Jeffrey Kahrs grew up in the Bay Area near San Francisco and received his B.A. in Dramatic Literature from U.C.S.C. He moved to Seattle in the early 1980s and primarily worked at this time as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. In 1988 he help start a reading series called Radio Free Leroy’s, which ran for many years.
In 1989 he left Seattle to attend the creative writing program at Boston University, where he studied with Derek Walcott. On his return to Seattle he gave readings and was published in several local magazines.
Jeff has lived in Istanbul since 1993. After a hiatus he began writing again at the turn of the milleneum. Most recently he co-edited an issue of the Atlanta Review on Turkey, was recently published in Subtropics, and currently has a chapbook out on Gold Wake Press. Five of his poems on Istanbul will also be published in Cantaraville in April, 2010. He currently works at Istanbul Commerce University.
I failed the test. The official letter on my desk
was too bland for the brand that seared me.
It changed shape like Proteus, a scorching breeze
drifting across my skin that flowed inward,
a viscous acid that consumed my organs.
When I attempted to locate the nerve,
a welt pushed that pulse aside and set out
for some undiscovered part. What to do?
I stared at the ivy climbing the stone walls,
the breaks of light among the clouds and knew
I was not this view, but the glass and iron bars
standing between me and all I desired to touch.
You can’t run from your problems through
the front door. Confront them at the window,
where you are—the well-meaning voices
of people I loved and trusted. Did they really
know more than what felt instinctively right?
Run by all means. A few days away from the junk
filling my life might change the rubric I used
to judge my failure. I remembered there are
many pleasant ways to fall short of goals
Olympos’ strand and stone pines kept appearing,
snapshots overlaying the wandering pain, voices
returning like fragmented telephone conversations:
Frank, Barbara, Christine, Kathy, the spoiled Libyan
from one of the twelve families who ran the country.
He insulted Jews and complained the embargo
forced his chauffeur to drive the Mercedes to Cairo;
the quiet Indian/Jewish/English bricklayer who
sat at the same table and was afraid of the water;
the German woman I picked up who called me
Shakespeare, and pulled my ears so hard during
foreplay I was in agony. Was she worth the pain?
Not in itself, but like a well-rendered painting
of a small disaster, she fit the frame perfectly.
I flew down to hang the pictures in their places.
Rain threatened, but at least it wasn’t the haze
I had woken to for a week covering the Bosphorus.
The storm front truncated the mountains with clouds,
but as expected their trunks rose from the water.
Inside the small bus plastic jugs filled with peppers
covered the floor—an acrid tang among the dust
and musk of villagers heading home from Antalya.
Orange poppies and daisies marked the pavement’s edge,
and in the canyon below white water would suddenly
surge through breaks in the forest. The smell of pines
became my breath. I had arrived. I hitched down
to Çıralı with Turan from Elaziğ. He lived
in Antalya and was looking for work as a waiter.
Murat from Sivas picked us up and waved
to everyone we passed. He married a local girl
and never returned to his village. Nothing compares
to the sea, he explained. Here there’s money.
We parked in a lot by the beach, got out,
and there it was: the rippling currency.
I walked into a restaurant and began taking notes
while drinking tea—the lifeblood in these parts
for any conversation. The people I knew before
coming here, those I met at this place then lost track
of later, still see on occasion, and the dark blood
flowed in, and up and out of Erebus they came…
and drank the world in my veins. Coursing through me
they became my heart. As my concentration faded
a pack of dogs started growling and barking. A waiter
hit them with stones and they slinked away. I slammed
my notebook shut, looked up, and heard waves gently falling,
raking pebbles as they retreated to the sea. My fatigue
caught up with me. I was tired, cold, and wanted to rest.
I looked at rustic cabins with tongue-in-groove planking.
They were dank and gloomy—nice for spiders, centipedes,
or an elegy about a country churchyard. I paid extra
for a freshly painted white room with large windows.
Pushing the curtains aside, I looked out on grass
and Calla lilies, the mountains smeared with rain.
I felt Nauseous; my chest felt like it held hot stones,
but the light, coming through the window and
from the reading light hanging over the bed
offered so much promise. I perused Ambler’s
Journey Into Fear and Babel’s Red Cavalry—
was it any mystery why my mood took a violent turn?
I switched. I shall use my anger to build a bridge…
Remembering a place is the moving through it.
The next morning I roamed Çıralı, the beach
that led to the ruins of Olympos, the backpacker
pensions hugging the river there for almost a mile.
In the late afternoon I drank Nescafe and watched
vacationers who aspired to be idle and slackers
who mastered the art. A young tattooed American,
shag cut in front, gold-rimmed glasses, a long,
braided ponytail falling from the base of his neck
sat at a table of Brits. He introduced himself, how
he’d lived in Europe for two years, how he… me
twenty-five years ago. Arms waving to enunciate,
manic, disjointed style of speaking, the desperate
need to communicate, the pretense of vast experience—
in short an overwhelmed audience. His world fell
into my hands. I judged it harshly, as I had once
through the eyes of a jury of my peers (so I thought),
tried and sentenced myself. I looked at him again.
My disdain was air, a breath in a life, and it poured
through my fingers onto the dirt floor. I ran my shoe
over the spot till it seemed blank, but dirt can’t
be cleaned or erased. The rumor remains.
Or a festering wound. Like the chained dog
at my hotel I remained constrained by my anger.
The manager of the pension (where you could sleep
in a Yörük tree house—as if the Yörük people ever
slept in trees) dashed about grinning, slapping backs,
pulling departing guests back to the pension
as if he couldn’t bear the thought of them leaving.
How could so many Turks and foreigners alike
bear the grift at the core of his gestures?
They were too swaddled in the hip holiday camp
pretense of peace, love, and understanding,
and I was still soaking in my acid bath.
I had run away to rest, to push aside the limbs
obscuring familiar ruins, to again see the sarcophagus
with the diram at full sail, a happy mermaid
stretched across the stern planks, and a poem carved
in the stone about the short distance one runs
between the harbors of life and death.
But the late-afternoon Meltem whipped the bay
into a foaming chop and the water was too cold
for a pleasurable swim. I stumbled out of the sea
chilled by the wind, grit in my eyes and hair.
The next day I realized I had overlooked
important evidence in Olympos about fear and anger.
The windows and doors facing the river were walled up
except for arrow slits. I came upon a small stream
where the day before a man wandered out
of the jungle-like growth dressed in a suit and a tie,
machete in hand. Now the area was cordoned off
with red and white striped-plastic tape. I knew
—historically speaking—I was at a crime scene, but feared
the tradition had been revived. The northern necropolis
provided the antidote. It was someone’s front yard
and cordwood was stacked in the vaulted tombs.
Others, half underground and filled with straw,
served as mangers. Chickens paraded on the grassy pates
of these tumuli, lorded over by a massive rooster
who strutted and kept a steely eye on intruders:
Generations were salvaged for a cock-of-the-walk
destined to become stew meat, and reborn
as a goat grazing along the wall of a ruined city.
Its bell tinkled as it foraged among the stones.
After breakfast while walking I realized it was Easter.
The sky was clear and flowers bloomed everywhere:
Sandy tufts, wisteria, geraniums. Orange blossom
with their cloying scent overpowered me then suddenly
disappeared. I recalled an orange plastic egg I found
as a child in the backyard lawn a month after
our family Easter egg hunt. The stale chocolate kisses
and hard jelly beans had tasted so sweet. I decided
to wander up to the Chimera. Easter seemed
a good day to meditate on an eternal flame.
Pastel blue and red honeycombs were laid in rows
through the fields. The bees made me drowsy
with their chant in the heat, but bird-calls pierced
their droning hum with call and response.
I replied by watching two bee keepers
in white jackets and wide-brimmed straw hats
drinking water in the shade, a few full combs
stacked beside them to take to town.
One laughed. Smoke rose from his cigarette.
I wondered what kind of music bees prefer.
As a child I would have been so afraid of these
industrial hornets’ nests. Now they looked like
boxes in which parents might store children’s toys.
Near the top I sat on a bench under some trees
and drank water. The branches, bushes, and brambles
around me were ornamented with tissue paper,
plastic, and pieces of cloth. They looked similar
to trees I’d once festooned at Halloween, launching
a role of toilet paper deep into the limbs, though
the difference was vast as the distance between
where I stood and what I’d been: Here desire
and hope were secured to the limbs like an anchor
to the edge of a far field touching the horizon.
A tree with smooth red bark like Madrone arched
over the plants, and a handkerchief was tied there
beyond anyone’s normal reach. I knew the distance well,
felt how my fingers had reached for and not grasped
that elusive place. Last year’s dried blackberries
were easy to touch, their thorns surprisingly supple—
flowers and green berries budded from its stems.
I would tie my desires here, though I had no interest
in the sharp stubble—or the day’s crown of thorns.
Recent rain caused the tissues to shred and drop
along the trail, confetti celebrating forgetfulness.
And memory. Bellerophon riding Pegasus
triumphed over Chimera, but only Pegasus,
spawned from blood spurting out of Medusa
(and as much a demon as Medusa herself)
remains a hero soaring through advertisements.
Who even wonders what that doomed, young man
Looked like? In the stifling one o’clock heat
a myth of a monster breathing fire is a sunburn,
the almost translucent flames flickering in
a small, blackened crevass a paltry gesture.
The poetry eluded me till I saw a man guiding
the stick in his daughter’s hand into the vent.
She was stunned, fixated by the flame flaring up,
but overcome with her new power, jerked
it up and down, delighting in the flame’s suffocation
and the arrival of dancing threads of smoke.
She was my Chimera, granddaughter of Gaia,
given the task of keeping fire. I recalled I’d seen
this place once from the sea on a moonless night,
red glow like a signal from a mountain top—and just
a step to the constellations. Bellerphon’s mistake.
Our home is the scorched ground we stand on.
In the evening I walked along the river. Plump cattails
wavered in the breeze. A leaf danced on an eddy
as if jerked by invisible strings, then fell on the current
still carrying the storm’s scour from several days before.
On the trail back to my hotel an elderly woman
stood silently watching a peacock amble through
an empty campsite. It moved among the tables
and chairs leaning up against them, stopping
to inspect whatever it is that interests a peafowl.
We barely moved, content to stay in the quiet and shade
of a holiday camp waiting for the new season.
The next day a one-armed surveyor walked by me
down the road as I headed back to Istanbul.
He carried a transit and tripod, and had large bunions
on his toes. Some part of ourselves is missing,
but so it goes. We move from marker to marker,
sighting and measuring the path as best we can.
I spotted a taxi and raise my arm to hail it.
All poems on this post: © Jeffrey Kahrs
Published with the permission of Jeffrey Kahrs