Book Review

One reason we go to art is to quell our never-ending search for meaning that is detachable from our experiences. Therefore, a certain level of obscurity in art can be puzzling. It might teach us, though, to mute or postpone our search for meaning and to develop more instinctual ways of identification. Sometimes all we need is to take a “step away from them,” as Frank O’Hara would have it, and suspend the metaphysical tendency to elevate details to the level of meaning. These moments suggest alternative ways of inhabiting the world, making us feel slightly out of place and engendering a desire for a fullness that is capacious enough to contain life’s various tensions, contradictions, and kinships. Frank O’Hara once mused, “It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial.”

Andrew Wessels’s first book of poems, A Turkish Dictionary, tends towards the latter. Every poetic gesture in the book is accompanied by a disquiet about the too “concrete and circumstantial” structure of everyday perception. To prevent being subsumed by the magnetism of the dominant perspective, the poet feels the need to continuously renew his ways of seeing, noticing, collecting, ordering, and integrating information. In this sense, A Turkish Dictionary is very much a work of its time. Wessels is committed to a poetics that shies away from putting the world together. He is tremendously careful about the subjectivity of his own agency, and if there is one thing that is fixed in this book it is the poet’s continuous anxiety about imposing his own version of reality onto the world.

The first poem in the collection is titled “Arabesque,” an ornamental structure that also sets the mood for the entire book, for Wessels continuously tries to overcome the problem of representation by projecting his images onto an intricate, arabesque structure where it becomes almost impossible to trace the end or the beginning of distinct phenomena. Arabesque art and architecture maintains a tension between sameness and infinity. There is something immediately alluring about the seemingly distinct geometric patterns in these artworks and the eye can’t help but trace these lines. Any attempt we make to discern the structure or to catch a distinct, individual pattern turns out to be self-defeating, since it becomes almost impossible to ignore the overwhelming network of patterns, relations, and the sense of a whole.

Reading Wessels’s book feels like beholding an arabesque artwork. The images begin to elude our grasp the moment we start perceiving them as distinct entities. A recurring gesture in these poems is to rewind, to go back to the beginning, to start from zero. The book opens with the following lines:

to trace the zero
to trace from the cusp of the zero

Sure enough, the imagination of a beginning is already caught up in the structure of seeing and experiencing the world. As soon as the poet intends to begin from scratch, that very desire turns into his subject. No matter how abstract or innocent the idea of beginning feels at the time of its conception, the poet is bound to confront it eventually as a concrete problem. Any attempt to clear the mind, or the trajectory of the mind, amounts (ironically) to populating it with even more stuff. As Wallace Stevens once wrote, “That which is always beginning because it is part / Of that which is always beginning, over and over.”

Prepositions are as important to Wessels as they were to Stevens. The ofs, ins, and fors of language solve our pragmatic problems. They build bridges between nouns, things, ideas. The prepositions in these poems, however, are too conscious of their pragmatic functions. “From the cusp of the zero” immediately brings a geometric concreteness to “zero,” turning it from a value to a distinct image. It also calls attention to its very grammar. “From the cusp of” cannot evade the more customary, “on the cusp of.” Language always seems to leave us on the verge of meaning, never fully able to represent our thought. These moments attune us to an instability, or rather, to an overabundance of structures which mediate our relationship to both the images and the very language we use to talk about them. Later in the first poem, Wessels turns his attention to the city:

a song
notes of a hat in the street
rain on the hat in the street
a long line of hats
you if you were not asleep

The prepositions in these lines alert us, once again, to the structure of seeing, compelling us to go back to the poem’s images to ascertain their relationality. Even though there is no discernible context in this first poem, there is a strong sense of presence—a presence that is sutured using prepositions. This poem alerts the reader to the problems that might be associated with piecing the world together, a process which, for Wessels, cannot and ought not be done without recognizing the ways in which this very piecing becomes haunting. It is through a similar process that histories are written and violence is registered in our unconscious.

As these early images indicate, the book is indebted to a tradition of flânerie, of walking through the city—in this case, Istanbul. Wessels is conscious of both the delights and the glitches of this charming literary tradition. Since any attempt to write “about” something will eventually come to beg questions of inclusion and exclusion, Wessels includes multiple genres in the book: verse poems, historical documents, photographs, speeches, philosophical treatises, translations, and prose poems. This way, the problem of what information is included or excluded becomes secondary to the question of how they are organized. Using multiple genres forces the reader to change gears repeatedly, meanwhile calling attention to unexpected intersections in different forms of thinking. Just as knowledge is produced through discrete processes that resist comprehension, Wessels seems to be saying, the poem, too, should resist being molded into a singular form. The poet is careful not to let the lyric impulse take off and impose a metaphorical fog on his experience of the city.

Most verse poems in the book take their titles from Turkish words and ultimately come to feel like variations on a theme. A poem titled “Burası :: This Place” starts with the line, “this apple rolls upon the lawn.” The rolling movement that outlines “the zero” of the perspective gives the poem a constructivist style so that a variety of concrete images borrow sensuous associations from their grammatical contact. By the end of the poem, synesthesia is accomplished and it is almost impossible to isolate an object from its field of sensory associations.

stop for a moment look
a dream turns a puff of apple
flavored smoke the crest a wave bit

Such moments of synthesis, which indulge momentarily in a sense of the “whole,” are always counterbalanced by a resistance established largely through the line breaks. Wessels’s line breaks maintain an arabesque structure by deactivating the impulse to trace where a thought might behind or end.

The rare instances when the poet allows himself to indulge, to take a momentary break from the overload of information, are very moving and come closest to revealing the other reason why we seek art: To emerge with a renewed sense of self and an agency that is not completely determined by power relations and structures. An agency that feels unique and ours. The poem titled “İlkbahar :: First Spring” captures the synesthesia of experience through language (“The cloud of word is cloud. / The color of word is white.”) and ends with a couplet that allows the reader to finally hear the speaker of the poem: “The waters flow past the prophet’s footprint. / The view tonight is so rare.”

A similar moment comes at the beginning of “Kitap :: Book”:

At my desk,
in my tradition. There’s a lamp
beside me and light
comes in from the kitchen.

These instances feel like a break from the poet’s commitment to speak in images. An imagist’s language surely warrants a degree of detachment and therefore provides the poet with the resources necessary to approximate objectivity, but these more personal and relatable moments are just as important and necessary. Why? Because they give us a much-needed intimacy, an encounter with a voice and a human touch. They offer, against the backdrop of the strangers in the city, a voice that is finally familiar and a voice that can release us, even if for a passing moment, from having to trace the zero at every turn.

The poet, perhaps, echoes this need in the poem “Sonbahar :: Last Spring, Fall”: “As if there is anything more than ground, more than the joy of sitting together on the couch.” It is no surprise, then, that in the very last section of the book, there are three poems titled “Tanışmak :: To Meet” and another two titled “Tanıştırmak :: To Introduce.” In this section, both the poet and the reader are finally able to “look up from the arabesque.” The point is not to abandon or give up the limitations posed by the infinite structure of this style, but rather to recognize the intensity, which can only be developed through a mutual investment of both the poet and the reader. Love comes closest to describing this mode of attunement. “Var :: Existent” reads,

… Love
isn’t that at all, what it means to be real. I must
do something wrong, these vibrations in the air

follow the embankment away from water
up to dusk where hands touch the story
starts far away.

It takes a leap of faith to believe all this, to stay with a form of thinking that invents infinite distances, and to hope, all the same, that we might eventually hear each other and converge. That, for now, sounds like a sufficient definition of love.

About the Reviewer

Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University. He studies English, Turkish, and German poetry from the late nineteenth century onward, with particular attention to poetic form and prosody. He is also a translator. His co-translation of one of the earliest Ottoman novels, Felâtun Bey and Râkim Efendi, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2016.