Billy Collins




Istanbul

It was a pleasure to enter by a side street
in the center of the city
a bathhouse said to be 300 years old,
old enough to have opened the pores of Florence Nightingale
and soaped the musical head of Franz Liszt.

And it was a pleasure to drink
cold wine by a low wood fire
before being directed to a small room in an upper gallery,
a room with a carpet and narrow bed
where I folded my clothes into a pile
then came back down, naked
except for a gauzy striped cloth tucked around my waist.

It was an odd and eye-opening sensation
to be led by a man with close-cropped hair
and spaces between his teeth
into a steamy marble rotunda
and to lie there alone on the smooth marble
watching the droplets fall through the beams
of natural light in the high dome
and later to hear the song I sang—
“She Thinks I Still Care”—echo up into the ceiling.

I felt like the last of the sultans
when the man returned and began to scrub me—
to lather and douse me, scour and shampoo me,
and splash my drenched body
with fresh warm water scooped from a marble basin.

But it was not until he sudsed me
behind my ears and between my toes
that I felt myself filling with gratitude
the way a cloud fills with rain,
the way a glass pipe slowly fills with smoke.

In silence I thanked the man
who scrubbed the bottoms of my feet.
I thanked the history of the Turkish bath
and the long chain of bathmen standing unshaven,
arms folded, waiting for the next customer
to come through the swinging doors of frosted glass.

I thanked everyone whose job
it ever was to lay hands on the skin of strangers,
and I gave general thanks that I was lying
facedown in a warm puddle of soap
and not a warm puddle of blood
in some corner of this incomprehensible city.

As one bucket after another
of warm water was poured over my lowered head,
I stopped thinking of who and what to thank
and rode out on a boat of joy,
a blue boat of marble and soap,

rode out to the entrance of the harbor
where I raised a finger of good-bye
then felt the boat begin to rise and fall
as it met the roll of the incoming waves,
bearing my body, my clean, blessed body out to sea.