The Walnut Tree

Nâzım Hikmet Ran, who died fifty years ago this week on June 3 1963, was one of the most sophisticated poets of Turkish language. His reputation as a romantic communist seems uncomplicated on the face of it. His works, however, attest to an author whose ideas were far from simple: a communist who was fascinated by the minutiae of industrialization; a poet who preached art for the masses while devoting his verses to elaborate philosophical discussions with figures as demanding as George Berkeley and Karl Marx.

Born in the then Ottoman-ruled Thessaloniki in 1902, Hikmet studied at a Naval Academy before traveling to Anatolia to join the anti-imperialist resistance movement. From there he moved to Moscow where he witnessed the foundation of the Soviet Union. Inspired by Futurists and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s modernist experiments he returned to Turkey where a nasty surprise awaited him in the form of an increasingly authoritarian regime. The new ruling elite, which trampled all dissent after 1925, picked on Hikmet; as a result he spent more than twelve years in Turkish prisons. After he finally decided to flee to Moscow in 1950, a newspaper printed his picture on its cover, urging its readers to spit on it. He was denationalized a few days later.

The sheer range of Hikmet’s interests was fascinating. Although he spent almost a fourth of his life under confinement he had a ravenous appetite for current affairs, artistic movements and women from all nationalities. With their multiple perspectives his epic city poems bring to mind Dziga Vertov’s filmic experiments. In “The Epic of Kuvayi Milliye” he narrated the war of independence from the perspectives of ordinary people of Anatolia, challenging the official historiography of the state. As an extremely well-read poet he challenged a number other things, too. Hikmet was too clever, too bright, too passionate. Whatever happened on earth interested him; like a journalist he was quick to react to events. When the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima he described this atrocity from the posthumous point of view of a seven year old child (“I’m only seven though I died / In Hiroshima long ago / I’m seven now as I was then / When children die they do not grow”) and from that of a fisherman (“A young Japanese fisherman was killed / by a cloud at sea. / I heard this song from his friends, / one lurid yellow evening on the Pacific.”)

The Rumpus, June 13, 2013

Hikmet’s love poems make good reading; as a young man I effectively made use of them while courting girls. Indeed, I have never met a Turkish girl who didn’t react to Hikmet’s love poems in a positive way. Being a reader of Hikmet provided me with the double advantage of appearing politically and sexually mature.

Last week I remembered Hikmet, like thousands of others who opposed the cutting of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. One of his most popular poems, “The Walnut Tree”, had a contemporary resonance here: “I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park / My leaves are nimble, nimble like fish in water / My leaves are sheer, sheer like a silk handkerchief / pick, wipe, my rose, the tear from your eyes / My leaves are my hands, I have one hundred thousand / I touch you with one hundred thousand hands, I touch Istanbul / My leaves are my eyes, I look in amazement / I watch you with one hundred thousand eyes, I watch Istanbul / Like one hundred thousand hearts, beat, beat my leaves / I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park / neither you are aware of this, nor the police.” Hundreds of people chanting those verses to defend the cutting of trees in an Istanbul park—perhaps this was a fitting way to pay tribute to his memory.

This essay was published in PEN Atlas on June 12, 2013

The Rumpus, June 13, 2013

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