The Pallikari of Nesmine Rifat|
by David Solway
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|The Polykaravis of David Solway
by Amanda Jernigan
Regular readers of Books in Canada will remember that in October of 1999, this journal ran a feature on the enigmatic Greek fisherman-poet Andreas Karavis. The feature comprised an interview with Karavis, conducted by Anna Zoumi of Elladas magazine, a gathering of Karavis' poems translated from the Greek by David Solway, and an essay by Solway on Karavis' oeuvre. This premiFre was shortly followed by VThicule Press's publication of Solway's books Saracen Island, a collection of Karavis translations with commentary, and An Andreas Karavis Companion (which tells, amongst other things, of Karavis' marriage to Zoumi, his erstwhile interviewer).
The public's interest, if not piqued by these scholarly efforts, was aroused when The Montreal Gazette "outed" Solway as the author not only of the scholarly material, but of the poems, and even of the fisherman-poet. But Karavis, says Solway, was no mere hoax. "Karavis represented a deliberate and systematic attempt on the part of someone who had lost confidence in his poetic identity to find himself again in translation," he told Shane Neilson of the Danforth Review. However, it seems that Karavis has whetted Solway's appetite for alter egos.
The latest installment in the Karavis narrative, published by Goose Lane in 2004, is Solway's "translation" of Pallikari, a series of poems by the (female, and possibly fictional) Turkish poet Nesmine Rifat. In the afterword, Solway writes, "I owe my acquaintance with Nesmine Rifat to a number of enigmatic allusions in the work of Andreas Karavis . . . and to the good offices of my friend, the poet and Islamic scholar Eric Ormsby, who met my new correspondent at a literary conference in Istanbul." Solway initiated the correspondence with Rifat initially, he says, to inquire after her rumoured liaison with Karavis; as the correspondence went on his interest in her own poems increased, and "he soon formed the notion of collaborating with her on a translation." Pallikari is the "as yet unpublished divan" written by Rifat "in the wake of a failed love affair." The title is Rifat's nickname for Karavis; in Turkish, it signifies "young man".
Despite Solway's claims that "the fresh and candid quality" of Rifat's "creative urge . . . rivals that of her former mentor and lover," I found the collection troublingly uneven. There is no doubt that Rifat-if the translations do her justice-is an accomplished prosodist. Amongst the collection's strongest poems are a coy pantoum, a proper ghazal, a sonnet, and a suite of well-reckoned alcaics. She can spin Homeric dactyls ("pirate of letters and lockets") and Elizabethan iambs ("to pardon me the mischief I have done") with like felicity. But this virtuosity in form is wed to a certain conventionality of insight. I was reminded of Rifat's divan predecessors, the Turkish classical poets for whom style was all: the trick was not to proffer some new insight, but to show one's formal mastery in the elaboration of a traditional theme. What this means for Rifat, however, is that when she steps out of her prosodic vessel and writes in "free verse", as she often does, she tends to sink into bathos ("heal the rift between our peoples in my body / that opens in the night like a flower of darkness / and awaits the invasion of love").
The inconsistency of Rifat's oeuvre is problematic. Surely Solway is aware of these Parnassian hazards: he is himself a fine poet-and an inveterate ridiculer of the formless, self-obsessed poetastery which he feels has become our standard fare. But when Rifat writes, in "The Way Ahead",
. . . like the sweating stones of Byzantine chapels
the sarcophagus oozes balm
against diseases of the soul
and also calms a turbulent sea
remember this too
she sounds suspiciously like, for instance, Anne Carson, whose work Solway has famously (or infamously) criticised: Carson's typical poem, "with its stringing together of disjointed words and phrases, supposedly purging verbal surfeit in order to reveal truth," reads for Solway "mainly like the residue of a dTbridement procedure."
This leads me to a troubling conclusion. Perhaps The Pallikari of Nesmine Rifat is intended, as least in part, as parody?
A central complication for the reader attempting to disentangle this Solwegian knot is that The Pallikari of Nesmine Rifat lacks the kind of "scholarly apparatus" which accompanied-and, to my mind, greatly enriched-Saracen Island. This makes it hard to know which poetic "moves" we may attribute to the "author" and which to the "translator". Are those slant-rhymes present in the original? To what extent has Solway kept the scansion true? Has the double entendre of this enjambment really been carried over from the Turkish:
. . . I am written in the very shadow
of your pen. Is
this not a sign of occult complicities?
Solway gives us no clue. And what is Rifat's relationship to the language within which she works? It may seem facetious to ask these questions of translations for which there are no originals; yet, in Saracen Island, it is Solway's answers to just such questions that bring the project-and the poet(s)-to life.
Whence comes Rifat? Her most immediate antecedent is perhaps the "real" contemporary poet Nese Yasin, who furnishes the collection with its first epigraph. Like Rifat, Yasin is a Turkish Cypriot; she uses the body as a metaphor for the body-politic, and vice versa; the poets' imagery occasionally coincides. But these correspondences are superficial. For Rifat's more important predecessors, we must go back in time. There are obvious correspondences to Sappho in the Pallikari's erotic supertext, and Rifat makes occasional use of that poet's signature form. Closer still to Rifat, however, is Sappho's contemporary Bilitis, a voluble and unrestrained amorist, who was in fact the invention of the 19th-century French poet Pierre Lou s. And there is another antecedent. In "Postscript", the collection's final poem, Rifat writes:
And if I only could
I too would turn a deaf ear to my tedious entreaties,
break the lure of carnal immolations,
and standing on my shell, aristocratic and perverse,
kick the scallop from beneath my feet
and live with you away from me at last.
The allusion is to Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, who is thought to have come ashore at Cyprus.
So that is Rifat: one part political dissident, one part erotic poet, one part hoax and one part god. Let us turn now from the question of identity, to the question of authorship.
The literary gumshoe will have noticed something puzzling. The sonnet "Love", published in this volume and attributed to Rifat, bears striking resemblance to the sonnet of the same name which appears in the Companion, attributed to Karavis; indeed 10 of the 14 lines are, apart from some telling pronoun-changes, identical. This leads me to suggest that, publication-information page aside, David Solway is not the true author of The Pallikari of Nesmine Rifat. I argue that the author is Karavis.
The incredulous reader might consult the calculatedly provocative section of the Karavis Companion entitled "Gender Politics". Here Solway attempts to elucidate for Karavis "the runic obscurities" of modern feminism. Karavis is nonplussed. But when Solway mentions that the poets of this school take Sappho as their tutelary spirit, Karavis objects. Do they know her work in the original, he asks? Solway guesses not. "Then they know nothing," Karavis says, "nor do they understand the pagan ecstasies of time, and the sobering fact that, when the beds stopped singing, regardless of who was in them, [the poets] were all exemplary householders. As for Sappho, she retired into her poetry, barbitos in hand, in the same way that Kostes Palamas or Walt Whitman vacationed in theirs . . . Her meters will frequently signify her playfulness."
Is it possible that Karavis conceived of the Pallikari in the wake of this conversation, as both parody and honest attempt: a parody insofar as it would send up the identity-obsessed verse of the "modern feminist", as Solway represented (or misrepresented) her; an honest attempt insofar as it would aim to show these poetasters what erotica looks like when it is wed to form? And the project would have served a third function for Karavis: language lesson. (We learn in the Companion that Karavis is learning English from his new bride.) Pallikari, then, may refer to both title and author.
This hypothesis goes some way towards explaining the unevenness of the collection, and also the paucity of contextual material: Karavis has little patience for academic inquiry. It might also explain Karavis' striking reticence about his rumoured liaison with Rifat. "Karavis would have no visible reason for suppressing the 'affair,' if indeed it ever happened," Solway writes-unless, of course, Rifat is not so much ex-lover as alias.
We might note also, in this context, that a number of the poems in Pallikari make use of the same sort of sylleptic "felicity" that Solway notes in Karavis' poem "Bouquet". In "Threnody", for instance, the speaker says she strokes her nipples with her fingertips "to arouse the memory of your lips / and comfort them in their bereavement." "Them" could be nipples or lips, of course-and how we read this determines the identity of the bereaved. A different sort of ambiguity is engendered by a line-break in the poem "The Black Book". The speaker says she wishes to be "the missing wife who sings a smile to your lips, / and not the one that you have written / off." That last enjambment allows us to read the speaker not only as the woman Karavis has written off, but as the woman he has written.
As we spot ambiguities, however, we are forced to consider another candidate for authorship. In "Colloquy of Equals" Rifat writes: "And yet I am your equal, love, / a pallikari in a woman's mind, / and no frail creature buffeted by the wind." We might read that "love" as a term of address: "Love, I am your equal, and I am a pallikari in a woman's mind, and I am no frail creature." At the same time, we might read it as one in the series of equivalent clauses: "Andreas, I am your equal, and I am your love, and I am a pallikari . . . " Whatever Karavis' feelings for Rifat may be, it seems clear that his current love is the "literary and intellectual amazon" Anna Zoumi. Is it conceivable that Zoumi is the author of the Rifat poems? (The anglicised pronunciation of her last name, I notice, is a kind of aural anagram for "muse".)
We know that Zoumi is fluent in English. Furthermore, we know that she is a canny prosodist. (In the Companion, Solway lets on that he consulted her about a number of prosodic details when he was working on Saracen Island.) And though she sits demurely on the beach sifting through pebbles while Solway and Karavis discuss the vagaries of modern womanhood, one can't help but notice that she is listening.
The Pallikari may be Zoumi's parody, then, not only of the excesses of modern feminism, but of the excesses of her reactionary husband and her Canadian colleague; the collection may also be her honest effort, insofar as it gives voice to the part of her that is more eros than agape. (Karavis describes Zoumi as the epitome of domestic virtue; this seems at odds with the sexual candour of the Rifat poems-until we remember that Karavis described Sappho, too, as "a decent upper-class matron" in her off-hours.)
Let us return, then, to the poem "Postscript", quoted above, and to the striking ambiguity of its final line: "if I only could," the speaker says, I'd "kick the scallop from beneath my feet / and live with you away from me at last"-that is to say, either, "I'd live alone, being free of you at last" or "I'd live with you, being free of me at last."
Perhaps, on further thought, I'll venture that Rifat is a Karavis-Zoumi collaboration. We are tendered a hint of this in the Karavis Companion. In the poem "Andreas Takes a Wife", Karavis writes in praise of Anna, "Hear how my name is loukoumi on her tongue." Solway proffers a telling footnote: "Karavis' epithalamion contains one word I have left in the original," he says, "loukoumi or Turkish Delight."