Thursday, February 16, 2017



Mayan Letters by Charles Olson, Edited and with a Preface by Robert Creeley
(Cape Editions: London, 1968, © 1953 by Charles Olson)


(Grove Press Inc.: New York, 1947, © by Charles Olson)

[First appeared in Letters for Olson, gathered and edited by Benjamin Hollander, Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn, 2016]

Dear Charles, Letters from a Turk: Mayan Letters, Herman Melville and Eda

Dear Charles,

    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 wind.

            Day has let itself be taken by the wind,
            it's walking around befuddled.    


Dear Charles,

    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...
            But it's 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 much...

            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...[1]

    "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 the other.


Dear Charles,

    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 lungs.

    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 maniacal dreams.

    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 prose  you'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."[2]

    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  :) "[3] 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.


An Interjection:

Reference: Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry (2003)

    Ostensibly, Eda Anthology 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 natural.

                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....

                Eda 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.[4] 


Dear Charles,

    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[5], falling and rising are one?

Spin o sa

            The rose is a movable mecca spinning             
            the marten also                                                          
            is spinning,
            but the marten is agile a worker
            on the skyscraper
            of the soul cleaning
            its windows.
            loving vertigo, the marten
            is spinning
            agile and lonely
            away. the rose is spinning,
            at the pit /
            c h                                    
            of the vertigo.[6]        

    Moby Dick is the key American Sufi work.

    In Eda, the depths of the Pacific and canyons of Manhattan unify. Water becomes air, drowning and vertigo being expressions of a thirst for an elusive white, an indefinable other.
            the great white crosses and joins the captain’s      
            noticing its own sound,
            the sea gull panics,
            tilts one wing in,      
            the weak worm
            of ionized penitence       
            in its beak,

            makes it                                          
            ice cream, the finicky
            gull   hold the sugar
            “condom an insult?”
            sunset. (küçük Ískender, souljam[7])


Dear Charles,

            He [Melville] was like a migrant backtrailing to Asia... some Inca trying to find            a lost home." (Call Me, p. 14)

            ... Through these forms that certain sultanisms of  Ahab's brain became          incarnated in an irresistible dictatorship... (Call Me, 65)[8]

            The fog 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)[9] 

    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. (Call Me, p. 67[10])

            post naked lunch

            penelope's explosive reweaving
            mystic riffs of absence

            my soul is a jelly fish, without a womb
            light descends in the gutted out space of the dome. (küçük Ískender, souljam[11]

    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.


Dear Charles,

            "Fed/allah[12] [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 writings:

            "Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted." (Call Me, p.54[13])

    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:

            That 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 my own].[14]

    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.

    You regard 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.

    The Mediterranean 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.

            The third 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....[15]

    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.

    The journal 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, erotic  city 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:

            To the bazaar. A wilderness of traffic. Furniture, arms, silk, confectionary,       shoes, sandles—everything. (Cairo). Crowded overhead with stone arches, with side openings.

            Immense crowds. Georgeans, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, & Turks are the           merchants. Magnificent embroidered silks & gilt sabres & caparisons for            horses.

            You loose yourself & are bewildered & confounded with the labyrinth, the     din, the barbaric confusion of it all.

            The Propontis, the Bisphorus, the Golden Horn, the domes, the minarets, the             bridges, the men of war, the cypresses. Indescribable.[16]


                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.[17]

        Thank you, Charles.

Murat Nemet-Nejat
May, 2015

[1] Mayan Letters, Edited and with a Preface by Robert Creeley, Cape Editions: London, 1968, © 1953 by Charles Olson, p. 50/1.
[2]Charles Olson. Call Me Ishmael, Grove Press Inc.: New York, 1947, © by Charles Olson, p. 54.
[3] As Olson points in Call Me Ishmael, these are the words Melville uses as Moby Dick appears for the first time in his book
[4] Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat, Talisman House, Publishers: Jersey City, New Jersey, 2003, pp. 5/6
[5] See Eda: An Anthology, pp. 7/8.
[6] Seyhan Erözçelik, Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat, Talisman House, Publishers: Greenfield, Massachusetts, 2010, p. 69.
[7] Eda: An Anthology, p. 293.
[8] Olson is quoting from "The Specksynder" chapter in Moby Dick.
[9] 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
[10] Olson is quoting from Moby Dick where the white whale appears for the first time.
[11] Eda: An Anthology, p.310
[12] "Allah" is the Islamic/Sufi God.
[13] Olson is quoting from Moby Dick here.
[14] Call Me, p. 95
[15] Call Me, pp. 118/9.
[16] Melville, Journals, quote by Olson in Call Me Ishmael, p. 95.
[17] Eda: An Anthology, p.5.    


Murat 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 Press, 2016) and "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.

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