Istanbul – Above the Ring

(Listen to the poem here)

Eminönü  jumps up
the staircase
of its vowels
in a hurry

out from the Golden Horn.
It’s not a place to dawdle
waving one’s hands
effetely
over the slender minarets
trying to uncork the sky:
here all is cars and boats
and bustle.Some days the wind
comes gushing
straight out of Russia
and here
turns fifteen different
corners all at once,
scattering the footsteps
of the people
all around the compass dial
so everybody
walks in everybody else’s way.
The Arabesk music
lunges out
with all its gaudy beaded threads
from shops and stalls
and winds itself
around your ankles
dervishly.
The ferry boats reverse direction
as they come in to berth
carving wide curves out of
the heavy water,
shrugging off hefty waves
onto the tiny balik ekmek boats
sending them swaying,
wildly cooking
their mackerel
first thirty degrees to starboard
and then thirty degrees to port.
Only the simit seller
stands aloof
the sesame on his
hoops of bread
opening a secret door
away from all this toil
and bubbling hubbub.
I buy a ticket to the other side.
I drop my token into the slot.
The turnstile creaks.
I stumble into
a maze of people.
We shuffle forward dimly,
trying to grow our shoulders out
to keep a special space
to place our feet and
to protect our pockets, packets
and all our various, separate kinds of
loneliness.
And when the boat
comes in,
blotting the light before us,
the thick ropes thwack
against the capstans,
the gate groans open
and suddenly we all grow hooves
and turn into cattle
plunging to a ford.
We jostle up the gangplanks,
some vault the sides,
all have a place in mind
they want to be the first
to reach:
mine always
in the stern
just outside on the deck.
We sit and stare,
the wind from Russia
still whistling sourly
in our mouths.
And then the boat
heaves out from land
and babies who were screaming
glide, rocking, into sleep
and mothers rest their tired heads at last.
Peace gently envelops all.
Two lovers stand kissing
in a private storm
against the rail,
next to a woman
whose head is
covered by a modest
scarf, but no one
eyes in judgement.
All are companions now .
Our crossing is
the only thing there is.
No longer are our minds aground,
together on our vessel we’ve slipped free
of the markings of the clock
so that we float as well.
A man casts bread  out
to the gulls
which ride upon
the stream of seconds
we shed in our wake.
I never know which way to
look  – the domes of Europe,
or the hills of Asia,
the waters through the
tulip glass of tea a
waiter hands my neighbour
or at the shimmering sea of faces all around.
But when we come in close
to Üsküdar
I look out for my favourite sight:
upon the water’s edge,
Great Sinan’s tiny mosque,
so delicate
perhaps it isn’t really there,
but just a painting made
with wisps of white upon the air
Voices and noise from land
congeal about us now
and drag us in until
we bump against the edge of Asia.
my 
fellow passengers arise.
Now they have destinations
weighing on their brows
and other people they must be.
Sometimes I am the last
to disembark.
I linger on the deck and
watch the sea.
I think that in these waters once
a wizard
dropped his ring
and when friends
wonder at this city,
for being two cities
where Europe and Asia
gaze into each other’s eyes
and at each other’s lighted windows
longingly,
I think that still more marvellous
is that there is another city yet
upon the boats
which spend the days
going from side to side,
from gaze to gaze,
where everybody seems content
bound by the spell of that lost magic ring.

                                                                Phillip Hill 2007

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(This poem is included in my book The Observation Car which is available from

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