Issue 14 – Summer 2008 – Jon Thompson on Ilhan Berk

Language’s Ancient House

Ilhan Berk, Madrigals. Translated by George Messo. (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008). 104pp.

Madrigals is that rare thing—a book that draws extensively on a wide range of modernist and postmodernist techniques without seeming to be gimmicky or fake. To the contrary, the collection pulls together imagist-style imagery, collage, cut ups and cummingsesque typographical experiments in four sections or “books”, each dedicated to a particular form, to address an interrelated set of explorations on language, time and desire. The effect is oddly powerful: the poems are strangely beautiful, both lyrical and poignant, inflected by a light-handed surrealism. The form of the collection emerges as self-validating inasmuch as the different sections or “books” achieve an overall design, working with and against one in another like the different elements of one of Braque’s or Picasso’s collages.

Like collage art, Madrigals is interested in exploring perspective, in emphasizing in a composition the different ways or perspectives in which a thing can be seen. This interest in perspective is announced in the table of contents, a convention that Berk subjects to a playful reinvention in a postmodernist vein:


It should be read this way: as a single book and as four separate books:

I. Birds Gold Cars Diamonds Shadows (patchwork)
II. Your Name Was a Leaf (onomatopoeia)
III. Madrigals (collage)
IV. Like An Old Car I Passed Through The Night (cut up)
V. Or as I do (in fact): to be opened and read from anywhere

Far from being an empty trick, Berk’s table of contents signifies a central preoccupation of the collection–the relation between reality and signification. For Berk, this is summed up in naming: the world is all of the things we name, but these “things” can also be renamed. Naming is not just labeling, but a way of slicing up reality; to name the world differently or to rename it is to understand it differently, indeed to live in it differently. As he puts it in poem “VII” in Book I:

It’s the letter
of voice
and word

Ilhan Berk may just as well have said that the letter is “source/of voice/and world.” To suggest that signification is the source of the world for some might lead to a sense of the annihilating insubstantiality of the world. But for Berk what is emphasized instead is the wonder of the world; wonder that it can be so various. This is partly the sentiment in poem “XV” in Book I, which consists of a single fragment: “…language’s ancient house…” Madrigalsmarvels at this ancient house, and all the rooms it contains. The posture of the book is thus oriented much more on fashioning an idiom that will dramatically embody this vision as opposed to creating a poetic persona that attempts seduce the reader with its larger-than-life grandiosity or peculiarity. Poem XIII is made up of four lines, two at the top of the page: “Name/ is everything” and two at the bottom of the page: “Erase/me.”  For Berk, the desire to die into language is not quite the same as the desire for oblivion, for what remains as marker or token of the poet is the poetry itself, the house, as it were, that with luck, will become ancient.

Madrigals, as the title suggests, brings together some of the oldest traditions and ambitions in poetry with some of the newest. Book III, the “Madrigals” book, contains echoes of the polyphonic madrigal tradition of the Renaissance, but it also embodies the collage technique in poetry. Each poem in this book is made up of six numbered statements. Numbering the statements confers upon each one the status of a compostional element in a poetic collage. Here is one poem from the sequence:


1. You were whirring forests strange birds wild rivers

2. You came & went with a sun from the first days of the world.

3. I used to reel with your big mouth your neck your wild smell.

4. Each time I kept thinking about that never improving taste (what was that?).

5. I saw rotten wombs while I swayed upon this earth.

6. I left everything I saw there then I stood up.

With its purposeful incongruities, these poetic collages are reminiscent of Picasso’s revolutionary, passionately disheveled collage paintings (the cover of Madrigals is a painting of a nude woman done by Berk in a manner very like Picasso’s early style). The key interest here is not in representing the world directly but in suggesting its strangeness, incongruity and singularity. Berk’s poems seem to suggest that because there is no absolute border between the subject and the object, the individual and the world, everything is a part of everything else, essentially indivisible: “You were whirring forests strange birds wild rivers.”  Even if lines like this are read as only metaphors for the beloved, their multiplicity and inventiveness appears to insist upon the odd inseparability of experience. The obligation of the poems in this sequence then becomes one of not simplifying experience. The speaker in them sees a world in which strange beauty and strange horror rival one another in almost equal measure and each poem renames this world in an effort to do justice to its wild heterogeneity.  Part of what Berk—like Picasso—finds endlessly fascinating and redemptive is the erotic:


1. Come sit down then and open your legs because you’re beautiful and 
    and you smell like a peach.

2. At our table there are horses giant birds fire escapes zebras

3. Behind us is the quiet history the well-mannered geography the 
   trees whose names we do not know.

4. Put your hair in order and don’t close your loins keep them wet.

5. We were in the world’s second day we brought down a deluge of rain
     and left.

6. We knew the world as long-held kisses & embraces.

While the location of these poems is decontextualized—Ilhan Berk is Turkish, but they could as easily take place in Europe or the Americas—they possess an interesting temporal accent. On the one hand, the poems in Madrigalspossess a worldly, contemporary feeling as the speakers in the poems confront experience which is seen as being limited in time. In Book I, poem “II” declares:

Whatever we write we write time
(we see it from there)

Time makes itself felt most dramatically in the poems dealing with the erotic. Like so many other erotic poems, they achieve their sense of urgency from the awareness that death forecloses all lovemaking. Some of Berk’s poems express a longing to find transcendence in ecstatic experience, as in “X” in Book IV:


We were naked
our nakedness







Most often, however, the poems in Madrigals recognize that part of the wonder of the world is due to the dominion that death has over the living. Poem “XIV” in Book IV is a fine example:

Death is






(There is so much there to see).

Or take the recognition of the last poem in the collection, which ends the book with a testimonial force:









Berk, paradoxically, gives voice to voicelessness and his poems inhabit a temporal space that is at once contemporary, and seemingly classical, coming to us from some rich distant epoch in time. But these poems are also enduring statements to the strangeness of worldly experience, and the way that opposites in this world bleed into one another and define one another. George Messo has beautifully remade these Turkish poems in English and Shearsman Books is to be commended for making them available to the English-speaking world. They enhance it.

By Jon Thompson



Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.