Gülten Akın has long been honored as one of Turkey’s leading poets, but English translations of her work are scarce. All the more reason then to welcome What Have You Carried Over?, which offers translations of work selected from twelve of her books published between 1956 and 2007—a sixty-year stretch that witnessed some of the most serious traumas of modern Turkish history, including three military coups. Akın and her family were not spared.
“For eight years I waited at the gates of a prison,” she remarked at a 2006 session of the Cunda Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature. It was her son she was waiting for. Arrested in 1978 when he was a university student, he was held for eight years without a conviction. Poems of 42 Days emerges from the poet’s experience of that large fact—“We were mothers, witnesses to the sufferings of our sons and daughters. The hand raised against them came down on us too” (#36, “Hail the Mighty Press!”)—as it zeroes in on a particular event: a hunger strike by the young political prisoners. Alternating between verse and prose, the fragmentary narrative introduces us to a bevy of prison guards, bureaucrats, journalists, and politicians while it takes us into the hearts of the mothers, who are allowed—or not—to see their sons and daughters for five minutes once a week:
We were mothers. We returned from visits, from the prison where our
sons and daughters were kept. Before, we used to scatter away, but
during these days of hunger it never crossed our minds to do that. We
stayed together. Walked all the length of the streets. Crammed into
buses. On our way to reach the authorities in stately buildings. We
sought relief in petitions, in more petitions. . . .
(#2, “The Aftermath”)
A variety of personae make their appearance—a husband, a son, a grandparent, a soldier eavesdropping on a suppliant mother: “My sons . . . It’s been a week since they took them from home. At five in the afternoon. I haven’t heard from them. It’s been a week. I’ve looked everywhere, knocked on all the doors” (#37, “Juan and Pedro Almonte’s Mother”). Tension rises as the strike wears on. Mothers grow desperate, children turn inward. “How will the mother—who may only see him for five minutes once a week to say nothing more than ‘How are you?’—reach out to him, get him to abandon his path of no return?” (#8, “Laughing”). She does not, of course; she cannot. And so the strike continues. Petitions are got up. Mothers from the poverty-stricken east, some barefoot, travel to the capital to join the others, but to no avail: their children in the notorious prison back home succumb, thus necessitating another journey, this one to collect the bodies of their sons and daughters and take them home. Is it any wonder that they lay a curse—a blight—upon the land as they travel across it? (#20, “Blight”) Published six years after the 1980 coup, itself the climax of a decade’s worth of troubles, Poems of 42 Days is a powerful testament highly regarded in Turkey for its unflinching dissection of prison psychology and soul-shriveled authority. It is about time that it appeared in English, for it applies not merely to the Turkish experience but unfortunately to all too many political situations of our era.
Still, while 42 Days rightly occupies pride of place here, it is only part of Akın’s work. Not for nothing is she considered the mother of modern Turkish poetry. Her first book, The Hour of the Wind, appeared in 1956 when she was twenty-three, and was an immediate prizewinner. It is already a poetry of loss:
on one of those wide roads you’ve got to lose everything
start all over again like insects
in this Godless darkness, resisting the rain
burn O heart of your own strangeness burn
what’s gone is gone
(“Song of the Crazy Girl III”)
Living at the time in Istanbul (to which her family had moved from central Anatolia when she was ten), Akın was frequently linked to the poets known as the “Second New.” At their height in the 1950s, these poets—among them Cemal Süreya, Edip Cansever, Ilhan Berk, and Ece Ayhan—embraced a modernist stylistics and sought their themes in the urban tangle of Istanbul. While acknowledging their influence, however, Akın has remarked that she never considered herself part of the group. Indeed, in 1958 she returned to Anatolia with her husband and growing family (which would eventually include five children). There her husband’s work as a government employee meant a great deal of moving from one provincial town to another. Despite the lack of stability—or perhaps because of it—she achieved a breakthrough with I Cut My Black Black Hair in 1960. The surge of liberated feminine energy in the title poem was something new in Turkish poetry:
beside me I’m not
Inside me shame
Outside me work
My left side love
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Good morning wind swaying the apricot tree
Good morning reborn one set free
Now I wonder at a pin’s round head
That some weigh out as a lifetime
Forth and back from my black black hair I cut myself free
A third book appeared in 1964 (In The Shallows); but as Saliha Paker notes in her informative introduction, it is with The Red Carnation, published in 1971, that Akın’s poetics underwent another major shift. Provincial life had renewed her acquaintance with the songs and epics of Anatolian folk tradition, and she began wedding the modernism of the Second New to the bardic and Sufic traditions in which she had been brought up. The social dimension of her poetry resonates all the more for being intertwined with a mystical background considered subversive by a long line of Ottoman pashas, governors, and sultans. In “Anatolian Ellas and the Statues,” for example, the cold and brittle men running the early Republican government are seen as moribund “statues of mud” pitted against the vitality of Ellas, or Hızır İlyas, or Hıdır—various names for the fertility figure and holy man traditionally invoked as a savior in times of trouble:
–Some manners from Paris, a statue says
Let’s educate the cities. The villages . . . Oh, they’re so coarse
–Only you, dear God, would know,
My forefather, my saint, where are you
You, who with birds above your shoulders
Rallied the scattering soldiers together
Guided the ships to safety
Rattled the statues as they fled to their ease
Widely popular in Turkey, Hıdır (who seems incidentally to be the original of the legendary Green Man, a.k.a. Saint George, of British folklore) is particularly revered in the Alevi-Bektashi strain of Sufism to which Akın belongs. It is the same tradition that produced Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal and other medieval poets of divine love and political resistance, and is central to her inspiration.
Four more books followed in the seventies and early eighties. Of these, we are given selections from Laments and Songs (1976) and Hymns (1983). “Hymns” is the English for İlahiler, which carries similar religious overtones. But the “hymns” here are hardly the kind that pious tradition might have led us to expect:
A poet, I came stumbling on a dream
then I turned and came to the struggle
I’ve hung up my frenzied pencil
I can’t write a word, my son.
(“Hymn of the Despairing Poet”)
In fact they are closer to the tradition of the holy fool than that of the English divine. Poems of 42 Days appeared three years later, in 1986. There Akin would write, “My magic’s left me, my poetry’s gone” (#9, “My Left Alone Won’t Do”). But it was not gone. In 1992 came Love is Lasting. If the new book revealed a tempering of despair, it assuredly did not abandon political asperity—see “Elegy for the Right Arm of Musa Akbaba from Lower Cinbolat.” Musa Akbaba, we learn, was a farmer who chopped off his right arm in response to losing the family farm in a “reform” move by the government. The sin of the unfortunate hand and arm had been to vote for the ruling party:
How shall I say it, who’s the cause, who’s to blame
Never in my life has my fury been
So edgy, as sharp as the blade of a knife
One thing I know, my hand committed the crime
No power is left to me but my own life
What I let fall was mine, my own arm
A 1995 collection, Then I Grew Old, takes its title from Akın’s much-quoted two-line poem: “Then I grew old, behold / A sentence as long as a novel.” Here she turns retrospective as she confronts issues of ageing and disillusionment. “The Haunted Mansion” rather startlingly invokes Emily Dickinson: while noting that the new world of Turkey—”shopping markets, foreign clothes, adventurous commodities”—is less attractive than the old one, it offers advice from one poet to another:
if love is right there inside you
if you’ve carried it over
from the earliest moment you remember
in that haunted house
let it go, into the snow, the mist, the shadow
let it go, into worn-down dreams
now’s the time for it to slip into infinity
Dickinson and Akın together might seem a stretch, but in truth they share a “haunted house” of poetry that is marked by candor and pain, a place where the transcendental jostles the mundane, and to enter which may raise the hair at the back of your neck. “Poetry is nuclear energy squeezed into lines,“ Akın once said, and it’s hard to imagine Dickinson disagreeing.
The last collection to be represented in these translations is Bird Flies, Shadow Stays (2007), and it contains the poem that lends them their apt title. “Garden Vines,” in casting a backward glance at the poet’s life, oscillates between her “green almond time” and the present. With a refrain like a tolling bell–
from those days to these
what have you carried over
what have I?
–it concludes with a pun on her name, Gülten. In Turkish “gül” means “rose” and “ten” means “skin.” And so:
gülten is all I’m left with, a rose
if ever planted, stranger to any garden
The English reader is fortunate finally to have a garland of Akın’s work gathered in a single volume. The selection accurately epitomizes her poetic achievement; the poems moreover take on fresh energy from their new context. Translations are by several hands, including such well-known names as Nermin Menemencioğlu, Ruth Christie, and Talat Sait Halman, as well as by participants in the Cunda Workshop, where the idea for this project first arose. The majority, however, are collaborations by the editors, Saliha Paker and American poet Mel Kenne. They are nearly all a model of the art, transmitting the sense of the original with subtlety and fidelity while resisting the temptation to fill in or gloss over syntactical lacunae and semantic ellipses characteristic of Turkish poetry—what poet and translator Murat Nemet-Nejat has called its indispensable eda. What Have You Carried Over? effectively and elegantly delivers the poetic news from Turkey, for which poet and translators alike deserve our thanks.
Akın, Gülten. What Have You Carried Over?: Poems of 42 Days and Other Works. Eds. Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne, with an Introduction by Saliha Paker. Talisman House, 2014.
Mel Kenne, Saliha Paker, Amy Spangler, eds. Aeolian Visions / Versions: Modern Classics and New Writing from Turkey, from the Cunda International Workshop for Translators of Turkish Literature, 2006-2012. London: Milet, 2013.
Murat Nemet-Nejat. Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry. Jersey City, N.J.: Talisman House, 2004.
Clifford Endres lives in Istanbul, where he teaches at Kadir Has University and Boğaziçi University. He has translated (with Selhan Savcigil-Endres) the Turkish poets Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, Enis Batur, Güven Turan, and novelist Selçuk Altun among others. These have appeared in Agenda, Chicago Review, Edinburgh Review, Massachusetts Review, Near East Review, Quarterly West, and Seneca Review among others.