THE WHITEWASHER OF CHORA
The flowing lines of lampblack: white. The heavens made of azurite: white.
And white, too, the vermilion of robes and of blood: all white.
My father’s brush knows these curves and folds, the arches of imperial lips,
the architraves of blessèd eyebrows, knows the faces becoming white.
Umber earth and sienna soil: white. The ball of the brush rubs
a prayer in the pit of my palm as I wash each plucked eye white.
I wield my brush in broad strokes. Smalt and indigo. Fingers and fire.
Verditer, red lead, hair, leaves, bark. An ear, a jar. All veiled in white.
When we quicken the lime in baptism, it burns with an invisible spirit.
The tesserae drink it up with ragged teeth and pale to white.
White veils them in darkness. Waking and sleeping the same to those who wait.
A yellow line across a field of blue. A greave. A coiled tail. All disappear behind
Here and there, lime on lime. White can swaddle as well as shroud.
A spearhead. A tooth. Pits and grooves roughen to cleave the white.
On the off-kilter carpets my son says the words my fathers wouldn’t
and touches his head to where their soles scarred the marble white.
The sun kisses the half-unfinished work with a golden gleam.
Shadows turn the white to ash. I descend the scaffold spattered with white.
You who remember men in prayer, do not forget that İlyas, the painter’s son,
takes the time before he prays to descend and wash away the white.
after V. Penelope Pelizzon’s “Clever and Poor”
He’s always busy and happy, especially
in his shop on the corner of Kurtuluş,
the sidewalk a knot of mopeds. Busy is every
morning of batter and custard and chocolate
well before anyone could wake and ask for tea.
Happy is the choir poster on the street
vitrine, just in time for Noel. Busy is the extra
shop in the vacuum-packed shopping mall,
just enough for the old shop to make ends meet.
Happy is the marathon in Berlin
or Las Vegas, the finish-line photographs that line
the wall behind the counter. Busy
is scrubbing the red cross from the door
posts in the middle of the night, so no one
sees and shakes their head. Happy is he
who calls himself Armenian. Busy then
the deliveries of iftar and bayram. Another race
in Boston. Or London. Happy when
his school-days’ French pleases a tourist
or two, so civilized they are. His son
brings home socialites and party girls—he’s so
exotic, so transgressive!—until their mothers
hear his family name. Busy—have to make sure
those village boys sweep up before
closing time. Because he’s happy, he doesn’t mind
the triple crescents stencilled all along
the block. He thinks They’re just kids, just bored kids.
Across the way what he sees is busy—
a row of shops bulldozed for redevelopment,
then consternation at the sudden church
that’s been there all along, hid from view. His son
brings home the neighbour girl, she busies
herself to serve him salted coffee. He’s happy
her father’s gone, her aunts don’t care
much for religion. He busies himself with next year:
Hong Kong or maybe Adelaide.
Some nights he sits at the counter glass
after the fluorescents have all gone home,
busy polishing and tidying so’s not to wonder
how the same ones who cross the city
for his cakes and profiteroles could be the sons
of those who burned down his father’s
shop and circumcised him—could be the ones
who might someday do the same to him.
Mutlu ve meşgül. He’s always happy and busy.
L.A. and Rio. Someday he’ll marathon
across the Bosphorus bridge. He’ll take it slow,
Let each step ache and each breath
scrape, a last race he has no want to end.
Derick Mattern holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, The Los Angeles Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. As a translator of poetry from the Turkish, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asymptote, Circumference, and Modern Poetry in Translation, among others. Having spent many years in Istanbul, he now lives in Austin, Texas.