Istanbul Secrets

by Julene T. Weaver
Second Place, June 2015
Judged by Lesley Wheeler

Istanbul, in twelve days, we began to learn
your secrets, passageways that led to the places
we sought. We found the Komondo baroque-style
stairway, a shortcut that enters the alley directly
below the Galata Tower. We learned how to spot
your street signs, hidden on the sides of buildings.

We discovered the alleys that dip into gullies
with gold nuggets at the end—The Museum
of Innocence—a treasure that won the 2014
Small Museum Award, sits in a flood pocket.
We hiked your seven hills, wore out our feet against
the cracks and unexpected sharp drops on nearly

non existent sidewalks. We survived, learned to watch
each step, walking downhill fast like the natives, we dodged
traffic to save our lives. We found your tool district
near the Arap Mosque, Catholic in the 1300s, when you
were Constantinople. We stumbled upon the Jewish
Museum, unmarked and obscure on a dead end

with no name. We crossed your passages of water
and hiked the L.E.D. hills to the Pera Museum. We traveled
from the Old City to the modern city on your tram.
Each Mosque is an oasis of quiet, the only places to settle
and rest from the noise filled streets, second hand smoke,
and carbon dioxide, our throats rasped into cough spasms,

but we found elderberry pastilles in your pharmacies with
crosses that quieted the burn. You have your cures.
We learned this monster city will not be tamed,
too many invasions and transgressions, too many lancets
at its own inhabitants: Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Christians,
and even its own Islamic Ottoman Sultans,

the heads rolled and they still echo against
cobblestones down your narrow streets. Cars
and motorcycles whiz between our footsteps.
We entered you innocent, curious, with respect
we exit wiser, stronger, with a need to recover.
We met retired expatriates who stay so they do not

get lazy or complacent, this city keeps them jumping
for survival. We found art that speaks the body
inside out. Found the pain we rarely see that resides
in each of us. Istanbul, you have the offerings of any
large metropolis: a playpen for the rich, a battle
ground for the poor, a sledge hammer for the angry,

a spiritual haven for the prayers of the masses, for those
who go to the earth five times each day facing east,
for the Dervishes who sell their ritual dance prayer
to the tourists. You provide for the commercial and for
the Holy, you grabbed our hearts with each step
we walked your cobbled hills.

History is hard to pull off in poetry: fact needs embodiment in sensory image. My favorite example of this sense-work in the dense, winding poem "Istanbul Secrets" is the elderberry pastilles. I've never tasted one, but the phrase conjures a scent and maybe sugar's grit on the tongue. --Lesley Wheeler