LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL:
EDA
AN ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN TURKISH POETRY


edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat
Talisman House, New Jersey
2004, 367 pp.

Review by T. Hibbard (10/07)


" . . . And the resonant sobbing of the seraphim
Shall not warp the dark gilt surfaces"
—O. Mandelshtam

Murat Nemet-Nejat has been a fervent advocate for modern 20th and 21st century Turkish/ Anatolian poetry and literature in general. One is immediately struck by the richness of the heritage which he presents: Byzantium, Constantinople, city of the first Christian Roman Emperor and subsequent center of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, capitol city of modern Turkey, today's Istanbul, today's East-West passageway is a prominent "nexus" of cultural conflict and its resolution. Amidst the "mongrel" archeological glitter, Nemet-Nejat believes there lies an "Asian sensibility," a cultural identity that is Istanbuls and Turkey's alone. This uniqueness, this style, this "allure," he calls "Eda," (a term borrowed from folk poetry) the title of his anthology, describing a brand of consciousness in the process of sorting through the complexity and reinvention of its own identity.

For Nemet-Nejat the Eda or character of Turkish poetry begins in a "pagan," "pre-Islamic" "godless Sufism." "Eda is the play of ideas through the body of Turkish [language]. Not only is it the poetics of Turkish poetry in the twentieth century, it is the extension of the language itself, the flowering of its inherent potentials." According to Nemet-Nejat, the Sufism of Turkish poetry is different from the much-translated, popular Sufism of the poetry of Rumi. Rumis poetry, says Nemet-Nejat, is based on ecstasy from wine and dance; Turkish Sufism has its roots in weeping. Other elements are moonlight as primary source of light, melancholy, and lack of gender distinctions.

The Sufism that forms the basis of Turkish poetry expresses yearnings. "Its God is pantheistic in contrast to the orthodox Sunni branch of the Islam, whose concept of God is legalistic..." At its center is an "intense" and "erotic" subjectivity. "In Sufism (and the poetry of Eda) the distinction (any distinction) does not truly exist; it (a bird for example) is a link between the divine (he/she/it) and human (he/she) with the constant possibility of movement among them." The historical and physical outer world transforms into a "space of psychic movement." "Distinctions dissolve into unity." "Images and thoughts collapse towards each other, in love."

From the 1920s to the 1990s this "fortuitous convergence of historical, linguistic and geographic factors" created a literature "unique in the twentieth century, with its own poetics, world view, and idiosyncratic sensibility."

The poetic samples contained in Eda are forged by its editor into a convincing testament to the veracity of this literary claim. There is in this anthology an abundance of excellent poetry. One is forced to agree that the roots of the contemporary body of poetry are in a sensuous yet spiritual Sufism, in an ascetic yearning and consciousness that ably yet magically link physical and spiritual love and thought.

One of the exemplary poems in the anthology, for instance, "Romeo and Romeo" (this poem has been called a homosexual poem but in my view is more insightfully viewed as a poem of self-examination) by Ahmet G,ntan, written in 1995, contains stanzas such as:


Waited for your arrival, with you,
near, next someone someone, with me
Ill love him, he forgot it before

Forgetting, he slept, the before, with the one there,
but he says he compares tears to me, his better self,
sleeping forget, said, hey you, the one here.

and (from a different section)

Very simple, it, to me, you will show me,
as you look in your manner for me, Ill still be there,
whatever turns up, fetch and show me,
in my searching place, Ill find and return me.

In kucuk Iskender's breezy twenty-two page 1996 gathering of scattered word-riff clusters, "Souljam," are such lines as

which lover, whose night is immortal
an immortal stagger shoulders the night

dies at once, if i have a brother.
burns a flower, whose burning immemorial.

the dream in which i saw my grandma
burn her koran, I interpret it as
my sexual freedom, the serenity and inner peace of not learning
one single prayer which I can recite by heart

my identity is the befouling of what is
knowable and the downward velocity of becoming young

love, of a not yet visible asia, is
the barely sensible skin of plants.

A brief untitled 1991 poem by Seyhan ErozAlik

A dream in Istanbul of falling
a falling dream
Istanbul is falling in a dream
falling in Istanbul in a dream.

contrasts with his longer entry excerpted from "Coffee Grinds" which is the forebodings of twenty-four coffee cup readings:

In other words, something major is going on. (The Aegean light doesn't let me see it, besides,
ones fortune is illegible over water.)

Behind the swelling heart the horizon is tracing itself. (And it is vast. Is the tracing boundless,
or the horizon, decide for yourself.)

Of course, this fortune is a little dry, unlooked at a long time
fortunes dry, dry and crack, like lands with no water.
Yet fortunes are fortunes. Still...

Cemal Sureyas 1973 poem "Two Things" begins with these lines:

Don't erase, my darling,
your sin
with your tears;
because sin is fertile;
it carries the indestructible
colors of terror
to dreams;
opening for itself
a dark path
it finds an abyss
in the purest water;
it trusts chaos;
its epithet is death;
even if the tree
rants in the burning hive
of the working bee,
its name is etched
in its trunk
its leaves
will graze constellations
and the moon
will cool down
...

dont try to erase it,
my darling,
sin is a knowledge

Nemet-Nejat singles out Lale M,ld,rs poem "Waking To Constantinople" as one of the most important of the poems in his anthology. As though written on a nocturnal stroll in Constantinople/Istanbul, it is somewhat less abstract than the others. It contains a random mix of realistic sights and sounds that one might encounter on the streets of a large metropolis: a black tramp steamer, girls "dancing the hula hoop," songs of Marianne Faithful, a "nightoid" on his motorcycle.....

the Byzantium dream with Lions, aware that the few meticulous readers
who are still unable to move from pleasure principle
to reality principle and the peanut gallery
are in danger of taking seriously these narratives
of dream.

Beneath the current of Turkish identity inspired by cultural pasha streets of weird-museums lies a counter-current of self-doubt and escape. These poets, some of whom belonged to the Turkish literary movements "Strange" and "The Second New," are not continually paying homage to the past. Sometimes they are tearing away from tradition and historic remnants in an effort to discover something new.

The poems in Eda did not seem to me particularly descriptive. It was by going to a prose writer Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist and 2006 Nobel Prize winner, that I found in descriptive straightforwardness a more detailed sense of the picturesque multi-cultural landscapes. In an exciting and wonderful memoir Istanbul, which includes an abundance of mysterious black-and-white photographs, in a chapter titled "Four Lonely Melancholic Writers," Pamuk writes:

For these four melancholic writers drew their strength from the tensions between the past and the present, or between what Westerners like to call East and West; they are the ones who taught me how to reconcile my love for modern art and western literature with the culture of the city in which I live.

This confirms Nemet-Nejats premise for Eda, but it also points to the fact that modern Turkish literature and the poetry in Eda are influenced by currents outside of Turkey.

One of the four writers that Pamuk says it was impossible for him to think of Istanbul without thinking of is included in Eda. His name is Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. Paumk writes:

I would have crossed paths with the novelist Tanpinar, the writer with whom I feel the closest bond, during my earliest excursions to Taksim with my mother. We often went to the French Hachette Bookstore in Tunel, and so did he.

Pamuk goes on:

All these writers were, at one point in their lives, dazzled by the brilliance of western (and particularly French) art and literature. The poet Yahya Kemal spent nine years in Paris, and it was from the poetry of Verlaine and Mallarme that he drew the idea of "pure poetry" that he would adapt to his own purposes later on, when we went in search of a "nationalist" poetics. Tanpinar, who looked up to Yahya Kemal almost as a father, was an admirer of the same poets and of Valery too... It was from Theophile Gautier...that Tanpinar learned how to put a landscape into words.

The French Symbolism of Verlaine, Mallarme and Rimbaud consists of a blurred sensual fascination with visual objects to transport to a luminous mystical non-physical intellectualism in a manner that would be similar to Sufism.

In my opinion in order to give a proper perspective to contemporary Turkish poetry and Eastern literature it is necessary to take note of the "tangled tale" of political problems facing such figures as Pamuk, Irans Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, Indias Salman Rushdie, probably Nemet-Nejat himself and others. This tale is not always happy or smooth. It involves defeat and despair.

Pamuk has found refuge as a teacher at Columbia University in New York. Rushdie teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. Nemet-Nejat lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Though Ebadi lives in Iran she remains in conflict with the countrys government. Similar to left-leaning American writers of the 1930s, such as Richard Wright and Malcolm Cowley, todays Middle-Eastern writers hold fast to their nationalist origins in a way that allies them emotionally with anti-western movements such as Islamic fundamentalism. But at the same time in their firm commitment to the arts these writers (though still free to return to and live in their native countries) are constantly at odds with nationalist regimes, showing these regimes to be shallow, arbitrary and repressive. (In Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Taliban government outlawed the arts altogether.)

In Istanbul, Pamuk is coy about religion, but he recounts one close call his family had with an Islamic mob rampaging in a Christian neighborhood. In a chapter of Istanbul titled "The Melancholy of the Ruins," Pamuk writes:

To prove that theirs was a Turkish city, these two writers [Kemal and Tanpinar] knew it was not enough to describe the skyline so beloved of western tourists and writers, or the shadows cast by its mosques and churches. Dominated as it was by Hagia Sophia, the skyline noted by every western observer from Lamartine to Le Corbusier could not serve as a "national image" for Turkish Istanbul; this sort of beauty was too cosmopolitan. Nationalist Istanbullus like Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar preferred to look to the poor, defeated and deprived Muslim population, to prove they had not lost one bit of their identity....

I agree with Nemet-Nejat that the writers of Eda share an identity that traces through a distant regional past and an ancient poetic form, an identity that is not entirely invented but to some degree is uncovered and preserved. Nonetheless, there are errant, unaccounted-for elements in these writings that seem to have nothing to do with the past or with the Middle-East. The first line of Muldurs poem "The Yellowing" is translated "the kids are wearing their colors baby" and a later line is "pedal to the metal out on Route 66." The anthology contains many similar lines. Nemet-Nejats critical essays employ much language of Structuralism, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others. In Edas poetry there is a bebop off-hand humor and slangy ironic irreverence that seems to be American.

The tone of the poetry is serious but not somber. Above all it is at no point directly praising or patriotic. Rooted in its own concerns and landscape, the nationalism of these writers goes beyond regimes, beyond politics, beyond strictly drawn geographical borders, beyond na´ve programmatic bombast, beyond theologys verbal pitfalls toward an unconfining cosmic tomorrow. Despite or more accurately because of their native loyalties, these writers are, like writers and artists everywhere, to some degree men and women without a country, without tradition, without religion but with an allegiance solely to an inner hunger for universal truth and to the hope of abetting with their art peace and freedom.

A poem that I found representative of Eda was the first poem in the anthology, Ahmet Hasims 1921 poem "That Space":

Neither you
nor I
nor that evening gathered around your beauty
nor that harbor from the sea,
for painful thoughts,
knows closely the generation unfamiliar
with melancholy

I only know
you and I
and the blue sea
and this evening which stirs in me
the strings of melancholy and
inspiration
far
and freed from a land full of blue shadows
and in this parted space of exile forever