‘Nomadologies’ by Erdağ Göknar
Erdağ Göknar is an American-Turkish poet who currently teaches at Duke University. His work includes translations of Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red” and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s “Huzur,” a near impossible to translate novel that appeared in English as “A Mind at Peace” in 2008. “Nomadologies” is the first collection of his own poems, written in English but centered on the fluidity of linguistic and cultural boundaries. It is a curate’s egg, peppered with delicate lyrical moments but sometimes losing its balance through heavy-handed historical observations.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “The Silence Between Words is Sacred,” eavesdrops on Göknar’s family history in Turkey and America, which he mines to creatively remember past generations. The second part, “Figures and Fragments,” describes moments inspired by found objects like family photos (the picture on the cover shows Göknar’s grandfather as a young man). The third part, “Nomadologies,” includes more expansive meditations on ancient history, modern history, travel, roots and rootlessness.
Göknar, who was born in the U.S., has spoken about how he turned to his home country effectively as an outsider, picking up and probing family and social themes essentially raw. The poems certainly bear large traces of that, making rather forced, inorganic references to historical or cultural phenomena. “Everything happened oddly, differently than expected, as if time were moving in the two-forward, one-backward step of an Ottoman military band,” we read in the short prose piece “Death in the Palace.” Similarly, the volume is sprinkled with open-ended spiritual and religious references that do little more than lend the book an exotic sauce.
The poems that generally eschew learned social or historical ruminations are more successful. “Ulviye Pours Water” is one of the most lyrical poems in the selection and also one of the most formally striking, taking the shape of a meandering stream over the course of six pages. We read about the narrator as a nine-year-old with his mother in the kitchen of their small apartment on Istanbul’s Kazancı Yokuşu in “the mosquito-heat of an Istanbul summer.” The recollections vividly recover the scene inside and outside the apartment, eventually settling on the character of the grandfather. In the space of a few lines we traverse his personal and family history and the paradoxes of how memory is refracted through different family members. The cumulative effect is understated and affecting; the poem’s center is as fluid as its water-like form.
The poet is less successful when trying to tie family history to specific social phenomena. “The Cadaver, 1949” is triggered by a photo showing his father in a group of young doctors standing at the head of a cadaver. The metaphors are not subtle:
“it is an iconic image of Turkish
modernity during the Cultural
Revolution. You were dissecting
the body of the Ottoman past to
construct a new generation of
Turks. But who was this cadaver
out of which you were building
a secular Muslim nation?”
Göknar provides endnotes to most of the poems, glossing unfamiliar cultural terms and sometimes reflecting on how the poems were written. In the endnote to the short poem “On Translation,” in which he returns to the metaphor of carving up a cadaverous body, Göknar immodestly notes that he won the Dublin IMPAC Literary Prize for his translation of Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red.” It is an inappropriate and immodest step, but it is in keeping with the broader volume: Throughout the book keen reflections intertwine with unfortunate missteps.