Hüzün; Mercato del Pesce, Catania; Lam’s Cosmology; Off-Off-Variation on Théophile Gautier’s “Promenade Nocturne”


after Orhan Pamuk’s masterwork Istanbul

Unlike the Portuguese saudade or Italian mestizia,
hüzün means more than just melancholy—
rather a communal trauma rooted in the past,
a chronic longing every istanbullu feels
for that golden age when Turks ruled continents
and clouds of empire rained down emeralds
on this city where history hazes the air, taints water,
bleeds into stone, and I too can hear the ghosts
of galleasses on the Bosphorus as I roam streets
with cobbles like broken teeth and castaway houses—
rain-wracked, sleet-slashed since Ottoman days.
Raised in Lima until age ten, I too knew
winter’s hüzün when at the start of May
the sun forsook the city and limeños would grieve
the loss of its steadfast light to the cold garúa,
ocean mist that smothered sky with macules
of diesel fume, ash, salty soot. Lima la Triste,
she was called, so sad her spigots wept tears
of tin and the scruffy buzzards drooped on the steel sills
where laundry took days to dry, and Mamá
had to redeem my father’s business shirts
with a hot iron and blessings of potato starch.
How we often came down with catarros
that made us cough and shiver beneath blankets
prone to mildew, flooding our lungs with phlegm,
and Mamá would succor us with sponge baths
of grain alcohol, warm unctions of vaporub.
Mercato del Pesce, Catania

Sacks of snails to pluck, capuchin cuttlefish to martyr in a pan
And serve with parsley wreaths, lemons mildewed to patina.
Girls gut mullet for roe; cats in cortege mewl the mackerel man.
Sunlight steeps the octopi, gleaming purple as ice begins to thaw,
And the mongers call out to stilettoed signoras in baritones of opera,

Monkfish to stew with capers, she-crabs to boil for your love.
But clouds pour a salty rain, and the terraces of fish begin to melt
in a landslide of blood, scales, & gills that draws a dark drove
of urchin botflies, bat-winged worms from Mount Aetna that pelt
signoras with pestilence; they cry out to God but trip in the salt-

slushed cobblestones, their heels weaponized to slice silicone
accoutrements to calamari, and the mangled matrons bellow
like St. John’s trombones to be heard as far as Papal Rome,
the mongers too wailing how their big sardines will have to go
for cat food in Tripoli, but just off the boat the tuna men show

off their hordes of albacore, bluefin, bigeye to butcher for the grill,
those copper pans of bouillabaisse, the sushi bars of Singapore.
The mongers chant shanties to fishy St. Peter, sure that a miracle
had saved them from salt’s apocalypse when the sea will go to war
with humans, and the fish, crabs, octopi settle their ancient score.
Lam’s Cosmology

colloquy with Wifredo Lam’s 1942 oil-on-paper painting Venus or Nude in White

In between incantations and sips of café cubano, you tell me that
Botticelli’s Venus

is a lie, a false idealization of scales and sea foam, a woman whose
creamy whiteness

would curdle to goat cheese in our tropical light, this muse stealthier
than the salt

that wrinkles ebony skin, a perverse idolatry with hair like filaments of gold,
which should, if God is just, be crinkles of black coral or the inky
ripples of a cuttlefish.

Your Venus, you argue, is Yemayá Olokún, orisha of darkest waters,
Our Lady

with the head of a sawfish and lips of crimson sea cucumber: Behold
those thick,

powerful lips, you command—ay bemba colorá, ay bemba sagraá
that open and close

her grottoed mouth where stingrays breed cherubim and the vipers of
night molt mercury.

I am a warrior artist, you exclaim in spindrift shouts, your weapons
those brushes,

pencils, charcoal sticks you use to fight the racists who swear that
beauty is pure white

but never that purest blackness in the mind of Father Olodumare who

the black holes before they had a name, who dwelled in nothingness,
the bliss

of zero, without the greed of matter, before the curse of time, before
that upstart Jehova

and his cataclysm of light exiled Olodumare and made white the
tyrant of black.

Off-Off-Variation on Théophile Gautier’s “Promenade Nocturne”

As the mermaid girls dance on the lichenous rocks,
The moon-maimed men howl for love on Galata Bridge.
Old anglers toss them sardines, beat pails to song,
But the men howl louder still to the mermaid girls,
Give us love, or we’ll drown in the Marmara Sea.
Agate-scaled & lamprey-lipped, the deniz kizlari hear
Their plight among the seagull screaks & onward
They swim to meet their destiny in waters deep
& dark where they were spawned twenty years before
When the tides defied the will of the moon & sleet
Of verdigris fell on Istanbul. The men see their bodies
Sparkling in moonlight & so they wait on all fours,
Yelping sweet-nothings, slobbering in glee, certain that
Their love would be returned. But the deniz kizlari
Have another plan: consumption, degustation, that urge
To feed on men, cannibal’s aliment (what is digestion
But a godly joy), & soon they ride those supple backs,
Hissing spindrift spells, puffing their gills to entrance
The moon-maimed men who soon comply like husbands
Henpecked in their bridal pens, such carnivorous striptease
For all to see & hear—the fish, the fishers, the sailors
Startled on their skiffs—this frenzy of hungry love
Like a litter of angels sucking hard on teats of nebulae—
Hurry, hurry, deniz kizlari, & slurp those last drops
In night’s canopy of cockled stars & bladdery clouds.