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Murat Nemet-Nejat

Turkey’s Mysterious Motions
Turkish Poetry

I. An Ambivalent Space

      Days prior to the start of the Iraq war, Turkey’s new ruling government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed in principle to let the United States use the Turkish territory as a base in the war. All that was needed--American naval ships waiting on the sea--was the approval of the Turkish Parliament. In a rebellious breakdown of party discipline, the parliament refused, forcing the American forces to give up their pincer strategy. This startling twist, maybe as important as any in determining the outcome of the war, reflects the teetering, even miraculous, equilibrium of conflicting forces which is modern Turkey.

    Nothing in modern Turkey--and its history--is exactly what it seems. The AKP (Akparti), which negotiated the acceptance of the American troops, is also on the religious, Islamic wing of the political spectrum. Turkey is often assumed to be--at least by the European Community--a country whose democracy is suspect; but the parliament’s refusal to endorse the decision of the government represents the most radical, populist kind of democracy. Kemalism is known for its radical embrace of the Western through a secular state, but Kemal Atatürk fought one of the first anti-Western and anti-colonial wars against English, French and Italian interests on Anatolian soil to create this state.

    Anatolia is primarily Islamic, spiritually Sufi, populated by Turks who came from Central Asia centuries ago. But Anatolia was Byzantine and Christian before the 12th century. These two realities are superimposed on each other creating the ambiguous, ghost-like reality of Turkey. Nothing gets lost in Anatolian history, but survives as a pregnant essence. Though primarily Turkish, Anatolia has also, among others, Christian Armenians and Kurds. Though the Turkish War of Independence was fought against Western powers, it was also fought against Greeks, who lived in Western Anatolia. The disappearance of Anatolian Armenians, the presence of Kurds, and the memory of Greeks are integral parts of modern Turkey, shaping its decisions, influencing its fate.

    The inability (maybe refusal!) of the dominant to obliterate totally the vanquished turns Anatolia, consequently Turkey, into a dialectic space. The intuitive impulse of this history is towards inclusion, synthesis. A church is re-imagined as a mosque, from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque in Konya. Or, endless Byzantine frescoes in caves are “forgotten,” left alone. As a result, the official dogma has contradictions loosely attached to it. No break is as drastic as it seems, having assimilated an inherent part of the other.

    The ascendancy of Kemalism in the foundation of modern Turkey is a good example. Secularism, the separation of religion and state, represents a total break with Turkey’s Ottoman past and an embrace of the West. But secularism was inherent in the Ottoman principle of religious tolerance. Kemalism suppresses religious, particularly Islamic, expression through clothing in public places, veils for women, and hats for mullahs being the most resonant instances. But Kemalism also involves, through linguistic reforms, the coming to prominence of pure Anatolian, as opposed to Ottoman, Turkish, one of the most spiritual languages, the quintessential Sufi language in the world. What Kemalism suppresses in one hand gives back in another. This is the magical, startling contradiction of Turkish culture and history: a place of suppression and democratic expression, of spiritual secularity, of East and West, a place where often “either or” is replaced by “and.”. The winner--political or otherwise--can not obliterate the other. They exist in a loose confederacy, intermittently, dynamically becoming dominant or subversive.


II. Sufism and the Spirit of Revolution

    Kemalism, with its bent towards the West and belief in science, is grafted on a primarily Anatolian population whose soul is Sufi. To erase the Ottoman class structure and increase literacy, Kemalism also simplifies Turkish alphabet by codifying it in Roman characters. This second step is subversive, in dialectical tension with secularism. To understand this process, one must understand Turkish Sufism, its embodiment in language.

    In Djalalladin Rumi and Hafiz, Sufi poets writing in Persian, wine and dancing are the essential means through which ecstasy and union with God are searched. In Anatolia, tears--the disintegration of the self through ecstatic suffering--are the way to reach God. The 13th century Turkish folk poet Yunus Emre –a contemporary of Rumi- is the purest/simplest expression of a yearning for God, the soul, “a water-mill,” eternally bending, pouring. The 16th century folk poet Pir Sultan Abdal, a contemporary of Hafiz, in political poems asking for the “faultless blood,” that is, pain and self-sacrifice in the pursuit of God, invites his listeners to rebellion. For his work, eerily echoing the ideology of the suicide bomber, Pir Sultan was hanged by the Sultan.

    Tears are free, while wine costs money. Turkish Sufism is of the have-nots, the poor, the suppressed. Its ecstasy is full of ghosts.

    Modern Turkish poetry starts in one swoop in the 1920’s, around the time of the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923, by a group of poets turning to spoken Turkish as a literary language, a totally revolutionary act within the frame of all Middle Eastern literature. Partly due to Kemalist reforms, trying to strip language of Persian and Arabic vocabulary and literary syntax and forms, the poets turned essentially to Sufi/erotic folk poets. The schism between spoken and literary languages, prevalent in Arabic and to a less extent in Persian, is non-existent in modern Turkish poetry. Even stylistically in its most obscure forms, it reflects, is truly of the people. It is full of voices belying official ideology. Its sinuous, yearning, melancholy cadences, called the “eda,” are permeated with the Sufism of the have-not.

    The history of modern Turkish poetry through 20th century is a progressive cracking open of Turkey’s Kemalist and Islamic surfaces, from secularism to Sufism, from a focus on Turkish Moslems to Kurds, Christians and Jews, from the cultural capital Istanbul as solely an Islamic city to its Byzantine origins, from domestic eroticism to a wider, violent, sado-masochistic, consuming passion, from heterosexuality to all varieties of gay desire. In our time when the ideological conflict in the Middle East is based on the need to demonize and totally obliterate the other, from Iraq to Palestine to Israel, Turkish poetry –implicitly Turkey- despite its seemingly chaotic contradictions, stands as an ideal, a subversive vision of synthesis, of inclusion, of freedom, of hope.


III. “Eda” and The Poetry of Motion

    In the 1990’s, I began to work on an anthology of Turkish poetry. “Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry” was published by Talisman House in the United States in 2004 and covers poems from 1921 to 1997, including essays on and by Turkish poets. “Eda,”which is the principle concept in Turkish poetics, is based on the quality of Turkish as an agglutinative language. Possessing total syntactical flexibility, Turkish can suggest subtle nuances of thought and feeling by changes in the word order. This cadential movement--partly a music of the mind--surrounds the words with an aura. This aura, this movement is “eda.”

    “Eda” is intimately linked to the city of Istanbul, an imaginary landscape where eternal conflicting forces of history and desire are reflected and synthesized. But the language of “eda” also responds to changes in Istanbul as a historical city, thereby retaining its role as a reflector of historical reality.

    From the 1920’s to 1997, Istanbul altered from a city of well under a million to a metropolis of twelve million. Numerically, the explosion started in the late 1950’s with the beginning of the influx of the Anatolian population for work into the city. But in the early 1990’s Istanbul underwent a subtle conceptual transformation, in addition to its numerical one. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it became an economic and spiritual focal point as people converged from former satellite countries in the West and Turkish republics in the East, in search of goods and ideas formerly unavailable or suppressed in their countries. At this point, Istanbul became transformed from a national city of twelve million to a global metropolis, a crossing point of conflicting dreams.

    “Eda” reflects this tectonic, strategic change. In the 1990’s, Turkish poetry underwent an intense creative period in a sequence of startling poems. The previous peak period, which ran roughly from the early 1950’s to 1970’s, created a poetry of depth, splitting Istanbul and language into visible and secret places. In the new poetry the language flattens. The stylistic essence of the best poems of the 1990’s is motion. Often written in long sinuous lines, in them the thought, the eye, the image never stay in one place, constantly shifting conceptual, ideological, or identity lines. The music of this motion across borders--the “eda”--echoes Istanbul as the global city.

    In each poem, two seemingly irreconcilable concepts (or desires) are superimposed on each other, creating a flat, unified field. The poems reflect the impulse towards synthesis at the heart of contemporary Turkish poetry. I will discuss three poems, all in the anthology “Eda,” suggesting the poetic range of this movement. The translations used in the quotes are my own.

a) “Waking to Constantinople,” Lale Müldür, 1991

    This poem is the opening salvo and, possibly, the manifesto of the poetics of motion. It is an exquisite arabesque, a supreme example of the Islamic/Ottoman sense of design and order, expressed through the image “green” and the sinuous movements, cadences of its language. The poem’s purpose is to break open the Islamic Istanbul of the last five centuries to its historical past, Constantinople, trying to create a dialectical synthesis between a Byzantine dream world (the “blue”) and Islamic rationality. The poem ends by the speaker calling for a new name for Istanbul to represent its new spiritual (and historical) consciousness:

you are asleep now in the white washed Byzantine room, you are very
alone. one of the ancients is saying, “Don’t cry.”
“Tomorrow is your birthday. Tomorrow a new name will be given to you.”  

    Lale Müldür was booed and stopped when she wanted to read the poem in public in Istanbul. The fact that one of the great poems of the 20th century was booed off stage reflects the conflicting forces in Turkey and the critical position it has in our time. On the one hand, one has a majority of the population instinctively turning away from the West, insisting on the Islamic and ideological singularity, purity of Istanbul. On the other, one has a poetic and political vision, incubated in Kemalism but different from it, which dreams of a synthesis reconciling antagonisms in a new order. It is a counter-vision to the dilemma between civil war and reconciliation which has beset many other cities in the Middle East, from Beirut to Baghdad to Tel-Aviv.

b) “Coffee Grinds,” Seyhan Erozçelik, 1997

    The poem is made of twenty-seven coffee cup readings of fortune. The speaker’s eye constantly moves among arrangements of hardened coffee grinds--abstract shapes--spinning a Shamanistic yarn of hope, desire and the future. This telling and filling a pregnant emptiness with words--full of animist images of nature--is the “eda” of the poem. Hidden in this poetic gesture is the liberation of the former Turkish republics: an Islamic population, but still with pre-Islamic roots to Central Asia, which looks to Turkey as a spiritual beacon:

A mass of coffee grinds's flying to the sky. A profound sadness is getting up,   
about to get up, and leave, leaving behind its space
empty, that is, nothing to interpret
in its stead. Either for good or evil.

A portion of universe waiting to be filled, is what's left.

Something has ended, you're relieved, have gotten rid of a burden.
(What the load is, I can't tell.)


c) “souljam,” küçük Iskender, 1994

    Composed of six hundred and forty eight fragments, “souljam” is simultaneously the most anarchic and mystical of Turkish poems. The contradictory impulses of Turkey coexist in this poem in their most violent and extreme forms, nevertheless, in exquisite balance. Culled from entries in a journal the poet kept from 1984 to 1993, the arrangement of fragments seems arbitrary, following the subjectivity of the poet’s mind: an expression of exploding chaos. On the other hand, a yearning spirit permeates the poem, across fragments, suggesting that the seeming chaos belongs to one single mind, that the chaos is illusionary, its subjectivity divine.

    One has in the poem the balance of contradictory forces, the Sufi Arc of Descent (away from God) and Ascent (towards God).

    “souljam” is the nihilistic expression of a deeply religious sensibility. While militantly gay and full of blasphemies, the underlying emotion is a yearning love. Stylistically, also, the poem pulls in East and West in extreme incarnations. Ottoman poetic turns of phrases, pop references and scientific arguments “jam” (both in a musical sense and the sense of violence) in a fertile eclecticism, a cauldron of thoughts and feelings.

     The refusal of the Turkish parliament to let the Americans in and ‘souljam” are part of an existential continuum. Given the anxieties of Turkey about its Kurdish population, the refusal was a self-destructive act. But it was also a spiritual, popular act of solidarity, of empathy beyond its borders. Like the poem, it was an ambiguous destructive/regenerative gesture, pregnant with truth.

    The reality of Turkish poetry is that of looking into a mirror. More than giving answers, it reflects with dazzling clarity the crisis and the potential rebirth of our time. This poetry helps us understand the contradictions Turkey is without giving answers or opinions as to what one can do. It only shows that the Turkish crisis is not something which happens “there,” in a specific geographic place; but, in a most concentrated form,  is the crisis of all of us, East and West, where we stand and where we may go at this moment in our history.


a selection from küçük Iskender’s “souljam”:



i will hate the spider crawl-                                  
ing on me. on me, i can’t kill it



carnation crack in ice.



what if summer’s thaw started at this critical juncture?



oh, left left your divine body like a broken sculpture         
in my hands!

violence is the foreign tongue of the body
fragmentary improvisations of yearning



verses of adventure:                                              
which color is blowing the dancing young man,
feet and body naked,
i can not tell.  



could you understand, the curse of a course, to be read only by a compass?



spring wrote me no letters of utopias, winter did.



your loveliness is where         
is missing,

where is missing
is the air!



post naked lunch



penelope's explosive reweaving
mystic riffs of absence



my soul is a jelly fish, without a womb

light descends in the gutted out space of the dome.


-{ana sayfa}{marmara}{trambolin}-