Cultural Groupings

Ikinci Teni - The Turkish Avant-Garde
edited and translated by George Messo (166pp, NP, Shearsman)

Fragments Of A Forgotten Genesis
, Abdellatif Laâbi,
translated by Nancy Hadfield and Gordon Gadfield
(171pp, NP, Leafe Press)

When I was doing university work, part of my introductory class for poetry-making students was to say we have access to more poetry than anyone has had in human history, so how to investigate it, who to learn from and why, in the development of our own work? What comes to us is haphazard, fateful, partly to do with fashions in promoting this or that mode or mood by mainstream publishers, partly access by word of mouth to, or chance discovery of the 'alternatives' (this term itself a mark of where we are) provided by smaller publishers, magazines, by cultural groupings and networks of poets.

This by way of introduction to my being sent for review a book of Turkish poets, all now dead. Here they are now, popping up in Britain. From George Messo's introduction, that

     from roughly the early 1950s until the late 1970s the poets
     gathered here, collectively and alone, were at the forefront of
     Turkish poetry's most rapid and dynamic period of innovation
     and change. .... primarily in Istanbul and Ankara .... and drew
     from the work of the French Surrealists and the contemporary
     European avant-garde ..... to treat the poem as an object of the
     deepest subjectivity, to emphasise the self, the individual, and
     the poetic possibilities of the wounded unconscious.

I seem always nowadays to want a definition of 'poetic', not to take it as a given. But then 'subjectivity' (let alone 'deepest'), 'the self', 'the unconscious', also need pinning down, so let's leave them be.

My copy of Modern Turkish Poetry
(ed.and mostly trans.Fergar, 1992) enables a comparison of translations. From this, the opening of Turgut Uyar's 'Everyone':

     They were caught unprepared, they had long voices.
     Long arms, long beards.

And from the new book:

     Caught unprepared, they had long voices      
     Long arms and their beards had grown long

The first line of the second translation has no full stop, and there is none throughout the poem; there are two commas. The earlier translation has both stops and commas where you would expect them.

The translations are clearly of the same poem, but what of the rhythm, what of the voice? One more example, from a poem by Edip Cansever. In the older book it is called 'Aluminium Shop' and begins

     I cast one look at the sea
     and the fish turn into shoals of song.
     I say this shoe has been worn.
     I say this cheese is soaking wet.

And from the new book, where the title is 'The Metal Shop':

     I cast an eye at the sea
     the fish are singing ring-a-ding.
     This is the worn shoe I say.
     This is a water-logged cheese I say

Decisions have been taken by the translators, such that (speaking for myself anyway) the versions conjure different personalities. Imagine having attended a reading by Cansever: which one of these was he?
Even these brief extracts might give a flavour of these poets and of the new book. There is no conveyance of, let alone respect for, Turkish history and tradition; a Turkish national or someone who knows the place well will no doubt recognise occasional references, but the point for the poems seems to have been, as the editor says, to join the European avant-garde, and not merely to join but to re-enliven it.

The poems are an invitation to a merry party for the imagination, and
they are seriously subjective. The opening of this poem, Cemal Sreya, called 'Five o'clock', might give further good evidence of what's going on here:

     I raised my hands in Istanbul
     Felt a little drunk, amorous, like a minaret
     Stopping passers-by
     Look I said look how untouched the sky is
     And these seagulls look how moody they are
     I have five blue eyes
     On the thinnest minaret in Istanbul

Maybe someone somewhere has published a note on Turkish avant-garde punctuation; it's not apparent to me what's going on with the lack of it it here.

Without access to the originals, my estimate is that the new book seems likely to be closer, having a livelier way with the language; where I have found the Fergar book (his own translations mostly, with others contributing) relatively turgid, not lively or leading me on as reader), the new book is a pleasure to 'hear' (as it seems), and this is the one I would give students as an excellent example of a certain kind of mid-twentieth century writing.

The full list of poets in the book: Ece Ayhan, Ilhan Berk, Edip Cansever, Cemal Sreya and Turgut Uyar.

Abdellatif Laâbi's Fragments Of A Forgotten Genesis is very different, by way of a reading of past into present, present into past, from a man (born 1942) now living in France. Moroccan in origin, imprisoned there 1972-1980 as a subversive, by way of magazine and book publishing, he has been living in France since 1985. French is his mother tongue and the whole French poem (published 1998), a single sequence, is printed here as a separate section.

Insofar as my shadow French allows me to say so, the translators' aim "to preserve the unpretentious immediacy of Laâbi's French" seems, superficially anyway, well implemented. The sequence moves through 26 numbered 'Fragments'.

Very recently, in January 2010, Laâbi has received the 2009 Goncourt Poetry Prize. In a recent interview he said, "I am perfectly bi-lingual: my birth-language is Arabic, my writing language is French. ... Even when I am writing in French, my Arabic language is there. There is a musicality in Arabic, and these words enter into my French texts."

This seems to differ somewhat from where the translators in the introduction say it was "during (his) time in prison that Laâbi learned Arabic." I suppose anyway from birth Arabic was in his ears.

On the back cover there are two strong recommendations, by Pierre Joris and Donald Revell.

I have gone to some trouble here to display the presumptive reasons for reading these 'Fragments', and I have done so because the book has left me cold. A random few lines may show the mode; this opens Fragment 13 (and as in the French there is no punctuation):

     Again the cry
     as in the beginning

     Creation leads only to discord

     Meteor seed
     traverses the chaos

     Arriving on terra firma
     it plants the vertigo tree

     It will bear
     birds afraid of knowledge
     tortoises of stamina
     agile gazelles of intuition

Perhaps the translation modulates the poem into ordinariness, my French isn't good enough to say, but it seems to me more likely the poem does its own thing by way of cod-philosophy. I find the thought - and it works by way of spelt-out thought - interesting neither as a set of ideas nor in the manner of its telling. 
When I received this book in the post, I saw at its endpaper an advertisement for Leafe Press's 1,000 Views of "Girl Singing"
, edited by John Bloomberg-Rissman, which caught my imagination strongly enough for me to send a cheque for it. It was money very well spent, it's a unique book, if in uneasily small print, of many invited responses, by way of poetry or visually, to a poem by Eileen Tabios.

It has led me to speculate about early modern, say 15th-16th centuries or earlier, whether there were, along with circulation of poems by hand, also response-poems and perhaps drawings: exchanges and additions verbally and visually. The book implements a fertile present and suggests a future for such intermingled new work. A delight.

     David Hart 2010