Jesse Millner

When I Dreamed I Spoke Turkish

Water follows the path of least resistance,
whether it’s the Mississippi
or just that little stream I spilled
on the coffee table last night,
which found no ocean, no
deep repository of meaning,
only the cold, tile floor.

There are fake Roman tiles in our living room,
real Roman tiles at the baths in Ephesus
where we watched ghosts
wade into the memory
of sparkling springs.

Broken tiles of a dead language,
the reddish bits too irregular
to summon an entire civilization.

In memory Ephesus rolls down
to the silted Aegean, and
in memory, I, too, sail
on a chartered bus
toward Byzantium.

To present-day Istanbul,
where Turkish cookies
are not sweet
like the view out of the window
of this Holiday Inn: grey sky
beginning to melt into sunlight,
Trams and busy traffic.
Mosques with minarets
shivering in the call to prayer.

*

I am floating over Turkey,
a ghost myself. I see
women covered head to toe
in bright fabrics, working
the fields by hand, as if this dream
is four thousand years ago
when civilization is just born
and filled with possibility.
The Euphrates splits
an old flood plain
with its slow journey
past many green islands.
The Hittites look
down from the hills
and I smile back at them.
Abraham stirs in his
cave near Sanliurfa,
glorious Urfa,
just below the hill where
a jealous Nimrod catapulted
the prophet down into the pool
of  shimmering carp
that still swim through the 21st century.
In my dream, children cast
bread upon those waters
and the fish rise up
through whirlpools like small gods.

In my dream, I am Turkish
and twirling, dizzy in Konya,
a dervish of spin and delight.

It’s all about the spinning, isn’t it?
We dizzy ourselves with gods and drugs,
with booze and sex and incantations,
trying every moment for ecstasy,
for god-contact or devil-embrace—

Abraham is dead, man.
The fish in the pond near his tomb in Urfa,
they’re just fish.

And, Jesus. Christ,
don’t get me started on him.

*

Last night I dreamed I finally spoke Turkish.
And I woke up this morning,
displaced and feverish, my body in bed,
my mind still dreaming Harran
and that four-thousand-year-old fort
just twelve miles north of the Syrian border.
I see again the light of early June
spraying through a broken north wall,
children playing amid the fallen stones.
Ghosts of camels from long-dead caravans
stir in the dark rooms below me
and the guide says those black slits
forced the animal heat to rise and warm
this cold floor where the travelers once slept.

Long ago history lessons whisper
from my sleep: Near Harran
in a the fourth century A.D.,
a Roman Emperor sacrificed his legions
to the Carpathians. He was made
into a living footstool for the Persian king
and thirty thousand soldiers
were forced into slavery—that must
have really sucked.

*

Last night I had the strangest dream
of shoes without feet
marching through
the dusty ruin of my sleep

past Rumi’s tomb in Konya,
and mannequins dressed like dervishes
frozen in plastic trances
next to a museum of many Korans.

*

Here I pray to wise memory,
here I read Arabic,
here, for the first time,
I really learn the dance.

Here that emperor’s name is tickling
my brain: Crassius, Grassious? Does it
really matter, all these years later?

*

I must confess
that I am no god, no messenger
of good tidings
or ill.

Lately, I’ve been forgetting things
and my arthritic right knee
aches all night long
bringing a dull pain
to my dreams

of Turkey,
of Miami,
of Spain,
of blue seas and the night tide
of dark wide rivers
that gave birth
to entire civilizations.

*

An Imam at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
told us that the days of Genesis
are indeed literal periods
of cosmic invention.

The Imam showed us
where Pope John Paul
had stood two years before
amid the thunder of Muslim prayers.

We walked without shoes, without Jesus,
heard for ourselves the repetition
of that earthly chorus
singing heaven.

At the Blue Mosque
my wife cried, unable not to
take in
all that beauty.

*

I do know once-beautiful Constantinople fell in 1453
after seven centuries of
on and off sieges by
various Muslim armies.

In 1453 the Hippodrome was silenced.
At long-last,
the Eastern churches closed for business,
the Holy Roman Empire
reduced to an outpost here
and a village there.

Ottoman irony:
We rest our western feet
on the same word
that conquered Byzantium!

*

I’m sitting here on a sunny Florida day in May
writing all this in my notebook.
I’m at Starbucks.
What a cliché!

Roses are red, coffee is bitter,
and too much java
sends you to the shitter.

*

Which reminds me again of Ephesus,
how the toilets in the baths
were simply holes in benches
connecting to a stinky underground
that flowed into the Aegean.

*

Now I’m remembering the cherry orchards near Izmir,
the way we filled our open hands
with that red sweetness.

*

Yes, sunny in Florida today,
but to the north summer rain falls
over the airport. Airplanes duck
and dive
past the nimbi,
trailing
tears.

*

Vaguely displaced,
I modify.

*

In Turkey there was only instant coffee.
Everyone drank tea.
There were mornings when
the whole world loomed
numbly before me
as I cradled the Nescafe.

Then I learned to drink
Turkish tea.
And each morning
my eyes opened
to the voice of god.

*

I modify memories.
I modify the horses of Cappadocia,
that land of caves carved
out of volcanic hills,
that memory of third century Christian
churches and murals of Jesus and Mary
speaking from the darkness
in faded colors
of a hidden time.

I don’t know why I mentioned
horses and Christians in the same breath,
or why I can’t forget those murals
of saints who some say
will one day walk from the silent caves,
into the bright air

of thundering hooves, perhaps.

*

In one notebook, I’m finding Turkey
and history, Starbucks
and lemon pound cake,
the crumbs of which are falling
like tiny empires of the holy dessert.

In one notebook I’m visiting my past,
which is my longest poem, the one
that needs few transitions,
that meanders like the Euphrates;
and now I see horses grazing
on the mid-stream islands
covered with ancient papyrus.

I want to inscribe my poems
on Babylonian papyrus!

And it’s true when we crossed the Euphrates
at night, I happened to wake
up and see the stars cluttering
the slow, dark river. And I saw
the islands of papyrus pass
the bus window.

The bridge was narrow.
The water was brimming with fallen light

and poems.

*

It wasn’t Crassius or even Grassius.
It was poor Crassus
who invaded Syria in 53 BC
and was killed when he tried to surrender.
Thirty thousand Romans
were captured near Harran.

To further muddy the historical waters,
to show the imperfect reach of memory,
it was Valerian who was made into
a human footstool by the Persian king, Shapur
in the third Christian century,
so, dear reader, much of what I’ve told you
has been historically wrong.

This is a poem, not an essay.
This is memory, not the truth.

Grassius, Crassius, Crassus,
the point is it all ended in Harran,
just twenty kilometers from
the present-day Syrian border.

*

If this were an essay, I might warn future
generations not to invade the land
between the Tigris and the Euphrates—
you might one day become dead
or be made into a footstool, yourself.

*

I need to return to Turkey,
maybe to that ferry ride down
the Straits of Bosphorus
where we drank hot tea
in the cool wind that blew
from Asia to Europe.

O, those Ottoman mansions crumbling
along the shore!

*

In 1818, Byron himself
swam from Europe to Asia
at Hellespont.

*

And what is the point of romanticism,
of Turkish reflections
here in the sunny tropics
where Jesus walks
on the river
of grass?

*

Jesus was right.
Jerry Falwell was right
wing.

Oh, the power of the linebreak!
Ottoman Empire
becomes Otto,
man of the year
in a German town so small
half the men are named Otto,
almost enough to create a mini-Otto
man empire of masculine fury!

*

My tea grows cold
and in the creamy land at the bottom
of my cup, leaves
reveal dreams of empire.

I read the whispering brew
and realize that Turkey
is the dream of my bones,
the schemes of blood
vessels, like old sailing ships
crossing the Aegean.

My own inner-country has grown
Ottoman.

I am an empire in millions
of cells,
a vast civilization
awaiting the next conqueror
who rides
in from the east.

I can see the dust from those hooves,
hear the thunder
of ghost horses,

see the glint of scimitars
in a desert sun,

hear a voice rising
above the chaos:

There is no god but Allah
and Mohamed is his messenger.

*

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Mr. Millner has the following to say about “When I Dreamed I Spoke Turkish”: “It’s a recent poem that started from journal entries I’d made in a notebook during a visit to Turkey in 2006. In drafting the poem, I stirred up the entries, added a lot of reflection, and followed the trail from Istanbul back to Florida.  I was surprised by the mix of what I’d written, what I remember and misremember, along with five years of dreams that sometimes include odd memories of that trip to Turkey, which has come to inhabit me with its visceral sense of the truly ancient. When writing the poem, I felt as if my brain was expanded and filled with five thousand years of dusty history. It hurt. But it changed me.”

Jesse Millner’s poems have appeared in River Styx, Pearl, Willow Springs, Atlanta Review, Slant, Cider Press Review, and numerous other literary magazines.  He has published six poetry chapbooks and one full-length collection, The Neighborhoods of My Past Sorrow (Kitsune Books, 2009).  His next book, Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation,  will be released in April of 2012.  Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida.

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