I recently joined a social media group aggregrated around my friend Murat Nemet-Nejat, the Turkish poet and translator. There is some interest in this group to read my original 1997 Nation magazine review of the Ece Ayhan books that Murat translated in a single English-language edition, Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies. My review was instantly translated into Turkish and published in Istanbul as a piece of (in essence) bootlegged literary criticism. I know this because when I met the eminent Turkish scholar, translator and poet Talat S. Halman, he knew of me from this review, which he had read in Turkish. I almost fell off my bench at the Waterfront Ale House, near Professor Halman's Murray Hill home in New York City! If anyone has a clipping of the Turkish translation of this review, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) -- I'd love to have a copy for my files.
Gay in Istanbul (as The Nation headlined my review)
By Chris King
Murat Nemet-Nejat is a Turkish-born Jew who has lived for years in New York City, where he sells Oriental rugs. A section of his first book, The Bridge, a narrative poem written in English, created quite a stir in Turkey when it was translated. When Nemet-Nejat went to Turkey for his honeymoon, he found that many poets wanted to meet him. One was Ece Ayhan, the author of some of the most bizarre, anti-narrative verse written in Turkish.
Ayhan expressed interest in translating The Bridge. “I told him I was surprised,” Nemet-Nejat remembers, “because our work is so different.” Ayhan replied, “It is like I am walking the street at night alone, and I came upon this house. There is a wonderful feast inside this house. I can’t enter the house. But I enjoy looking at it.” Ayhan wanted to work with another Turkish poet whose English was better, but that man was imprisoned at the time. The translation never came to pass. Years later, grieving for the death of his mother, Nemet-Nejat picked up two of Ayhan’s books, A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies, and cast them brilliantly into English.
This exchange partakes of the strange world of these poems. It is full of dramatic transitions: first publication, first translation, marriage, death. But the transitions lead mostly to fragment and incompletion, and the point of view changes as poet and translator change places. Someone, unnamed, is imprisoned for unstated reasons. Crushing sadness, the death of a mother, gives way to inexplicable creativity – the translation of experimental gay Turkish poetry. Ayhan is alone in the night, excluded from warmth and family, watching the play of color and motion.
The literature of the outsider has become quite an inside thing, but I don’t think we’ve heard anything like this voice. The uniqueness of these English sentences (A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxes are both prose poem sequences) emerges from the collaboration (silent, distant and protracted, as befits the texts) of two strangely formed poets. Ayhan wrote A Blind Cat Black as a provincial official and Orthodoxes as an Istanbul archivist. Those biographical teasers – given the baroque character of the verse, cast in street slang and rich in armpit smells, intimations of torture and truncated gay sex – conjure Kafka as a queer Turk. In Nemet-Nejat this outsider finds an apt shadow. As a Persian Jew growing up in Turkey, Nemet-Nejat was born in exile, speaking between languages.
Nemet-Nejat struggled for years translating Ayhan and went through hell getting this slim book into print. Even someone as charmed by the work as I am can see why. God knows what the Turkish looks like (the translator assures us that it has puzzled most readers); the English is a bizarre movement through invisible dogs, curses, convulsed emotions, corpses, stolen kites, rats in sewers, blind black cats with dead babies in their sacks, Pharaoh tattoos, “cum water” and the ghosts of jokes. Nothing obvious connects the riot of images and tide-turns of emotion. Confronted by such a book, in a busy world already brutal and confusing, one could easily be repelled.
Nemet-Najat says the best audience Ayhan found in Turkey was musicians and composers. That makes sense. Anyone who loves dissonance or fragmented melodies played sweetly outside the chord changes should love these poems: “He ran away on a steamboat, a jalopy but quick. Playing, unknowable, the muddy music of the ink squid.” Once you half-detach that part of your brain trying to figure out what is going on, you hear the most haunting music everywhere: “Madness put on a porkpie hat”; “My Aunt Sadness drinks alcohol in the attic, embroiders”; “hallucinations full of clowns run in ruins.” Once you hear the music, you see brilliant pictures: “They came drowned in the afternoon to the blue house on the wharf of brown broadcloth cafes”; “I went to Jerusalem in that exile of the flower vendors and got settled in the town clock.” Is that a queer Turk Chagall?
This book has a way of lulling the reader into reverie, so that you complete the picture with your own colors, whistle the rest of the warped tune. When your rational brain reattaches, it’s like returning to a book you fell asleep reading and dreamed things into. It reminds me of Asian musicians who claim that they discovered the polyphonic music of the Western symphony centuries ago, but realized that monophonic music is more satisfying because it allows the soul of the listener to sing the harmonies. Nemet-Najat believes that Ayhan speaks obliquely because his subject touches the secret gay street life of Istanbul, which the official culture has silenced.
He also suggests that A Blind Cat Black is the disguised coming-out narrative of an Istanbul boy prostitute. That is one way to assemble the music and pictures. There are “untellable swords” and male queens, and certain shades of love and regret I have seen in gay men. With this reading, A Blind Cat Black becomes a study of a beautiful boy you probably wouldn’t like if you weren’t madly in love with him, living a horrible life he can’t articulate and is forbidden to describe openly, told in turn by himself, by a man who loves him, and by a heartbreaking third-person songbird: “An absent-minded tightrope walker comes. From the sea of late hours. Blows out a lamp. Lies down next to my weeping side, for the sake of the prophet. A blind woman downstairs. Family. She raves in a language I don’t know.”
A nastiness edges these poems, the voice of a devastated childhood viewed from a compromised adulthood: “They stole my kite in my madness, a violet, child-dead Sunday.” Just when this voice verges on whining, we find juxtaposed a calm, parental point of view: “My son is a queen. Has spread his wings.” Flashes of compassion shooting through the nastiness conjure the haunted image of parents watching home movies of a child who grew up only to commit suicide, an awful feeling made worse because the parental voice and the voice of the older male lover overlap. These ghoulish experiments with point of view are warmed by honest, old-fashioned sadness. At moments the poem becomes a half-told account of a conversation that drifted off and changed everything for the worse: “The adventure in a pass. Chasm. We don’t talk at all.” Or: “Not only the tides of the sea, even the explanations were useless.” The last lines of A Blind Cat Black deliver an unbearably bleak conclusion: “But no one should look for each other. Passing one inevitable sea.”
This is more than another journal of disintegration in a gay-baiting world. It is a virtuosic study of what you can do with lyricism denied, besides choke on it. Like brilliant musicians who crave simple emotion, yet love dissonance and the technical complexities of their instruments, Ayhan and Nemet-Nejat play endlessly on our heartstrings and bow—worry, even break them. A simple emotional line is dropped: “He likes his loneliness.” Simple images get sad twists: “The bend in a child’s heart.” Lyricism goes belly up and turns into self-satire: “Why the sea rises, no one knows. Oh the black shimmers of exile. I am a weeping half breed.” Then the poets blind us with complexity still drenched in emotion, like Imrat Khan in a furious raga: “The tryst in the labyrinth is slaked and duped by the divinations in sand. He was my age and a veiled queen. How the horses, how the chugboats rotted in that depth.”
This book stirs powerful memories of the sea. Its sometimes maddening, sometimes sorrowful sea changes of images left me thinking about knowing people for a long time and seeing them, over the years, from so many distances, through so much suffering, in so many different moods. I think it is the saddest book I have ever read.
– This review first appeared in The Nation magazine, July 7, 1997.
I went on to score Murat's translation of Blind Cat Black with the arts organization Poetry Scores, which then produced a silent movie to the score that I directed. This essay on this blog tells some, but not nearly all, of those stories.
Image of Ece Ayhan from this wonderful fan site that also mentions our work.