Friday, September 16, 2011

Poems of Nazim Hikmet

Poems of Nazim Hikmet (translated from Turkish by Randy Blasing and Multu Konuk, 2nd edition, Persea Books / New York)

Poets like Nazim Hikmet have a deep understanding of human feelings, failings, optimism, dreams, desires and contradictions. Poets like Nazim Hikmet know their words can rend a heart as easily as they can mend a heart. Poets like Nazim Hikmet appear rarely on earth, and when they do, their songs conjoin the undying spirit of humanity as eternal echoes of their rhymes and times. A collection of hundred poems appears in a translation here and for readers like me who must rely solely on translation, the poems present flavors, sights and a sensibility that fill our hearts with a mixture of sorrow, serenity, loss and hope. The ability to create hope in a reader or a feeling of serenity is indeed a testament to the power, generosity and depth of the poet for he manages to do so, even though he spent thirteen years of his life in jail and thirteen more in exile. Only great souls can bring out humane words after living through hardships and bitterness, and bunch them into words as melodious as of Hikmet.

His biography can be deciphered by reading some of his own poems. He wrote (It's This Way): "It's this way: / being captured is beside the point, / the point is not to surrender." In a Rubaiyat, he said: "Between us just a difference of degree -- / that's how it is my canary: / you an unthinking bird, with wings, / and me with hands, a man who thinks..." and in another rubaiyat he wrote: "Me, one man, the Turkish poet / Nazim Hikmet / I'm faith from head to toe --/ from head to toe, struggle and hope ..." and of course, the best rubaiyat: "I don't mean to boast, but I've shot / through ten years of bondage like a bullet. / And putting aside the pain in my liver, / my heart's the same heart, my head still the same head..." In another place, he writes (Angina Pectroris): "I look at the night through the bars, / and despite the weight on my chest / my heart still beats with the most distant stars."

The poems in this collection are arranged chronologically. The poems written before 1945 or so (first third of the book) are perhaps not as moving or as potent as the poems in the remaining two-third of the book. In Hikmet's case, one can see the sapling young bard turns into a banyan-like mature poet after weathering a succession of historical storms, personal winters and amorous torrents of springs. Hikmet poems talk about melons and pomegranate seeds, Istanbul and Bosphorus, Berlin and Moscow, Marxism and solitary confinement, son and wife he cannot meet as he lives in exile, wife waiting at home while he sits in prison day after day keeping himself alive with songs. When Hikmet talks about freedom or blue skies or hope or hunger and cold felt by his people or death without meeting his beloved or change or love, when he talks of the same cliches at we all poets are moved by and use in our verses, the wordplay is an incidental embellishment to a deeper song of the human spirit he symbolizes within the poems and we aspire to, as readers. Hikmet uses as his source a stream of experiences and feelings which uncommon as they are, provide him with a connection with universal, and sip after sip from his every poem (especially later poems) brings to us through sounds and translated sense a recognition of what lies outside the cage of our own personal limitations or sensibilities. 

I can provide only glimpses from his repertoire. He wrote (Separation): "finer than silk thread sharper than a sword / separation is a bridge between us / even when we sit knee to knee" in a series of poems written in 1945, when he was in prison, he writes:"Today, not broken and sad -- / no way! -- / today Nazim Hikmet's woman must be beautiful/ like a rebel flag..." Or a Rubaiyat: "My love's image in the mirror had its say: / 'She's not real -- I am,' it said to me one day. / I struck, the mirror broke, her image disappeared / but, thank goodness, my love stayed in her place..." We can say he passed a comment on the strength of his will, that kept his quill overflowing with love for humanity and Turkey when we said (From Sofia): "Exile is not an easy art to master..."

Maybe Hikmet was in solitary confinement or in prison or lived as an exile for years, but his poems are usually set where his heart truly is: either outside the confining walls, back in the streets where his imagination walks uninhibited and unrecognized. Indeed most of us being prisoners of our ambition, exiles made so by our own desires, can identify with a poet whose personal life itself becomes a metaphor for so many feelings that are suppressed or strengthened by our own deeds, thoughts and desires. Hikmet seeks neither pity nor praise, neither power nor reverence, tries to be no martyr or reformer, but his every poems seeks for people love, joy, peace, liberty, justice and above all empathy. In his lifetime he says in his poems he touched the two extremes of poverty and riches, insults and solitary confinement as well as international travel and recognition, hunger for a simple morsel as well as the flavors of choicest delicacies. He also died as a poet whose poems were translated into forty languages, whose books in translation were found in shelves in many countries and yet they were banned in his own country. In a poem (You're) he said:


You're my bondage and my freedom,
my flesh burning like a naked summer night,
you're my country.

Hazel eyes marbled green,
you're awesome, beautiful and brave,
you're my desire always just out of reach."

The opposites, the contradictions meet in Hikmet like parallel rays of light meet at in a distant star. His skill as a poet and his life as a person, have made him into one of the brightest stars of Turkish and twentieth century world literature. He will forever be a guiding light for many people across the globe. Like Darwish of Palestine, Hikmet never surrenders his faith in humanity, and indeed after reading this collection by him my feel that as long as poets like him continue to arrive to sing, we can hope for and progress towards a better and just world. His poems (the lines quoted below are from 'Message') will continue to speak to us, for now and forever:

"My fellow
             you'll get well.
The aches and pains will cease.
Ease will come
       softly, like a warm summer evening
       descending from heavy green branches."

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