Saturday, March 4, 2017


Holiness and Jewish Rebellion: "Questions of Accent,"
Twenty Years Afterwards

by Murat Nemet-Nejat

[First published in Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures/ Comparative Perspectives, co-edited by Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2016, pp. 386-393)]

    "Questions of Accents," first published in 1993, was my response to Andrei Codrescu’s invitation to contribute to his literary journal The Exquisite Corpse. I chose my topic because we were two writers born in neighboring, foreign lands (Romania, for centuries under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey, the surviving residue of that defunct empire). We were Jews, writing in English in the United States. We both spoke the language with an accent. After a false start, which I soon abandoned, the question inescapably became: how is speaking a language with an accent reflected in the writing of it? The essay is an analytical meditation on the nature of Jewish writing and its relation to my work within the framework of American poetry.

    The essay created an uproar at the time, multiple people writing to the journal attacking or supporting it.[1] The present essay hopes to show how the explosive ideas in that essay contained the seeds, the trajectory of my writing during the ensuing twenty years by focusing on one book Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry[2]—on the one hand an anthology, simultaneously, a book permeated with the disruptive holiness of a Jewish accent.

I. Consciousness Makes Jews  of Us All

                        "Scared like a Jew."
                        "No, smart like Jew."

    Whether secular or believer, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, what pulls Jews together is  an "absence of indifference"[3] to a group of events (or myths, it does not matter): as the chosen people, Jews were given a piece of land by God, accompanied by a series of injunctions. Then, they lost that land. The majority of stories in the Torah circulate around this toxic/intoxicating mixture of empowerment and loss and its ensuing suffering, the Garden of Eden and the Fall, The Tower of Babel and its destruction, the sacrifice of Isaac and the withdrawal of that injunction, the hasty escape from Egypt and forty years of slow exile, etc., etc. Continuously, there is the double bind of being a Chosen People, also chosen for punishment. Job, God's favorite Jew, is picked by Him to reflect His glory by his loyalty to Him through undeserved catastrophes: the absolute and stunned silence (in the suffering Job and in the reader) this act evokes, or infinite commentaries: 


            Rainbow is the first gauntlet of boast by God in The Bible. Serial criminals,
            hearing voices, emblazon their message in red on the mirror, rouge, blood, 
            after having butchered their victim on the bed. The killer, drained, in its    
            murderous ecstasy, does it say, remorseful, for that very moment, "I'm sorry.
            Pardon me. I'll never do this again?" Then, write the message in the
            surrounding space.[4]

    As if out of a Greek myth, Adonai is a jealous master, as if, part of Him at least, was created in man's image:

            Thou shalt have no other god before me.    

    A Jew can assume any attitude he/she wishes towards this set of factual or mythical events, for or against God's behavior, identifying with or rejecting the tribalism implicit in being His chosen people, trusting or doubting their literalness, it doesn't matter. But he or she can not be indifferent to them. The awareness and stance towards them define one's identity.  Without this consciousness a Jew (or Jewish history with a delineable identity) does not exist.

           Ambiguity towards power is... the contemporary Jewish theme.... This 
           ambiguity is embedded in Jewish history, in Jewish identity.... Despite its
           protestations, the Torah is history written by the powerful, a nation chosen
           by God, taking somebody else's land to make its own. On the other hand, the
           history of the diaspora is the history of the victim, the dispossessed, the
           Galut, the pogroms, the Holocaust. Where does the Jew's allegiance belong?...
           Though this conflict has become explicit after the birth of Israel, it was
            implicit, as Jews embraced assimilation and moved physically out of the
            Ghetto, in the Diaspora also. Often, economically, Jews belonged to the
            privileged class; but culturally, and linguistically, they were the outsiders, the
            underprivileged...." ("Questions of Accent")[5]    

    An enduring ambivalence towards power, embracing it as a recipient and possessor of a magical gift, physical or moral; but also identifying with suffering, the victim as a consequence of the same gift, permeates Jewish writing. Jewish thought enacts a dialectic, moral, political, spiritual and literary, between the have and the have-not. This dialectic constitutes its essence. It is the magma for what I call its "accent."

    A diaspora Jew can not imagine putting a sword to the neck of a fellow sufferer, Jewish or not. From where does his sense of power come then? From a withholding (an emptiness), as God orders Abraham also to do, or as Freud sees the power in Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses in Moses's grip, his withholding the impulse to smash the tablets into smithereens seeing Jews spurn their jealous God worshipping the golden calf.

    History and spirit unify in a psychic anagram. Jewish history is a saga of dispossession, pogroms, a spectacle of yearning of the have-not. Simultaneously, it may be seen, and is seen, by the same Jew in a reverse manner: despite suffering through centuries, the Jew has remained, is the chosen tribe, victorious, the possessor of the gift. One has two mirrors facing each other, two angles of the same coin.

II. Hebrew, and Writing Written by Jews     

Since the Torah was written in Hebrew, one may assert that the mother tongue, the dream language of Jewish consciousness is Hebrew. If so, then a startling truism reveals itself. Outside a group of religious texts, poems, prayers, essays, etc., starting with the Babylonian Talmud, by far the majority of Jewish writing—all that embodies its moral, political or philosophical thinking, its soul, its literary achievements, religious or secular—were written in foreign tongues, in languages which in a critical (though perhaps unconscious) sense were alien to the writers. Because exiled from mother tongue, the language of his/her soul, the Jewish writer can choose, must choose his/her tongue.[6] Language is a potentiality. The implicit unity between land and language is ruptured. More than any semantic matter, this  distance between the holiness of a perfect language and the specific mode of the language at hand (its physical reality) determines the texture of the language. How does the Jewish writer resolve this dilemma?

            What is, then, writing which has an accent? It is a writing which does not
            completely identify with the power, authority of the language it uses; but
            confronts, without glossing over, the gap between the user and the language.
            Such writing reveals an ambiguity towards power: the writer chooses to 
            embrace a language (because of its pervasive centrality) which he/she knows
            is not quite his/her own, is insufficient for his/her inner purposes. Accent in
            writing has little to do with explicit theme or semantic context; it rather has
            to do with texture, structure, the scratches, distortions, painful gaps (in
            rhythms, syntax, diction, etc.) caused by the alien relationship between the
            writer and his/her adopted language. Accent is cracks (many unconscious,
            the way a speaker is unaware of his or her accent when speaking, does not 
            have to create it ) on the transparent surface. ... Accented Jewish writing
             embodies, rather than erases, this ambiguity towards power...."   ("Questions of Accent")[7]

III. The Parable of the Writer's Block

            In 1959 I left the hurly-burly of Turkey, its rich vein of bigotry and psychic
            resonance behind. Though I did not focus on it then, I left my mother tongue
            behind, which is Turkish, which I am not. In 1961 I decided to become a
            writer. As an American writer my first act was self-immolation. I had to
            destroy the Turkishness in me, feel, hopefully one day, dream in English. If I
            had a thought in Turkish, I aborted, nicked it. I chose not have a thought exist
             unless originating in English, a language which overwhelmed me because I
             had said my first words in it only six years before. The result was a writer's
             block which lasted about ten years during which I wrote three or four poems
              a year all under ten lines. ("Questions of Accent")[8]

The ten years were my years in the desert. The central discovery of the essay is that one can not escape one's mother tongue, even though one can not write in it. Along with it came the realization that full assimilation into English is an illusion, if not a suicide. English must remain a cool, basically alien language. The result is a condition that describes the poetics of accent:

            American English, as a poetic language, is not a mother tongue in the usual
            sense but a pseudo-mother, step-mother tongue. It can have no tradition, its
            vocabulary no public or mythical, only personal, private resonances. It is the
            language of pervasive power, without resonance, of authority in which the
            immigrant, the victim must speak. Writing poetry in American English is a
            continuous act of translating from a radical inside or from a radical beyond.
            Its well of inspiration is always outside, never in the mining or contributing
            to the flowerings of a tradition." ("Questions of Accent")[9]

    My memory of a mother language is ensealed for me in my intimate relationship with the thrilling, elusive, melancholy resonances of modern Turkish poetry. That poetry contains my mother tongue, the way the Torah contains Hebrew. I did not know it at the time in 1993, but the next stage for me as a poet was set: to mine the totality of that mother lode. I was going to become a poet, being a translator. The two were one, part of a single process.[10]

    In 2004, when Eda Anthology was published, a startling reaction accompanied its publication. Some readers both in Turkey and the United States called it an invention, "made-up." Though all the poets in the anthology are real and the translations represent specific texts in the original (listed chapter and verse in an appendix)—therefore, in any literal sense the assertion is incorrect—this intuitive reaction in both countries reveals something true and significant about the book. Eda is not a poetry anthology in the usual sense—a representative sampling of "best" poets—. It translates a language. Poems are station points within a wider, spiritual process. Consequently, each poem becomes a fragment pointing to a totality. The very first sentence of the introduction "The Idea of a Book" spells out this difference:

            As much as a collection of translations of poems and essays, this book is a
           translation of a language.... [From] the creation of the Turkish Republic in the 
           1920's to the 1990's... Turkey created a body of poetry unique in the 20th
           century, with its own poetics, world view and idiosyncratic sensibility...
           [These] qualities are intimately related to the nature of Turkish as a language
           its strengths and its defining limits. As historical changes occurred, the language
           in this poetry responded to them, flowered, changed; but always
           remaining a continuum, a psychic essence, a dialectic which is an arabesque.
           It is this silent melody of the mind—the cadence of its total allure—which
           this collection tries to translate.... I call this essence eda, each poet, poem
           being a specific case of eda, unique stations in the progress of the Turkish
           soul, language."[11]

    What eda as a poetics adds to the original texts (in that sense, "makes up") is a vision of the Turkish language, a sinuous dance of the mind that runs through the poems: Eda is an anthology that is also a radically melancholy and erotic-ecstatic gesture of love, suffering and desire, what the Jewish poet and painter Basil King called "a spiritual wet dream."[12]

    At the core of Eda lies the elusive, peculiar nature of Turkish as a fully agglutinative language, giving it an infinitely flexible word order.[13] Words in a sentence can be arranged in any permutable order, all fully colloquial, each representing a different shade of meaning. Turkish is a language of endless nuances.[14] This is the exact reverse of the rigidity of the English syntax. It is this grammatical distance—more than anything else—that seals Turkish from English enabling the former to become a sacred, dream language. In this sealed off state Turkish becomes a poetic mother tongue from which threads, rays, fragments may appear.

    The sinuous, melancholy yearning moving ghost-like through the subtly bent skeleton of English in Eda is the alien spirit—previously a non-being— appearing and being heard in the peripheries of the cooler body of English. It is heard in the first lines of the first poem in Eda, Ahmet Haşım's "That Space":

            Out of the sea
            this thin air blowing, let it play with your hair
            if you knew
            one who, with the pain of yearning, looked at the setting east,
            you too, with those eyes, that sadness are beautiful!
            Neither you
            nor I   
            nor that evening gathered around your beauty
            nor that harbor from the sea,
            for painful thoughts,
            knows closely the generation unfamiliar
            with melancholy.[15]

    In 1666, the excommunicant kabbalist Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam along with a group of 300 families. Their descendants, the dönmeh (the converted), were part of the revolutionary group (Young Turks) which finally led to the creation of a modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. I consider Eda Anthology belonging to this tradition, transforming Turkish poetics by redefining it—to the chagrin of critical authorities—in turn, making American poetry grow a new limb to accommodate a language of process, ideas not as categorical statements, but in motion; thought as linguistic tissue. 

    The transcendental and transgressive Jewish spirit of  accent expresses itself as eda within the Jewish context. The ecstatic suffering and yearning to reach God in Sufism—eda—echoes the Jewish yearning for Jerusalem in the diaspora, the ecstasy deriving from the sense of being the chosen. Kafka is the quintessential accented writer in the twentieth century, in his yearning for God and rebellion against God's deeds. The Trial devoid of a list of particulars, is ultimately a trial of God's shameful (or mysterious, take your pick) behavior in the Old Testament. The Castle is permeated with God's awesome, elusive presence and the aching yearning to reach it. "Questions of Accent" discusses this potent mixture of home and alienation in relation to Amerika in the very word "Oklahoma": "Why did Kafka write Amerika, why was he attracted to the subject of the United States? German also accents Am-erika. What did he hear in the word Oklahoma? A wild, alien, distant sound in German, Oklahoma! At the same time, an intimate sound, one of the rare words in English with vowel harmony, which is also, I imagine, in Czech. Kafka hears in Oklahoma the alien ground in which his private soul can nest itself, the synthesis between the powerful and the victim. That is why he associates his open-ended, endless nirvana of liberation in the Theater (Noah's Ark) of Oklahoma. What is the word Oklahoma after all, but the imprint of the Native American, the victim, in the language of the master, American English.: the language which embodies that peculiar combination, victim and victor possessing the same language, yoked together by fate."[16]

June 8, 2014

 [1] The essay "Questions of Accent" and letters responding to it letters are republished in Thus Spake the Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader (1988-1998) (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1999). The essay is also available on line at and a selection from it is available at; and at

 [2] Eda: And Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat (Greenfield: MA: Talisman House, 2004).

 [3] This idea is akin to Maimonides's assertion that God can only be defined by negatives.

 [4] This poem is from part V Camels and Weasels of my seven-part serial poem, The Structure of Escape.

 [5] Thus Spake, 109.

 [6] This happens literally and self-consciously in Maimonides, who wrote in Hebrew and Arabic, his choice depending on whether he was addressing directly his own tribe or was opening up its beliefs and trying to integrate them with the outside, the Western philosophy of the time.

 [7] Thus Spake, 110.

 [8] Thus Spake, 106.

 [9] Thus Spake,111.

 [10] The parable of the Writer's Block reveals Hebrew's ability as a holy tongue to morph into other holy tongues. It delineates the ever subversive impulse in Jewish ethos to cross its own boundaries and ties. Even the departure from Egypt can be read in that light. Talmudic commentaries may be regarded as contingent, contradictory readings (fragments) of an elusive, sacred totality. Each translation being a reading, the Talmud can be approached as an anthology of translations from a holy tongue.

 [11] Eda, 4.

 [12] Conversation with Basil King, September 30, 2004.

 [13] Eda is actually built on a tripod: geographical (the city of Istanbul), metaphysical (Sufism) and syntactical (agglutinative nature of Turkish). One can read in detail the interweaving relationship among them in "The Idea of a Book" (Eda, 4 - 9).

 [14] The word nearer to the verb, which itself has no fixed place in the sentence, possesses the greater emphasis. This quality makes Turkish a language of mental process: "a movement of the speaker's or writer's affections..., a record of thought emerging.... This ability to stress or unstress—not sounds or syllables; Turkish is syllabically unaccented—but words (thought as value-infested proximity) gives Turkish a unique capability for nuance, for a peculiar kind of intuitive thought." (Eda, 6).

 [15] Eda, 24

 [16] Thus Spake, 110 - 111.


Poet, translator from Turkish and essayist, Murat Nemet-Nejat's recent work includes the poems Animals of Dawn (Talisman House, 2016), The Spiritual Life of Replicants (Talisman House, 2011), the collaboration with the poet Standard Schaefer "Alphabet Dialogues/Penis Monologues"; the translations Seyhan Erözçelik's Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman House, 2010), the republication by Green Integer Press of Ece Ayhan's A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (2015); and the essays "A Dialogue with Olga" (Olga Chernysheva/ Vague Accent, The Drawing Center, 2016), "Dear Charles, Letters from a Turk: Mayan Letters, Herman Melville and Eda" (Letters for Olson, edited by Benjamin Hollander, Spuyten Duyvil, 2016), "Holiness and Jewish Rebellion: 'Questions of Accent' Twenty Years Afterward" (Languages of Modern Jewish Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, edited by Joshua L. Miller and Anita Norich (University of Michigan Press, 2016), "Istanbul Noir" (Istanbul: Metamorphoses In an Imperial City, edited by M. Akif Kirecci and Edward Foster (Talisman House, 2011). He is the editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, edited by Murat Nemet-Nejat (Talisman House, 2004). He is presently working on the poem Camels and Weasels, and a collection of translations from the Turkish poet Sami Baydar.

No comments:

Post a Comment