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Nomadologies

Erdağ Göknar has a conversational way of writing poetry, yet his phrasing is not at all ordinary. He allows us to eavesdrop on his life in Turkey and America in his first book of poems Nomadologies. Göknar teaches Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and is an award-winning translator, but it has been a circuitous journey to arrive at his current status.

Erdağ Göknar has a conversational way of writing poetry, yet his phrasing is not at all ordinary. He allows us to eavesdrop on his life in Turkey and America in his first book of poems Nomadologies. Göknar teaches Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and is an award-winning translator, but it has been a circuitous journey to arrive at his current status.

Beginning with his childhood in Turkey, we learn in a series titled “Object Lessons,” that his father was an artist:

A five year old, I watch my father,
the Exalted, in our garage,
in the iciness
of winter, unroll yards of clear
thundering acetate sheet, crinkling it,
forming it inexactly [ . . . ] I don’t
know what he’s doing, but I play nearby,
staring, smelling the clear acrid resin,
and the deep
                  blood-colored dyes

In the same set, he writes of his parents’ marriage. His father’s mother “had hoped he’d marry another woman / with more money / but the Exalted is of his own mind . . . .”

What a good man Göknar is to include a section of notes that is part glossary and part explanatory material. For example, about his poem titled “Yarkent, 1329 Anno Hegirae,” he writes, “Hegirae refers to the Islamic lunar calendar, beginning in 622 CE, the year of the migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina [ . . . ].” With this note we’re given greater understanding. Here’s part of the poem, sparked by a 1911 photograph:

                                               The photo
album, the oldest thing we own, contains
partially identified photos from a corner
of the nomadic world.
[ . . . ] What are my ancestors
doing here in Yarkent, along the southern
Silk Road? [ . . . ]
I can see you all in your traditional
Uzbek clothes, but you can’t see me.
[ . . . ] A
vector of my nomadic past stretches to Yarkent
in 1329, anno hegirae, connecting unjoined lives
into an as-yet-to-be-named constellation.

Streaming through the book are several individual poems titled “Nomadology.” Göknar writes in “Nomadology 1: Crossing the Desert of Lop”:

In his Travels, Marco Polo describes the perils of crossing the Desert of Lop.
New York, Intanbul, Tashkent, İli, mid-journey I’m separated from others, my
          surroundings change form.
[ . . . ] White quartz sands cover me, layer upon layer, like Time, kefen shrouds of muslin, İli –
          I’ll find you rushing under dunes.

I learned from the above poem that the İli is a river, and from the Notes pages that kefen is a death shroud.

Göknar explains his poem, “On Translation,” while giving a well-earned plug to himself: “The poem, evoking word and flesh, was written during the time I was translating Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s historical novel My Name is Red into English. The translation was awarded the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award.” “On Translation” displays insight into his process:

I
cut
open
every sentence
disembowel it
[ . . . ] and before replacing
the innards with
another logic
[ . . . ] each time
seduced
        by the possibility of
your metamorphosis.

I found another helpful gem when he complements “Portrait of a Chechen (Istanbul)” with these words: “The Chechen independence movement of the 1990s and early 2000s was quashed by Russia in a series of brutal wars that had the effect of radicalizing secular-leaning rebels into Islamic insurgents, one of whom was Shamil Basayev (l965-2006).”

Göknar begins that prose poem: “You bore the solemnity of a warrior in your small room in Sultan Ahmet, / an exile from a brutal war that had turned Grozny into a ghost town.” He closes with:

[ . . . ] I think about you when I see the booth in Üsküdar,
where they sell pamphlets on the insurgency in Chechnya and postcards of
the rebel leader Basayev, assassinated by Russians.

More tragedy comes forth in “Ethnically Cleansed Village of Stupni Do, Bosnia,” about a 1993 massacre:

Villagers hide
        behind trapdoors
in crawl spaces.
        Bodies burn.
Crosses are cut into foreheads.
        Women are shot in the face.
Bodies, scattered like leaves
        bleed in the sun.

Other atrocities appear, and finally, “I read about Stupni Do / a massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina / where my mother sends my old clothes.”

Throughout the book Göknar writes lovingly about his mother who died last year. I feel as though I knew someone like her the way she is described in “Fasa Fiso.”

“Fasa Fiso” you said, poppycock
when I explained you’d had a stroke,
demonstrating on my own person
the path of the blood clot
as it might have traveled
from your heart to your head.

[ . . . ] And then I told you about your life, [ . . . ]
You looked at me doubtfully.
I told you where you had been
and what you had done.
“Fasa Fiso” you said.

Don’t look for the typical in Erdağ Göknar’s Nomadologies. He has an obvious appreciation for both Turkey and America and voices it in a manner that is spirited and informative, sometimes severe, never boring, always learned.

 

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