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POETITORIAL: Remembering a poet in exile

“Too dangerous to speak about freely”

Nâzım Hikmet.

In 1951, a small boat approached a Romanian cargo liner in the middle of the Black Sea. A man in the boat was waving and shouting, in French and Russian, “I am the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet”. The ship stopped but for some time no one threw down a ladder. The man was taken onto the ship only after a tense delay. The captain had called Constanta first, they called Bucharest and Bucharest called Moscow. Once on the ship, the man’s relief turned into surprise when he entered the dining room, where a poster read “Free Nâzım Hikmet”. In Romania he was welcomed by the foreign minister himself and taken into his car. Hikmet’s life in exile had begun.

    Nâzım Hikmet was the first explicitly modernist poet in the young Turkish republic. Turkish poetry, with a history dating back a thousand years, had generally been limited to the folk genre. In the imperial capital, it was written in the artificial language of Ottoman, a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic. Years in the Soviet Union as a student during 1920s not only shaped Hikmet's understanding of the world as a socialist, but also molded him into a fine avant-garde poet, way beyond his Turkish contemporaries. After his return in 1924 he shocked the intellectual community utterly with his experimental material and self-confident attitude. Hikmet was forced to leave the country because of his political views; he returned once again in 1928.
    Global political waves of nationalism hit Turkey in the 1930's, and these years in Istanbul were Hikmet's most productive. During this period, his poetry did not turn less avant-garde, although his language softened. It was more communicative. His ability to talk about abstract political concepts in terms of highly personal concrete emotions meant that he became even more famous. Hikmet himself, however, who was well-known, charismatic and extremely critical, became a man who was too dangerous to speak of freely. His books were banned. And Hikmet was locked up in a Turkish prison in 1938, when a fake trial condemned him to 28 years in prison; even there he was respected by other inmates and by the wardens. Yet only decades later would the Turkish poetry scene truly recall him and, not until recently has his complete oeuvre became available in the country.
    In 1950 the campaign for Hikmet's freedom became an international affair and reached its goal with the support of many artists from Picasso to Aragon. Followed by the police and worried about death threats, Hikmet was forced to leave Turkey for good. After his adventurous escape via the Black Sea, he lived in Moscow for the rest of his life as a cultural attaché. He was valued in the socialist world, yet he never stopped longing for his homeland:

Comrades, if I die before that day, I mean
– and it's looking more and more likely –
bury me in a village cemetery in Anatolia,
and if there's one handy,
a plane tree could stand at my head,
I wouldn't need a stone or anything.*

    [from "Last Will and Testament" 1953]

    Given the short distance between his personal life and fiction, exile also left its stamp on Nâzım Hikmet's work. It is perhaps no coincidence that work focusing on space and place in Hikmet's poetry increased, and his way of approaching them changed:

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear
one by one,
 all tied to one another
     far into the distance

It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back.*

    [from "Human Landscapes from my Country" 1940]

    The poem above, from a novel written in verse while Hikmet was in prison, demonstrates his mastery of narration and cinematographic techniques. This feature never ceased to exist in his work, but the period in exile made space and place into a subject that imposed itself in a more abstract way.  His late poems move among places and times with ease, thanks to an surrealist undertone; the poet adorns his narration with surprises and tension. Yet Hikmet never intended to sail far from his realist realm:

at dawn the express entered the station unannounced
it was covered with snow
I stood on the platform my coat collar raised
the platform was empty
a sleeper window stopped in front of me
its curtains were parted
a young woman slept in the lower berth in the twilight
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue
and her full red lips looked spoiled and pouting
I didn't see who was sleeping in the upper berth
unannounced the express slipped out of the station
I don't know where it came from or where it was going
I watched it leave
I was sleeping in the upper berth
                                 in the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw
I hadn't slept so soundly in years
and yet my bed was wooden and narrow
a young woman slept in another bed
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue
her white neck long and smooth
she hadn't slept so soundly in years
and yet her bed was wooden and narrow
time sped on we were nearing midnight
we hadn't slept so soundly in years
and yet our beds were wooden and narrow*

["Straw-blond" 1961]

    Hikmet wrote about various cities, but his world was incomplete without its center, Istanbul:

I'm too tired, do not wait for me captain.
Let someone else write the journal.
It's a blue harbor with plane tree and a dome.
You cannot make me land on that harbor.
I'm too tired, do not wait for me captain.*

    ["Blue Harbour" 1957]

    Despite his exile in the Soviet Union, Hikmet never stopped writing about Turkey and its politics. At the time of the Korean War, in exchange for entrance into NATO, Turkey had agreed to send soldiers to fight against the Soviets. Hikmet wrote a poem addressed to the Turkish soldiers in Korea asking them to surrender:

Who are you going to kill, Ahmet?
Your own yearning, which was realized in this land?
Does it rain in Korea?
Does the child cry under the rain
    over the dead body of his mother
   whose house you have burnt? 
Or don't you see this anymore?
Or did you get used to it?
Ahmet, my brother
Surrender to your brothers*

    [from "Letter" 1952]

    The Turkish parliament voted to deprive the poet in exile of his citizenship, after this poem was thrown from Korean airplanes onto the Turkish troops during a battle. His books were already forbidden by that time. He would never live to see his books republished in Turkey.
    As a Marxist, Hikmet beliveed that his [i.e., the Communist] side would eventually prevail. The government of his native country, Turkey, which deprived him his citizenship, has since been condemned for doing so. The country of his last passport, the Soviet Union, has since collapsed. And yet there was some truth in Hikmet's beliefs after all. History turned out to be on his side, as a poet. His grave remains in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, but the outspoken author is the most popular poet in Turkey at the moment:

I was born in 1902
I never once went back to my birthplace
I don't like to turn back
I'll never be a prime minister or anything like that
and I wouldn't want such a life
nor did I go to war
or burrow in bomb shelters at the bottom of the night
and I never had to take to the road under diving planes
but I fell in love at almost sixty
in short, comrades,     
even if today in Berlin I'm dying of 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*

    [from "Autobiography" 1961]

 *All poem translations by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk Blasing, Poems of Nazim Hikmet (Braziller Books, 2002) and Human Landscapes from My Country (Braziller Books, 2009).

© Efe Duyan

Source: Excerpted from PIW Turkey co-editor Efe Duyan’s “The Poet in Exile: Nâzım Hikmet’s Understanding of Space”


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