Thursday, November 20, 2008

Flying (on Ece Ayhan A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies)

Ece Ayhan The Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1997)

In 1994 or 1995 poet and translator Murat Nemet-Nejat sent me a manuscript of his translation of the Turkish poet, Ece Ayhan. If Nemet-Nejat is to be believed, he had attempted to get this manuscript published for more than 10 years. I immediately was drawn to it, and in 1995 I gave him a contract which, through a series of underground figures, was passed on in Turkey to Ayhan, apparently in hiding from his government for failure to pay taxes or some other infraction, who signed and dated it 14.12.1995.

The manuscript Murat had given me seemed to me to have many similarities to the American poet John Wieners, who, like Ayhan, was a gay writer who had begun his early life at the edges of academic and socially responsible behavior—Wieners began his education at Boston College, later enrolling in Black Mountain College to study with Charles Olson and Robert Duncan before working as an actor and stage manager at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge; Ayhan graduated from the school of Political Sciences in Ankara before serving as a civil servant—while later gradually moving out into the underground and sexual fringes of society.

According to Nemet-Nejat, by the time of Ayhan’s third major collection of poetry, Orthodoxies (1968), he had moved to the streets of Istanbul’s Galata section: “historically both its red light district—of transvestites, girl and boy prostitutes, tattooed roughs, heroin merchants, that is, the unnamed or ‘euphemized’ outcasts of Turkish culture—and the district where minorities—Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, etc—lived.”

The two works that made up the Sun & Moon book, ultimately published in 1997, A Blind Cat Black (which I inexplicably published as >The Blind Cat Black) and Orthodoxies, reveal Ayhan’s spiral out of the social center.

Nemet-Nejat describes the first work as a story of exile “masquerading as an adventure sea romance.” “One has a fairy tale with pirates, treasures, a la Peter Pan, whose child hero does not fly home at the end, but joins the secret and street society of homosexuals: a fairy tale, a misadventure of trauma, shame, torture and rape in deep sea.” Nearly all these elements, for example, are represented in the title poem:

An absent-minded tightrope walker comes. From the sea
of late hours. Blows out a lamp. Lies down next to my weeping
side, for the sake of the prophet. A blind woman downstairs.
Family. She raves in a language I don’t know. On her chest a
heavy butterfly, broken drawers in it. My Aunt Sadness drinks
alcohol in the attic, embroiders. Expelled from many schools.
A blind cat passes in the black street. In its sack a child just
dead. His wings don’t fit, too big. The Old Hawker cries. A
pirate ship. Has entered the port.

Already in this section “the wings don’t fit,” and by the end of the poem the author-hero’s inability to fly away ends in no longer caring, the narrator of the poem hiding “himself in dust with apoplectic kicks.” In a sense, Ayhan seems to be suggesting that it is impossible to be gay, to be a fairy, without the magic possibility of flight:

You don’t understand. Being without wings. And it gets
dark, weeping in the sea of a sea. A child waiting. The sail

By the time of Orthodoxies, the translator argues, Ayhan was no longer was interested in presenting a center against which his figures were judged, but focused on the word, particularly puns and slang, that made clear that language itself, “part of history, is a trap/tomb, a cribdeath, where the peripheral is buried,” which needed itself to be rejuvenated before the misfit might escape.

In the strange night world of Orthodoxies, even the perpetual sufferer Jonah has escaped the whale only to himself become a dolphin. While he may symbolize, however, a joyful aspect of the community (joy and community both connected with the image of the dolphin), this Jonah is, as Ayhan jests, “A sight. Cruising. Bedecked with holsters, stirrup, harness.” This horsey leather queen combs “his hair in cum water. Then is treated to flowers. A garland of braids. From time to time blinking, with vast hanging earrings.” In this work devoted to questioning notions of “orthodoxy,” (the translator points out that in Turkish the word means not only the holy, pious or virtuous, but also in Turkish slang suggests “whore, homosexual, pederast, betrayer, etc.”) Ayhan asks:

What is an Orthodox lad doing at Maidos? Banged about by
agitation which is after the knowledge of knives.

Along with Gallipoli, Maidos a nearby city to the South, was heavily damaged in the World War I battle of Gallipoli, the Allied assault on the Ottoman Empire—the last great battle of that Empire before being transformed into the Turkish Republic under Atatürk, himself a commander at Gallipoli—which resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 people. The horse imagery associated with this new Jonah is appropriate given that one of the major attacks on the Turks occurred at the Battle of the Nek when The Third Australian Light Horse Brigade futilely attacked, a battle depicted in Peter Wier’s film Gallopoli.

In short, the poet seems to take pleasure in the paradox that out of the Ottoman battle to save the Dardenelles from invasion another being, capable of creating a new world, had been spewn own, like Jonah out of the whale: a preposterous “dolphin,” a sea mammal associated for centuries by sailors with Christ. Accordingly, in Orthodoxies, Ayhan’s figures at least regain, through language, their wings, even if they are only artificial, sad and silver:

She cannot cover the sadness of her silver wings, the Greek

Drunk, her world reversed (“Boots in hand and parasol on her feet”), Ayhan’s outcast has , at least, the potential to fly away, to be forgiven or, if nothing else, to pray to be forgiven: “But she does know how to cross herself efficiently with index and third fingers.”

It was with great sadness that I learned of Ece Ayhan Çağlar’s death on July 13th, and I soon after determined to reprint these moving books in my Green Integer series.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2002

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