We look as we did when the lava was poured upon us.

Four poems by Behçet Necatigil, translated from Turkish by Chuck Sebian-Lander.

Tek_51Behçet Necatigil died in 1979; since the 1980s, his family and estate have sponsored an annual poetry competition to discover new Turkish voices. There is a similar mingling, within these poems, of past and present; whether the details are clear or obscure in the translation, I find throughout them a recognition that history always remains beneath any rebirth. Necatigil brings Pompeii into Turkey; he suggests a mythical connection between all communities that is forged in more than simple tradition. In the universe he creates, time circles as it progresses. New life will spring from the ash, but that life will feel the weight of its age.

Though he is best known in Turkey as a poet, Necatigil (a professor of literature) always considered himself an academic, and he treated his craft with due academic rigor. I admire his resulting attention to structure and detail, perhaps too much at times during this project: It took many variations and revisions to move from rough, difficult to parse literal translations (credit Esra Uzun, a native Turkish speaker and friend, with helping to form those rough initial translations) to this work. I repeatedly rebalanced the desire to match his poem’s structural integrity with the need to maintain both the clarity and the mystery of their meaning. Some linguistic patterns could be preserved with their magical, lingering effects (the variations on “unite” within “Without Buying,” for example), but others were simply impossible to keep without crafting stilted English or losing a coherent understanding of the central images.

Necatigil himself was a translator; fond of the many structures that language could build, he translated Ranier Maria Rilke’s poetry from German into Turkish and won awards in 1956 and 1964 for collections of translated works. I should have found that intimidating, but it turned out to be thrilling. To me, his work above all exudes love both for his own language and language in general. That’s reason enough to read him in English and in any other tongue that would have him.

–Chuck Sebian-Lander


by Behçet Necatigil

Parlayarak gözleri yaklaşırlar

Geçse ellerine diderler tiftik.


Karanlıska, dizilmişse ve kapkacaksa

Dolaşır ayaklara kutular

Bir sürü örtü kılıf ve hep korkulacaksa

Çekilen bir iskemle bir kötürüm olarak

Getirmişler, bırakmışlar ve gitmişlerse

Kim açıkça söyler bilerek, bilmeyerek

Sana, bana ve ona ettiği kötülüğü—

Taş taş uzaklaş kuyulara gidiyor.


Titrek mumlar dibinde birikmiş gölgeleriz

Yüzler, eşya ve kaplar bir görünüm olarak

Karşımızda değişmez bir ufuk adına

Kim, neyi ne kadar tanır karanlığında—

Taş taş uzaklaş hepsi yola gidiyor.


by Behçet Necatigil

Her eyes approach a dangerous brightness:

Any brighter and devil’s hands would find them.


We lay here, trapped in the darkness together,

Pinned by boxes lined with pots and pans.

We cower under bedsheets, terrified together,

Pushed under, frozen in place as paraplegics.

Our torturers may have long since left, but how

Could we know unless we pull away our sheets?

Now the pain caused—your pain, my pain—

We cast it into the darkness, piece by piece.


Candlelit shadows spill out across the room,

Casting our silhouettes against the furniture.

The distant horizon can’t dim that new light:

Whatever horror remains in this darkness,

We cast them away, one by one.

translated from Turkish by Chuck Sebian-Lander


by Behçet Necatigil

Bir yerde her şey Pompei’nin son günleri—

Nasıl dökülmüşse lav öyleyiz üstümüze,

Bir elbise mi ki çikar at eskileri.


Epeyce de uzaklarda—geriler

Düşünür: kim bunlar, geldiler, aldılar

Eski benim çul giysilerimi

Gene çul giyidirdiler.


Uyumak uzun bir süre, serdikleri döşekte

Çok başka görünmüştü–

Oysa hep aynı şilte.


Bir zaman belki güzel, değişen bir model–

Yeniler derken eski vitrinleri, çocukluk…

Ne kadar çevirseler yüzünü



by Behçet Necatigil

Everywhere we can see the last days of Pompeii—

We look as we did when the lava was poured upon us.

Can we wear new clothes? Get rid of those old things.


They remain so distant, those ancient

Memories: whoever they were, they took

All the clothing from my closets,

To make me wear their old clothes again.


They had slept for so long, spread upon mattresses

That seemed very different from mine,

But were the same.


Perhaps it would be nice to change all these patterns—

Rejuvenating old looks, like returning to our childhoods…

Until the circling of the church clock’s hands

Reminds us.

translated from Turkish by Chuck Sebian-Lander


by Behçet Necatigil

Alırsız satarsız bu ne alışverişi?

Parçalardı bilmezdi parçaları

Tutturur birleş tirirler.


Sağında solunda boşluklar olan

Yuvarlak ya da yumurta biçimi

Kapları sevsem de yer az kaplar

Birleşmek yoksa bitiş



Buna benzer bir müzik terimi hatırlıyorum.

Çok canlı ve ritmik idi hatırlıyorum.

Takvimde şubatsa neden samanyolları

Temmuzdan bir geceyi takvimde şubat diye

Çok tenha caddelere ge



Bizi burda fazla—gö


Without Buying

by Behçet Necatigil

Why must they shop without buying, without selling?

They shred the pieces without knowing the puzzle

Until the parts will never reunite.


At all their sides there are spaces,

Empty and round like eggs.

I long for the small things that could fill those gaps;

They may not anchor, but they can



There is a musical term similar to this, I recall.

So lively and rhythmic, as best as I recall.

If this is February, why has the Milky Way

Brought a July night into this calendar month,

And into these desolate streets—

to unite us?


We, who are here now, become

united forms.

translated from Turkish by Chuck Sebian-Lander


by Behçet Necatigil

Bu çocuk bu ipe böyle ne geçiriyor

Bir bir daha bir daha bir eli korkulukta

Başka elde bir eli bir köprüyü geçiyor

Durmadan bir zifiri içime çekiyorum


Bu şu o ve çocuklar bir vakti geçiriyorum

Bir yazıyı yavaşça önümde söküyorlar

İplere sırça ince boncuklar takıyorlar

Kopunca kırılınca düşünce

İçimi çekiyorum.


Bir yol ben sonra onlar geçiyor

Kanatlar–tutuşuyor karanlık

Güle güle geride

Küller kuştan artık.


by Behçet Necatigil

What is this boy stringing upon his rope?
He adds another, another, another, one hand on the rail,
His other hand in another’s grasp as they cross the bridge;
I keep watch, inhale my nicotine, and sigh.


In time, as I sit, the children reveal their secrets,
Bring their rope to me, to try telling stories
With small beads like words strung upon the line.
But their words slip, fall, and shatter;
I sigh.


Later, they follow me down a new path
Where wings ignite the darkness.
Farewell, the past;
Now the ash makes birds.

translated from Turkish by Chuck Sebian-Lander