The poems in Lillias Bever’s Bellini in Istanbul take us from the contemporary United States to the Persian Empire, where Venetian Gentile Bellini painted Mehmet the Conqueror and his court for one year in the late 15th century. The book opens with a section titled “Excavation,” in which the prevailing themes of archeology and historical investigation establish a quiet, contemplative tone that is nonetheless strikingly intimate. The centerpiece is the seven-part “Cesarean,” in which the speaker undergoes the operation of birth while objects are excavated from an archeological site.
Down and down through a slit
in the world, earth
falling away on both sides, past
history, botched experiments, sepsis,
Jacob the pig-gelder begging permission
to cut open his wife
in labor for three days; past
legend, Caesar cut whole
from his mother;
and deeper still, myth: Bacchus
slit from Zeus’ thigh,
Athena bursting fully armed from his head,
as whatever is unmothered, torn
from its context, becomes
The objects and fragments of objects (including poems, as in “Sapphic Fragment” and “Fragment #5”) discovered—or, more precisely, uncovered—become “holy” in these poems, taking on metonymic significance as the place-holders of history, lost civilizations, lost lives. What makes Bever’s artifacts so powerful is that they seem directly linked to our contemporary lives through the speaker of the poems. When our great civilization has fallen, we can only hope that our remnants are treated with the grace and awe afforded the artifacts here.
The instruments of excavation are also holy, and Bever catalogues the tools in “In the Field” with reverence and a kind of delight in both the act of excavating and the words themselves: “Teaspoons, dental probes, scalpels, ladles,/ […] a small wooden toothpick/for the most fragile of objects.” Of the “instruments” that reveal the past, words and images seem to be the most powerful. The second part of the book, “Bellini in Istanbul,” takes an imaginary journey with the artist as he experiences Mehmet’s court. Chroniclers of the details lost to archeologists, artists like Bellini create a context in which to place shards. Bever is obviously inspired by art and architecture herself, because she concludes the book with her own chronicle of Turkey, where ancient and modern images collide. “Night Voices,” in which the speaker takes on the role of Scheherazade, describes “a story/that holds all the parts together” about “the day the last Sultan opened the palace doors/ and the women of the harem/walked out into the 20th century sunlight.” These final poems are also the most emotional and personal of the collection, offering a glimpse—through the eyes of a traveler, a lover, and a poet—of in a country full of history, beauty, and contradictions. “Index Islamicus,” the stunning penultimate poem of the collection, begins:
Pieces of history are falling out
and crumbling into dust between my fingers,
frail as the traces of a country
we stepped out of, walked away from
as lightly as one steps away from a book one’s finished reading;
The simile of stepping away from a book is an apt one, because it conveys the sense of history as a series of narratives—books written or not, stories told and forgotten, rediscovered and told again. Throughout Bellini in Istanbul we sense the poet’s yearning to preserve experience for the sake of the narrative; and that, ultimately, is what makes Bever’s efforts so satisfying—it feels as if we are participating in a small part of the chronicle of human experience.