Emma Lee reviews Robyn Rowland’s ‘Mosaics from the Map’ and ‘Under a Saffron Sun’

‘Mosaics From the Map’ Robyn Rowland
Doire Press
ISBN 978-1-907682-62-9

‘Under this Saffron Sun’
Knocknarone Press
ISBN 978-1-5272-4934-9

‘Mosaics From the Map’ roves from Ireland to Turkey and from the contemporary to family history. Robyn Rowland favours a sequence which gives an expansive space to explore her topic from different angles and allows the parts to fit together to make a bigger narrative. ‘Titanic – A Very Modern Story’ had a global audience, but this poem is a reminder of how ‘local’ it felt,

‘It’s “local”. In Ireland where I live, Marconi’s wireless station
village and power plant, skeletal now, held a Nobel’s worth
of imagination, science and faith. Jack Philips worked there, 1908.
Up in County Mayo, only three survived from the Addergoole
Fourteen and John Flynn from Clonbur, returning to his wife Mary
and six children, gone. Ismay retired to Costello Lodge in Casla,
marriage smothered by deathly hush, living on like a frozen corpse,
whipping himself with Connemara silence, shamed for his survival,’

It continues by considering some of the other passengers,
‘For some, a lucky near-miss. Marconi refused free passage,
left three days earlier on the Lusitania. Alfred Vanderbilt
chose not to sail. Three years later he died on that ship,
blasted by a German U-boat. ‘

While some mourn, others, by making a mundane decision to move travel plans, live to recount their ‘lucky’ escapes. Marconi, enjoying a safe passage on the Lusitania, is ironic when his fellow non-traveller on the Titanic loses his life on the Lusitania instead. The aftermath of the Titanic has a familiar lesson, ‘myths; inquiries to lay blame,/ badgering memories in trauma; recriminations; survivor guilt/ and the suicides; families confused and lost;’ and eventually,

‘A sad measure, beyond epic, Wallace’s rosewood violin was kept
by his fiancée Maria Robinson, until her death in Yorkshire,
unmarried. Inscribed for Wallace on the occasion of our engagement,
Maria, it was found still strapped to his body, two strings
remaining. Authenticated, in 2013 it sold for one million pounds’

The poem invites readers to think how one tragedy has consequences not just for those who lost their lives, but those who knew and loved them too. Maria’s love for Wallace may not have been the sole reason she died unmarried, but his death affected her life. The violin she gave him she never saw again, but it raised £1 million for someone else. Her life may have turned out so differently had she seen the proceeds of her gift. Or she may not have wanted the money, fearing nothing could replace the man she loved.

Mid-way through are several poems set in Turkey, ‘We cheer with neighbours whose/ words we can’t understand, meet a woman from Melbourne,/ squirm to avoid connection. I won’t be anchored by place.’ The poems don’t just focus on the tourist spots, ‘Autumn Waste’ is set after a 2015 bomb in Ankara, Turkey and on return to Dublin,

‘The Grand Canal at night is sprinkled with fallen stars,
moon shattered through light drops of rain striking the cascades
into comet tails after a day safely walking familiar streets.
A wash of red leaves crowds underfoot and in the morning
will simply be swept up, street washed clean, unstained by its loss.’

There’s a sense of helplessness, that while leaves can be swept and rebuilding can take place after an explosion, the people directly affected will be stained either through bereavement or life-changing injuries. Life won’t be the same for them. Turkey is revisited in the second pamphlet, ‘Under a Saffron Sun’ later in this review.

‘Sky Gladiatorials’ has a long epigram ‘Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown made the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic, Newfoundland to Ireland, 1919. Previous to that, they both flew for Britain in World War I. Alcock ‘was the first man to bomb Istanbul’; then, with plane trouble, crashed-landed near Suvla, 1917. He was imprisoned in Kedos, Turkey. Brown was shot down twice, imprisoned in Germany then Switzerland with a broken leg and damaged hip. Brown’s son Arthur, who also flew, was reported missing D-Day, June 6, 1944. His death was confirmed only in January 1945. Sole child, he was 22.’ Part V is an ‘Epitaph for Arthur ‘Buster’ Whitten-Brown’ with a dedication, ‘for his father, Lieutenant Arthur Whitten-Brown, 1886–1948’.

‘How slow everything moves except death. First the Red Cross,
the Hague, the RAF Casualty Branch, a letter travelling by sea.
Finally, seven months later it’s home, missing is dead. You sit
numb with his mother Kathleen, Barbara, his young wife weeping again.

Your dark night forecloses. No Epitaph for Buster in foreign soil.
His full name above, blank stone space below. No words
for loss so great. Frozen life, mute grief, robbed you of everything.
Three years later your death, by accidental overdose of veronal.’

Unable to reconcile with his son’s death, the father takes is own is the implication in the final line. This is followed by a sequence on the war in Sarajevo (1992 – 1999). In Part V ‘Resistance, Always’ a politican demands Serbian women have more sons, ‘They won’t do it. Mothers for Peace/ stand solid as scarred stone in Belgrade city centre’. As life returns to something near normal in 2010 in Part VII ‘Flowering Sarajevo’,

‘When a mortar exploded, it sent scalpels to
scoop out concrete pavement, wall or fleshy arm.
It cut a petal pattern, splattering itself as if sprayed
from a flung flower. Now filled with red resin, beside
their lists of victims, it blooms everywhere in the city,
in all seasons, this old-blood-red, Sarajevo Rose.’

The names may be recorded and remembered, but the implication is that the motives that lead to war are forgotten and history will repeat itself.

The final sequence, ‘Touchstones’ focuses on Annie and Joseph Lambert, an Irish wife and husband who lost four children to scarlatina, and emigrated to Australia. ‘I am everywhere and nowhere, longing pulses/ inside the green whispering in my blood. Belonging, exile – the seesaw./ That word home – it draws itself out like a skewer.’

‘Mosiacs From the Map’ is a fragmented journey exploring both history and location; drawing on familiar unlearnt lessons. It has a complementary volume, ‘Under this Saffron Sun’.

‘Under this Saffron Sun’ is a bilingual edition of Robyn Rowland’s poems inspired by visits to Turkey alongside Mehmet Ali Çelikel’s translations of the original English poems into Turkish. It starts like a love letter to Turkey, in ‘Sevil’s Gift: Turkey’

‘You drew back the curtain on this Turkish world
where fine silk filaments wove together my map.’

‘Türk dünyasının perdelerini açtığın bana
saf ipek teller bir olup dokudu haritamı.’

The poem ends,

‘Heart is dyed now through some saffron alchemy,
it throbs alive with the bright heat of love’.

‘Yürek boyanmış artık safran simyasıyla,
canlı atıyor aşkın parlak sıcağıyla.’

‘Patterns’/’Desenler’, inspired by a carpet shop in Göreme, introduces the reader into an almost magical realm,

‘But the carpet you hold to the light on this old caravan road
is translucent silk, all the light flowing through,
blue, black and silver in a sheen of intricacy,
shimmering, fluid and lovely, enough to wring tears.

You ply us with apple tea, wine, lighting the rooms into
Aladdin’s treasure house, ablaze with candle and lamp.
You order carpets to slide, sail, fly across the floors
an excess of texture, indulgence of colour, cherry to cobalt blue.’

‘Fakat ışığa tuttuğun halı bu eski kervan yolunda
yarısaydam ipektir, tüm ışık geçer içinden,
mavi, siyah, ve gümüş pırıltılı bir incelikte,
ışıldıyor, akışkan ve güzel, yeter gözleri yaşartmaya.

Elma çayı ve şaraba, ışıklandırılmış odalara boğuyorsun bizi,
mum ve lambalarla ışıl ışıl Alaattin’in hazine evine.
Kaymalarını emrediyorsun halılara, yelken açmalarını, uçmalarını yerlerde
bir dokuma taşkınlığı, renk düşkünlüğü, vişne kızılından çini mavisine.’

The poem ends with the seductive art of sales,

‘But you are a salesman, after all, with the salesman’s tongue,
You know your heart wants it, you murmur, as you match
carpets with the eyes of strangers, testing their peak of desire,
cotton, wool, maybe silk patterns that have to fit their pocket.

And all the while you ravel your own tales the buyer hopes
are true. This is a game of make-believe, each knows.
Surely? And life might be like that, simply a journey
following a spun thread, unaware of its unwinding.’

‘Fakat sen bir satıcısın, sonuçta, bir satıcının diliyle konuşan,
Biliyorsun gönlün istiyor, diye mırıldanıyorsun, eşleştirirken
halıları yabancıların gözleriyle, sınıyorsun arzuların son noktasını,
pamuk, yün, belki de ipek desenlerdir ceplerine uygun olanı.

Ve bu esnada alıcılarına döküyorsun tüm masallarını
doğru olduğunu umdukları. Hayal ürünü bir oyundur bu, herkes bilir.
Cidden mi? Ve hayat da böyledir biraz, basit bir yolculuktur
bükülmüş bir düğümün ardından, çözüldüğünün farkında olmadan.’

The collection doesn’t gloss over realities though. There are poems about the bombing in Ankara and ‘Men are Afraid’/’Korkuyor Erkekler’ epigrammed by the famous Margaret Atwood quote “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them”

‘But no small detail I can find will save her,
make her step from the photo and dance
as she would have next week at the conference;
take her out of her clean white shroud,
out of the line of the bullet. Husband once,
what did he fear – that robber, that thief,
who stole her life, blew away her breath?’

‘Fakat hiçbir ayrıntı kurtarmıyor onu,
fotoğraftan çıkarıp dans ettiremiyor
gelecek hafta gidecek olduğu konferansta;
çıkaramıyor onu temiz, bembeyaz kefeninden,
kurşunun hedefinden. Eski koca,
neydi korktuğu o soyguncunun, o hırsızın
ki hayatını aldı, mahrum etti nefesinden?’

The final poem ‘Cherry Blossom Dreaming’/’Kiraz Mevsimi Rüyası’ is for a former sister-in-law, part II takes its title from a quote ‘Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form’/’Kederlenme. Ne kaybedersen et, başka bir süratle döner sana’ from Rumi,

‘Your children with burnished smiles, dark hair, hazel eyes,
are blending themselves unknowingly out of the story of your past.

Dream now your return visit with them dear song bird, rejoicing
with your uplifted tongue. Garlands of blossom will fall

upon your neck, jet-hair flecked with petal. Your song will rise, that
invisible wind, its crushed-rouge scent, brush its breath along your lips.’

‘Parıldayan gülüşleriyle çocukların, siyah saçlı, ela gözlü,
harmanlıyorlar kendilerini bilmeden senin geçmişinin dışında.

Düşle şimdi dönüş ziyaretini onlarla, sevgili ötücü kuş, neşeyle
mutlu dilinde. Çiçeklerden taçlar düşecek

boynuna, siyah saçlar benek benek taçyaprağı dolacak. Şarkın yükselecek,
o görünmez rüzgar, ezilmiş kiraz kokusu, nefesini ağzına fısıldayacak.’

‘Under a Saffron Sky’ is a love letter to Turkey, one prepared to acknowledge faults rather than a nostalgic flip through a photo album. The two volumes complement each other and share some poems. Robyn Rowland is a passionate tour guide who can remember to give readers chance to absorb what they’ve been shown as well as understand context. The Turkish translations appear alongside the original English, so readers get the sense of this being a joint endeavour, a sharing of experience and appreciation.