Mennonite Poetry Home | Leonard Neufeldt



Hand-Painted Plates of Nicæa

Endless orchard green to our right,
on our left cat’s-paw shadows pivoting on the lake,
hurrying to keep us company to Iznik
as though to bid us welcome (Hosh geldinis).
Ahmed, our driver, offers the Greek word
for Nicæa like forbidden fruit. So this is where
centuries of strange desire were plotted?
Alexander’s gleaming, double-edged
imagination, Pliny’s high-end Roman gossip,
yet another earthquake, stronger than the last,
sending do-nothing gods packing, mornings
and evenings now passing through the gates
of Hadrian’s new, heaven-inspired city walls.
A Byzantine emperor’s ultimatum
to his feuding council of bishops, the first draft
of a creed opened and cut apart like the marbled hills
of Anatolia or the votes of the Arians,
and the cross and sword became one,
like a triune god. The earth heaved again,
and again, but city walls and churches returned
to their importunity of place stone by stone,
the Aya Sofya larger each time, seeking room
for a cruciform until Orhan drew a circle
around the walls that stilled the city
and its appetites, and Tamerlane changed
the day’s and night’s routines
and Nicæa’s name to Iznik

Above the cobbled streets Mongol gutturals
and lisps from the upper floor shed the night’s
emptiness, giving way at the city’s edge
to the pitched Farsi of craftsmen from Selim’s
new empire transported here,
their Persian songs of banishment bleeding
the Iznik red,
                      which my wife and I
admire in the most expensive plates. We buy
one and two traditional Ottoman,
a trinity of colours wrapped with care
for explanation to customs officers

But those half-starved Persian artists
exiled by horsemen on the world’s four winds,
held back only by the bottomless gulf
the living cannot cross, corpses stacked
neatly as firewood on either side. Those
who escaped unlearned heaven and hell,
and those who didn’t had time enough
to say farewell to friends still at home, polite
as always, like the villagers Father left behind,
who bade the secret police welcome,
stepped aside, and no one, not even the police,
knew where in the Gulag the men would be sent
and who might return

                                   Orchard floors
clean of grass and weeds have been harrowed
dark as the lake. We can smell the earth,
we can hear bees frantic with the last blossoms
of the season. On the orchard roads blue tractors
are followed by a swirl of feathered radiance

Tomorrow we fly back to Bodrum’s
cobblestone drives, off-white marble walks
and the turquoise bay of Bitez. Come, we’re home,
the wide gate open to what’s between us
and house, Selim, our son-in-law, kissing us
on both cheeks, a mourning dove’s
single-note reviewing yesterday, a child
running toward us from the orchard, past
the massive 500-year-deep furrows
of an olive tree as we step through the shadow
of the Ottoman mansion and into the foyer,
the far glass wall opening to the atrium with its sea-
encrusted amphorae on their sides, held close
by trees

               The white of the near wall measures
the distance of an empire and hand-painted
plates of heaven’s native Persian blue,
earth’s talismanic green, and
Iznik red

©Leonard Neufeldt. Painting Over Sketches of Anatolia (Signature Editions, 2015).




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