“Woman’s Song” and other poems by Gülten Akın

Poems from What Have You Carried Over?: Poems of 42 Days and Other Works by Gülten Akın, translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne

 

Spring

Oh, no one’s got the time
to stop’n think about fine things

With broad brush-strokes they move along
Sketching homes kids graves onto the world
Some are obviously lost when a rhyme starts up
With one look they shut it all out
And the rhyme enters the night, as fine things do

Some pus in your breasts, some fish, some tears
Sea sea sea you turn into a giant
Evenings your fog creeps up the river-mouths
Raids our hazel-nuts
What to do with their blackening buds
We beg our children: go hungry for a while
We beg the tycoons
Please, one less “Hotel,” one secret marriage less to sketch
Please one less bank, a plea
From us to you and from you to those abroad

We send our wives out to get a manicure, to say
—sir, if you please—
We send our children out to beg
We’re off on our way, our beds entrusted to God
Motorized gypsies of the summer

Oh, no one’s got the time
to stop’n think about fine things

To return to the stream where we first bathed, our fathers’ homes
Passion for the earth, for what it’s being here
We plug our ears: money money money
We pull out the plugs: fight fight squabble
Someone may inquire: quarrel but why
An ever-grinding axe for our neighbor, a fist for our wife
Why the quarrel—we have no idea.

Then in our small town, that prison
We place our eraser before our eyes
With a shove we widen our days
We make room to give thought to our wives
To think about the bloom of the violet passing without us

Even if no one’s got the time
To stop’n think about fine things
Even if the little schoolteachers
Multiply their holidays
And in the name of whatever we hold sacred
Weave blindfolds for our eyes
What’s stored up and sketched will in time
Break into blossom as spring flowers

From across the stream over yonder
Some will whistle, we’ll sound it back.

Translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne

Summer

It’s back the summer I love
With ants and flies we’ve crept along the earth
With red mullets, bluefish, leafy lettuce and olives
Way past fog-ridden April, depressing rains
Blue on the Black Sea, for kids to rejoice
For poets to rejoice, it’s back the summer I love

We’re in nineteen sixty-eight. We’ve seen the Forties and Fifties
We lived through the Sixties, with political statements
Committed crimes. May fifth at five p.m. in Kızılay
And all of us come from work elsewhere
To Ankara, the revolution’s base

In the Forties we were seven. A draftee’s hitch three years
They bragged about keeping us out of the War, they still do
When you’re seven the rule is to go to school hungry
Beside wheat that rots, beside furs and diamonds
To go to school hungry. Maybe only a simit, an orange for lunch

To be skinny, ugly, ashamed of footwear
—having their long-lasting effects—
Tooth disease, disease of the hair
Trembling hands, sudden heart tremors
Scared of being shamed, ashamed
No candy, no ball, no dolls
For days weeping, notebook, pencil, book,
—the lasting effects when loneliness strikes—
They bragged the War’s far away from us
—The War’s far from us, thanks to our cleverness
Then let’s have just one more villa, one more fur coat, one more trip to
                                                                                                               Europe
Well-nourished, white as white peals of laughter in black automobiles
Sometimes a bunch of parsley, a basket of eggs
In return for a salary of fifty lira and ninety kuruş a soldier’s ration
Black black black
Ankara

War outside, as a New Rome is built
An Old Rome demolished
A world where wolves lounge about with songs on their lips
Dogs in a long spring heat
Blood, fire, endless starving, rotting Europe
With its trusts, banks and stock exchanges
At their keenest in virtue and bravery and treachery

Year nineteen fifty. It was back the summer I love
I believe we weren’t even seventeen yet, in our old age
Not even seventeen, I believe, still back in our childhood
Who stirred up everything, with what right, for what
How had we multiplied so quickly
In love, in shame, in indifference, in grudge
In forgiveness, in forgiveness that ruins that clouds

The months of May are beautiful, with their brave
Stoneworkers who pierce holes to let the stream flow
With folk singers, swearing fishermen
Gravediggers, girls gathering snails,
Chatty, smiling women, wool spinners
Those struck by epidemics, sharp market sellers
But above all with their revolutionaries, oh those revolutionaries
Who, mistake after mistake become ever more unmistaken
The May months are beautiful.

For the sake of cancer ladies and gentleman dance all night long
In return for receipts, pity is bestowed on the blind and the poor
In black headlines, “An incomparable, invaluable person”
For businessmen with no work to be done.

Summer I love is here for clothes in mothballs
For moldy pickles, rotting jams
For stinking awareness-raisers glued to their chairs
—Oh the remedy you claim to be that’s not true remedy.
.
Summer I love is here with its minstrels and bards
Troubled ones, pencil-browed ones, lousy-haired ones
Nylon-stockinged women, scabby-horsed men
Summer is back to Anatolia
To Anatolia
Oh the remedy you claim to be that’s not true remedy.
You sit where you are, don’t move
Like a socialist Jesus once in a while drop by
Stand aside, so you can take the center when the time’s ripe
May comes down to Anatolia from its own springs
May comes down to Anatolia from its own mountains
The summer I love it’s back

Translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne

Woman’s Song

It’s time to leave, the day of banishment’s upon us,
Exile is here again,
I’ve packed the books and dressed the kids,
Let’s make for the snows of Dranaz.

Wherever we go, the people are poor as mice.
Every spring and summer far from home
We return to our native place but know
Neither our place of exile nor our roots.
We picked a crocus in the Ardahan uplands,
A narcissus at Sinop,
The yellow rose at Van,
The orange fragrance came from Kumluca.
We confused home and exile,
Exiles like us were never known before.

It’s time to leave, the day of banishment’s upon us,
In your absence the shoots you set will grow,
Shake in the wind and shelter from the sun.
It’s nature’s law the crops will ripen,
The infant find its tongue and fragile form,
The mist will vanish from Isfendiyar’s top.

Greetings from us to those who’ve gone before,
Greetings to friends and kin, to those who suffer,
Greetings to those who endure,
My pity is for the helpless, don’t look at my tears.

It’s time to leave, the day of banishment is here.
Don’t ask where is our country and our native land.

Translated by Ruth Christie

Song of a Dweller in a High-Rise Block

They piled the houses high,
in front long balconies.
Far below was water
far below were trees

They piled the houses high,
a thousand stairs to climb.
The outlook a far cry
and friendships further still.

They piled the houses high
in glass and concrete drowned.
In our wisdom we forgot
the earth that was remote
and those who stayed earthbound.

Translated by Ruth Christie

Elegy for the Right Arm of Musa Akbaba
from Lower Cinbolat*

How can I say it, can’t get my words right
I struck off my own arm, let go of it
They’ve pulled my land from under my feet
This cruelty against us, this is death

This one field fed us and clothed us
What is this law, who writes it, who makes it up?
It’s a cruelty unknown to the vulture and wolf
My words run short, run out, this is death

Syria’s mountains are smoke-veiled, oh my oh me,
What’s known as Ceylanpınar is closed to us
Our kids can’t race gazelles down to the stream
Let the cranes be the warning to our songs
The lords of Urfa are furious

How shall I say it, who’s the cause, who’s to blame
Never in my life has my fury been
So edgy, as sharp as the blade of a knife
One thing I know, my hand committed the crime
No power is left to me but my own life
What I let fall was mine, my own arm

*“100 acres of land belonging to Musa Akbaba from the village of Cinbolat in the borough of Nusretbey, Urfa, was divided, confiscated and given back to its former owner under the Land and Agriculture Reform Law. Musa Akbaba flew into a fury in the middle of his field and, using a machine for sowing, chopped off his right arm, which he blamed for voting for (…).” From the newspaper Cumhuriyet, 16th December, 1987.

Translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne

Gardens and Vines

It was still the green almond time, we hadn’t yet faded
you two little girls would come up
one with big blue-eyed comical looks
the other, quiet, passive

blue pretended to be the world
a breeze of Ulvi Uraz from places of no return
a joy that couldn’t fit
into my big-sisterly shell
in the music room fugitive moments
at the window knee-high grass
the back yard

from those days to these
what have you carried over
what have I?

of course in those days too
a few things happened
but Afghan towns
weren’t yet a legend
Iraqi children, their mothers…
Iraq in ashes, Iraq in ruins
the Middle East a world wound

As if day no longer exists now
the sky skips over it
nights fall fall into dreams
on the globe some place
a black stain that grows perpetually.
The stain harsh, hurting the onlooker
The one who sees the lesions
Which is why the media
created blindness first of all

from those days to these
what have you carried over
what have I?

Up against the Ziverbey mansion
a house, Istanbul
between roses and screams
I must’ve been blind, blinded I was then
Outside the sun shone past us

Once the hot frame cools down
it turns really cold
the mouth is shut fast
the eye is no longer an eye

from those days to these
what have you carried over
what have I?

At last the desert dust
Also rained on us
The seas withdrew, the rivers turned yellow
The earth lay to rot

what have you carried over
what have I?

An elderly poet points out root sources
church music, the little boy with the siren voice
wild violets, the Aleppo vines
poplars, olive trees, the wind
the gypsy girl picking wild chicory
The eagle owl
The water having to pass between heavy stones
While all these still exist here…

gülten is all I’m left with, a rose
if ever planted, stranger to any garden

Translated by Saliha Paker and Mel Kenne

from Poems of 42 Days

1.

The tyrant’s night is one with the night of the wronged one
And a longer night awaits the one whose verdict is tyranny
Agony’s cry, screams, imprecations
Can pass through the needle’s eye
Feel their way through the killer, the executioner
To arrive finally at the doorway, the reason, the why.

2.

The Aftermath

Tall, purple flowers bloomed in the little park at the center of the square. A bed full of purple flowers. Could this be a coincidence? That doesn’t seem possible. If you asked the gardener who had kept them in seed, he’d say, “They were meant to be red, yellow, and white. I don’t know how they all turned out to be purple.”
He should know—if he’s seen us there, watched us on winter days. As he’s been put in charge of that impressive district, he should be a good gardener. If he’s a good gardener, then he should know why his flowers had taken on that alien color.
Purple. Seeps in from sorrow. From human agony. Drains into earth with our bodies’ electricity. What else to expect but purple flowers?
We were mothers. We returned from visits, from the prison where our sons and daughters were kept. Before, we used to scatter away, but during these days of hunger it never crossed our minds to do that. We stayed together. Walked all the length of the streets. Crammed into buses. On our way to reach the authorities in stately buildings. We sought relief in petitions, in more petitions and countless stamps.
It was cold. Most of us wore flimsy clothes, old, thin-soled shoes which soaked up the wet. We were here every day, sitting in that little round park.
They chased us from the doors. Scolded and pushed us away. Sometimes we fought them back. Shouted in anger. But we couldn’t put up with that for long, we couldn’t hold on. We went back to the little round park. Parks are for the public. Who could be angry with us, sitting there quietly? Did we sit there quietly? Yes. The most we could do was whisper to one other. What can we do, what should we do? But storms raged in our bodies. Our silence filled the world with siren-shrieks and screams. What does it matter if it’s five or ten people shouting? The ones that really matter are the quiet ones. Ask the silent one what after-shocks rock her body, what cataclysms it releases into air and earth. We used to watch how people behaved towards us. There’d be respectful silence on the streets and on the bus. Those on duty would suddenly appear confused and listless, ready to get up and quit work any moment.
The earth—the earth we trod on, the earth that blessed us with the mud, the puddles, the wet and the cold—received our pain, our anger.
We sat in that park for days. We stood and waited. On the earth where the purple flowers bloomed. If the gardener happened to see us, he could explain why the blossoms were purple instead of yellow, red and white, and why they stood so upright and tall.

3.

The Yard

A scream completed the yard
Without it a part would’ve been missing
Congealing into long icicles
The scream froze solid

The scream froze solid
Drawing deep blue pictures over us
Where d’ you get that scream from mother
Thought the guard, from the sirens,
Perhaps from the seagulls
But where’s the sea? There has to be one
Since above there’s the cold, blue-curdled sky
And below,
Underneath, beside, all through us
The yard.

The yard within which one day in seven
We were drawn together and scattered apart
And that became a living part of us.

The yard
With its huts and wiry barbs
And a guard’s pink scowl
On those other six days how could
The slate-colored roof have ever held
The silence preceding
An earthquake

It could never be whole without that scream
With its rifles pointed at us
Its noisy mechanical sounds
The scream came to make it so
It was a black-bodied wreath drifting about the yard
Its woven flowers of curse
Growing
So big
As it paused before each mother
It could only be deemed a mountain
So now
How do we mothers
Still fit in that yard?

4.

The Yard

The scream stretched out longer and longer. Circled the yard. Wrapped up the rooftops and chimneys. Made its sure way through stone or iron. Reached into the sky. Chased off the cranes. Faded the blue. Touched the scrawny force-fed trees and uninviting flowers, dove into the distant pool and bounced out again. Hit the sentinels’ huts. Rattled the stacked rifles. His strings jerked suddenly, the sergeant sprang into action, called his men to attention, gave them orders. Rifles in hand they marched forward. In the inner yard stood the woman. The scream continued.
Holding her by the arms, they half walked, half dragged her away. The scream turned to imprecations. Sustained its pitch.” You …gots, you’ve killed my son, You a.. ….kers, now kill me too.”
The scream had gathered momentum. It carried on even as the woman became quiet. They took her into an annex with a low roof, where she collapsed on the ground. They eyed each other while holding her arms. Should they pick her up or let her lie there? Should they stand her on her feet or allow her to sit? This was an unknown situation, something befalling the officials for the first time. This silent crowd, they who could only weep and let their tears trickle into their hearts, had been commanded officially for years. Official advice, official shouts, and the official reprimands flung at them was all they got. Occasional rough play was only one order of business among others.
The incredible had happened. From that quiet, helpless, skinny woman’s scream had leapt and left her utterly empty. She marveled at how she’d freed the scream that had been keeping her alive and on her feet. Should she remain lying as she was, get up, or sit down?
“What are you screaming about, woman?” the man in charge would have asked had he been there on time and been standing beside her. By the time he came running in, the woman was already curled up in a ball on the floor.
His anger faded. For a moment he considered helping her up and giving her a seat. Just as his voice was about to escape from his throat and say “She’s just a mother,” the official in him crushed it.
“Hurry up and write a report, this woman has insulted us!”
“Yes, sir.”
Who knows what place the woman—crossing mountains, ridges, and waterways—had set out from to see her son. For five minutes. Only that long. “How’re you, all right?” “I’m all right, and you?” “I’m all right.” “How’re father and sister?” “All well.” “D’you want me to get you anything?”
Only a foolish writer would add more words here. It’s clear to everyone her time would be up by now. Up without casting a last glance, up without catching a smile or final gesture.
No matter. The mother comes anyway. A three-day journey. Across mountains and rivers. Piling with others out of puffing trains or buses at stations. Piling into crammed vehicles like just another bundle. Appearing at the doorway that leads to her son.
Although visitations had been banned, for some reason a few were still allowed. Rumor had it that many a building in the towns and villages had been burnt to ashes by those being held. They were chained, beaten, attacked by dogs. Kicked. Their testicles stomped on, crushed. The mother had heard bits of this while she waited for her name to be called out. She waited but her son’s name wasn’t among those banned from visitation. She felt a secret joy, then shame. She looked around at the women with faces blurred by agony. She again felt ashamed, her joy evaporated. She felt uneasy being one of the privileged who were admitted. She felt upset with
her son. “Why had he been set apart? How will these mothers look at me now?”
“Just let me see him,” she said to herself, “just let me go in and see him.”
She entered and saw that her son could hardly stand. His head was bandaged, he could barely be understood.
“See, mother, this is how I am, now go away, I can’t stand up any longer.”
She got it at once. The onus of being set apart was not on the shoulders of her son. It was they, they, they, who had set some apart to display them. Maybe to intimidate, maybe for some other reason.
For awhile she looked about in confusion and then walked out and down the stairs. Once outside, she saw the other mothers. The stacked rifles. The dogs. It was then that the scream forced its way out of her heart, her lungs, her throat. Exploded from her mouth. Not stopping, ever. It wasn’t she who was screaming but the scream itself.
The mothers in the prison yard weren’t prepared yet to gather up the scream and find a place for it. Moving about them, the scream went berserk, slipped into bags of clean laundry, brushed headscarves and hair, both hennaed and gray, and chafed against poorly shod feet.
“Oh, who knows how her son is?” thought the mothers. “And what about the girls, are they also…?
Those banned from visitation looked all done in. A knife couldn’t pry any words out of them. How were their children doing? Two mothers fainted right off. They were picked up and stretched out on the benches. Most of the others were quietly weeping.
The scream invaded their tears and dried them up. Awakened those who had fainted. Snagged collars and shook people up. Broke in on the officials. Howled out the barking dogs.
Silence.
For its own sake the report was written. And, for the sake of it, signed.
“Can you sign?” they asked the mother.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then sign here.”
She did. She was once more herself. “My son’s had it, he’s all burnt out. Go ahead, kill me too, what do I care anymore.”
“Take her upstairs, boy.”
She was escorted upstairs. As she mounted the steps, herself again, she thought of what she would say. She expected some cannonball to be fired at her thunderously. Reprimands and humiliation.
As she opened the door, went in, and stood surrounded by men with rifles, someone shouted out her name while waving the report.
“Why did you scream like that? Why did you swear, why did you have to speak such words?”
“I saw my son in there, in that state,… you’ve crushed my baby to bits, what else could I do? What more do I have to fear? What’s left but my life, take that too, for my salvation.
Looking thoughtful and upset, not likely now to submit to the official in him, the official laid the report on his desk.
“Bring her son, let them sit down face to face. Let her see her son’s not dead, let her see these people have seven lives. Nothing ever really happens to them.”
“May the wind drive those words away from your mouth.”
They brought in her son and offered them chairs. Holding the hands of her son, she kissed and caressed his face.
“So,” thought the mother, “it was best to let that scream go, and not hold it down.” She smiled.
The scream had done its job. For now. Quietly it flew off and claimed a corner near the far end of the eave. Where it hung on.

It can be seen by anyone who looks there.

akin-whatGülten Akın (1933 – 2015)

Gülten Akın was born in Yozgat in 1933. She studied law at Ankara University and worked as a lawyer and teacher for many years in various parts of Anatolia where she traveled with her husband and children. One of the pioneers of 20th century Turkish literature, her early poems were more informed by personal ideas and experiences, while her more mature work focused on social issues. In her poetry she strived for simplicity and a desire to be understood by the ordinary reader. She won many awards for her work, and her final book of poems, Beni Sorarsan, was published in 2013.