Serial Returner Returns

Why I returned the book of Rumi: once I doubted the integrity of the translation qua translation (oy, reading smart literary critics is like a laxative for pure enjoyment, cleans it right out of you), I couldn’t get past it.  I wanted to taste the master’s nectar on its own terms.  “Translation” has its etymological allegiance in Latin, after all, as “that which has been carried across” not “that which has been carried over, varied and glossed recklessly.”  And so my inner bigmouth Classics Dork rebuked: get thee back to the original, which, of course, I cannot read, not being fluent in Persian.  But my scramble towards the origin flung me, as it were, even further back in time, into (if you’ll believe it) Biblical terrain, and it went like this:

Genesis, Shmenesis

In the garden of Eden, there was not so much an apple, a snake, et al., but a pristine definite article, waiting for a substantive, any substantive at all, to come couple with it and make a phrase.  Which would then make another phrase, and another and another and another, the primordial sentence growing in size and confidence, resembling, in its snaking and branching, a river.  Until, lo, we (yep) were born inside the coil of language, and recognized it like we do our own belly buttons.  Because we were in the spiral of it, the language was poetry.  It named something as new as birth itself.  With aching ribs, feeling like the world’s sloppiest transplants, we sought out a way to arrange what we had into a kind of consolation.  Awesome: a horticultural catastrophe to be blogged about with imaginative abandon.

The following poem, I trust, was there as well, in its proto-thought, proto-music form, keeping watch over the waters, which spurted out from the torque in the garden hose (apple trees take much tending), until poetry, like light, was simply all over the place.  As Stanley Kunitz says, in old age, of his piece; “The title alludes to the long boat of the ancient Vikings from which the body of a falling hero was pushed out into the open sea for an eternity of drifting” (interview on NPR, check it out!);

The Long Boat

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

to and fro


5 Responses to “Bosphorus Bohemoth & Bo-Rings”

  1. (0v0) Says:

    I love that you’re in a tiny world inside Istanbul, there on the water, and that you write like this when you’re there. I’ve been reading it for days. It brings delight and tends to make my heart go fast.

    Thank you for making fun of a certain kind of Rumi. The serial returner will ride again, I hope? You could always go for Sappho? Hehehehe.

    And… this last bit on the logos is beautiful. And, like the rest of this one, makes me start to chuckle.

    • saraknowsyou Says:

      i just saw a huge bust of sappho at the very awesome, very unpopulated archaeological museum here. her lips looked like they had and have great kissing potential. is it tacky to make out with an archaic marbled face?

      likely it is rumi who is making fun of us!

      the serial returner is like the phoenix. a little ash makes for a great resurrection.

      and the logos? i can’t help it. i was born with it tattooed on my face.

      thanks for coming all the way to istanbul from india so frequently! this blog always welcomes your love and gets quite high off it.

  2. (0v0) Says:

    Yes, but it is difficult to return a book once you have burned it!

    I love Istanbul through you. Coffee on the balcony this evening?

    Sappho… ohhhhhhh. Beautiful.

    • saraknowsyou Says:

      if you can make it here by evening, i’ll definitely do coffee. which i mean proverbially, of course, as my NS allegiance goes to the tea plant.

      fyi, to reach a lethal dose of caffeine you apparently need to take in 80-100 cups in rapid succession. so the phoenix should take notes on this. i think the same dose is required for resurrection. i am unclear what dosage would be necessary to unburn a book.

      sappho’s not coming because she’s a pansy about ice, which currently has our streets all slicked up.

      but i have a lot of dickinson around. she’s hermetic, it’s true, but she makes an exception for this fine city full of windy emotions and with one toe dipped into immortality. she’s a sucker for the metrics of pranayama.

  3. (0v0) Says:

    Ohhhh god, stormy Istanbul, with Sappho pouting in a corner!

    I shall inform the Phoenix about the benefits and limitations of caffeine consumption – maybe it would only take 50 cups of chai?

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