Underpass in Istanbul

David Swerdlow


August, aromas of failure, of burden,
of the forsaken
swarm the underpass, mingle with the promise
of commerce— This, I’m told,
is where trade was invented. The Levant,
Persia, Byzantium, Istanbul.
I think of telling this to my daughters, who soon
will need a bathroom, who will find themselves
pushed by heavy women in head scarves
outlawed in public buildings
by Ataturk at the making of modern Turkey, pushed
until allowed to squat over the crude latrines
behind the Spice Market where we marveled
over pyramids of masala, curry, cumin
and turmeric. Later, I will purchase
Kiraz cherries so perfect I will be speaking
of them for years, how each one was large
and sweet, firm to my mouth, abundant
in flavor. Perhaps the difficulty of travel rests
in a simple equation, a transaction
of expectation and experience: a ripe cherry,
a foul latrine, a sign of multiplication
or division. I can buy
batteries or shoes or toys, anything
I need, really, in the underpass, packed
with booths, men and women
beckoning, and this old man whose eyes,
I’m guessing, were damaged decades ago,
who has wedged himself into a corner by the stairs to sell
shoelaces. My daughters are a little afraid
of his disfigurement, his blindness, but more afraid
of the boys who taunt him, who whisper and try
to steal the shoelaces draped over his crooked arm for the world
to see. The boys’ failure
or success is a show for several
men who have witnessed this game forever, it seems, who point
and laugh at each attempt, who know
this is the comedy
their lives trickle into
like this small stream of water or piss
making its way down the stairs we climb
into the breathable air and cluttered light. Our souls
ripen to behold, ripen to hear
the call to prayer, and see the intricate rugs unroll
so that what matters might be cleansed.


Return to Spring Issue Volume 11.2


David Swerdlow’s work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, American Literary Review, and many other distinguished journals. He has published two books of poetry with WordTech Editions: Bodies on Earth (2010) and Small Holes in the Universe (2003). His first novel, Television Man, was published last fall by Czykmate Productions. He teaches literature and creative writing at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.