December 1, 2008

Ece Ayhan (Turkey) 1931-2002

Ece Ayhan (Turkey)

The poet Ece Ayhan Çağlar was born in 1931 in the western province of Turkey, Muğla, on the Aegean sea. He attended elementary and secondary schools at the Atatürk Lycée in Istanbul; he then attended the school of Political Sciences in the capital city of Ankara, graduating in 1959. From 1962 to 1966, Ece Ayhan was a civil servant, a head district administrator (kaymakam) in the Anatolian districts of Gurun, Alaca and Cardak. In 1966 he quit his position. Returning to Istanbul, he worked as a translator for the Turkish edition of the French dictionary Larousse (Meydan Larousse) and the archives section of Turkish Cinematèque Association. Since 1966 he has held no other job.

    By 1966 Ayhan had already written two of his three major works, Kinar Hanimin Denizleri ("Miss Kinar's Waters") (1959) and Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kara (A Blind Cat Black) (1965). To write his third, Orthodoxies (1968), his most historical, satirical, fact- and Istanbul-obsessed work─a pun filled, vertical serialism─Ece Ayhan moved to the streets of Istanbul. The poem delves into the underbelly of the city, Galata, historically both its red light district─of transvestites, girl and boy prostitutes, tattooed roughs, and heroin merchants, that is, the unnamed or "euphemized" outcasts of Turkish culture─and the district where minorities─Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, etc.─lived.
      Since 1968, Ayhan published State and Nature (1973) and Disperse and Move Out of the Way (1977), a collection of his work until 1976 with essays about him, and several other books.
     Ayhan served as a member of the PIP Advisory board until his death in 2002.


Kinar Hanimin Denizleri (Istanbul, 1959); Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kara (Istanbul, 1965); Ortodoksluklar (Istanbul, 1968); Devlet Ve Tabiat (Istanbul, 1968); Yurt Savul [poems and essays on the poet] (Istanbul, 1977, 1982, 1993); Zambakli Padisah (Ankara, 1981); Cok Eski Adiyladir (Istanbul, 1982); Yanliz Kardesce (Eski Sehir, 1984); Kolsuz Bir Hattat (Istanbul, 1987); Canakkaleli Melahata Iki El Mektup [prose poems] (Istanbul, 1991); Son Siirler (Istanbul, 1993).


A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies, trans. by Murat Nemet-Nejat (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1997, reprinted by Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2015).

[Most of the poems below are reprinted from A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies, which can be purchased from here.]

Miss Kinar's Waters

She cried the smile of pebble stones with the raki from the carafe
from Miss Kinar now who became water to steep wells
with her straight hair what can she do in the theatre houses of Shehzadehbashi
she could not have enough hats

This bald Hassan, this baldie swept the darkness
his rebellious cigarette lit backwards to avoid any laughter
and a police enters fair tales which go on ever since
parting the human eyelashes of children

And gathered inside her the sadness of the hands of an oud
playing woman, appeared suddenly into wells in the evenings crying
from Miss Kinar's waters

(from Kinar Hanimin Denizleri, 1959)

Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat

The Nigger in the Photograph

Accursed. The curse which with its curving unsheathed letter will never leave me alone, which I take everywhere, my invisible dog, the curse. Who can be friends with me? Who? It is rumored I carry that monk's blood, and with a relentless agitation I run here and there, barefoot, and on my tiny chin a big beauty spot, I am known with my covered beauty still. Like the stain in the curve of the letter U.

Flower. I began my adventures as a flower vender. Flowers and children bedecking a string, dry petals. But how I was under a spell those days. Because of a little fairy's curse, I couldn't be looked at. Light Maltese fevers run in empty lots in summer evenings. And endless hallucinations full of clowns run in ruins. Then a stone arched passage. I am living in the drawer of a fifty-year-old witch, nailed. Am I really? One can not tell what season it is, and I am cold. Curved like the letter U.

...I went to Jerusalem in that exile of the flower vendors and got settled in the town clock... But to remember these things, I don't want to remember them... It had run out, the money I had saved selling flowers... This far away from Smyrna, I was pawned. Let this be the nigger in the negative of a photograph from me, will you receive it one day! I had it taken while learning Hebrew, with my invisible dog inside a Jewess. Lonely and terrible. Under a huge tree which had shet its leaves, barely touching a chair.

It is not out of pity, but I am worried it won't pass. The curve of the letter U.

(from Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kara, 1965)

Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat
The Secret Jew

Lidless, one of the devils, he is pulling out with my streetcar money. From time to time, going downtown like this, I feel sad and shaky. In the hotel I sleep in his (my Corpse's) bed. When his hair keeps growing jet black like that what is it that my live body begrudges and I try to give to him. With my large beefy hands. A sharp spur. Odor of sulphur. A scarred copper-branded ass. In the sewers of my veins, there, a rat. It nibbles at the town and the hanging tree in me. Crazies, rats, male rats, share (you must share, children) a charred corpse. In the cellar. There were no little words of loving him, these keys on his belt (warden, lover!) couldn't be little cooing words of loving him. I ran away, scared, not to meet the porcelain doll. To meet him. That would be my going back to the Lexicon of Torture. The widow plant of the idiot forests eating up joy, the poppy hatred of seven years, the silk hand with cowhide gloves doling out inheritance. He doesn't want to be buried, he says. He is cold. On the back platform of the streecar the young devil on fire disappearing. I am picking out my spectacles from the swamps of my envy. After the arsonist's fire the brothr of my Ex-Mistress (my Corpse) who disappeared. He can be recognized by the delicate insect-eyed family mask covering his coarse face. That guy. Why should I sob anyway. He loves easily, passes his hand below the belt of my vault, forgets easily what a secret Jew I am.

(from Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kara, 1965)

Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat

The Blue Bead, Against the Evil Eye

Madness put on a porkpie hat. He ran to the regions where sellers of guns go bankrupt. Founded the empire of truants. And, then, found a golden cannonball in the town of Monastery.

Pinned on his collar a forest in September. No one should know of the secret treasture full of trinkets. The hyena was there, too, with the face of a rotten apple. He fought madly to grab the dagger.

There was talk on Saturday of the Crimea. Wars. The sorcery stories were closed. They hanged him inside a liquor bottle, heavy silver boots on his feet, smiling. Against all sorts of jinx. This little, vagabond imp.

(from Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kara, 1965)

Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat

A Blind Cat Black

An absent-mided 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 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.

(from Bakissiz Bir Kedi Kar, 1965)

Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat

Orthodoxies I

His only side─his face─to be talked about: the space between his legs. And he has grown a moustache and a beard. An inveterate. A pervert. Such talk about him. He doesn't go near women as he should. He whets suspicion. An erect plume on his head. A barber's piece. A poronographic masterpiece. He is buried alive in the ground. Head first. Ouch! A few sailboats, startled, shine at a distance. Why couldn't I understand?
Modesty, a mood. Shame is held delicately by the hand. A girl, blighted. Walks under the eaves of her man. The door locks have given in by themselves. A shroud moves. She has grown prenant by leaning over the corpse. Which pretends impotence in a church. Before it tends. She has reared the foundling in the marshes. I was burning a blank letter by pouring gasoline on it. A con man's envelope on the sidewalk. Shining beeswax. Melts.
Now, a leftover. Know. The bend in a child's heart. His crafty, elegant wrist. And how he holds a hawk, stuffed, whole, trying to preen its feathers. He has written etched over his breast in saffron repeating, embroidering one word from the lexicon endlessly: hermaphodite. A her-metic woman. A thief woman. A thief of she. He makes love biting her own lip. He plays the hand-me-down tune on the lute. Of the scared. I was reading The Jew of Malta. I took shelter in a coffin.

(from Ortodoksluklar, 1968)
─Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemat-Nejat

Orthodoxies III

What is it saying, I wonder, the purl and stitch scarf of the boy, dancing, the silk embroidery? A bird with four legs and a face of a flower.
And a wooden pestle, dipping, dipping into his sleep of cistern rain waters. By dint of precious habit.
Let them whistle the warped tune. His soapy earrings, a lewd bathroom ditty. And, now, a tambourine and its cymblas─his music tools─dropped, lie by the side.
Altered horses are raced in every neighborhood. The face painting* of a virgin bride melts away to the depths of a metamorphosis.

(from Ortodoksluklar, 1968)
—Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemat-Nejat

Orthodoxies XV

A crack of lilacs. A mask chipped of their wood. It is impenetrably wide, he understands.
Kneeling, he groans, one Benjamin. Weaned off the smell of armpits. A cup of hemlock not left around against the possibility of drink.
And there is a majolica on the mat. A fortress tower rings, of the harem's eunuches, washed in the flood.
Screaming, under a parasol, he adorns the portable throne. In a blackout. In his birthday suit.
And a slut is giving him a broken tipped sword. Reveals herself on the rung of a ladder. Oh, Benjamin!
Two snakes entwined, trajectories melting away at an inn. Turned around by so many bends.
In the guise of an eagle owl, bubo-bubo, the fallen Christ** goes out to paint the town red. And he won't come back.

*In villages the paint on the bride's face is a symbol of her virginity.
**Russian belief that, in the shape of a beggar, Christ will cross Russia one day. The Russians wait for him. He wanders now in the cities at night disguised as a large owl, bubo-bubo.

(from Ortodoksluklar, 1965)
─Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemat-Nejat


"Miss Kinar's Water"
A previously unpublished poem English language translation ©2001 by Murat Nemet-Nejat

"The Nigger in the Photograph," "The Secret Jew," "The Blue Bead, Against the Evil Eye," "A Blind Cat Black," "Orthodoxies I," "Orthodoxies III," "Orthodoxies XV."
Reprinted from A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies, trans by Murat Nemet-Nejat (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1997). Copyright ©1997 by Murat Nemet-Nejat. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.

Flying [on Ece Ayhan, his poetry, and his death]
by Douglas Messerli

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
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2002)

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