David Kirby
You've Built Your Own Mosque


    When I read that architect Sinan had left a message

in a bottle telling restorers how to build again the arches

        of the mosque that he knew would 

fall into decay, I thought, maybe I should do that for my poems—


    not because poets 400 years from now will want to write 

poems like mine the way architects 400 years from then 

        would want to build mosques like 

Sinan’s, but so I can know how to write those poems myself, starting,


    say, tomorrow morning, since most days I feel as though 

poem writing is something I’ve never actually done 

        before and certainly don’t know 

how to begin doing today, that is, tomorrow morning. Here’s the story: 


    in the early nineties, an engineer in Istanbul was trying 

to figure out how to fix the crumbling doorway 

        to Sinan’s mosque but couldn’t because 

it had been built with sixteenth-century stone masonry techniques 


    that no one understood, and finally he decided 

to just take out the keystone and start there, but when

        the keystone came out, so did

 a glass bottle containing a note from Sinan saying, "The lifetime 


    of these stones that make this arch is 400 years. After

this period, they will be decayed and you will try

        to replace them. Probably architectural

 techniques will also change and you won't be aware of our style. 


    That's why I wrote this letter to you,” and then Sinan

talks about the stones in detail and tells where to find 

        them in Anatolia and how to build 

the arch again. Now there’s foresight for you, not to mention 


    public spiritedness, amity, comity, cordiality, and

friendship toward a bunch of people you haven’t 

        even met yet. There’s an artist 

who is doing what artists should, that is, putting other people first 


    rather than obsessing over his desire to say what’s 

on his mind, whatever that is. I’d like to be able

        to write poems that way, 

for you should be able to walk into a poem the way you walk into


    the garden of a mosque and smell the flowers, listen

to birdsong and the beautiful gurgling of the fountain,

        nod to others and receive their 

smiles and nods in return. The sculptor Claes Oldenburg wrote, 


    "I am for the art that a kid licks after peeling away 

the wrapper. . . . I am for an art that is put on and

        taken off, like pants, which 

develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie." 


    Me, too, Claes Oldenburg! If someone from the future 

were to ask me how to write a poem, I’d advise 

        that person to buy an ice 

cream cone and enjoy it, and if he or she drops it on the sidewalk, 


    why, so much the better. I’d suggest you shop for new 

underwear and take a taxi, or if you’ve taken a lot 

        of taxis lately, walk to your 

destination instead. If you take your pants off and put them on again 


    and really pay attention, I’d say you could learn as much

about writing poetry as you could from reading a lot

        of poems, especially bad ones. 

Why not help a kid blow her nose? Why not eat a hamburger sandwich


    or a slice of cake or both? Why not teach yourself how to

flap like a flag or grow holes the way socks do? I’d like 

        a baked potato, please, with a pat 

of melting butter on it, though given the choice, I wouldn’t know                    which


    it would be better to be, the potato or the butter, and the same

 goes for any poem that I wrote on that topic, that it

        be more like one or the other, 

as each is necessary. I wouldn’t want to begin smoking cigarettes


    or for you to, either, presuming you don’t do so already,

which, if you do, you should stop doing, because

        it isn’t good for you and will 

make the people who love you unhappy. But you could write a poem 


    that might be smoked like a cigarette or even one that

smells the way old shoes do, because smoke and foul 

        odors are as much a part 

of life as clear skies and the perfume of the tea olive, and by now                      surely 


    you can say, as Claes Oldenburg does, "I am for an art that

takes its form  from the lines of life, that twists and extends 

        impossibly and accumulates 

and spits and drips and is sweet and stupid  as life itself." 


    There you are—you’ve edged the sidewalk and put 

your tools away and made a pot of gumbo 

        and showed a kid how 

to tie a Windsor knot in a necktie. You’ve built your own mosque, 


    and now you’re inviting everyone in to see 

how beautiful it is; even better, you’ve left 

        a message for people

who won’t be born for four hundred years. Make jam from the figs 


    on the tree in your own yard, bathe the dog and the cat, too, 

if you can. Look what you’ve done. Isn’t it magnificent? 

        You’ve already written

the poem—all you have to do now is get it down on paper. 







Found In Volume 44, No. 04
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David Kirby
About the Author

David Kirby is the author of more than two dozen volumes of criticism, essays, and poetry, including Talking About Movies with Jesus (LSU Press, 2011) and The Ha-Ha (LSU Press, 2003). Since 1969, he has taught at Florida State University.