Tuesday, November 13, 2018



Y’ol by Birhan Keskin, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2018)

(or a bit of accounting)

Every day once I tried to return to this book. Every day once I walked out of the house and walked with a broken cloud. Every day looked at someone and bent my head. Every day I looked at a newspaper with vacant eyes. Every day someone talked, I pretended to listen. Every day once I asked myself where am I, every day once a northern winter settled in me. Every day I looked at your photographs before me. Every day I got angry once and once I asked myself why did I get attached so much? Every day I thought of justice and cruelty. May be of everything. Every day I walked in the street with a barbarian and the civilized. I opened every day the minarets with the sounds of the morning azan. Every day I tried to part a curtain. Every day I thought I understood nothing, every day thought I understood it all. I saw pigeons off. Every day I thought I could not stand the day. I stacked books one under the other and magazines rolled next to each other. Things that were a blur walked along with me. Every “totality” I saw stuck in me like a knife, couldn’t understand it. Every day I pulled a piece of stone out of me. Every day I implored sleep to take me in its arms. Every day, day is ending but not the night, I said to myself. Every day I saw things didn’t console me. I asked myself why we remember the days of separation afterwards as a fog. Don’t forget your anger, I said to myself, if you forget, you fall. I reserved at least one hour every day to standing up, to being erect. Every day I ran through my heart the word “lifelong” at least once. Every day the word “lifelong” pinged like coal in my heart. Every day once I called you silently “my love.” Every day once I called you “heartless.” Every day I thought of two old women sitting side by side and looking at each other with tenderness. Every day I said that photograph of these women is torn. Every day once I said “ah” and once I took it back. Every day I said “my road companion” and I covered my face with sorrow. Every day I tasted your bitterness. Every day not to forget but not not to forget I applied poison to my heart. Every day I thought to become human how many faults she is hiding in herself. Every day I tried to open a lock. There was something else, there was something else: I had called out to you with the voice of the earth, and not the voice of the world. What is an ordeal or what is a sin? What do they matter to me anyway. You were the center of the world everyday, and I the endless land maaaaaarks receding from you.


Because you regarded as too much my weeping after you
take these rocks they’re yours... and from now on
let all the drums pound, the oud strings snap
scream to the void, together.
We’ll cough up blood
Since the world is so cruel,
Unbecoming our heart.

Let all the drums echo,
what comes from the void
strike what fills the void
echoes   in the void

See how the one sleeping on ashes is coughing up
blood blood
let them know


I... and every time      
Whatever life could teach the ash
it has taught me.

I must have slept a long time in the ash      
I slept a long time in the ash
I slept a long time in the ash.


The scream obstructed inside is lamenting outside               
towards morning
sleep is refusing me         
from outside somewhere a loooong
waiiiiil is erupting.
inside me the walls of cruelty.       
sleeeeep take meeeee
in your arms.

when i get up
trudging along to the bathroom looking
sounds are breaking loose from my eyes.
inside  then  these tears flowing silently are yours are
saying. in the walls inside me
these stones are welled,
pulling out a sound i can’t pull out,
walled in the silence silence of the stones,
thick, primal, towards the void, from the antechamber of the night     
tttwaaaards mooourningg:

I let you loooose on this lying world at last,
bitterly, bitteeeracidly


me, you always, my love,               
me, you always
i read it from the words flowing from your face
i cast a spell of love on your eyes, i cast a spell of compassion on your hands
your mother disowned you
i wove you            
into my life.


Don’t expect me to burn            
I have burnt a lot, you know it.
I can’t burn, can’t
can’t my ashes are flying.
the gilette blade you plied in my dreams is in my flesh.     
without bleeding without hurting.
this world is ice, ice
ssssssss nothing’s

is false,
false what i’m saying
false, what you’re saying
becoming only
this world.

I’m already ash
ash ash aaah ash
if anything left
inside the ash my humanity’s     

Let the world see now.
whiiiiite seeing
off on iiiiice  
(liiice on iiice                     
coughing up


as they stood apart
the other calls the one who isn’t here:
they’re next to each other, when under each other
the world widens.
one offers the other fire
and like those with a different meaning
from an old book carrying their becoming with themselves
in an ooold book, then to add warmth
they’re adding a fairy tale
but yet becoming another fairy tale
transcending their becoming.
the other calls the one who isn’t there        
that’s how magic becomes magic.
the other calls the one who isn’t there:        
were they fairy tales...


the world’s nothing              
compared to the dome i built for you
let it collapse, let it go
—stars are imploding under—
as easy to doubt, as to believe           
loose yourself to the world, or stay with me
i loved you so much beyond the world that
that we call it offering our heads as sacrifice on your roaaad         
us the barbarians.        


broken down, yes, i broke down that edifice of lies:               

for LLLies to reveaLLL themselves striPPed nakeDDD

you’re my nest
i your                                                                           S


Casting me to a world i don’t know                          

condemned, with no sentence of my own, sileeeeeeenced.             

our dream was called aging together, that’s why, maybe,
it hurts so. do you expect sentences of love from me
without the unity which is a sentence?
two women preparing jam in the kitchen. with red peppers, etc.
a windy hill. looking out on both sides,
horiiizon, etc.,
as if the earth not a circle but slightly an ellipse.
besides, two women not quite up to the curvatures of the earth, etc.
that’s how it was. I’d believed her, as i believed myself.
to talk about love that’s beyond what’s love! aaaah!
It was a dogma... just.
that’s why i am so diffused, 
shoveled into this world.                                 
what do you want me to say?
i have a tooth irritated by the air.
that’s why my silence, my speech.
besides i was offended when i didn’t die by the initial pain.           
first became human then.
or or i was remodeled from what was left.
which i remembered surrendering to the pain
one doesn’t die, i remembered,
one doesn’t diiii

ah, from the depth of asia....

            Parting the Branches[2]

The roaring of the forest will end, when?
I’m full of scratches for a thousand years, parting the branches.
In that place... where trees become visible one by one... is it far?
A sylvan bombardment. We’d spent long, a very long winter,
and a summer stretch... lie down a little, a little. Not so scary as
we worried, at least with kids in the summer.
And it was a secluded rare rose of the world, the spring.
Did we skip it without smelling it, smelling it?
What occasionally reveals itself is the g-spot of routine without
ever parting the branches, without ever. But with no smelling?
I saw. She, feeling dizzy because of the shaking of trees
the world was feeling dizzy. Spare for me in the monotony of the prairie,
the routine of the meadows, the placidity of the river, only this occasional revealing.  Once more.
Only those times. Spare them for me. Once more.

A slightly high plateau, before mountains show their majesty.


They were like the wind, with them we were also like the wind.
Their absence now
an empty space.
That must be the reason why
the sound of the grass is so far away now.

They were like the wind, with them we were also like the wind.
Passing the clouds, the grass, the meadows we touched the river.
Migrating to the mountains, descending the mountains we lived by our names.
Life is a lightning strike we said, we learned it from them.
Our youth was the burning sun, the proud wind.
Our aged carried rain on their faces, grew their hair... aaaah,
wee said... d... d... d.

Horses that suffer my grief, flattening the hills.
Horses that warm my heart.
A brown evening is round here, horses aren't.

                        Birhan Keskin's Y'ol[3]

Birhan Keskin's (1963-) Y'ol is about a love affair between two women that through breakup, loss and suffering becomes transformed into a spiritual, potentially divine experience. In that respect, it follows the path of the quintessential story of Turkish poetry, Leila and Majnun, where Majnun loses his beloved Leila whose family refuses to give her to him. He goes insane ("Majnun" means crazy, lost, a vagabond). When finally her family relents and bring her to him, he does not recognize her (he says, "you are not Leila"), so transformed was his love for her to a spiritual state of becoming. The very title of the poem points to this metamorphosis. "Yol" means "road" in Turkish, which Keskin deconstructs by adding an apostrophe after "Y." The last two letters "ol" means "become." In other words, the title says "the road of/towards becoming."  

    In the essay "A Godless Sufism: Ideas on the Twentieth-Century Turkish Poetry"[4]
I argue that, though the word "god" is almost never mentioned, a spirituality which I call "godless Sufism" permeates modern Turkish poetry. The essay caused quite a olcontroversy in literary circles at its first publication in 1995 and was attacked by all sides. The secularists thought I was infiltrating religion back into the language of poetry after Atatürk's reforms. The religious people thought I was being blasphemous. In effect, I was doing neither. I was just pointing to something that to me was "hidden in plain sight": Turkish character is deeply, inescapably spiritual—often tinged with a violent eroticism—  and its poetry reflects it. A yearning spirituality, full of tears and suffering, is at the core of its power. Because 20th century Turkish after Atatürk's linguistic reforms had discarded a lot of the Arabic and Persian vocabulary that embodied the spiritual/erotic Sufism of those two languages (particularly of Persian and Hafiz's poetry), modern Turkish poets had to pursue and rediscover it in the agglutinations of the Turkish syntax and its pantheistic connections to a pre-Islamic central Asian landscape. In this interaction between spirituality and syntax (which I call Eda) Turkish poetry gains its stunning originality. Shifting the focus of attention from vocabulary to the intonations, cadences of an infinitlely flexible and suggestive syntax, Turkish poetry became an ideal, potent vehicle for suppressed communication—be it sexual, political or religious.

    Birhan Keskin's poetry, particularly Y'ol, is in the middle of this tradition, Eda. In fact, the first written response to "godless Sufism" occurred in a review of Birhan Keskin's poetry by the Turkish poet Ahmet Güntan in Kitap-lik. Güntan said that he was at first bothered by the word "godless" because it seemed to belie his own belief in God. Then, he realized that the term "godless Sufism" referred to a presence, not spelled out; but pervasive in Keskin's and many other Turkish poets' work without their being quite aware of it. The term brought to consciousness, revealed the spiritual core of their writing: that "god" was perhaps the most suppressed word, the invisible pervasive presence, hidden in plain sight in secularist Turkey.

    Y'ol consists of two parts: "taş parçaları" and "eski dünya." "taş parçaları" consists of forty-four "fragments" ("parçaları") which are sinuous, austere coloratura[5] songs focusing on the two lovers, their intimate moments, their quarrels, their alienation from each other. "eski dünya" consists of thirteen pieces. Their tones are more leisurely, philosophical. They are poems of ironic, often heart-wrenching arrivals. A Central Asian landscape of prairies, mountains, plains—the area where originally Turks came from—permeates them.

    The present manuscript consists of the entirety of the book, all the poems appearing in the same order as in the Turkish original.

            A Few Notes On Translating Birhan Keskin's Y'ol.

During a long interview that covered many subjects in Turkish for a Turkish journal, here is the way I described my processes translating Birhan Keskin's Y'ol[6]: "... The 'sound of the poem,' in the traditional sense, does not represent the totality of the poem. For instance, the 'sound' in the poetry of Eda is silent. Its music is among the words, in the movement the sentence creates as it develops, in its cadence. The 'sound' of Eda is a sinuous, linear movement of thought, as it evolves full of emotion and longing."

    Birhan Keskin's Y'ol is exactly such a line. It is something that is simultaneously seen and heard. I began the translation of Y'ol with the fragments in "casting pebbles." In many of these pieces in Turkish there are spots like "yooooooğğğğğğğ" ("...") or "uffffffffffffuk" ("...") that are reminiscent of concrete poems. These are spots that suddenly stop the poem from being read aloud, "voiced out," creating cracks, silences—voices that can be uttered freely in the mountains, but in the daily world of suffering and hurt are suppressed, silenced. The second section of Y'ol "the old world" starts in the mountains, the woods. The language of this part is opener, more relaxed, a language that uses longer lines.

    Translating Y'ol, I had on my mind the American blues, the voice of Billy Holliday and the Turkish singer Safiye Aylar's singing style. In American English, the blues lyrics constitute a treasure chest of tangential, elliptical language. Everything in blues is expressed in coded fragments. Particularly in the last years of her life, Billy Holliday's voice is full of "imperfections." The unforgettable beauty of her voice lies in the variations in tempo and harmony she creates with her words. In other words, in Holliday's language, while singing, there is something reminiscent of the fluid word order of the Turkish syntax and Eda's cadences. While reading words like "yooooooğğğğğğğ" in Y'ol that reminded me of concrete poems, I thought of the way Safiye Aylar stretches with diamond-like clarity the vowels in her songs. An emotional, almost operatic force is hidden in the spare language of "casting pebbles." Translating "casting pebbles," my problem was to synthesize those "visual impurities," obstacles, with the rest of the language of the fragments to point to the emotional power hidden in them that flared out through these obstacles.

[1] The first ten poems in this selection (nine of them numbered) constitute the first ten poems in the book and appear in the section called "casting pebbles." They appear in the book in the same order as they appear here.
[2] "Parting the Branches" and "Horses" are from the second se ction of Y'ol entitled "the old world."
[3] Metis Yayinlari (Istanbul: Turkey), 2006
[4] Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman House, Jersey City, 2004), pp. 323/34.
[5] Keskin stretches certain vowels or consonants in "taş parçaları" in the style of Turkish classical singers like Safiye Aylar.
[6] The translation from the original interview is my own.


Birhan Keskin was born in Kırklareli, a town on the European side of Turkey, in 1963. She graduated from the literature department of Istanbul University in sociology in 1986. She published her first poem in 1984. Between 1995 and 98, with her friends, she published the literary journal Göçebe (Nomad). She worked as an editor in numerous publications. Her poetry books are: Delilirikler (Madlyrics), İskenderiye Library Publications, 1991; Bakarsın Üzgün Dönerim (You Will Find That I Will Return Sad), Era Publishers, 1994; Cinayet Kışı (The Winter of Murders) + İki Mektup (Two Letters), Göçebe Poetry Books, 1996; Yirmi Lak Tablet (Twenty Milligram Pills) + Yolcunun Siyah Bavulu (The Traveler’s Black Suitcase), YKY, 1999; Yeryüzü Halleri (The World’s Conditions), YKY, 2002; Kim Bağışlayacak Beni (her first five books, Who Will Spare Me), Metis Publishers, 2005; Ba (Ba), Metis Publishers, 2005; Y’ol (Y’ol ), Metis Publishers, 2006); Soğuk Kazı (The Cold Excavation), Metis Publishers, 2010); Fakir Kene (The Poor Tick), Metis Publishers, 2016). Birhan Keskin’s Ba won the Altın Portakal (Golden Orange) poetry prize in Turkey in 2006. Her Soğuk Kazi won the Metin Altıok poetry prize in 2016.

Murat Nemet-Nejat’s recent work includes the poems Animals of Dawn (Talisman, 2016), The Spiritual Life of Replicants (Talisman, 2011), the collaboration with the poet Standard Schaefer “Alphabet Dialogues/Penis Monologues”; the translations Seyhan Erözçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman, 2010), the republication by Green Integer Press of Ece Ayhan’s A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (2015); and the essays «Dear Charles, Letters from a Turk: Mayan Letters, Herman Melville and Eda” (Letters for Olson, edited by Benjamin Hollander, Spuyten Duyvil, 2016), “Holiness and Jewish Rebellion: ‘Questions of Accent’ Twenty Years Afterward” (Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and «Istanbul Noir» (Istanbul: Metamorphoses In an Imperial City, edited by M. Akif Kirecci and Edward Foster (Talisman, 2011). He is the editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman, 2004). Murat Nemet-Nejat is presently working on the poems Camels and Weasels and Io’s Song, and a collection of translations from the Turkish poet Sami Baydar. Camels & Weasels is part of a seven-part serial poem The Structure of Escape which also includes the poems The Spiritual Life of Replicants and Animals of Dawn.