Şükrü Erbaş: Turkish Poems in Translation

Poetry by ŞÜKRÜ ERBAŞ
Translated from the Turkish by DERICK MATTERN

Poems appear in both Turkish and English below.

 

Translator’s Note:

Şükrü Erbaş was born when, as his mother said, “the vineyards were boiling”—that is, when the pekmez (a traditional grape syrup) was being made. He grew up among those vineyards and wheat fields and apple orchards, deep in the Anatolian countryside, in the town of Yozgat, not far from the ruins of the ancient capital of the Hittites.

Erbaş’s reputation in Turkish poetry hasn’t strayed far from the geography he grew up in, neither from its idyllic beauty nor from its brutal poverty and neglect. But while Erbaş doesn’t shy away from the politics or economic struggles of the long-suffering Anatolian people, he’s not reducible to a mere political or a nature poet. His reviewers usually accord him something like the status of a poet of witness. Poet-critic Şeref Bilsel calls Erbaş a socialist poet without slogans, one who doesn’t say “I need to speak” but rather “I have heard.”

The book these two poems come from, Songs of the Vineyard Harvest, appeared in 2012 and immediately won the Golden Orange Prize, Turkey’s top honor for poetry, in 2013. This was also the year of the Gezi Park protests and the subsequent rending of Turkish politics and civil society. That a book of such esotericism, aching beauty, and yearning pessimism has achieved such popularity is a testament to its enduring appeal across the spectrum of Turkish society—Erbaş’s readers are Kurds, political leftists, religious conservatives, urban elites, from cities and from the villages of deep Anatolia. His imagery appeals to a rapidly urbanizing society, simultaneously drawing them in by playing to their unformed nostalgia while also cautioning that their grandparents’ stories are not to be taken at face value.

For Erbaş, history and societal strictures constantly intrude on the zone of intimacy, even as these private moments are also spaces in which to gather resilience against the outside world. One of Erbaş’s many sleights of hand is to mix images of historical or literary depth and bearing with more quotidian natural or personal recollected landscapes or events. This blending of symbolic systems, so clear and magical in the Turkish, poses some challenge to the translator. Nar, or “pomegranate” is simple to translate, a straightforward word-to-word correspondence. But for Turkish literature, as well among the manifold overlapping cultures of Asia Minor, the pomegranate is a potent symbol representing union, plenty, life, renewal, and most significantly, unity-in-diversity, the one-of-the-many. What seems simple contains a rich and complex history.

But then the opposite is also true. Sometimes the most “quotidian natural” imagery can be as complicated for the translator as the rich, literary symbolism. At risk of giving away secrets of the trade, I should say that the oddness of the title of “Spinfinch” is only somewhat of my own doing. In Turkish çember means “hoop, ring, circle”, –cik is the diminutive suffix. So, “hoop-let” or “little loop”, perhaps. But çembercik is also a dialectical synonym for “goldfinch.” Erbaş plays with this synonomous difference elsewhere in the book, so I felt a neologism was called for. Translating Erbaş’s work has also been an education in local flora and fauna. Take, for instance, the word I translated as “bulbul” in “Our Garden Had No Pomegranate Tree”: arapbülbülü. The word bülbül is usually translated as “nightingale,” so on the surface the translation should be “Arab nightingale.” This is a rather poetic, even exoticizing name. Not knowing much about birds, I dug around a bit and discovered that what Erbaş likely had in mind is pycnonotus xanthopygos, or the white-speckled bulbul. I considered this a stroke of luck—as it turns out bulbul has already become an English word.

No translation is definitive, just as no single poet is representative of their language, country, or era. Like many Turkish poets, Erbaş’s work is as deeply informed by European and Latin American poets as he is by the village songs and folklore from his own country. As a child he was “a little radio filling with distance,” hearing things from afar that he couldn’t yet fully grasp, things that could still nonetheless bring wonder and delight. In translating these poems, I’m attempting to let you, too, hear something of what that radio plays.

—Derick Mattern

 

 

 

Our Garden Had No Pomegranate Tree

 

There was the remnant of a mill
Coy ears of wheat, prayer, expectation
Wind-stripped fingers of water
Sweltering skies, boredom, hard times
A man bawling within himself
Children not knowing where they’d grow up
A woman, her skirts a summer garden

There was piteous poverty
Smudged nights, blurry mornings
Exhaustion blooming in the sun
Words withering in moonlight
A plain where horses held conversation with dogs
A sky not seen until the stars came out
Houses melting in a copper pot

There was the quickening of fairy tales
A little radio filling with distance
Grape-laden carts, apple sins, wet dreams
Smoking an endless cigarette in the cemetery
Quince-colored fluff on the window next door
Girls encircling their mother with the bangs of their hair
Loneliness brought by distant relatives

My darling, my spinfinch, my bulbul
Your eyes were two enormous skies
You asked while we were making love why I was crying
Our own garden had no pomegranate tree
When our bodies unstitched you had no mouth
Desires that begin at our eyebrows would end at our eyelashes
I wasn’t crying

I was loving my past, loving your future…

 

Bahçemizde Nar Ağacı Yoktu

 

Orada hayalet bir değirmen
Nazlı buğday başakları, dua, bekleyiş
Rüzgârları soyunmuş parmak sular
Terli gökyüzü, can sıkıntısı, ağır zaman
İçine bağıran bir adam
Nereye büyüyeceğini bilmeyen çocuklar
Etekleri yaz bahçesi bir kadın

Orada merhametli yoksulluk
Sürmeli geceler, bulanık sabahlar
Güneşle çiçeklenen yorgunluk
Ay ışığında solan sözler
Atların köpeklerle konuştuğu bir bozkır
Yıldızlar çıkmadan görünmeyen gökyüzü
Bakır bir tencerede eriyen evler

Orada masalların hevesi
Bir küçük radyoya dolan uzaklar
Üzüm kağnıları, elma günahları, ıslak rüyalar
Mezarlıkta içilen bir sonsuz sigara
Ayva sarı tüyler komşu camlarda
Kâkülünde annesi halkalanan kızlar
Uzak akrabaların getirdiği yalnızlık

Sevgilim, çemberciğim, arapbülbülüm
İki gözün kocaman iki gökyüzü
Neden ağladığımı soruyordun ya sevişirken
Bahçemizde nar ağacı yoktu bizim
Senin ağzın yoktu gövdemiz tarazlanırken
Arzular kaşımızda başlar kirpiğimizde biterdi
Ağlamıyordum

Benim geçmişimi senin geleceğini seviyordum…

 

Spinfinch

 

House of dreams, desire-bell, my talisman of eyelashes
I slept, I became you, I was stripped of the world.
Above me the vaulted bridges of your eyes
In my mouth the low well of your body
Your legs mirroring two white rivers
Your breasts two shy clusters of grapes
Palmfuls gathered from the vineyards of Müşküle
I grasped your heels and held until God
You’re an upturned tulip in the atlas of night
I spilled out your stars beneath my head…

Moon cradle, sweet sleep, my syllable of sun
I woke, I became you, I was clothed in the world.
The sea from the balcony keeps rippling its leaves
The spinfinch at the window the morning prayer
Your hair on the pillow a song of the vineyard harvest
It is the longest eternity of my life
You stop all the time the world holds
Beside the bed a lamp of wine
The treasury of nakedness sealed by candle wax
I spilled out your stars that morning too…

 

Çembercik

 

Hayal evim, arzu çanım, kirpik boncuğum
Uyudum, sen oldum, soyundum dünyayı.
Üstümde gözlerinin kemerli köprüleri
Ağzımda har kuyuları gövdenin
İki beyaz ırmak bacakların aynada
Göğüslerin Müşküle bağlarından
Bir çift naz salkımı avuçlarımda tanelenen
Tutup topuklarından kaldırdım Tanrıya kadar
Bir ters lalesin gecenin atlasında
Dökündüm başımdan aşağı yıldızlarını…

Ay beşiğim, şirin uykum, güneş hecem
Uyandım, sen oldum, giyindim dünyayı.
Deniz balkonda yapraklanıp duruyor
Çembercik kuşu pencerede sabah duası
Bir bağbozumu şarkısı saçların yastıkta
Öyle bir sonsuzluk ki ömrün ömrümde
Sende duruyor dünyanın bütün zamanları
Başucunda bir şarap kandili
Mumdan mühürler çıplaklığının hazinesinde
Dökündüm sabahtan sonra da yıldızlarını…

 

 

Şükrü Erbaş (b. 1953) is one of Turkey’s most prominent and beloved contemporary poets. Raised in Yozgat and educated in Ankara, he spent over twenty-five years as a civil servant for a branch of the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture. He now lives in Antalya, on the southern coast. Author of more than twenty books of poetry and essays, his work has won numerous accolades in his home country. His work is only beginning to appear in English.

 

Derick Mattern’s translations of poems by Haydar Ergülen, Şükrü Erbaş, and Cenk Gündoğdu have appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Exchanges, Tupelo Quarterly, World Literature Today, Berlin Quarterly, and elsewhere. His work on behalf of contemporary Turkish poetry has received support from the British Centre for Literary Translation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. He is a PhD student on the international writers track in comparative literature at Washington University in St Louis.

Şükrü Erbaş: Turkish Poems in Translation

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