Facing Rabbit Island
That night we came down
from the colony on the hillside.
The afternoon had strewn
about our heads
a debris of hyperbole
and vague menace.
the declaiming of Hikmet
by an Air Force General,
cast into stupor
by amphitheatre kitsch,
we sought out the solace
of the purple seaboard,
along with something darker.
But our path was convoluted
– the geography, as someone once
remarked, would not stay still –
and the road abandoned us.
A big white dog appeared, on cue,
led us to the village of Gümüslük.
Across a narrow stretch of sea
lay Rabbit Island.
I might have swum the strait,
but feared the straying tentacles
of confused sea creatures.
Everywhere was closed,
and what wasn’t closed
was closing in. Fishing boats
rocked gently in the harbour;
the awnings of the restaurants
pulled down, dark and silent.
No movement in the street
besides those watchful cats.
I looked to our canine guide,
but he had slipped away.
No respite from the labyrinth,
it pursues you
even when you think
you have evaded it,
sucks you in deeper,
lets you wander, trancelike,
from one variety of despair
to another, presents you
with a chthonic version of yourself,
the one that leads you back
at five a.m. to stagnant water,
the merciless mocking of the frogs,
the ironic moon.
This has been Turkish week, but also – and with a synchronicity that pleases me very much – Greek week. The London Book Fair had Turkey as its ‘Market Focus’ and two expeditionary groups of Turkish writers descended on the city of Cardiff (whose football team, it will be noted, are playing in the Premier League next season). Meanwhile, I have been immersed in the work of the Greek poet, C.P Cavafy, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year.
The first group of visitors were poets, three of whom I have been involved in translating. They are Gökçenur Ç, Efe Duyan, Adnan Özer and Gonca Özmen (the illustration above shows the cover of a booklet of their work, produced by Literature Across Frontiers, The Scottish Poetry Library and Delta Publishing). After an unforgettable lunch (which deserves a post of its own), the poets were joined by fellow-translator Zoë Skoulding and Literature Across Frontiers director Alexandra Büchler for an evening of poetry and conversation at Coffee a Gogo, just across from the national museum of Wales.
Then on Thursday, we were visited by the Turkish novelists Ayfer Tunç and Hakan Günday for a reading and discussion of their work, under the heading ‘Alone in a crowd’. The idea was to discuss the theme of cities – our citizenship, I guess – or experience as city dwellers. When preparing for my own contribution, I was immediately reminded of a line by one of the Turkish poets I hosted last weekend:
The more you travel the more cities you will find inside yourself
Which had led me to ask its author, Adnan Özer, how well he knew the work of Cavafy, a writer of whom I have been a fan, no, a devotee, since my mid-teens. Adnan told me that he admired Cavafy’s work, but that he was not a major influence, apart from in that particular poem.
The poem behind the poem, if you like, is this one:
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.
(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
And it seems here, as in Adnan’s paraphrase, that the city is a cypher for the self, reflecting our fragmented or multiple selves. We know that Cavafy is speaking of his own beloved Alexandria, but we also know that the city here is a state of mind, one’s personal predicament – and the human predicament also – from which one can never shake free.
At the same time as being surrounded by a crowd, we are all ultimately alone (in the city, as elsewhere), despite the onslaught of synthetic familiarisation on offer from substitute communities such as Facebook and Twitter. On which theme, I was interested to read, in Russell Brand’s Guardian piece that he singles out one La Thatcher’s most devastating legacies in precisely this area. In the quest for personal advancement at all costs, in the elevation of blind greed as the most praiseworthy and rewarding of human qualities, we are almost duty bound to ignore the needs of those we share the world with. As her loathsome sidekick Norman Tebbit said, in reference to the defeat of the mineworkers’ union:“We didn’t just break the strike, we broke the spell.” The spell he was referring to (writes Brand) is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.
And if that all seems a bit random, Turkish week at LBF>Cardiff City Football Club>Turkish poets>Famous Greek Poet>living in the city>Thatcherism and its legacy – then please forgive me. It does connect, I promise. And if it doesn’t, well, like I said once before . . . blogging is a way of thinking out loud.