Dec 132016


The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. —D. M. Spitzer


The Book of Things[1]
Ilhan Berk
Translated by Georg Messo
Shearsman Books, 2016
310 pages, $23.00

Where ends, where begins The Book of Things? The straw and russet ground of its cover, the obverse where dark lines like shadows render in positive the title, in contour a tilted figure—recumbent, off-center, nude? The reverse, where dark lines form letters, sentences, text about—here, with emphatic prepositionality—the text? If the latter, the action works centrifugally: which text? The publisher’s statements at the top address Ilhan Berk’s work as “Unparalleled in the English language.” In the third paragraph, the endorsement by Talat S. Halman, the poet is identified as Turkish; Halman declares that those who delight in Turkish poetry—already as slick a category as the the mud and slug mentioned in the publisher’s description (poetry written by people identifying as Turks? Written in Turkey? In Turkish? In Roman or Arabic script, or both? With pre- or post- Atatürkic reform conventions?)—are thankful to George Messo for “faithful and artful renditions.” The reverse seems to indicate a text by Ilhan Berk that defies parallel with English language poetry, establishing an agonistic context for the work, but also a notion of the involvement of Ilhan Berk’s text within that context. However, the book does not present a text by Ilhan Berk. It presents a translation by George Messo; the obverse so testifies in a font absorbed by the palette of the ground—a painting by Ilhan Berk, as the reverse establishes—and by the much larger font for the “author’s” name, uppermost and greatest on the author’s poluchrysaic field. The centrifugal action of the reverse hurls attention from the translation presented in the book and towards another book, one written by Ilhan Berk. The Book of Things is not that book.

The Book of Things enters the agonistics of English language poetry not as a Berkian, but rather a Messoan text, an English text on the scene of English language poetry. The agonistics occur reflexively, upon the book itself, its outwardness, where translator and author, English and Turkish collide and grapple for identity. The only identity available to them, however, is that of non-identity. The play of resistance strives upon the face of the book, where the production, the book design, occludes this non-identity of the translation and a text by Ilhan Berk, a shadow text, a spectral text, elsewhere, immaterial, nevertheless haunting this text: the first leaf bears the lasting haunt of the spectral text in the title beneath—as if grounding—The Book of Things, Şeyler kitabi. Testimony of the inseparability of the two texts that constitute translation. Testimony to the separateness of those two texts: “While 1 pioneers its darkness / 2, as if slashing with a knife, divides 1 in half”; “2’s hardheartedness comes, for sure, from 1 wanting to bind everything / to itself” (Messo 168). The Book of Things comes forward as a thing, reified by its design and attempting to assert its unified identity, yet the fact of its having-been-translated resists, recoils. On the edges the identity frays: where the uppermost entry on the contents page is “Interview with the Author” (Messo 8-11), the final entry is “A Guide to Turkish Pronunciation” (Messo 309), all in English, all in translation.

Rather than project Messo’s text, as if it were a mere simulacrum of, or even further, identical to Berk’s text, into relationships with poetries of the historical moment in which Berk activated and released a Turkish language into poems—with modernist poetries, late 19th century French poetries, for example, as Peter Riley has done in his review of The Book of Things in The Fortnightly Review[2]—Messo’s translation might converse better with of those figures and their poetries seen to be of importance in a reading of Berk’s work. The work under review is, after all, not Şeyler kitabi by Ilhan Berk, but rather, Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, by George Messo. How, then, does Messo’s text comport itself with recent English translations of these poetries? To advance such a project would make use of a stereoscopics that suspends in view each author’s (Messo and Berk) context and the language matrices where their voices develop, cycle, and gestate. This question will not be pursued here, but it may provide an illuminating way to position a review or critical reading of Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things that would bring into focus the translation, its context(s) and significances.

Within and between the paratextual material, the text’s three-part architecture moves from “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” through “LONG LIVE NUMBERS” to “HOUSE.” Of these, the first spreads out over one hundred thirty-five pages, nearly half the pages of the book; the second, over ninety-two pages; the third, fifty-three pages. Each previous section exceeds its sequel by approximately forty pages; the sections diminish in a regular fashion through the book’s unfoldings. The poetry takes place as and within this architecture, in the same sense that the house is (or can be) a home, though the two are not identical. In Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things, multiple ways of articulating the book’s architecture come into play, pulling at the non-identity of the house|home relation. Here are two ways of reckoning the inner-architecture:

1)    within part one, “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T,” are nine sections, most or all of which could be considered poetic sequences

2)    part two, “LONG LIVE NUMBERS,” has four sections that are not sequences

3)    part three, “HOUSE,”

1.    a.  is composed of twenty-four sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences
2.    b. is composed of five sections, some of which could be construed as poetic sequences.

Just as with the poems whose “meaning is seldom grasped” (Messo 22), the very organization waivers in its function as organon. Several meanings might become available, and this diversification at every level of the book may be one way of the overcoming of meaning, raised in the poem “Lyre,” which forms a condition for poetry or, at least, for talking about poetry (Messo 21); another possibility is that no meanings become available, only the bruta facta of the book. If option “a” is followed for describing the organization of “HOUSE,” the overall organization disrupts a consistency or self-similarity between parts and sections: against the reduction of parts’ lengths works the dual motion of a reduction in the number of sections from part one to part two, ending with a vast dispersal of particulars in “HOUSE.” Developing option “b,” on the other hand, would let the book engage in some of the arithmetics found throughout, but particularly in its final moment “WINDOW,” where subtraction of leaf from house gives window (Messo 282). Subtraction: take part one (9 sections), subtract the sections of part two (4 sections), and the five sections of part three remain: 9-4=5. The book both authorizes this type of scrutiny and derides it as the work of the eye:

Partitioning, encoding, freezing still.
An image predator.
Where in the house, it says, is better to see outside?
(Window believes the view is there for itself.)
Its presence too is indebted to absence.
It has grabbed the world before it.
(The window faces forward.)

Is it a child passing by?

‘A child’s passing!’ it will say. (Messo 282)

Predatory, an optics that brings things to a standstill, is the eye; the poem levels charges against the eye immediately following the subtraction of leaf from house, the book’s final arithmetic statement. Messo’s text will summon and resist this kind of operation by which the book’s organization moves along and out of the numbers. And note that the child’s passing (‘A child’s passing!’) both figures the disfiguration of the book-as-house by the overdetermining subject and prefigures the book’s own end—“Balcony, / the house’s alcoholic child” (Messo 306; underlining added), sounding “child” into the demise of paratext, the chaos of a pronunciation guide to a Turkish that isn’t there, the absence constituting, giving rise to, behind and motivating (presumably), the whole book.

The book’s organization itself animates an interrogation of its title and its section titles. An ambiguity sways across the grammatical regions of a genitive construction not fiercely determined by a context: the things’s book, a book belonging to things; the book pertaining to things, where things are the objects towards which the book is related. An undecideability hovers in the title even as the terms of a relationship stand firm: things and book, primarily; then also, a dynamics between plurality (things) and singularity (book); of generality (things) and specificity (book); lastly (but likely not finally), in an even more rarefied sense, concept (things) and object (book). In its non-linguistic moments, The Book of Things offers a figuration of this dynamics from a Christian illustration showing the modes of relation among the persons of the holy trinity (Messo 219). The possibility of the triune deity depends on both the non-identity of its elements as they relate to one another and the identity of its elements with the central term, deus. So the image composes the nexus of relations in circles for each member of the trinity (pater, filius, spiritus sanctus) triangulated around a smaller, central circle in which deus is inscribed. Each circle is an angle of the triangle, with channels connecting them with the words non est, while the channels linking each circle to the inner circle say est. The book, itself triune, finds itself reflected in and reflecting, in its own organization, the imago dei and its entanglements of being and non-being.

Within each of the three sections circulates a variety of poems and things, images of things. Early in the volume appear re-imaged objects—images of images of things such as a paint roller, a pin, jewelry, garden shears (Messo 16-17). The representations defy a single scale of reference apart from the reader|viewer’s experience of them and the near-legislated mapping of that experience onto the images as given, such that, although the reproduced image of a hairpin exceeds in size that of the paint-roller, a scale drawn from experience of those items operates against what is given and produces a dissonance. Each page contains what appears to be a collection of four separate images of things placed upon a single ground then re-imaged—photocopied, scanned, photographed—as a composition. The volume thus opens the ancient three-part distancing of mimetic art from reality.[3]

How does a viewer|reader engage such pages? Are they read? Does their arrangement address something, mean something? Turning on itself as reflexion, the following page inquires “—If objects had language, what would you want them to say for you? / —I would want every object to say, all together, ‘He’s one of us’. / I have abided by the untouchability of things” (Messo 18). And again, poem turns on itself, thing reflecting thing: “The poem is where the word disappears, the place where it is /  almost impossible to fix meaning” (Messo 24). In the book’s opening through images the word disappears and meaning is, from the outset, suspended, entered into the chaos “where reality reaches its / furthest limits in language, where that relationship between language / and reality’s other side comes to a halt, and how it comes to a halt”(Messo 21).

The more attention falls on these pages of images near the book’s opening the more evident become the different tonalities of the dissonance: the jarring and hectic strain energized by this collision of given and thought, to borrow from Immanuel Kant modes of subjective encounters with objects.[4] The collages stage an insurrection against “the subject’s sovereignty” by, in concert with the objects of language, becoming somehow object-centered and thoroughly resistant to the rulership of the “I”: the work seeks “To draw near to the subject from all / sides; but never fully grasp it; only to circle it; to start going round again / just when you draw near…” (p. 21). This dizzying cycle rattles the presumptive subject-oriented relation to things, where the subject subjects objects to the grasp and threat of its conceptual epistemics.

This relation the book seeks to undo, problematize, or at times invert. In a dialectical reversal spoken in the alternation of the title of part one from all capitals to all miniscules, the reader|viewer takes a position early in the book as a thing among and opposed to other things: “THINGS THAT COUNT / THINGS THAT DON’T” becomes “things that count things that don’t” (Messo 13, 15). Undoing the line-break shifts the whole phrase. Count moves from intransitive in the all-capitals instantiation to transitive in the miniscule, implicating human beings as those who count things that do not count other things, i.e. that are do not perform the cognitive operation of enumerating. But it does not seem to be an indictment. The book asks to be counted even as it cancels parts of itself, as in pages of text overlaid with “X” as if destined to be excised (Messo 221-223). So Messo’s Ilhan Berk: The Book of Things reaches through and beyond itself: “Anyway, to reach out and grab the outer edges of things is to be in / the world” (Messo 255). Here—at this very moment in the book’s work, in the alphabetized three-columned (triune!) list that opens the sequence “house I” (255), the translation ruptures the spell of identity.

—D. M. Spitzer



D. M. Spitzer is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University in the Philosophy, Literature, and Theory of Criticism Program within the Department of Comparative Literature. He  works primarily on early Greek thinking and its modern and contemporary reception and on translation theory. In August, 2016, Etruscan Press published his book of poems, A Heaven Wrought of Iron: Poems from the Odyssey. Recent work has taken the form of collaborations with his wife, Sara Shiva Spitzer, a visual artist. He live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with his family: Sara and three children Maya, Ani, and Luna.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Special thanks to Sevinç Türkkan for bringing this book to my attention & for motivating me to write this review.
  2. Riley, Peter. “Poetry Notes.” The Fortnightly Review., 28 June, 2016. Accessed 29 October, 2016.
  3. Plato. Res Publica. Platonis Opera, Vol. 4, edited by John Burnet, Clarendon, 1902.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Könemann, 1995.

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