A Review of The Cistern, by K. Kamal Ayyildiz (Çitlembik Publications, 2004)
by Christopher Faroe
In the city of Istanbul there is a suspension bridge, which stretches between two continents. But for many hundreds of years, before this development of the modern age, this ancient city–the center of so many empires–was defined by the watercraft, the docks, the shipping, that this aqueous rift allowed and necessitated. So it is fitting that Turkish-American poet K. Kamal Ayyildiz begins his collection, The Cistern (Çitlembik Publications, 2004), in a boat, paddles swishing. And even the wooden paddles give way to a diesel prop by the end of the first page.
Ayyildiz was raised in Virginia by a Turkish father and an American mother. The Cistern is a meditation on names, fathers, mothers, birth, maturation, cultural connections and cultural divides. Using the archetype of a city built on two continents, divided by a body of water—and that body itself, the instrument of separation laden with fairytale significance, “once there was and once there was not,” and yet somehow all of this merging, flowing, into the same underlying story. In Song of Bebek, the collection’s opening poem, this single story is exemplified in a reflection of the communal experience every Turkish man undergoes: “And in the park a band plays the chaos/ as sons board the military bus. / They look as I look across this body towards Asia, / their hearts lite the surface, / a man’s idea of himself / inside the buoyant craft, / sweating”.
Istanbul, for all its archetypal significance, is also a vibrant, sensory-overload of a city unique for its details, for the specific, for the tangible and present. And so it is fitting that Ayyildiz makes copious provision for each of the senses—drumbeats, gunshots, silver bodies of fish, olives, nuts, fruit, tea, the steam and lather of the Turkish bath, flour-dusty baker’s hands, the warm blood of childbirth. In this way his poetry is appropriately reminiscent of the post-formalist movements in Turkish literature. The Garip poets of the 1950s were famous for concentrating deliberately on the simple, on everyday activities as opposed to hollow literary abstractions and overused patterns. Ayyildiz echoes the same appreciation for the significance of the comonplace: “Eti looks up. / A basket drops on a string from the poweder sky. / A Jinn? No. / Teyze calls her to fetch bread and raki” (Song of Merdivenli Sokak).
And yet Ayyildiz is rooted in a rooted appreciation for tradition, for the country in which his name originates, the country of his father’s upbringing. He is able to combine the simple objects and elements of everyday life in Turkey, to the deeper story, transcending nation and name. In Firinci the simplicity of a bakers craft becomes a concentration on life and death; the nameless baker, or firinci, wonders over his kneading, as he bakes bread, the staple of Turkish cuisine: “His staple of dreams, unloaded golden, / are bird crumbs. // In the late addition of Hurriyet / the flour face ofa dead child.”
Ayyildiz aptly completes his collection with Song of Uskudar, a culmination of all that has been brought up in The Cistern. We are back on the coast, near the water. There is a mention of mulberry and pomegranate, two fruit motifs prominent in earlier poetic folk traditions of Turkey as well as modern Turkish poetry such as the Garip movement. And so Ayyildiz continues Istanbul’s ancient story: the mysterious connection between old and new, east and west, the specifics of our daily experiences, and the archetypes of all literature.