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April 2007

Domestic Cappadocia

by Ben Downing


They seemed content enough, the married pair
who owned my charming cave hotel,
and ran the place commendably well,
solicitous yet casual, always there

 when needed yet never hovering,
and often snatching (where they could)
quick private moments when they would
allow themselves some little couple thing

—a squeeze of hands, a whispered joke
or endearment, once even a furtive kiss—
that made their life appear harmonious.
Until, that is, the night I awoke

at three o’clock to yells and cries
rumbling up from their rooms below;
sporadic at first and fairly low-
intensity, they became by five

continuous, hysterical, and loud,
culminating in a door flung wide,
the wife’s wails further amplified,
the husband’s now-threatening shouts,

her frantic steps across the floor,
his execrations, her disdain,
a slap, a crash, a howl of pain,
the throwing open of another door

and then its slamming shut, as she,
escaping the hotel, at last broke free.


Eruptions were the making of this place:
thirty million years ago,
volcanoes smothered its plateau
in ash that hardened to a carapace

of tuff, which then, over untold time,
the wind and water whittled and tweaked
into a landscape so unique,
grotesque, and bizarrely sublime

as to look conjured up by mescaline,
with fairy chimneys, as they’re known
—eroded pillars of multihued stone—
sprouting in their freakish thousands;

priapic yet mushroomy,
disposed in mazelike forests, they seem
a half-baked collaboration between
God, Freud, and Antonio Gaudí.

And its singularity does not end there:
the softness of the rock allowed
inhabitants to scoop and gouge
out spacious dwellings in midair,

and spurred the early Christians to go on
a binge of righteous burrowing, to honeycomb
the stacks with churches--frescoed, domed—
and monasteries by the dozen,

their materials purely Miocene,
their style Cro-Magnon-cum-Byzantine.


Exploring Cappadocia the next day,
the row still ringing harshly in my ears,
I couldn’t help but find its atmosphere
impinged on by the ricochets

of last night’s matrimonial misery,
which seemed to carom off the valley walls
and echo down the barrel vaults,
until the whole place became for me

a massive metaphor for marriage,
its formations analogous,
in their towering ungainliness,
to the virtual topography that rage

and love and other shaping elements
carve out wherever man and wife
attempt to fuse within a common life
their separate energies, and to cement,

from each one’s detritus and lapilli
and fractured ancient bedrock and far-flung tuff,
some joint conglomerate strong enough
to serve as matter for the paradise

they plan to make of their terrain,
the formal garden almost Japanese
in its arrangement of their congeries—
exquisite, tranquil, eminently sane;

instead they wind up with a wilderness
of anfractuous ravines and random spikes.
Or so I grimly reckoned as I hiked,
my hoteliers’ unholy mess

distending out to circumscribe
all foredoomed Adams and all Eves,
their union fundamentally misconceived.
Pausing, I looked afresh at the hive-

like monastic warrens in the rock above,
the chimney chapels and hermits’ retreats,
and found myself in envy of such neat
withdrawal from the snares of worldly love.

What did they know, these celibates,
of feminine reproaches and bitter bedroom fights?
A happier breed of troglodytes
they must have been than we who set

our hopes on conjugal felicity,
we carnal cavemen who, in our primitive
compulsion foolishly to try and live
at peace with womankind, can never be

quite sure of the ground beneath our socks,
incessantly shifting as it is.
Within those Eris-haunted labyrinths
of stone and feeling interlocked

I wandered brooding for a time,
but then abruptly something gave,
and from then on I saw a different way.
The August sun, in its decline,

was coaxing warm new subtleties of tint
from a sea of twisting turrets, and so
majestic were they all aglow,
basking in their warped magnificence,

that they seemed to stand in roseate
contradiction of my metaphor,
or rather to deplore
the bleak terms in which I figured it.

“If we are like marriage,” they collectively said,
“it is not in that our tortured piles of ash
evoke your human proneness always to rehash
old grievances; if we are to be read,

O tiny pessimist, as a parable
of what happens when husbands and wives
combine the landscapes of their lives,
it must be because we are supremely beautiful,

an involute and cloistered little universe
of time-cut spires and chasmsÄas is marriage.”
Thus rebuked, I came to like what I’d disparaged,
to view as more a windfall than a curse

the fact that we instinctively cooperate
in fashioning our own mad tortuous
geology, invisible to all but us,
a thing of weird yet captivating shapes.

Solvitur ambulando. I noticed now
what had eluded me before: the vines
that yield the region’s tolerably good wines,
growing here and there, and the heavy-boughed

occasional small orchard, dense with fruit;
for the rich volcanic soil was driving up,
in the few farmable spots, a bumper crop,
planted not by monks hell-bent on beatitude

but by ordinary Turks from nearby towns,
domestic, familial, making their homes
in hollowed-out stalagmites whose mild stone
is forever being weathered splendidly down.


Ben Downing's Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross was published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 April 2007, on page 37

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