The Wisdom of Myth
Bellini in Istanbul
By Lillias Bever
Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2005, 85 pp., $16.95 paper.
Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, $14.00 paperback
Reviewed by Claire Keyes
To put these two books of poems side by side, to rub them together, so to speak, makes their differences stand out. Both books are by poets for whom female experience is central. Lillias Bever, the younger woman, has studied and learned from her poetic forbears. She reaches back in time for the wisdom offered by myth. Ann Fisher-Wirth uses her age and experience as the core of her verse.
Lillias Bever won the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize for Bellini in Istanbul, her first book of poems. Visually stunning, the book’s cover invites readers into an exotic world. The Bellini poems, at the center of the book, are lyrical accounts of the Renaissance artist and his sojourn at the court of the conqueror Mehmet in the fifteenth century. While these poems are worthwhile in and of themselves, the poems that lead up to and away from them resonate with contemporary issues such as the war in Iraq. The book’s references to a love affair between an American and a Turkish man make the convergence of East and West a personal as well as a political issue. As it should be, the structure of this book of poems is a poem in itself.
In “Mehmet Sniffing a Rose,” Bever contemplates one of Bellini’s portraits of the conqueror and explores the irony of Mehmet’s pose. Bellini has depicted him
holding the rose delicately,
between his fingertips,
such a frail thing
Yet this same man “favored/ careful decapitation of his victims/ strangulation, impalement.” Bever explores the mind of this man and how abject cruelty and violence can coexist with a sense of beauty. And self-delusion. Mehmet
makes a metaphor
between this rose
and the life of man:
kingdoms bloom and fall,
releasing their perfumes:
In “Album of the Conqueror,” Bever demonstrates Mehmet’s desire to bring more of the world under his control. His album depicts those places he has already conquered, “part map, part landscape, part/ imperial inventory.” To all this, “he now wishes Gentile [Bellini] to add ‘a Venice.’” The sultan desires to enhance his great power. Venice would be the crowning jewel, yet for the album it would be:
these church spires and shining squares,
festivals honoring the birth of the Virgin,
a city encircled by a wreath of waters:
Mehmet holds it in his hands.
Bever’s imagination veers toward the mythic—like some of the recent work of Louise Glück. Bever’s handling of her mythic materials doesn’t seem forced or programmatic. Section I of Bellini in Istanbul, entitled “Excavation,” reaches back in time to the so-called “heroic age” of Ancient Greece. In “Horse,” about the siege of Troy, Bever imagines the Trojan horse as beautiful, “so breathtakingly lovely/ a sigh rises up from the populace”—another commingling of beauty and violence.
Energizing Bever’s poems is her fondness for Sappho. In her own “Sapphic Fragment,” Bever again employs myth, this time the story of Aphrodite and Hephaestus. The speaker is frank about her lover’s physical limitations: “You are ugly, yes, and limp/ badly, [ / You have a horrible temper [ ” Bever is drawn to the fragmentary form of Sappho’s verses (as we know them), and the reader must fill in the blanks. The “Sapphic Fragment” leads naturally to “Aubade,” a modern version of the myth of a woman sleeping with a lover who seems to be brutal with her, whose hands “aren’t particularly careful / with the skin on my arms and throat.”
Section three has a more modern feel to it, although Bever returns to history, to Alexander the Great and to the battle of Gallipoli. She intertwines her personal story of an American woman in love with a Turk with her love for the city of Istanbul. “Fragment #5” is another poem in the Sapphic manner—that is, composed of fragments that work together mainly by association. She writes, “I can only think of you / in fragments / afraid to sink.” Parentheses are scattered on the page. Reader, fill in the blanks. This is a love poem, its images speaking of discontent: “My heart, like papyrus/ tears easily.”
“Index Islamicus” conveys Bever’s frustrating, fragmentary attempt to make sense of history: “Pieces of history are falling out / and crumbling into dust between my fingers.” Leaving the place where she has been a visitor:
a last picture
glimpsed in the pre-dawn darkness
haunted me all the way to the airport:
a city bus filled with dusty, overtired workers,
crammed so full
one man was reaching his hands up to the ceiling
in a gesture of surrender.
The image of this man is poignant; modern life presents its own forms of the Trojan horse and its own methods of besieging the individual soul.
A Yeatsian note enters “The Alexander Sarcophagus,” as the speaker comments upon the depicted images:
The Persian Empire is dying.
Something brutal is being born, the world
will be unpredictable and violent.
Of course, this is the old Persia, and Alexander the Great is hardly news. Even so, Bever’s images resonate:
a Persian half-crouches, shielding his face
from this new, naked, utterly destructive spirit
slashing and slashing at his invisible veils.
In sum, Bever’s book of poems brings us right up to the present moment. Sometimes derivative, sometimes dazzling, her poems make us eager to see what this brilliant young poet will come up with in her next volume.
Ann Fisher-Wirth is not drawn to ancient myths. Instead, she creates her own out of the materials of her life. The opening/closing poem, “Walking Wu-Wei’s Scroll,” the same poem except for the sequencing of its sections, frames the book’s “five terraces,” or distinct groups of poems, which represent layers of the poet’s life.
On the first terrace we find “The Trinket Poems,” a sequence of eighteen poems united by the speaker’s return to the stage to play the role of Trinket in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Mutilated.” Trinket’s mutilation is the loss of a breast. The speaker, a self-declared “aging woman” and a professor, finds herself in love scenes with a man young enough to be her son. This is dangerous territory for a woman married twenty years, mother of five, but “she steps into the fire.” In “Speak These Lines,” after considering some of Trinket’s overly romantic lines, the speaker tells herself:
Say these lines which are foolish, which are the heart’s
nakedness, proudly, as if the galaxy whirled and
kindled through your scarred, stained darkness also.
Her self-admonition is typical of the emotional bravery of this volume.
The poems on the next terrace explore the speaker’s girlhood and recent past. Passion is the theme, not simply sexual passion (although it’s definitely present), but something the Spanish call duende, a mysterious force connected to the spirit of the earth. Duende connotes emotional authenticity, as in the poem “Bacalao,” where the speaker and her husband on a “long ago night” recognize it while listening to a flamenco singer in Granada. His voice:
cracked and broke into the no-man’s land,
the screech and quaver of the duende,
the music that happens after the voice is shattered—
The singer approaches her and insists that she taste the bacalao, or salted codfish. And she does though it’s “already spit-moistened, hard as a board. Listening to others insist that the flamenco singer is “muy especial,” [“very special”] the speaker agrees:
and he was, this man with the wail
and cracked black shoes
who, summoned, lashed, tried to outrace dawn.
My whole being seeks that magic.
This last line is the key to this volume of poems. Were we to define “that magic,” we might say things one almost blushes to say—to live life to its fullest no matter the cost, to “step into the fire” as heroes do.
The title poem appears in the book’s next section, where we learn that Fisher-Wirth’s father constructed “five terraces” at her childhood home in Berkeley, California. A prose poem, “Five Terraces” is dedicated to her father, who died a fairly young man. Fisher-Wirth sees him still:
He chops out weeds, cuts back briars, digs terrace levels and smoothes the clay.
His muscles rope across his back, sweat stings his eyes, as he hauls the heavy
railroad ties, terracing. He makes the earth stand still.
A mythic figure, this father.
On the final terrace we find poems of the poet’s current life as mother, wife, resident of Oxford, Mississippi, visitor to Paris (to see an old boyfriend), and devotee of the Hindu goddess Kali. All these manifestations are encapsulated in “Having No Choice, I Welcome You.” Fisher-Wirth dedicates this poem to Kali, “to the Dirty Lady.” (Kali is “dirty” because she is usually portrayed as black.) The dark one absorbs all colors and as a mother goddess represents ceaseless creation. The speaker invites Kali to:
Come with your hair down
in your skirt of knives
She has “no choice” but to welcome Kali, because Kali is already there. Thus the speaker concludes,
I accept you into my heart
but you have no comfort for me.
Come to me, come to me,
you with the crimson.
Kali’s lolling red tongue is suggested in the single word “crimson.” It signifies that Kali consumes all things, tasting and enjoying all the world’s flavors. As such, she is an apt representation of the spirit that pervades Five Terraces.
The poems on the fifth terrace can be regarded as different forms of Kali made manifest. “In that Kitchen,” for example, gives us the earth mother:
Being the mother was a long rapture, a long abandonment. Abandonment of
what? Of herself” Of silence? But how much love can flow through your hands,
did flow through her hands, into the cakes, the pies, the sandwiches and stews.
And thence into their bones, their bodies.
This gentle, giving manifestation of Kali yields to the all-consuming one in “In the Manner of the Long-Married”:
Terror of what I long for most, that passion,
breaking open, like the exposed flesh of a shell-crushed snail
glistening, in mortal anguish: this I want,
to lie all open.
Lillias Bever seeks the universal (mythic) in the particular, while Ann Fisher-Wirth revels in the particular, be it bacalao, the body of her beloved, or Kali. She is not “afraid to sink.” In that sinking she embraces what we recognize as the fullness of human experience. The openness of her stance is both heroic and inspiring.
Claire Keyes is professor emerita at Salem State College and the author of The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich.. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Calyx, ReviewRevue, The Georgia Review, Thema,, and elsewhere.