The Baltimore Review – Bellini In Istanbul by Lillias Bever

lilies beverWinner of the Tupelo Press Judge’s Prize
Reviewed by Colleen M. Webster
The Baltimore Review
Summer/Fall 2006

Reading this first book by Lillias Bever, I felt lifted out of my mundane world of holiday, gifts, family, casseroles, cheese and crackers, grocery lists and things-to-do. The words she spun twirled me out of routine, dazzled with the initial glitter of places unfamiliar and exotic, spices pungent, angles sharp and daring. But all that glimmered was not always golden; much of what shined was broken.

From her opening epitaph, Julius Casear’s comments on first seeing Troy, “even the ruins had been destroyed,” readers know this slim volume beckons us to join in the tour of loss. But Bever’s use of archeological metaphor also gives us hope in words like fragment, excavation, analysis, guide and catalogue, for despite this ominous introduction, we quickly learn that the poet is one of those who has lived in the depths, but survived to surface and tell of her experiences.

In plumbing her own truths, she weaves the tales of others: Sapho, kings, tyrants, painters, and most significantly, Mehmet, a brutal conqueror of 15th century Istanbul. The book’s entire second of three sections is devoted to a series of poems concerning this ruler and Bellini, his court painter.

Here, our artist is but one more victim under Mehmet’s power-drunk command. Having arrived in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Bellini becomes a puppet attached to a paintbrush. These poems reveal the inability of the artist to chose his subject, determine the pose—he must paint himself, he must paint erotica, he must paint Mehmet, himself.

While these poems plunge the reader back five centuries, they also serve to remind us that poets, too, often serve a harsh muse. Surely one of these ministers to Bever, who as we move back and forth, museums, to dusty roads, to operating tables, parses out stringently her own suffering and her awareness of it in others. We should slow down and heed the warning in her last poem in section one before embarking on the poems of Bellini and Mehmet. In “The Tomb of the Weeping Women” she admits,

“You see, I was not yet willing
to see, I preferred
the inbetween
of these rippling shadows, of figures
taking their places…”

Throughout the entire book, Bever is excavating and recording her own ability to weep, to grieve.

Once in the third section, readers are shifted back into present day but still meandering in that twilight area that blends contemporary metropolis and romance with that of five centuries ago. And if that transition seems jolting, read a few more poems in and realize we are in present day Istanbul. If, after reading of the beheading of a slave to prove the retraction of the neck in part two, the reader feels wary of continuing, fear not. Bever reassures in “Night Voices”:

“I know something about history
and its repetitions, rippling
like sea-water across sand”

and we trust her. She has guided us this far, and so we follow, seeing the dissolution of a kind of love—personal, seeing the growing of a kind of love—historical, and trusting this poet who can write of:

“…we who throng
the bridges at nightfall, crossing
and recrossing the straits that divide us.”

None of this will be easy—Bever’s poems are full of swords, storms fragments, war and death. But as any serious reader of poetry can only aim for the light; first, it must crawl out of the depths of pain and suffering. If it is lucky and works hard, it will find the glow of rebirth and continuance. Certainly this volume, and this poet, did. I stayed with this jagged telling and re-read it in the gray of waning winter—its glow of carefully unearthed and polished gems only glowed more beautifully.

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