Caroline Stockford: Manual for mourning a great poet

Hüseyin Özdemir, küçük İskender, 2006. Source:

“Because life is the most tragic, most magnificent, most merciless trick death can play on us.”

küçük İskender, “Someone Call an Ambulance”



When you first hear of his illness, you should be in the company of a genius journalist at seven at night and still at work. Upon going into the underwater world of shock, you should walk with said visiting journalist to the fountain that the ravens frequent in Vienna’s Volksgarten. Sit on a bench.  As you watch the cascades of crystal beads streaming from between stone wreathes and sculpted longing you might say,

“I can’t cry yet.”

You may regret not having published books with the great poet and letting him have his own way with the stage play you wrote as a canto of his lines.  But you didn’t finish it. Now, this is finishing it.

“When the question is asked: ‘Is there death, after life?'”

küçük İskender, “Necromantic”



When you go to visit him, three months later, you might wait for two friends in the shade of a dark-leafed tree, near the bus station in the baking centre of a busy tourist town. You might play Robert Pollard’s Release the Sunbird on repeat and very loud, on your good quality headphones.  You might feel very, very alive.  You might feel the urge to cry.  You will be afraid.  And ashamed at not having made the poet famous in translation.

When the friends come, you will hug them and remember what love is.  It is enduring.  You might wait together for a long time for a handsome, half dressed man to arrive and drive you all in his knackered car up to the house.  You may stop at a Carrefour’s and talk about what to buy; grapes or other fruit; knowing it makes no difference.

“When I talk to myself, I use a different language.

Alphabet of trees and birds – it never worked.”

küçük İskender, “May Cannot Enter”



When you get to the house you should go into the poet’s back room, the room with his old sofa from the flat in Istanbul. The smoking room.  And there he may be, lying on a hospital bed, naked but for a nappy.  And you may think of Gandhi.  And that may not be appropriate.  And you may, all of you, just sit there and stare.  You may be smiling inanely, because you are so afraid.  Mouth wide, baring your bad teeth.  Monkeys could tell you that it is aggression in the face of fear at your friend’s annihilation.

The great poet may sit up with no weight and no hair.  He may smoke a cigarette.  He may say nothing more than,

“Kısmet. It is fate.  It was going to be so good.  But… Kısmet.”

He will not say goodbye to you. On the way out you may give the cold shoulder to his old, tall mother, as she, he told you, did the same to him.  You might recall him telling you she never said a word when he told her what the corner shop owner made him do, aged seven.  He told you she did nothing the next time, or the next.

You may meet the woman from the publishing house on the finely-dusted road outside and tell her to hire a male nurse, to get him a second opinion.  Before you get in the car, you may look out over the paradise below and remember the poet say,

“I made it.”

After twenty-two books of poetry, from a bodrum to Bodrum; from a smoky cellar to a high white eyrie with a view over the sea. He earned his life-long living from poetry. You may feel the pain rising and pushing up tears and you might swallow it.  That would be a mistake.

“Don’t read too much Burroughs, it’ll spoil the Dostoyevsky”

küçük İskender, “This time it’s real bad”



When you drive down to town, the four of you should go and drink beer for the poet, smoke cigarettes for him at a table by the marina. You might feel vulnerable when a man with his legs spread won’t stop staring at you.  You might feel paranoid that he’s a government spy.  You might realise you have no flight home.  And this will be a problem for your boss.  You might feel lost.  Your friends may give you a long brown envelope.  And you may open it to find a wedding invitation.  You may think that this is one of those moments where Queensbury rules are lifted. You could sneak a rabbit punch at convention; at circumstance.  You could stay.  Change your life by doing nothing.  You know this is a threshold. You stand there in the doorway of one life and another and take a deep breath of freedom.  You can see through mountains. You are so scared you have eaten all fear.  It’s all used up.  Then, you sneak back into the familiar when no-one is looking.

“I knew the password,

I punched it in and pried open the lid of the sky”

küçük İskender, “The Last Stage of the Treatment”



When you discover the great poet’s verse for the very first time it should be in a competition you are forbidden to enter. You should be a magic 42, and thus, two years too old.  You should read and print out his poems whilst working in a provincial doctor’s surgery, overlooking a harbour.  You should read those pages at the bus stop, feel electric.  Fall in love with his world and with every subversive word.  Find his photo on the internet.  Be shocked or thrilled at the picture of him cross-legged in underpants on the floor; smoking over a typewriter; in a bare room; with a sleeping man behind him, behind out.  Get a kick from that photo on his website, where his face turns into a skull when you scroll over.  You should long to meet him; to witness his thinking.

You should translate one of his longest poems and get the second line completely wrong.  Because you are not a gay man.  You should stretch out the rhymes to a performance poem and read them out loud to Lone Ranger, the MC, who is shy about performing live; who will only freestyle if he thinks you are out and who comes to your house to Spit with your son, who has smooth mixing style. You should perform the whole poem there in the kitchen and be grateful when he says,

“I didn’t understand much, but it sounds great.”

“You argued a lot, watched by me,

The knife you stabbed her with didn’t know that I’d seen,

There was a chink in your curtain, it was shadowy inside.”

küçük İskender, “Abi”



When you contact the great poet’s publishers they should ignore you. You should try again and be ignored.  You should go to an island to translate poetry for two weeks, at the behest of the grande dame of translation. You should have a whale of a time, debating round a long table in an Ottoman school, translating Haydar Ergülen.  You should drink vodka cocktails on a dark beach with your fellow translators, talking of poetry; dance and swim naked from a forbidden pontoon; feel ink-like sea lapping your universe, your everywhere.

You should ask H.E. for your favourite poet’s email.  The one you cannot reach.  He should give it to you.  You should tell him your theory about the Turkish word for shadow, how it really means reflection.  He should invite you to his festival to perform your poetry. You should try to be as humble as he.  Your favourite poet will not answer your emails.

“I died and I came to my senses”

küçük İskender, “Boots”



When you go to the festival you should be a good girl. Preload the karma.  No alcohol until the last night.  You should ask the universe in advance if you can meet your favourite poet. Somehow.  Half-plan how it’s going to happen.  Allow two days in Istanbul at the end of your trip for the manifestation of this miracle.  On the last night of the festival you should sit next to Şakir, the hippy.  The one who publishes a magazine of poetry.  The one who works at a university; who’s doing a PhD in fashion; who’s a Cat, man.  When he asks, casually,

“Who’s your favourite poet?”, say


When he says,

“I’m his best friend”, be amazed.  When he says,

“You’d like to meet him?”  Go quiet.  Don’t forget to say “yes”.

When he pulls out his mobile phone and calls him, go cold.  Let all your blood run cold.  Be dead.  You will be reborn in the story.  When he passes you the phone, make a joke about European readers.  Make the poet you love laugh.  Hear the barrier crash.

“His mouth is a gun, his lips – the barrel, his words are bullets of the night.”

küçük İskender



When you meet him, you should get there early. Stand outside a patisserie they are pulling down.  Hold a staff in your hand, carved with your name; given to you by a muhtar for your talk on Yunus Emre.  Don’t let the poet’s book shake in your hand as you see him cross the road towards you; looking like a middle aged Turkish man and not a rock star; wearing a long, grey, wool coat. Hair slicked back, tied up.  Cigarette in hand.

“Aha,”  he will say, “they don’t want us here for tea.”

Go with him for a beer.  For two litres of beer.  Smoke some of his Camel cigarettes.  Try to impress him.  Try to get past his guard; the thousands of terracotta soldiers.  Perform the long poem, Abi.  He will like that.  Walk up the street with him and say goodbye.  Hear him say,

“Yes. You can be my translator.”  Don’t ever come down.

“It’s not the ones who left I miss,

but the era I didn’t witness.”

küçük İskender, “Surahs for Slovens”



When you go back to your country you should translate him. Get four major things wrong with each poem.  Email Şakir, the hippy; he knows him; intimately.  Let him point out the history behind references.  Let him light up the signs to Pala, Uyar, Cansever, Ayhan.  Don’t feel bad for not being a gay man.  Do your best.  If some lines lie like a dead horse in your language, fear not. Some lines will fly.  Get the poet published in a handful of American journals.  Tell everyone you’re writing a play, a canto of his lines.  Don’t finish it.  Kid yourself it’s because you are not getting paid. Leave months between translations.  Let him down.  Let him down again.  Get invited to his flat the next time you’re in Istanbul.

“If I become dust, don’t step on me,

air – don’t inhale me.

You are such an enemy.”

küçük İskender, “I come to you with a razorbladed face.”



When you visit, don’t forget to buy beer and cigarettes. Feel electric eels swarm your gut as you go down the slope.  Beyoğlu.  The man in the narrow shop knows what he smokes.  Buy at least four freezing cold Tuborg.  Be nervous and go to the door.  Let him buzz you in.  Go down to the basement.  See the tall, iron door.

“A religious newspaper sent four men to beat me up,” he will tell you later. “In my own home. I have an iron door, now.”

When you see him, be excited. Like meeting a lover.  Don’t ever ask why you love him.  Perhaps you, too, are a poet.  Perhaps, without the sexual, love is surer.  Go into his smoky salon and see Cobain on the wall.  Sit on the other sofa.  Don’t seem scared.  Smoke relentlessly, just like him.

Smile when the hippy poet Şakir walks in.  Visiting.  Then, show no sign of lust when the tall, young one comes.  Feel trust.  He’s like a son to the poet.  So, that night, you must fuck with him.  You must all leave the poet when he flips from beer to raki and becomes increasingly unhappy.  He’ll tell you all to leave at ten.  Go then.  On a bar crawl with three young men.  And never forget the look on the young one’s face, later, when you’re naked, and he kneels up to tie back his waist-length hair, his Native American-black hair, before diving.  Hope that the poet never finds out.  Know that he will.

“My lover said, ‘You’re cheating on me’.  ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m cheating on him.’”

küçük İskender



Do this for years. Become the great poet’s friend.  Know there will always be distance.  Let him give you all his books of poetry.  Talk with him about everything.  Suicide attempts.  Lovers.  Mothers.  About how some just don’t dig one kid.  He’ll be listening.  Love him.  Finish seventeen translations.  Never publish a whole book.  Buy the poet Stonewall gifts for his birthday.  May, May, the month of May.  “May cannot enter.”  To him, May is summer.  May is freedom.  May is true love.  The unobtainable.

“Just like two cold bullets, knowing each other in the barrel of a gun, like two bullets fired into the same body, I loved you like the panic of those short seconds that lie between being the victim and the killer.”

küçük İskender, “It seems that I loved you.”



When you interview him in his underground library let the camera run out after twenty minutes. He will say Istanbul is heaven for a gay man, if you are careful.  And in this city, you must be careful.  If he tells you poetry is his laboratory, remember he studied medicine and psychology.

“A poet must understand the mind and the body”, he’ll say.

Ask him why Franz Kafka’s an equation in his poem.  Let him tell you,

“Some people add up.  But some, are an unsolvable equation.  There is something else there.”

Know how badly you will let him down.  Don’t hate yourself for this, that’s too kind.  And never be a martyr.  Keep rolling.  Life is not yours to stop.  Do what he told you all, when he knew time was up:

“Take refuge in poetry.”

“Saying goodbye, to the sound of breaking bones,

There was no reason, I just kissed him.”

küçük İskender, “There was no Reason”



When it’s getting towards the end, ask about him.  About his condition.  He’ll improve.  But just a little.  Back at his mother’s in Istanbul.  Just enough to go out one more time.  He didn’t want to die there.  He didn’t want to die.  Don’t visit in the last six months.  Be a coward.  Put general human rights work ahead of the one you love.  You can’t bear to see him.  You can’t stand to lose him.  Poetry cannot stand losing him.  Not now.  Never see him perform at the Roxy.

Write about his voice, at least once.  How you thought he’d sound like a sparrow, all small.  And how his bass was bigger than an ocean.  Ask him to read poems while you record them.  Make him the subject of Wales’s poetry competition in translation.  Let him read Nazım’s On living.  Everyone should read Nazım’s On Living. Remember Şakir saying:

“In his poems Iskender never finds love.  He’s always too old or too gay.”

It will always be that way.

Invite him to a party and be as shocked as everyone else when he comes.  Let there be a power cut in your Air b’n’b flat.  Wheel in a trolley-load of liqueur.  Make food all day.  Let Iskender and a friend arrive, and hear him say,

“I invented him” of someone you know.

Tell that friend, later.  Ruin their relationship.  Watch Iskender leave early.  Then start partying hard and drink all the beer he left, laughing.

“My soul rang with the mid-day prayer call

of a funeral with no followers.

My soul held a half-formed kernel of panic

and a chill of April smiles”

küçük İskender, “Murder on Significant Child Street”



Love his poetry. Struggle with lines like,

“I saw furniture draped in a dust sheet, on the breast of the woman in my last play,”

and “the green Chevrolet is at the end of something, Baltimore plates, top job, Elton John on the stereo, Sacrifice.”

When you perform Abi, let it be the first time you read to an audience.  Do it well, with a slightly flawed translation.  Try to solve the riddle of the basket on a rope.  How do you tell the reader that it saves a trip downstairs?  That you lower it from the balcony for the porter to run errands?  That the grapes go in the basket?  That it’s hauled up again? That “grapes” can mean tranquillisers to dull the pain?  When the grapes explode in the poem’s last verse, you won’t say they’re meds.  Washed down with sea water.  Say something else.

Go on. Don’t figure out how to make the line about a concatenated car crash poetic.  Don’t believe that the boy dies in the poem Abi.  Kid yourself the man drives him off to a new, gay life.  You are naive, perhaps a child.  Punch above your weight every day you’re alive.

“We too have left this world, now all four seasons are Spring”

küçük İskender, “The State Execution Ceremony”



When you find out, this June, that he has died, don’t believe them.  See someone’s online post that quotes, “Let my final words be: take refuge in poetry.”

Wait a whole day.  Go on with your life.  This whole eighteen months spent waiting in the hall.  Getting nearer to the door.  Not visiting.  Counting.  Get a message from that journalist you were with when you first heard.  Don’t reply.  And, yes, cry.

Don’t cry all day, as you did for David Bowie.  You didn’t know him, so you could let it all out.  Save some of your crying for beautiful days, for when you want to ruin pure moments, then stab your immaculate soul with the fact that he is dead.  The dagger will never dull.  Ah well. Vow to do a PhD translating his poetry.  Renege on that.  You flip-flop.  You can’t stay still long enough to make anything concrete.  I like you.

Don’t charge your phone for two days.  Then find the online message from the young one.  The tall, young, hot man who walks like a galleon, men and women drunk in his wake.  The one who takes you to rock bars and rushes out to buy poetry.  Who reads you poems with those plump lips, loud over the music.  Who falls asleep after seven beers and who you have to wake to pay.  Who you fuck every time, though you think you’ve changed your mind.  Age can make you take things seriously.  Don’t age.  Read the message when the young one says,

“Caroline, we’ve lost Iskender.”

Cry again.  Let him tell you the funeral’s in two days.  Know you can’t make it from your country.

“I put on a pure black overcoat and wore deep black night on my face.

I came to you in mourning, I came to you in the rain,

like a stagecoach with six wounded horses.

I kissed you on the lips like kissing my mother’s hand.

‘Don’t ever bury me next to my mother’ I said.”

küçük İskender, “Mothers do not forgive their sons”



Let him send you a photo of the grave.

küçük İskender

(Derman İskender Över)



When you go there two weeks later, blow too much money on 23 white lilies.  Realise they are very heavy.  Go to the graveyard in a taxi.  Make the mistake of getting out.  Realise this land of the dead is vast.  Walk, under the weight of white lilies as the noon sun stares down.  Walk for half an hour along the avenues.  Admire all the marble.  Ask a gravedigger for help.  Hear him talk on the phone, saying,

“You know, the poet, last week.  Lots of people.  Yes. The old wall?  The back wall?”

Walk until you’re lost and read all headstones.  The one you take a photo of, about literature, about eternal something, that sets you on the path.  Meet another gravedigger called after the Bible’s first man.  Let him walk you all the way.  Be horrified at the grave.  Boulders and concrete pieces on top.  A magazine page of his poetry and scattered cigarettes, a small Fenerbahçe football flag.  Say,

“The ciggies are okay, but you can’t leave these stones here.  He is the greatest poet of our era.  This man,” (don’t cry yet), “is so important.”

Let Adem tell you that a wall was broken to let him lie here.  That he can make good the grave at a price.  Tell him you’ll call the publishing house.

Push a few fists of concrete off the top.  Kneel on the grave, leaning over to move stones and apologise.  Don’t be too familiar with the great poet, even in death.  Talk to Adem, he’s in no rush to go.  He will sit on a grave’s wall, light a cigarette and say he’s given up alcohol. Congratulate him and agree that smoking does not cause cancer.  Ask for a ciggie.  Put the butt on the grave.  Tell Adem to go away.  Agree to drink tea with him at the cemetary gate.  Then don’t. Be alone with the grave.  Lie the lilies on top.  Fuss around.  Don’t stop to let reality knock you down.  Sit.  Still.  Talk to the poet.  Talk to him.  Tell him you’re sorry.  Cry a little.  Be surprised how little you cry.  Stay a while.

“Not far away, was a beautiful graveyard where songs are laid,”

küçük İskender, “Nicola”



When you are ready, address the ghosts nearby. Tell all the other souls around, those above and below the ground,

“Treat this man with respect.  He’s one of the best.  Don’t you dare diss him.  You have money.  I see from your old stones.  But know this.  He is our best poet.  He is.”

Make sure they know they have made space for a great man.  Move the lilies for the last time.  Know they will be dead soon.  Say goodbye.

Walk up one of the many cemetery roads, slow.  Pass two men.  Shovels in their hands.  Say

“Good day.”

You are wearing a posh dress.  You are late for a solidarity meeting.  You have blonde hair.  You are a European woman.  You are still in love with him.  You really loved him. The grave tenders will look at you solemnly.  Silent, and not buying your politeness.  And that’s enough to make you cry.   Let it out.  Gasp in sobs.  Walk on.  Gasp in sobs that no-one can stop.  Let those tears drop, drop, drop.  Cry and gasp like a caught fish, like a hurt kid, all the way up the road.  It is a fine moment.

Say goodbye a few more times.  Tell him you’ll see him soon.  Then worry that might portend your own death.  Marvel at your self-centredness.  Learn from this.  To love him is to love poetry.  Organise a reading of his work someday, with beer around the grave.  Work with his words.  It is okay to love.  Take refuge in poetry.

“You tell me to forget you.

But that’s impossible.

To forget you, I must remember you.”

küçük İskender, after Cemal Süreya


Caroline Stockford is a literary and legal translator born in Barmouth, Wales.  She advocates for freedom of expression and imprisoned journalists as Norwegian PEN’s Turkey Adviser and is the Chair of PEN International’s Search Committee. She can be found on Twitter @Cevirimiz