“Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example-
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

— Nazim Hikmet

Some months ago I was part of an extraordinary evening at the Boston Public Library, sponsored by PEN New England, at which writers and actors read works by writers who had been denied entry into the United States. The purpose of the evening was to point out what beauty and power is lost when the voices of those deemed “undesirable” by our government are silenced. I had the great honor of reading three poems by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Hikmet spent more than half his adult years as a prisoner, in and out of prison solely by virtue of the vicissitudes of Turkish politics. A good resource on Hikmet is:

http://www.cs.rpi.edu/~sibel/poetry/nazim_hikmet.html

The entire evening is available as a streaming video on the MACLU website:

http://www.maclu.org/lib/index.html

The poems are my versions of translations by Randy Blasing and Taner Baybars.

IT’S THIS WAY

I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful.

My eyes can’t get enough of the trees–
they’re so hopeful, so green.

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m standing at the window

of the prison infirmary
but I can’t smell the medicines–

I think carnations
must be blooming nearby.

It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.

THE STRANGEST CREATURE ON EARTH

You’re like a scorpion, my brother,
you shrink and hide in the dark.
You’re like a sparrow, dear brother,
always in a sparrow’s flutter.
You’re like a clam, closed, like a clam,
my brother, smug, content,
And brother, you are frightening
as the mouth of an old volcano.

Not one, not five, no —
unfortunately, you number millions.
You’re like a sheep, my brother:
when the cloaked drover raises his stick,
you quickly rejoin the flock
and run, almost proud of yourself,
right to the slaughterhouse.

You are the strangest creature on this earth —
even stranger than the fish
that couldn’t see the ocean for the water.
All the oppression in the world is thanks to you.
If we are hungry, tired, covered with blood,
and after all this time,still being crushed
like grapes to make wine,
the fault is yours —
I can hardly bring myself to say it,
but most of the fault, my dear brother, is yours.

RUBAI*

I hope I don’t sound like I’m boasting,
but I’ve gone like a bullet
through ten years of captivity,
and if we discount the occasional liver pain,
nothing has changed, not my heart, not my head.

So send me books with happy endings:
where the plane with broken wings lands safely,
and the doctor leaves the operating theatre
with a big smile on his face;
where the blind boy sees the light again,
and just before the partisan is about to die
before the firing squad, he is rescued and freed;

where the letter I’ve been waiting for
for ten long years
arrives amid a clamor of birds,
and my poems sell by the millions;

where lovers meet, wed, and celebrate in joy,
and no one is deprived
of bread, roses, sunshine, and liberty.

Send me books with happy endings
because I believe, even in here, that
one day our great adventure will end happily.

* Rubai is the name of the prison where Hikmet wrote this poem.

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  1. Well, Richard, maybe I’m the only one responding for now—but thanks for the beautiful translations of Hikmet’s poems. One shakes one’s head. One smiles, and cries.