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[First appeared in Letters for Olson, gathered and edited by Benjamin Hollander, Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn, 2016]
Charles, Letters from a Turk: Mayan
Letters, Herman Melville and
I first came
across your Mayan Letters in 1974 in
London as I was browsing a book store, now defunct and whose name I have
forgotten, dedicated to poetry and arcane essays and novels—that strange and
sweet book where only your side of correspondence with Creeley appears.
Subliminally, a clapping with one hand, in which you are searching, reminiscent
of a demented alchemist, for a new kind of poetry in the far distant, neglected
ruins of a poor, sun-scorched area in Mexico.
Glyph! What a strange, mysterious word
to me it was at the time. I had not seen a glyph before. It reminded me of the
has let itself be taken by the wind,
walking around befuddled.
I was attending
Eric Mottram's London Polytechnic lectures at the time, myself twice removed from
my own home, Istanbul and my adopted city New York, and in the middle of
writing my first long poem The Bridge.
Eric had mentioned you, but not Mayan
Letters. Finding that book was pure happenstance, maybe with inducement
from D. H. Lawrence whose poetry and novels I had been reading.
More than any
specific ideas about poetry or history you were proposing, what hooked me, what
I never forgot in Mayan Letters was
its strange intimacy, the awkward twists of your prose that made me experience
sitting next to you watching you write these letters—watching you not necessarily listening to you. Part of me said one
should not write this way. It is bad writing. Another part loved you doing it,
because I wanted to write the same way (though I did not know it at the time).
Your prose thrilled me. Here is a taste of it:
... These Maya shure went for vistas...
hieroglyphs, which are the real pay-off, the inside stuff, for me. And that's not in situ, that is, you can't see
them—why Sánchez is so very much the
value, for me, here (he came to dinner Monday night, and by god if he doesn't come in with the whole set of little
books published in Campeche with
his drawings of same, damnest sweetest present, and, too much,
as you'd say, too
What wilds me, is,
that here, in these things, is the intimate art (as against the mass & space of the buildings
(god-stuff), and the corn-god, woman temple, sacrifice-stone
(the social purpose))
Or Jaina! Jesus, what work, there: the
only trouble is, they know, and it's guarded, & and for me to dig, no go: have to be an official, have to be what
I was talking about, above: just one thing,
in Museo, Campeche, two clay things, abt a hand's span all, of the calix of a flower with a human being rising, right
where the pistil would be! Incredible
delicacy, & sureness: as in the glyphs, only, the glyphs already one stage formal, one stage set: the same
glyphs, with variations, fr north to south...
"What wilds you!"
Yes, what wilds me in this passage Charles is that it does not represent a
crystallized record of ideas or opinions, but the magma of your thoughts as
they're occurring, their outflow, pell-mell, almost chaotic as if in a crowded
bus. A prose of process. As if in a fluid film strip, one has a picture of
thought hunting for itself, discovering, waiting to see where it will land. A
prose of thoughtspirit in motion. A thrilling sight to see.
Yours is a prose of passing
moment just before a thought has frozen into fixed shape, an evanescent (free!)
moment of the mind, exactly the quality you see in the "clay things"
you admire so much, even surpassing your beloved glyphs: "Incredible
delicacy, & sureness: as in the glyphs, only, the glyphs already one stage
formal, one stage set ."
A vision of un-formal prose, one foot subjective,
still in the mind; another, entering the world, still retaining the light of
I am seduced by a
contradiction in your work. In the hierarchy of American poetry you are
seen—see yourself— as the poet of geography, of space, the wide physical
landscape of America. But you project this poetry from the subjectivity of your
These lungs echo in my mind
Moby Dick's lungs as it's swimming the Pacific Ocean—in other words, Moby
Dick's breathing writing Ahab's
globular brain. Moby Dick's motions in the ocean merely a mirror of Ahab's
Only indirectly reflecting,
together, the mania of American. That's why that odd beast Moby Dick is a fusion of encyclopedia and visionary sea tale. Facts
act as dreams, dreams become fact. The satyr of a holy black magic.
This is your glorious, dirty
secret, Charles. While projecting the image of the opposite—America's wide open
space—in your writing proseyou're the
poet of the "passing moment," of a radical subjectivity. Your faith
is that this subjectivity leads to the radically objective, as you suggest in Call Me Ishmael that Melville's inner
demons end up being America's demons. You quote Melville himself: "I have
written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb."
This faith in the
objectivity of the passing moment (and of the mind—in your vocabulary the
breath—tracing it) and that coupled together they reveal a profound, elusive
truth is what thrilled me when I first read Mayan
Letters in the 1970's. I was an outsider Persian Jew born in Turkey, half
in spiritual exile in the West, trying to write, fearing foolishly an American
poem. This book about a history and artifacts I knew very little about spoke
directly to me. Subliminally it implied that an American work can be written
about another place, that national boundaries in an American poem are
illusionary—a spiritual borderlessness is the essence of its democracy. Moby Dick, which initially I read
through the prism of Call Me Ishmael,
relayed a similar message.
Within the framework of this
high, reaffirming the legitimacy of my subjectivity and otherness, that I read
the "mighty mildness of
repose in swiftness:) " of your language of mental process in Mayan Letters. Dear Charles, the
experience was liberating, and prophetic. I could see myself writing in this
language, being part of this literature. Though I didn't quite know it at the time,
it (and reading Call Me Ishmael)
dimly pointed to a spiritual language consisting of movements of thought, thought as linguistic tissue, the poetics
called Eda that I will develop in the
ensuing twenty-five years. Finally, the book implied, though again I wasn't
aware of it then, that, freed of psychic boundaries, a poem, a poetics may
belong to two cultures, languages simultaneously.
Reference: Eda: An Anthology of
Contemporary Turkish Poetry (2003)
delineates a poetics for modern Turkish poetry, the way Mayan Letters is about Mayan artifacts. Simultaneously, both are
American works, exploring—and discovering— new possibilities for a new
spiritual language—of the mind and of the world, subjective and objective—for
American poetry. The poetic of Eda
rests on a trinity of concepts: syntactic (agglutination), thematic (the city
of Istanbul as a mistress) and metaphysical (an Asiatic godless Sufism). Here
is a passage from the introduction discussing the first, revealing Mayan Letters to belong already to Eda poetics:
Turkish is an agglutinative language, that
is to say, declensions occur inside
the words as suffixes. Words need not be
attached to either end of prepositions to
spell out relationships, as in English. This quality gives Turkish total syntactical
flexibility. Words in a sentence can be arranged
in any permutable order, each sounding
The underlying syntactical principle is not
logic, but emphasis: a movement of
the speaker's or writer's affections. Thinking, speaking in Turkish is a peculiarly visceral
activity, a record of thought emerging....
is the play of ideas through the body of Turkish. Not only is it the poetics of Turkish poetry in 20th
century, it is the extension of the language itself,
the flowering of its inherent potentials as a language.
In Call Me Ishmael you quote the pivotal
phrase in Moby Dick when Pip sees
"God's foot on the treadle of the loom" while drowning and reemerges
insane opening Ahab's heart, Lear-like, to the sufferings of humanity. Did you
know spinning in emulation of a loom, in an ecstasy of tears & desire, is a
primary Sufi act to reach God? In the divine processes of Arcs of Descent and Ascent,
falling and rising are one?
He [Melville] was like a migrant
backtrailing to Asia... some Inca trying to find a lost home." (Call
Me, p. 14)
these forms that certain sultanisms ofAhab's brain became incarnated
in an irresistible dictatorship... (Call
lifted from about the skirts of the city [Constantinople]... It was a coy disclosure, a kind of coquetting,...
like her Sultanas she was thus seen veiled in
her 'ashmak.' (Call Me, 94)
Your stunning work
of youth on Melville Call Me Ishmael
draws multiple arcs: from the 19th century recorded documents on whaling ships
(objective facts) to Moby Dick, from
Shakespeare (the plays' texts) to Melville's thoughts on them (his marginal
notes), from Melville's migrant being backtrailing to Asia to your own ideas to
reclaim a lost home (The Mayan Letters).
But, to me, the
most stunning arc in Call Me Ishmael,
the one that speaks directly to me, is the book's submerged,
"irresistible" drive to Asia, like a Moby Dick traveling the oceans,
from "the sultanism of Ahab's brain" to its sultana: the city of
Constantinople (Istanbul)— a shadow Pillars of Hercules in the East, both being
the gateway to a new, dangerous unknown and also a home.
Moby Dick to me is
an image of radical femininity:
a mighty mildness of repose in
swiftness. (CallMe, p. 67)
post naked lunch
penelope's explosive reweaving
mystic riffs of absence
my soul is a jelly fish, without a
light descends in the gutted out
space of the dome. (küçük Ískender, souljam
That moment when Istanbul
reveals herself to Melville as an erotic mystery for the first time was also
the moment scales dropped from my eyes. The city described by Melville one
hundred and fifty years ago in your book was exactly the city I knew, its
street names, its hills, its chaotic and crowded beauty, which has a
vertiginous effect on Melville himself. A continuity was established between my
life as a writer in the States and my home in Turkey—between two languages.
"Fed/allah [who casts no shadows] was a creature such as
civilized, domestic people in the
temperate zone only see in their dreams, and then but dimly." (Moby Dick)
Your book bursts
with hints that it knows more than its author, often quoting from Melville's
darker, deeper part remains unhinted." (Call Me, p.54)
You devote the last fifth of Call Me Ishmael to Melville's
descriptions of Constantinople in the journal he kept while he made a
pilgrimage to Jerusalem (like "a migrant backtrailing to Asia") after
the writing of Moby Dick.
You sense intensely the potent effect his encounter with the city has on him,
reminiscent of his youthful experiences in the Pacific. But you miss its significance:
Melville did, on this trip, at Constantinople and elsewhere, find some spontaneity towards women suggests a change
in the contours of his psyche profound
enough to free forces in him long checked. He ranges the polyglot city wildly, writes about it extravagantly. He
mixes in the crowds of the suburbs
of Galata and Pera. He mounts the bridges to watch them moving below. When he leans over the First Bridge
his body is alive as it has not been since
he swung with Jack Chase in maintops above the Pacific. The difference: he is
brooding over a city of a million and a half of human beings, not so many square miles of empty space [italics
The last sentence
is the key for me in this passage. You miss the continuity between the Pacific
and Constantinople in Melville's consciousness that Call Me Ishmael repeatedly suggests. What you miss is the submerged, potent drive towards Asia in your own
book. You, Olson the man, turns away from it. You see a
"difference," rather than continuity. As a poet of mid-twentieth
century, your vision's perimeter remains Western. Ahab's nineteenth century
Pacific of whaling ships metamorphosizes into American space: its home
Gloucester, nestled on the Atlantic, backed by the American continent,
extending into the Pacific. In your poetics, the Pacific is a western extension
(an American lake).
Charles, you miss that in your vision also
water turns into land, as in Melville's journals it turns into a city.
Melville's pilgrimage as a Nietzschean loss of nerve—as Melville the man's
succumbing to Christianity, reflected according to you in a decline in his work
after Moby Dick.
is the Old World, as opposed to America the new. This is the way you end Call Me Ishmael:
At the end
of the Paradiso, when from the
seventh sphere the earth is so small
its features are obscured as the moon's to us, Dante recognizes one spot on all its surface—that entrance
to the West, the Pillars. Dante's last glance
is on the threshold to that future Columbus made possible.
and final Odyssey was Ahab's. The Atlantic crossed, the new land America known, the dream's death lay around
the Horn, where West returned to East.
The Pacific is the end of the UNKNOWN, which Homer's and Dante's Ulysses open men's eyes to.
END of individual responsible only to himself.
Ahab is the end....
The son of
the father of Ocean was a prophet Proteus....
Ahab is not the
end. He continues in you. He continues in Eda,
in Constantinople, the shadow Pillars in the East and what lies beyond.
entries specifically relating to Istanbul occupy about three pages in your
book. They are not the focus of your argument. They lie there peripherally,
prophetically, as seeds (or virus, depending on one's point of view) to be
picked by someone in the future.
Your book bristles
with intimations of the future, of an Asiatic new vision, even though you, the
person, may not be aware of the direction implications of your sowing.
It is in the seeds
you plant that I receive Melville's baton for a reoriented vision turned to the
East, a new poetics for our time. An abstract space—made of the ocean of language—
opened up in Eda.
It is on the
mongrel, giddy, transnational, democratic, veiled, eroticcity Melville sees one hundred and fifty
years ago that I build the third leg of Eda,
a vision of Istanbul as an elusive, contradictory mistress:
bazaar. A wilderness of traffic. Furniture, arms, silk, confectionary, shoes, sandles—everything. (Cairo).
Crowded overhead with stone arches, with
crowds. Georgeans, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, & Turks are the merchants. Magnificent embroidered
silks & gilt sabres & caparisons for horses.
yourself & are bewildered & confounded with the labyrinth, the din, the barbaric confusion of it all.
Propontis, the Bisphorus, the Golden Horn, the domes, the minarets, the bridges, the men of war, the
Istanbul, the city of unspeakable beauty;
the city of stench, crooked streets,
endless vice; the long coveted prize of the Islamic Ottoman Empire; the
vulnerable, beloved, cherished spiritual center of Eastern Christianity; the site of the
rational, tent-like simplicity of Turkish Imperial architecture; the awesome interior space of the Hagia Sofia;
the European and Asian city; the city
of crossings and bridges and double crosses; the city gorgeous to the eye, even more beautiful in its secrets; the
city of spiritual yearning and
impulse murder; the city of
disco bars whose basement forms a Byzantine
palace; the city of violet water; the city of trysts; the city where place names gain fetishistic value;
the city where life and history are cheap, and
they are both everywhere.
The paradoxical nature of Istanbul is the
obsessive reference point of 20th century
Turkish poetry. Almost no poem is untouched by it—its shape, its street names, its people, objects and
activities, its geographic and historical locus.
As the city evolves, the poetry responds, trying to re-organize, make sense of the changes. This interplay between
city and language resonates spiritually,
erotically, politically, philosophically.
Olson is quoting from "The Specksynder" chapter in Moby Dick.
Olson is quoting from the journal Melville kept during his pilgrimage to the
Holy Lands after the writing of Moby Dick.
He is quoting from obscure, at the time unpublished documents. The fact shows
the great importance he attached to them. The journal was first published by
Northwestern University Press in 1989 under the title Journals as Volume Fifteen as part of The Northwestern-Newberry
Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville. Passage from the at the time unpublished Journals Melville kept during his
pilgrimage to Jerusalem after the writing of Moby Dick, quoted in Call Me
Ishmael, p. 94
Olson is quoting from Moby Dick where
the white whale appears for the first time.
Nemet-Nejat's recent publications include the poems The Spiritual Life of
Replicants (Talisman House, 2011), Animals of Dawn (Talisman House,
2016); the translation from the Turkish poet Seyhan Erözçelik Rosestrikes
and Coffee Grinds (Talisman House, 2010) and the republication of the
translation from the Turkish poet Ece Ayhan A Blind Cat Black and
Orthodoxies (Green Integer Press, 2015); and the essays "Holiness and
Jewish Rebellion: 'Questions of Accent' Twenty Years Afterward" (Languages
of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (University of Michigan
"Dear Charles, Letters from a Turk: Mayan Letters, Herman Melville
and Eda" (Letters for Olson, gathered and edited by Benjamin Hollander
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2016). Nemet-Nejat is also the editor of the anthology Eda:
An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (Talisman House, 2014). He is
presently writing Camels and Weasels, the sixth part in a seven-part
serial poem The Structure of Escape.