Robyn Rowland: Six Poems

Faith and Charity Ireland, 1847

They came in the night, knives glinting, moved
with the stealth of pirates, day almost beginning,
silently entered the Boyne. Edging to the docks
they were ready for British soldiers. Three ships
bulged with grain, root vegetables, dried fruit,
salted meats and fish, food for the starving Irish,
from a land with plenty still considered barbaric.
For the ill, medicines; for the future, seeds.
They flew the red flag of the crescent moon and star,
were fed in the municipal hall, left unnoticed.
They had seen streets with wraith-like creatures,
thinness in everything moving, shroud of disease hanging.
Sultan Abdülmecid I, a reformer at 24, was modernising,
looking to cultivated Europe. He would send a ship
to Portsmouth for naval training, visit Napoleon III,
be Knighted in the Order of the Garter by the English queen,
fight with their armies in the Crimea, his vast lands a buffer
against Russia. He would sit as part of Europe at the table
of the Congress of Paris speaking fluent French.

Christian life confused the Sultan. Compassion, justice,
were part of Muslim teaching, giving to the poor — Zakat
and the Irish were dying. Honourable Mr Wellesley,
ambassador in Constantinople for young Queen Victoria,
advised against giving £10,000 to England to help with Relief,
as the Queen gave only £2,000. Yet her people in her vassal state
were dying in millions. He took advice to halve her offer,
sending £1000 — and the ships — his quiet, obstinate retort.
A letter of thanks was sent on behalf of the suffering and afflicted
inhabitants of Ireland for his kindness and munificence...
not by those in dug-out dirt caves or the Poor Houses or
empty mouths building pointless famine roads, but from
Right Honourables, Earls, Lords, Archbishops, and
the Lord High Chancellor of Ireland.

from Mosaics from the Map, Doire Press, 2018

**

Moon Dreaming

Bone white, the full moon
threads itself round curtain cracks,
through the lace cloth of my heart,
the same moon that lays itself
on your sheet of water
harboured below your window,
far away in space, in time,
both of us on islands, decades apart.
You placed a shell ring on my finger.
The sea gave it to you for me.
Solid twist knotted where a gem might be,
its interior is softly polished, the inside
of an oyster, from which the pearl fell.

from Mosaics from the Map, Doire Press  2018, forthcoming Under the Saffron Sun Knocknarone Press, 2019

**

Night Opening on Istanbul

for Zeki Tombak

Domes are blurring in twilight that swathes the city in dusky silk,
skies pewter-blue over sunset-bright waters across from
the piers at Eminönü. Inside the Rüstem Pasha Mosque,
Iznik tiles will be glowing rare tomato-red in the dying light.

We sit as the young man cracks crates apart to feed our fire
waves slipping along the concrete walkway at Kardokoy
while ferries channel their way towards the Sea of Marmara.
Galata bridge is a snail trail of lights, fishing-lines still dangling.

It is dark-blue, this water, and the sky deepening as Istanbul begins
its shimmer into night, a crowd of fireflies rising, twinkling
in a galaxy of its own. Lights stud the darkness of evening
to the sky’s dome, minarets needle-sharp, trembling towards heaven.

It is cold. Nevin’s long black hair is curling with the damp chill.
Nut-dark eyes reflect the glimmer from a lone gold streetlamp
thrown in rivulets across ripples of the Golden Horn.
The future is glowing in her skin, life an adventure unfurled.

She translates for us laughing. We struggle and stretch our tongues
into a common word: poet – şiir. Raki with its aniseed jolt
whitens in the rising moonlight, warms our bellies,
and my too-young son burns his tongue on its heat to stop shivering.

In the fish market beside us, dinner swims glimmering silver,
more than fresh. You choose Bosphorus fish, and
your friend, dancing to music coming from a house behind,
cuts the picnic open – fresh tomatoes, feta chunks, onions beetroot-red.

You slice radishes, white flesh pristine against a pomegranate
stain of skin, and tell the story of the poet at the inn
who asked for radishes every night, leaving them uneaten
each meal, food only for the hunger of his eyes.

Scaled, the shining fish glint in an old wire barbecue frame
before they are slapped over tumeric flames, seared black,
salted and coursing olive-green with oil. Hungrily we
tear  them apart stuff them between slabs of bread.

Elsewhere in the city, tulips rest in the settled dark.
Daisy-gold, mulberry and plum, rose-pink with alabaster hearts,
scarlet and coral prim with tinted lips, they have closed for evening
waiting the seduction of stark sunrise, so bright it wears them out.

Only fifteen days before their heads drop among the rainbows of
polyanthus and pansies, wedges of colour against stone
pavements of Sultanahmet, green verges on the highways,
Byzantine walls crumbling towards summer.

My mind grapples to commit nine layers of civilisation to memory,
entering this night the weave that will become our pattern of days
in weeks to come: food and colour, stone and tile,
language and light. It grows colder along the water.

Our fingers begin to freeze at the end of raki-warm limbs.
Under a red full moon, rising whole, uncut by cloud, history becomes
a set of floating pages, waves of light thrown onto river and canopy alike.
A strange union binds us, difference collapsing more easily than empires.

forthcoming  Under the Saffron Sun, forthcoming, Knocknarone Press, 2019

**

At Anchor, Salhane
for Meral, Bozcaada

Salhane, old slaughterhouse on the island,
its animal souls erased by desecrating vandals,
has been retiled, remade, and dancers disco
long into the night, music bouncing the village.
Daylight becalms us at this end of the harbour path.
We sit with Turkish coffee – just for me.
You are practising oruç, fasting for Ramazan,
dry as a bean in this heat. Yet each day you prepare
my breakfast in Alesta Hotel, a feast of cheeses,
tomatoes, green peppers, apple-and-carrot jam,
beside the green fig, red poppy, tomato, and walnuts
Adalet cracks open on your sun-warmed steps, while
no food or fluid can pass your lips until night falls.

In the shade of this owl-grey volcanic rock, massive
above us at water’s edge, we watch the castle basking,
a strange sea-creature floating in its element.
One cormorant is fishing with speed, not accuracy,
its prey lightning through the water.
In clear shallows a crab with one great claw
eases its way over mossy stones shovelling food
into its mouth. Small mauve flowers spring
from concrete steps and we wonder how they grow,
no soil, no water, simply appearing.
Stillness wraps us round in a languid love.

Long after our countries were at war,
a pattern woven by some other hand brought
two people together across a world of chaos,
joined out of difference, but of the same ethereal cloth.
I bring you an oak in Irish pewter to wear at your neck,
not knowing that same perfectly shaped tree,
meşe ağacı, is your favourite on the island.
The very colour red I’ve searched the markets for,
you give me in a soft throw for my house
embroidered in gold by your mother on your marriage.
Peace is lapping. One moment more in silence before
ezan, prayer call. Heat of the day is leaving its rose polish
a shimmer on our cheeks. I turn my head, waiting.

forthcoming  Under the Saffron Sun, forthcoming, Knocknarone Press, 2019

**

When he was young, once

She only knew his body when it was young.
Not this.
He rode wild horses, tamed everything,
everything. He prayed, or not.
He swept her into life.
His urgency was for her alone
not some idea of history, some vision of a hero.
Now this short year that seemed so long –
and she did not know this body now.

Not this.

Scarred, the leg gone, mind altered beyond
his being able to speak of it except to say –
‘we did things we had to do’.
She had been so hungry. No food.
She had been so alone.
Everything changing, family dispersed,
confusion, no-one to underpin
all that was familiar, known.
She wanted him back.

Not this.

She only knew his body as husband.
She remembered the moustache they laughed about,
her lace veil trailing, her hennaed hands in his,
her happiness, certainty of a future –
never years passing apart, the place falling to dust,
death lists, the fear of news, the understanding
everything had gone now that she knew.
Everything changed.
She didn’t want this.

Not this.

What country is this? Men full of strange energy
they call ‘war’. They call ‘necessary’.
She can see it in a trapped kind of way, that necessity.
But every young man from her town,
every station hand, every merchant in the market,
every father who had seemed so old then.
Now him. Old while young.
She wanted him back, real as the rocks and the sand,
lonely for the ‘him’ she knew in her heart, in her very loins.

Not this.

from This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915, Turkish translations Mehmet Ali Çelikel (Five Islands Press, Bilge Kültür Sanat, 2015);   Spinifex Press, 2018.

**

The Shattering
with thanks to Alastair Macleod, grandson of Hector

Breath, it’s mainly about breath, Aykut knows,
when he blows through the tuba hard, marching,
feet stamping, calves pumping, air drawn up, up
into lungs full with the brightness of harmonic joy,
trumpets beside cymbals, bass drums under whistles,
expulsion, the sounds of lung-deep rhythm.
Music of honour. Yes, music of war.
The army is strapped to his step,
the band’s swell a roaring sea of power.
This force can defeat the world!

He knows the music of Europe –
Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s
so-called ‘Turkish’ Marches, their twanging
with Turkish kettledrums, cymbals, triangles.
He knows that all the military bands of Europe
were grown from his own Mehter tradition
that could raise a din to make rock tremble,
wilt the sky into obedience.

But to the trenches he could only take his flute;
remember, as a dream, Anatolian love songs,
painful, searing as fire in the skin while
waiting through sleepless nights for the drench of
hot iron rain that drowns his comrades hundred on hundred,
fills his hours with hissing, minced-up nightmares
he can’t escape. He wonders what thrill of note will
make him raise his head one more time to charge towards death.
Maybe a song will do it? He draws in to sing,
but shells lop it from him limb by limb,
everything melodic lost, music a shatter of steel.

Breath, it’s mainly about breath, Neil knows.
Tight to his chest, firm under arm, warm from his lungs
the bag fills, chanter flexes slightly as he fingers the tune, waiting.
Drone gripped he breathes fully in,
reeds tasting of ash, rotting men, gut-acid.
A mug of rum, orders bellowed, pipers up front – then –
over the top they go as he plays The Blue Bonnet
on war pipes far from the green fields of home,
his girl’s face still pressed wet there to the window.

Far from his younger brother, champion wrestler –
Hector – a fated name too close to Troy –
though not so far now on Achi Baba,
urged forward by the wail of the pipes
swarming toward Turkish trenches,
smoke a haze of fear – and down, crumpled,
– slit, snap – bullet through his knee
bare below the kilt, another into his second
precious calf, ripped open, life ahead
hobbled humiliation in factory work making brushes,
tar’s stench stuck bitter in his gullet.

Noise to Neil’s right pierces scattering screams,
bagpipes let out their skirl that calls centuries of
fighting men forward, years of practice, of tunes
for dancers on their light feet, scythed quick to silence
as four pipers go down just before one large shell
blows him to dust, bag and bones pulverised,
pieces never to be found for burial.
Ever-hungry for his mouth again, his practice chanter
lies silent in an Orkney Island home.

from This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915, Turkish translations Mehmet Ali Çelikel (Five Islands Press, Bilge Kültür Sanat, 2015);   Spinifex Press, 2018.

**

Robyn Rowland is an Irish-Australian citizen living in both countries. She regularly works in Turkey. She has written 13 books, 10 of poetry. Her latest books are Mosaics from the Map (Doire, 2018) and her bi-lingual This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 (Five Islands, 2015; repub. Spinifex Press, Australia, 2018), Turkish translations, Mehmet Ali Çelikel. She is working on a new bi-lingual book with Mehmet Ali Çelikel, Under the Saffron Sun. Robyn’s poetry appears in national and international journals and in over 40 anthologies, including 8 editions of Best Australian Poems. She has read and taught in Ireland for 35 years and has been invited to read in India, Portugal, Ireland, the UK, the USA, Greece, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey and Italy. An extended interview with her appeared in Agenda Poetry, UK, December 2018. She has two CDs of poetry, Off the Tongue and Silver Leaving – Poems & Harp with Lynn Saoirse. She has been filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Reading Archive, James Joyce Library, University College Dublin, available on you tube, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7KfJL_otFc; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-gzWdQlBEE

Robyn can be found at http://robynrowland.com/