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Edip Cansever, translated by Julia Clare Tillinghast and Richard Tillinghast, Dirty August, Talisman House, $14.95 (paper)
Cansever’s poems—as represented in Dirty August, the first English-language translation of the Turkish poet, who died in 1986—are thrillingly precise and weird. These are philosophical interrogations of the way language makes nothingness into somethingness: “What is there between us but a room? / It could be called nothing but there’s something there.” Cansever’s poetics might be encapsulated in the nothing-something exchange between the poetic “I” and the poet’s eye: “In order to experience nothingness, nothing else is necessary. / Dirty August! I have finally incinerated my eyelids.” What’s happening here is not so much grotesquery as a lyrical enactment of the triumph of the “I” over the eye, a destruction that seeks the unmediated experience of the physical world. But the poet’s “I,” through the very act of poem-making, mediates unceasingly, transforms all the world’s nothings into somethings. Cansever’s work is predicated on this paradox. Dirty August includes a brief essay, “Abstract Concrete,” a salvo against the notion that poems must be one or the other. Cansever insists that a poem, however abstract its virtues, cannot stand outside of the concrete fact of poetry. In other words, no “I” without the eye. Cansever’s poems enact this slippage again and again, in delight, sadness, and strangeness. “Precipice” ends with the transformation of the “I” back into eye, from word to image: “But I am growing old through something that’s not a part of me. / I am passing out of my original form / by consuming it— / A slowly burning brick barn / Hung with crystal chandeliers.”
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