Essay on the poetry of Ilhan Çomak, by Haydar Ergülen
1. When I was writing my weekly column “Open Letter’ for Radikal newspaper between 1998-2007, I used to get a lot of letters from prisons, including F-type high security prisons. I still have some of these letters. Prisoners used to send letters to quite a few columnists who they thought were democrats. In these letters they’d tell of their problems, issues, hunger strikes, death strikes and violations of their rights. I used to get quiet a lot of letters. As a journalist for the arts and culture pages I couldn’t always find a way to feature them, but I would mention, often, these letters from these political prisoners who were detained awaiting verdicts or already convicted. Some letters contained poems, short stories and essays, although it was mostly poetry and essays. I would reply to some of them and I think I even used to send my poetry books in return. One of the prisoners I used to write back and forth to was the author Sami Özbil who went on to write a novel. It was a long time ago. I’d have to find the letters to remember all the names. I hope all of them have now found freedom.
2. I can’t remember if Ilhan Sami’s letter came first, or if I first received an email from his sister Suna. She and I met in Taksim. She spoke of her brother’s situation and of his poetry. She asked me if I would look at some of his poems. I did. I loved them. I was really exited about his work and I wrote to Suna. At that time, Ilhan had been in prison for about 10 or 12 years. He’d been convicted under anti terror law in 1994 when he was just 22 years old and given a life sentence. Now the year is 2020. Ilhan has been in prison for exactly 26 years and he’s now 47 years old. He’s published 8 books, 8 of them are poetry. Eight books of poetry and all eight are different from each other. I don’t know if his work has been translated into other languages. Why did I even think of this? If he’d been translated into English perhaps John Berger would have read him and then written about him in the way he wrote about Latife Tekin and Bejan Matur. I think he would have been moved by both Ilhan’s situation and his poetry. If the great Turkish poet Can Yücel were still alive I’m sure he would have written a few incendiary poems about Ilhan.
3. As for me, I’ve been writing poetry for almost 40 years. I feel a sense of shame and even pain at being a poet, at being called ‘poet’ by others, not in connection with writing, but for the fact that Ilhan Sami has been in prison, continuously for 26 years. Turkey’s greatest poet, Nazım Hikmet, spent twenty-two and a half years in prison, saying, ‘I love my country/I’ve passed my time in its prisons’. How many years has it been that Ilahn Sami has not seen the very face of the earth, the sea, trees, roads, the birds? How long since he has boarded a ferry and thrown sesame seeded bread to the seagulls? How long since he drank an ice cold beer, or walked for hours? How long since he held a lover’s hand? It’s never ending. How many years has it been? It’s been longer than his entire life before prison! In his book Geldim Sana (I’ve come to you) (Manos, June 2019) he wrote of what was missing from his life in the poem, ‘Burda neler yok’ (What things are not here?): ‘There are no children scaling the garden wall to skip school/no human good that makes words into friendships/no vineyards/no stones for throwing stones/no flowers to gather dew/no rivers to run off the map/…/no kitten’s paws no sweat of a speeding horse/no curtain raised by the breeze/no decaying bunch of grapes/life lies separated from the sun. Here/there’s no direction.’
4. When I think of Ilhan Sami being in prison for his political ideas, the words of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi come to my mind, as do the words of Ruhi Su, the Armenian-Turkish opera singer: ‘They are among thorns/but they are like roses./They are in prison/but they are like wine./They are stuck fast in mud/but they beat like a heart./Night is around them/but they are like morning.’ When I read Ilhan’s poems I feel like replacing all those words, ‘rose, wine, heart and morning’, simply with ‘poetry’, he is like poetry. I have never met Ilhan Sami, I’ve only seen one or two photos of him in the newspapers but when I read his poems I realised that he had literally turned into poetry during his time in prison. Ilhan Sami, whilst in prison, has turned everything to poetry. Whatever his eyes, his soul, his heart and his mind have touched has turned into poetry. There were many comrades who turned to poetry after being locked up following the coup d’état of 12 September, 1980. We read their work when it was published in magazines and books. I’m sure we were touched by their work both in a political and poetic sense. Excellent poets such as Nevzat Çelik and Emirhan Oğuz were among them. The poetry of Ilhan Sami Çomak, however, is not really written in the context of prison. Those poems could have been written inside or outside those wall, one cannot tell. In recent years, his have been the poems that have had the most profound effect on me, which have both delighted me and surprised me. It is quite certain that nothing can take the place of freedom.. not even poetry and not even love. With these poems Çomak has transcended poetry. He has taken flight with poetry and has made poetry fly from behind those iron bars and solid walls. It is perhaps in his poetry that we most genuinely see demonstrated the fact that poetry is truly a form of freedom.
5. I haven’t seen his first book of poems and it seems he has no intention of showing it to anyone. I know this because the introduction to his second book, Açık Deniz (Open Sea) reads: ‘My poetry book Gitmeler Çiçek Kurusu (Their leaving was as Dried Flowers) was prematurely born in 2004 and the result of the combination of bad fortune, amateurism and careless mistakes.’ The poet Ahmet Oktay also said, ‘the first book of poems is a mandatory mistake’, and this is true for the first books of most of us. That first book is dedicated, ‘I kiss his hands’, to his late brother Sami Çomak whose name Ilhan then took as his middle name. This tradition of taking the name of a lost brother is something we see with Muzaffer Ilhan Erdost, who took as a middle name that of his brother Ilhan who had been beaten to death by soldiers during the coup d’état of 12 September 1980. Pain, tragedy and chills of fear accompany such losses. When you lose a brother you lose part of your soul. I felt this upon losing my brother Halil, and understood Ilhan Çomak’s words: ‘This is like fire falling into a forest/the narrow rivers are stolen from our eyes.’ Also, Ilhan writes, ‘I’ll write now what I learned once you were gone/Living can mean guilt in another form.’ But then he writes likens his brother to the folk hero of Yaşar Kemal’s novels, ‘there’s the joy of a Slim Memed, holed up in the mountains’, adding, ‘to speak of a person one should speak of a bird.’ One must live as closely as one can to freedom, to poetry and to love.
6. Çomak’s third book of poetry is Günaydın Yeryüzü (Good Morning Earth) (2011). And his fourth book, Kedilerin Yazdığı İlahi (Hymns Composed by Cats) is a veritable fount of images and poetry. In one of his poems Ilhan Sami tells us he will always be a student. He’d been studying geography at university all those years ago. He took his university life within the walls with him and turned his cell into a poetry school. And what a magnificent and magical school! It’s as if he took in to prison with him the earth, sky, the cosmos, nature, botany, zoology, love, friendship, the world and time itself. He turned all that into language, to words and to veritable truth. For him to be able to say so many things and yet not to repeat himself in his work demonstrates that Ilhan Sami has a timeless skill at poetry. If the great Turkish poet Behçet Necatigil said of his own writing room, ‘my room is larger than the world’, then one should say that Ilhan’s cell has been turned into a realm of geography, history, sociology, psychology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, music, astronomy and geology. He has reached the wisdom to be able to say, ‘My sun is the moon.’ He published his book entitled ‘Dicle’nin Günlüğü’ (Diary of the Tigris’) in 2017 and also ‘Yağmur Dersleri’ (Lessons of the Rain). These were followed by ‘Bir Sabah Yürüdüm’ (2017) which contained his epic poem of the same name. The one, single line of this lengthy poem, ‘It’s fifteen years since I saw a horse’, is, for me, equivalent to a whole book of poems.
7. With his eighth book, Geldim Sana (I’ve come to you) he won the prestigious Sennur Sezer Labour and Resistance Prize in 2019. That’s all well and good, but a prize alone is not enough for Ilhan Sami’s poetry. A symposium on his work should be held, where it can be debated and examined at length before papers are collated into a book of criticism on his work. But before this all of Çomak’s previous books should be reprinted in Turkey. It is a sad stroke of fate that the publisher of his works, Yasak Meyve press, closed upon the death of its owner and our dear friend Enver Ercan. Çomak’s books should be reprinted by another press so that this poet, one of the most valuable living poets in Turkey, Ilhan Çomak can be read by other poets and poetry lovers. His poetry must be spread in a wider circle and be shared across the country. And this man, who long ago found freedom through his poetry, must be allowed to see the sky again, to mingle in the flow of life and to meet with his dear loved ones again. Because, just as he says in his latest book, in the poem ‘Life is seeing the flight of the Butterfly,’:
‘I am friends with the memory of light, with the apricot’s kernel/the solidity of stone/ inscribing my book with the will of the waves/ the stillness of the sea/my mind is filled with questions and the insistence of migrating birds/- I repeat to myself/ life is seeing a butterfly land and then fly!’
I salute the hands, eyes, soul, heart, wrists and poems of Ilhan Sami Çomak with love.
Haydar Ergülen. March 2020
translated by Caroline Stockford