Ann Kjellberg, founding editor of Little Star, an annual journal of poetry and prose, and Little Star Weekly, its mobile app version, will be offering a poem every Sunday this spring. This is her eighth post.
My term posting poems to this blog fortuitously spanned Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and I happened to have just the poem for each in the Little Star larder. (For Mother’s Day, see Abby Rosebrock’s “Future Baby” on May 11.)
The two poems speak powerfully to me, and ring with each other in certain ways. Rosebrock addresses a hitherto nonexistent child, and the absences she magnifies; the child in Kirchwey’s poem is quite familiarly real, and his daily presence echoes back into the fatherly past, and into the parental relations that gird our art and sacred stories. But both poems are pulled by the tug of parental love into the embrace of celestial love; and both are themselves in miniature the gift of cherishing love that they identify in art.
“Letter from Istanbul” is addressed to the speaker’s distant son from a church, and it begins with various parodoxes surrounding our sacred places and what they are able to communicate—Keats, claiming that he knew Homeric Greece more deeply from Chapman than the land itself, when all he knew of that was a squalid room in Rome; the speaker’s father, in mourning, finding in Greece the ability nearly to convey to his adolescent son an exultant vision of love, spiritual and physical; surely, given our locale, in the background Yeats’s “gold mosaics” that offer a transport from the diminutions of the body in old age. The tone—conversational and yet with only one speaker, the long sentences spread over long lines promising logical consequence but delivering a string of associative affinities.
The son avers (from the past) that he doesn’t like to look at art in crowds, prompting the father, who is, though distant, looking at art with his son, to retort that one rarely has it any other way, and the views of paintings that he remembers as the poem moves outward are indeed crowded, but not with tourists: rather by the loops of love and grief gathering parents and children—Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, Anna and Joachim, as well as the speaker, his parents, and his child—from the ancient past to the domestic present.
Kirchwey’s work, most visibly like Hecht’s, engages the ancient world—its art, its places, its literary forms—as a medium for engaging our continuous search for meaning, but Kirchwey’s search is less conflicted than Hecht’s, more exultant and warmly inhabited. His enthusiasm for Walcott indicates a confidence that our poetry's forms can be born into a living and organic present with their full freight of historic value. “Letter from Istanbul” has as its theme art as a gift between the generations. The speaker looks to his son and sees not a certainty but, thankfully, an opening, and reminds him to remain attentive to beauty, “let it speak, / and tell it over for yourself and others” and receive its gift, if only momentary, of unity of body and spirit, a gift shared by art and love.
At the poem’s midpoint its language dramatically simplifies: Anna and Joachim thought “that they were not going to be parents at all … but then were given it.” The effect recurs at the end: “I thought of you in this ancient church: that is all.” The simple fact of the child, that person, is the cadence. But before it, a parent’s poignant longing to provide sustenance takes him as far as he can go into the world's heart.
The love poem seems sometimes the paradigmatic gesture for poetry, but these poems make me think that the love poem for one’s child, ultimately selfless as it is—envisioning the future without the self—take the love poem’s reach a step farther.
This is my last post as a guest blogger for Best American Poetry. It has been such a pleasure to revisit these poems and to bring them to you. Thanks so much to the Best American Poetry blog for this opportunity.
Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, most recently Mount Lebanon.
A Letter From Istanbul
March 19, 20––
My Dearest Son,
I write to you from what Keats called “the realms of gold”
—not that he ever saw them, beyond the coffered ceiling
and its gilded rosettes, from his deathbed on Piazza di Spagna
in a mean small room now echoing with the shouts of drunken
Nor do I mean Greece, where your grandfather, a strait-laced man,
experienced, I believe, a kind of sensual epiphany
in August of the year 1972.
Under the dictatorship, he had taken us
to the island of Lemnos in the northern Aegean,
where the forge-god Hephaestus once fell to earth,
cast out of Olympus, and where the archer Philoctetes
howled with pain from his suppurating foot.
My father belonged to the generation of World War II,
for whom talking about feelings was a kind of anathema,
but in February of that year, my mother had died,
leaving him broken; and something in the beauty of that place,
in the contrast between the parched earth and the sea’s aquamarine,
led him to say to me,—I hope you have the chance
to be here once in your life with someone you love;
and I don’t mean just the physical part, either.
I was startled by his candor, being of an age,
you understand, when the slightest thing could arouse me:
the smell of figs, or of wastewater on the garden,
the shank of a key in the door, the cool flagstones
beneath the linen of an empty bed,
the pale skin in the axil of a girl’s arm.
By that time, my father was speaking out of the memory
of what he had had and lost, rather than the thing itself—
love, I mean: for I believe he and my mother
did love each other, though they made each other unhappy;
but in any case, it was as if two parts of his own nature
had been explained to him for the first time,
body and spirit, by some god of that barren place,
so that in his voice were both a kind of wonder
and an unaccustomed severity,
since he knew I was already eager to experience love,
although I did not know the costs; and he knew
that all his love could not spare me from those costs.
Instead, I thought of you in the Church of Saint Savior in Chora
here in the Golden Horn, one spring morning
—or rather, I thought of your having told me,
on the Palatine in Rome, one hot July afternoon,
that you hated being with art in the presence of crowds,
that you hated being a tourist; and at that time I responded
that I have spent most of my life trying to learn from art
but have very seldom managed to be its sole audience.
In this fresco, for instance, Christ hales Adam and Eve
out of their graves with an unholy physical roughness,
in an Anastasis, a Harrowing of Hell,
and though there were tourists who looked on imperturbably,
transforming the image over and over in their photographs,
diffusing it into a cloud of data, an atmosphere,
a sensorium on which other consumers could feed,
I would not have wanted to miss it for the presence of others.
I saw locks in the Topkapi Palace, their wards oiled and
that in this fresco seem to lie shattered under Christ’s feet,
as if a camera had been dropped on the floor,
all its stored images suddenly inaccessible,
its parts foolish, in their ingenious articulation,
before the original and its primary awe,
the gates of Hell broken down for once and for all,
and Satan bound up tight, like the hapless fly
in a spider’s web. Belief might come like that,
explosive and rapt, once or twice in a lifetime,
but in my experience it is more often the product
of long study and a loving routine,
as in the mosaic of the Virgin caressed as a child
by her parents, who were older parents, and who perhaps thought
as we did, before we were given that sacred trust,
that they were not going to be parents at all,
Anna and Joachim, but then were given it.
We have tried to give you love with the force of almost-was-not.
I wonder whether it is true that we come full circle,
in our lives, and end more or less where we began.
In this mosaic of the Dormition of the Virgin,
Christ cradles the soul of Mary who is his mother,
container of the uncontainable,
and she is depicted as an infant in swaddling clothes,
while under the feet of saints spring crimson poppies,
and in the pendentives there are gorgeous peacocks,
the bird that is the symbol of incorruptibility,
as we once saw them at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
in New York City, not far from where your maternal grandmother
now lies diapered in her final illness,
her confusion varying with the opiates
she is given against the constant pain.
On the path leading to the Topkapi Palace,
there was a cypress tree, the tree of mourning,
split by the trunk and branches of a fig,
the fig growing from the midriff of the cypress,
the fruit of the body from the dark wood of grief,
as in the Dream of the Virgin by Simone dei Crocefissi,
where the Tree of Life on which Christ is crucified
grows from the womb of the Virgin on her deathbed
while a companion sitting beside her reads to her,
for perhaps she is not dying, perhaps she is just asleep.
And here Christ heals the woman with an issue of blood.
My mother was often sick with female troubles,
during my childhood, but there was also depression,
some days so bad that she could not rise from her bed.
I once saw a painting of St. Margaret of Antioch
who, having been swallowed by a demon, hacked her way out
with the help of a simple wooden cross.
I heard someone say my mother’s demons got her in the end,
but she had good days and bad days, like anyone else.
What she needed was St. Margaret’s wooden cross.
I do not know the medium in which you will read this,
except it must be adequate to the primacy of my love.
I want this letter to be a shorthand between us,
like the quotations from old screen comedies
we bandy back and forth to raise a smile:
a set of cues, a way of recovering the years
that have intervened by now to separate us
irrevocably from your infancy and childhood;
a closed system, then, a human artifact
proof against the insinuations of eternity:
for if even two of us, caught as we are in time,
understand that spirit may be reached through the body
by which we apprehend the beauty of this world,
then there is hope for everyone else as well.
When Sinan built the Süleymaniye Mosque, he created
capture-places in the dome for the smoke that rose upward
from candles illuminating the prayers of the faithful.
This smoke, being mixed with egg, was made into ink
for those writing scripture in the nearby medrese:
so the light and breath of those prayers became their text.
And workmen repairing the keystone of an aqueduct
forty-five minutes north of Istanbul once found a bottle
containing Ottoman script. It was a message from Sinan,
who had long been dust, saying the keystone
would need to be replaced after four hundred years,
and it specified the type and source of the stone.
But most of us lack such foresight, lack a system:
we cannot face time down like an architect.
It is fear I see, in the eyes of Adam and Eve,
confronted with Christ in his robes of dazzling white,
who grabs each by the wrist: fear, and the reluctance
of those who are dead and then called back to life.
They had sinned and had grown accustomed to sinning,
just as we habituate ourselves, over the years,
until we cannot imagine another course.
It is art that hales us out of our graves,
if the Christian mystery is unavailable—
for I know that we have given you no belief
except the capacity to believe, over a lifetime.
It is your restlessness I love most about you.
We are all orphans in the world of spirit,
and though I once knew a poet of a very great age
who boasted that he had never written a poem
about a work of art, this seems perverse.
Beauty is an avenue to belief,
realized in art and what we can take from it.
By art, I do not mean Demetrios’ silver idols
of Diana at Ephesus, against which the Apostle Paul
railed in the theater until they shouted him down,
for those were mere duplicates of a lost original,
nothing inhering in them of that first great power,
like the photographs made by those solemn tourists,
exhalations into an atmosphere of image.
I mean something altogether more ineffable,
uniting body and spirit for a moment.
Perhaps it was this that your grandfather was referring to
long ago, when he spoke to me with wonder—
with wonder and yearning, he in whom so much appeared
for landscape can do it too, as well as art,
provide a medium for our only true life.
Would you be an artist? Oh, my beloved son,
you must worship beauty, then; you must let it speak
and tell it over for yourself and others—
cross, cloud, keystone, peacock, poppy, shattered wards,
blood’s issue, cypress, fig—wherever you find it,
though few will understand what you are doing.
I thought of you in this ancient church: that is all.
I send you my love and hope to see you in the summer.