James Sutherland-Smith, A Snail in Istanbul

turkey licensed runoman

A Snail in Istanbul
by James Sutherland-Smith

The sultan of moisture creeps
On a flagstone shadowed by nettles.
He carries his turban on his back
And shows his tentacles, a scholar
Bareheaded out of the mosque.
No doubt his hidden mouth is prim
Though his tongue, rough with hunger
Not prayer, will rasp on greenery:
One foot, one lung, one kidney,
One gonad, mostly male, feminine
Only in summer in a place
The Turkish guidebook labels
The Convent of the Whirling Dervishes.

In the octagon of the dance hall,
On a balcony wall overlooking
The dancing floor is a photograph
Of Abandoned holy men, a cluster
Of white frowns with unkempt beards
Like snails stuck to a glossy leaf.
They lingered after Sheikh Galib
The last, great formal poet,
Years after Halit Efendi
Whose body is in a tomb outside.
His head is buried elsewhere.
Their pens and mechanical verses
Are displayed, nibbled by neglect.

On the path the devotee of stealth
Has almost reached the nettles.
His spiral of shell and viscera,
His delicacy, will not be scourged
By the stinging hairs on the stems.
Far above him the curator
Picks tobacco from a lower lip
Before he brushes down the graves
Tilted by subsidence so they seem
Almost imperceptibly to make
A gesture in the dance. Their headstones
Are grey, bearded with inscriptions,
Crested with marble turbans.

PHOTO: Snail on sidewalk in Istanbul, Turkey by Runoman, used by permission. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Sutherland-Smith  was born in Scotland in 1948, and now lives in Slovakia. He has published seven collections of his own poetry, the most recent is The River and the Black Cat published by Shearsman Books (2018). He has translated a number of Slovak poets, publishing three individual selections in Britain, two in Canada, and one in the United States, and three Serbian poets with two selections from Miodrag Pavlovic and Ivana Milankov in Britain. His translation of poetry has been awarded the Slovak Hviezdoslav Prize and the Serbian Zlatko Krasni Prize. His most recent translation is from the poetry of Mila Haugová, Eternal Traffic, published in Britain by Arc Publications.

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