04 July 2012

Reflections upon reading a letter from Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963)

Somewhere in this world, in some nondescript corner or perhaps classroom, someone is reciting a poem.  Somewhere in Turkish or in translation, I am certain, someone is reading silently or reciting to friend or lover or self the poetry of Nazim Hikmet. 

Nazim (1902-1963), considered the first and foremost modern Turkish poet, served a thirteen-year sentence as a political prisoner in his native Turkey and spent his last thirteen years in exile.  Banned in his own country for thirty years, his poetry has been translated into more than fifty languages and is recognized as one of the top poets of the 20th Century and indeed, according to some, all time. 

Like all great artists, Nazim transcended all boundaries.  He made national boundaries meaningless. He erased the lines that define identity in terms of birth place, family/clan, religion, political view etc., and with word and nuance swept together continents and communities, collapsed decade and century and brought people face to face with each other and themselves. He even drags us into prison and coaxes prisoner out of the iron cage, exiles us and brings us home.   

This morning (July 6, 2010), I picked up a volume of Hikmet’s verse, translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk.  I read poetry randomly, never cover-to-cover.  The random page was a random date.  October 6, 1945. The place was not ‘random’ for Nazim: prison.  I read that 65 years old penning so fresh and without expiry date:

‘Clouds pass, heavy with news.
The letter that didn’t come crumples in my hand.
My heart is at the tips of my eyelashes,
Blessing the earth that disappears into the distance.’

I am not in prison and yet I, like others un-imprisoned, ‘free’, can relate to this.  There is news awaited, skies promising rain and other things anticipated which threaten to but don’t arrive.  We are all waiting for a letter of one kind or another and find ourselves clenching our fists, and rolling into tiny pellets the epistles that no one posted and no one delivered.  Our heart rise to eyelash and the earth that should rise to meet us, decline, collapse and move away. We bless, we ought to bless, Nazim says. 

Who among us is not a prisoner, who not free?  Has anyone found perfection and if so why not patent it?  Is anyone happy, can anyone say I’ve reached that place where sorrow is not granted visa to visit?  There are, still, things that are easier to suffer, things that are insufferable.  In our triumphs and in our terrible defeats, are we not challenged, called to submit to the strictest tests?  Do we come through, do we falter and fall, do we struggle to our feet and stumble on and do we lose our way?  Is our moment of victory and truth waiting for us in another country, another decade, or in the here and now or did it just pass us as we took a bend in the road, turned into a by lane lined with andara hedges or stopped to piddle?  What happened to heart? Did it rise to eyelash and stay there like a dew drop, pearl or star? Did it fall and break into a thousand smiles or poems? Did someone kiss eyelash, steal heart and disappear without saying goodbye, leaving us gasping for breath, divested of heartbeat and meaning? 

Nazim says, ‘keep your heart’ (at all costs), whichever prison you happen to inhabit:
‘Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
            ten or fifteen years inside
                                    and more –
            you can,
            as long as the jewel
            on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster!’

That was May 1949.  Pablo Neruda describes in his ‘Memoirs’ Nazim’s account of how he was treated after being arrested in 1936. He had just published ‘The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin’, the last of his books to appear in Turkey in his lifetime and the Government was perturbed by the fact that military cadets were reading his poetry, especially ‘The Epic’. 

Neruda relates: ‘He was stuck into a section of the latrines where the excrement rose half a meter above the floor.  My brother poet felt his strength failing him. The stench made him reel. He knew then that his tormentors wanted him see him suffer. So he sang, low at first, then louder and finally at the top of his lungs, all the songs he remembered, love songs, his poems, the ballads of peasants, the battle hymns of the people. And so he vanquished filth and torturer.’

In 1961, writing his biography in East Berlin, Nazim wrote: ‘Even if today in Berlin, I’m croaking with grief, I can say I’ve lived like a human being and who knows how much longer I’ll live, what else will happen to me?’

The prison, barred or un-barred, walled or framed in frameless landscapes, can intimidate and bind, this is true, but only up to a point.  We make our world, we construct our prison; as such we can destroy world and break through wall.  All things dissolve at the point of resolve.  These are not happy times, but there were never happier times or times more sad. 

‘Don’t tell me that the time for poetry is over, for it is not yet time to die,’ I wrote more than ten years ago.  We are all immortal and we are waiting to be born. All still born and dead, awaiting resurrection and interred beyond the point of recall.  Who knows the answer to the riddle of the universe?  ‘Riddle of the universe’, did I say?  What universe, what riddle?  There are clouds that passed pregnant with news that did not rain on us, this is true, but open your hand. There’s a letter. It’s from Nazim Hikmet.  ‘Live,’ he has written. Tenderly.  

[First published on July 7, 2009]


Anonymous said...

A nice article. Thank you.

SANDIKA said...

this is truly a wonderfully written article. i enjoyed your poetic way of saying things especially it took me little while to understand that this is not a poem but an article i felt like reading a poem from very beginning to the very end.

Ramzeen Azeez said...

We elect into power our own (future) tormentors and call it freedom (to select our own leaders). How absurd and awful this democracy!

Fayaz Moosin said...

Malinda, why is he in prison? Turkey is a relatively free country...regards fayaz

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Happened a long time ago