In the Temple of a Patient God, by Bejan Matur

Matur's poems ache with power. Her words and images barely control the deep, rumbling force that threatens to explode in blinding light. A Kurdish Alevi from Southeastern Turkey, she draws on that dark heritage of war and defeat and loss and exile to create the poems in this collection, selected from her four books published in Turkey. Perhaps related to that loss is the fact that she writes in Turkish, not the Kurdish of her childhood. In the Introduction, Maureen Freely says that Matur “talks of the way in which dead languages lurk inside living languages.”

Freely also talks of the grief followed by grief, the secrets embedded in Matur's images. These poems burn with a depth of suffering and emotion few of us know in a lifetime, a loss not only of home and family, but of history itself. The extraordinary sixteen-part poem “Winds Howl through the Mansions” tells an epic story in its few pages of clipped fragments, each so full of meaning and yet broken and obscure that I found myself reading and rereading. The mother is “a tattooed oak”, “a rootless oak/Silent, now and then weeping.” The contradiction between adjective and noun—that an oak, the most sturdy and stable of trees, should be rootless!—adds to the power inherent in the exile, the deaths that have occurred and the deaths that are to come. Matur also adds the precise detail that carries emotional weight: when the children are taken away “Our necks ached with looking round/Our eyes narrowed at every bend.” I thought of Hansel and Gretel with their futile breadcrumbs.

These poems have the power of stone, a stone that has been cut and cut again until it presents a puzzle that only the reader can complete. Fragmented and ambiguous, they leave a great space for us to fill, such as this complete section from “The Island, Myself and the Laurel”:


Shadow of a great forest, the voices of gods,

no one left here from the sea,

Desire pierces their eyes like a knife

and never leaves.

The multiple meanings of “left” echo in these lines. Some of her poems are quite short, but like haiku, they contain a world of meaning. One of my favorites is this one:


Stones too need loneliness.

And olive trees

and the inside of houses where dark shadows lurk.

She manages to say so much with so few words. The idea of needing loneliness is odd enough, but that these particular things should need it, and that the house should need to be qualified with dark shadows—the juxtaposition so shakes me that I find myself imagining an entire existence previously unknown to me.

The title alone would have persuaded me to buy the book. I stood in the LRB Bookstore in London pondering the idea of a patient god, the possibilities multiplying until my head spun. I turned to the poem from which the title is taken, seeking enlightenment, and found more images, such as: “And rain the river of homelessness/reminds us of god and childhood.” The metaphor alone is startling enough, but the meaning she draws from it knocks me even further off-balance. Yet the poem in its austerity and proliferation of images does come together. Enlightenment, indeed.

These are poems I will come back to again and again.

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