Three Citizens of Turkish on Exile - Yusuf Eradam - Aug 2012


Three Citizens of Turkish on Exile:
Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Kemal & Edip Cansever



Yusuf Eradam (1)


‘Turkish’ instead of ‘Turkey’ implies that no matter how we glorify our writers or artists, by such word-plays we do persecute them later, we send them to prison, to exile or we even assassinate them if we think they are ‘dangerous enough’. For various reasons but mainly due to their political opposition, writers, poets, artists from all nations at all times in history have suffered from compulsory exile. Imprisonment and sometimes even torture have also been their fate before execution or escape. Paradoxical but the poets’ or writers’ language and its world of imagery they are denied the right to produce, have always been their one and only haeven. That is why, like most artists, poets and writers take refuge in the vehicles and opportunities of their art at times of oppression. No matter what happens to them, artists have to create a source for hope. It is an activity of survival for the artist and his people against all tyrants.

Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s most important and greatest poet, is also a poet who lived for decades in exile and died in Communist Russia. Nazým had to suffer imprisonment before he fled to the U.S.S.R, and his grave is still there. Orhan Kemal’s book In Jail with Nazim Hikmet (translated by Bengisu Rona) is one book of memoirs. It clearly underlines the anomaly of existence-in-jail, the ontological insecurity and the necessity of holding onto friendship, solidarity and creative activities, similar to learning to write better poetry and the love of animals. Loving and taking care of a white rabbit or preferring to share the taste of strawberries with your fellow men despite a visitor waiting. This is a good example of a way to keep intact ‘malgré les dangers de mort’ as Paul Eluard says in his “Bonne Justice”. Any human atrocity is a possibility in jail as Orhan Kemal also hints at the presence of informer inmates.

Orhan Kemal (Mehmet Raþit Öðütçü), a most important novelist of the Turkish Republic, and whose Arkadaþ Islýklarý (Whistles of Friends) was the first novel I read that may have inflicted me with joie de vivre no matter what happens. I must have found support in the same novel for my not being able to do without friends. Orhan Kemal, who represents Turkish voice in Turkish fiction as much as Nazim Hikmet, his idol, in Turkish poetry, gets the ‘good’ news that his ‘master’ is also coming in when he was in Bursa prison (1940-43).

Arrival of one’s literary master as an inmate reminded me of R.W. Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s friendship. Emerson, who visited Thoreau in jail asked him: “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau’s reply is: “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”. This explains why one has to be in jail against the wrong deeds of authority if being outside means conforming to the system that is killing the lives of ‘others’. Thoreau refused to pay taxes as the goverment was buying guns to kill Mexicans. Emerson was ‘out there’ because he found no point in Thoreau’s protest, his civil disobedience or his passive resistance, which he clearly puts in words in his essay “On Civil Government”.

That is why for Orhan Kemal and the other dissident poets and the intellectuals of Turkey of the 1940s who were imprisoned, the arrival of Nazim Hikmet was like a reward as the strength they gain by this news might also be a remedy to their ontological insecurity. In Orhan Kemal’s memoirs, the happy news of the master’s coming to share Kemal’s prison life, arrives weeks before the master physically shows up, very similar to the narrative technique in biographical films with a flashback. Yes, I am implying that this book would make a great biographical film of resistance against oppression. First the master’s name comes to prison, his mighty poetry, then Nazim arrives with the happy expression on another prisoner’s face and then in the fear of betrayal after a close attachment to a prisoner who may later turn out to be an informer, which Kemal experienced. Finally a legendary anecdote brings Nazim Hikmet, a memoir that exemplies how much the poet loves sharing anything with his fellow men. Until the arrival of Nazim Hikmet, Orhan Kemal’s memoir narrative says nothing of himself, totally devoid of ego.

An idea of Piraye, one of Hikmet’s wives, is present in the memoirs too. The women Nazim fell in love and/or married are Nüzhet, Lena (Ludmilla Yurchenko), Piraye, Münevver (he had a son, Mehmet from her), Galina G. Koleshnikova (his doctor and lover, and the woman the poet wrote no poems for), and finally Vera, whom he stayed married till his death. Nazim is known to have had affairs with the soprano Semiha Berksoy and writer Suat Dervish. When Nazim was in Bursa jail, his wife was Piraye, and in Kemal’s memory she is not a smiling face, but we know that the women Hikmet fell in love with were always like water and wind for his imagination. Their love was indispensible, the presence of a woman he loved was a must for him to continue writing his poetry, unlike Kafka.

When Hikmet wrote “Paris without you” nobody could understand that it was written for Vera, but later Nazim made clear he had fallen for Vera, while he was still with Galina, with whom Nazim Hikmet lived for eight years. Seeing that the great poet can hardly produce poetry without love, Galina decided give way to this new woman, Vera, who in 1960 became his ‘assigned’ wife. This anecdote can not be in Kemal’s memoirs of course, but I could not help putting it in here because Galina’s “getting off Nazim’s creative way” has always impressed me as a real sacrifice of one’s self and a sign of true love. And isn’t that another kind of exile for the woman in love?

Another poet who devoted a life to his language and poetry is Edip Cansever, a member of the Second New movement in Turkish poetry. He is known to be one of the many Turkish poets who is difficult to read and understand, a symbolic and surrealistic poet of ideas, always full of the love of his language and people.

Dirty August is a good example. That is why I felt the need to translate the title poem of a Cansever book of poetry with all its complexity in thought hiding behind the simple language. The translator, while inevitably betraying the poet or the poem, must do his/her best especially with the style of the poem. The voice in the poem is talking to August, as if it were some filtly body to be damned or a dirty child deserving to be reprimanded.

“Dirty August,” the title poem, has always reminded me of an American poem that keeps coming up in my life: “Snowman” by Wallace Stevens. It is as if Cansever is trying to prove that he is not ‘snow-minded’ or that he can see ‘the nothing’ behind the conspicuous world of objects, the world of loneliness, if not solitude. Yet again, in Stevens’s terms, he belongs to a world of ‘oneness’, which means an irredeemable and inescapable exile for poets. This state of exile is a must, a prerequisite for seers or poets who have an insight for what’s beyond the visible world: a state of the exile of the soul inwards while the body might be on exile in another country.

In “Dirty August” water brings to Cansever’s mind ‘an eagle from Ardahan’ and ‘a rice grain from Kýzýlcahamam’ among many other things, which are images of an artist in exile. Water is omniscient, it is ubiquitous and is like “a glass that shatters when your home country turns her face away from you.” He thins his body by scrubbing it to the wall and ends his poem stating his location or locating his state:

I am where the water stops for a second

where the water is drowned when it stops.

These lines also give away the reason why the poet wrote poems and got them published incessantly. It is one of the many ways of proving to oneself that one exists: another example of the “solar joy” of Camus, of Hemingway or of Pasternak. Therefore, in the next stanza he takes to the road driving a lorry the load of which he does not know. However, he is ready to put a ‘kilim’ (Turkish rug) anwhere showing his sense of belonging. He also confesses in the final separated line that he prefers this state of the flow of water, rather than being fixed to one point in time and place: “from days to water.” This final line shows how the poet’s mind and body oscillates between reality and illusion. He also wishes to get away from this world of objects, to some far away land, where the poet is like water: a wish that proves the belief that a poet always is/should be on exile. That is why another important contemporary poet Küçük Ýskender claims that a poet’s job is to write poems, not books.

Edip Cansever wrote poetry that looked like prose or prosaic-poetry to exemplify his abstract-concrete theories. Cansever’s poems take us to almost the same states of mind and heart of poets like Whitman, Stevens and Plath. Therefore in the translation of a poem, it is a must to stick to the obscurity of the imagery in the original poem because it is this obscurity in the translation that will act like the wind to the readers’ sails of imagination. Moreover, poetry-reading is not a matter of trying to understand it but a gate to a journey with it, a matter of sharing the poet’s creative exile in his own language.

This was the very reason why Nazim Hikmet, gave assignments to Orhan Kemal and to other prisoners who aspired to be poets so that they work on the form of their poems as carefully as they do with the content. A painful process for Kemal, at the end of which Hikmet liked Kemal’s poem most, and not those of the other inmate-students of his. That’s why Kemal, who is known for his novels, wrote in joy, with the joy of having deserved the love and friendship of his master poet: “It was me who had passed the test.”

This was why Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Open me carefully.”

Edip Cansever

Dirty August

It too is the hefty absence of what exists

Here is a day squibbling

The white organ of shattering: the day is

Like heaps of salt

Nature moves up her thick layers.


The thing, opposite of fishermen, falls

Dirty August! The possession taking me here and there

I remember one or two hotels

Maybe I don’t remember one or two hotels

It is not the very self of a hotel anyway

It is the Brown organ of solitude: a heap of dreams

And it is made up of brown flames too.


Nothing else, to see the nothing,

You dirty August! I finally burnt my eyelids too.


Three Poems by Nazim Hikmet (Ran)



Galloping from far Asia

This country that lies in the Mediterranean

Like the head of a mare’s

Is ours.


Wrists in blood, teeth clamped, feet naked

And this land that resembles a silk carpet,

This hell, this heaven

Is ours.


Let alien doors shut, and never open again,

Demolish human slavery to human!

This invitation

Is ours!


To live! Like a tree, one and free

And like a forest in brotherhood

This longing

Is ours!




Nazým, how happy you must be

deep in your heart,

you have said a fine “hello”

so ample and so sure.


Year 1940.

Month July.

The first thursday of the month.

9. a.m.


Put such a full date on your letters.

We live in such a world

that the month, the day and the hour

have so much to say, more than the thickest book.


Hello children.

Uttering such a wide

such a big “Hello”

and then before finishing what i have to say

looking at your faces, smiling

-cunning and happy-

winking an eye at you...

We are such excellent friends

we can communicate without words


Hello children,

Hello to you all...




I am the one who knocks at the doors

All the doors one by one.

I cannot be visual to your eyes

The dead cannot be seen.


Since i dead in Hiroshima

Ýt’s been almost a decade.

I am a girl of seven

They do not grop up, these dead children.


My hair caught fire first,

Then my eyes were burnt, roasted.

I became a handful of ashes,

My ashes scattered in the air.

I want nothing

Nothing for myself.

The child that burns like paper

Cannot even eat candies.


I knock at your door

Auntie, uncle, put your signature here.

Don’t let children be killed

May they eat candies as well.


Poems Translated by Yusuf Eradam

  1. Dr. Yusuf Eradam is a writer, poet & professor of American culture and literature at Bahçeþehir University, Istanbul. (www.yusuferadam.com)