Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review of Saturn from 29.1

Levent Yilmaz. Saturn. Translated from Turkish by Űnal Aytűr. Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 2006. $13.95 paper (ISBN 1-931357-21-8), 101 pages.

Reviewed by Roxana Cazan

The publication of Levent Yilmaz’s Saturn, Selected Poems proposes a double achievement: a disclosure of a poetic repository which combines characteristics of Ottoman poetry, Turkish lyricism, and a modern annealing into form, and a sublimation of linguistic features of a very poetical language into an English translation which preserves its original opulence of sound and meaning. Levent Yilmaz, professor of intellectual history in Paris and Istanbul, combines in the present volume the poetic alchemy of an established creative writer and the acuity of mind of the critic and translator who revealed W.B.Yeats and Petrarch to the Turkish audience. Saturn is organized in five parts which offer a thematic voyage through an ethos combining several major themes, large as life itself: the religious spirit in the poems from Caravagio (1987-1993); the Ottoman fortitude in poems from Dream and Storm (1988-1990); the spiritual journey in poems from Lost Souls Nameless Islands (1994); the oracular verve in pieces from Tiger Time and Passing (1997); and a linguistic geography in poems from Last Country (2002).

The expression of mortality written across the pages of this volume is for Yilmaz a manifestation of temporality and tragedy. In an article recorded by Victoria Holbrook in the book’s afterword, Yilmaz compares his fascination with fatality to Odysseus’ weeping when he realizes that he is dead. Levent Yilmaz’s weeping pours into language like a river, and takes the shape of a symbolic rhetorical question: “If nature rages, why is language calm?” (“River”). It is in this language that the poet weaves themes and mythemes representative for a nation whose geography, history, and idiom rest at a cultural crossroad.

In one of his articles, critic Murat Nemet-Nejat explains how in modern Turkish poetry ,poets turned their attention to the spoken language. Turkish, a Finno-Ugric idiom originating in Siberia, values connotation over denotation. Metaphors transcend the limits of the natural world. In Saturn, the translator kept very close to the original. Yilmaz writes, “the earth does not pounce on me/ like a wild beast anymore” (“Soul, name and poison”). The vehicle of this metaphor distances itself so much from the tenor that only the clue offered by the poem in its entirety helps us solve this metaphoric puzzle. The poet ruminates on a life that contains a cumulus of performances of the self, where different masks take primacy at different times.

Metaphors assume other rhetorical shapes in hyperboles: “the history of ecstasy/ begins in the twirl of your lip” (“Magic spell”), alliterations: “the breath blowing on my ears welled up in me/ and the Forbidden began founding the world” (“Nativity”), the agglutination and the syntax specific to the original language and transposed into the target one: “death was nailed to deathlessness” (“Crucifixion of St Peter”) or “in my place, to my brother, she gives birth” (“John the Baptist”). Along with this, it is interesting to observe the perfect sublimation of the Turkish ethos into a translation that can appeal to a western audience. This trick turns Saturn into a “world in between,” to draw on a phrase Mustafa Ziyalan used to speak of Turkey. Indeed, just as his native country and its inherent or acquired culture, Levent Yilmaz’s poetry reveals a crossroad between the (Middle) East and the West, the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, between secular culture and the Muslim Sharia, a dialectical synthesis between Islamic ideology and Byzantine iconography.

It is because his awareness of the attraction of contraries that Yilmaz successfully attempts to unite them. The religious theme of Caravaggio and the title itself point to a selection of poems centered on Biblical iconic characters and scenes mirroring the master’s paintings. Among poems like “St Matthew’s call” and “A vase of roses, and a child,” there are lines and images subtly dispersed which announce the cultural entwining proposed. “Medusa’s Head” brings forth a parallel to the Greek mythical figure; its opening line “I turned into stone” reminds one of Lot’s wife.

The next section recreates the Ottoman ethos. The opening poem builds its structure on images that exude passion and sexuality. “Pleasure’s pink marbles/ opened their wet lips/ like a black rose, I know// that dressed in a wind-threaded silk garment” (“Bursa”). The voluptuousness of the body semi-revealed by the veils of the odalisques’ garb is “buried/ under a gold ornamented dome” in Bursa, where the mausoleums of the Ottoman sultans entomb histories and secrets in “sermons or minted coins.” The Persian sword becomes totemic and brings about conquest both physical and spiritual: “with the sword springing from my mouth and seven stars in my hand…/ I will be looking down from another world” (“Persian Sword”).

Other images that construct Yilmaz’s poetic imaginary belong to a dialectic of reverie, where the poet embarks on a journey of self-discovery, “following a sightless maiden” with oracular powers. The historic dimension is widened by lines such as “I came to know/ what stone is, / what is wetness/ and slavery that creeps into the skin,” which gives a complex portrayal of the Ottoman philosophy of the conqueror who becomes responsible for the history of an entire nation. The poet identifies and simultaneously distinguishes himself from this figure, an act that triggers anxiety and sadness.

Eventually, the poet finds consolation in a newly discovered world of sound. Contraries do not frighten him anymore because he understands that “the world is large, we know,/ the sound it makes is heard in the heart.” In his world, “‘Intercordial’ travel is difficult in this part of space,/ distances grow long, custom becomes varied;/ on this side, voices speak; in another region signs communicate” (“Saturn”). The poet’s solution crystallizes in the concluding desire, “If only this last country which they say is not for him were his country;/ if he could touch words here, keep them in hand, and then fling them/ moonward, he would attain language; he could be daring/ he could be lost” (“The Last Country”). And this is what Levent Yilmaz does in Saturn: he grasps the words, utters them, and “attains” a language which turns the poet into a sounding clarion.

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