Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Elif Sezen’s A little book of unspoken history

By | 4 June 2019

In 8. Homecoming the preoccupation with health, the body and inner awareness moves outwardly to expand upon themes of connection and conversely, the dissociative experience of migrations between two homes, and to embrace a conscious and deliberate act of site-specific remembering and forgetting:

Istanbul Airport is the doorway of my
time tunnel.  No talking!
Act like nothing happened
hereby I discovered the reason
for the lack of bird-chirp
that others dismiss
because I am a bird too
I too forget the necessity of flight
in all directions of the
forbidden atmosphere of mystery,
‘We must declare our indestructible
innocence’, grumbles my mum
her eyes staring towards the
The birds pollute the new President’s sky.
A deaf child disappears from sight
in the alley, after listening to the song
which only he can hear
I call him from behind, with no luck
and find myself
in Melbourne again, inevitably
I chop and add mangos into
my meals again
I forget the malevolence of a
suppressed father figure image again
I forget my most favourite scent,
how holy this forgetting is, I know
for it will pull me back to that doorway
for I’ll want to go back home again,
home without geography
without footsteps
how sweet is my abyss.

No memory of fatigue
I’ll again make merry.

Because of Sezen’s productive impetus, it is difficult (and I would argue unnecessary) to separate the impact of a book of poetry from that of an art exhibition. In The Second Homecoming a series of brilliantly coloured ‘Door’ paintings reminded me of how artists such as Rothko and Kandinsky transformed colour and form to suggest an inner subjectivity or a spiritual connection between self and the world. The majority of the paintings presented at the exhibition represent a series of caves, rendered in swirling black paint, each canvas with a view rendered in different shapes of an idealised and distant landscape, evoking a sense of something longed for, attainability uncertain. In the exhibition notes, Sezen writes, ‘Initially, I was thinking of refugees, the Indigenous peoples and others displaced, but obviously the work could refer far more broadly, physically or spiritually.’ Of the Door series, she says that they ‘rather represent an elusive notion of a gateway, where everything is possible and homecoming can be dreamt into reality’. In thinking of First Nations peoples moved from or barred from their traditional Country, or of refugees in indefinite detention on Nauru we can imagine how unattainable that ideal may be. In the poem ‘Dear Immigrants’, the poet demonstrates how the withdrawal of compassion, the very notion of being comfortable with the imagined necessity of locking someone up, turns upon the populace:

And just about to say Well Come, we
rather remain silent
as if ripping out the tree roots from its soil
or sending the raindrops back where they came from
locking up our dear immigrants, outside
till we lock ourselves into cells,
shrinking more and more.

The theme of compassion is something that Sezen expands upon throughout the collection, perhaps representing this most expansively in ‘A thousand petal woman’, where a meditative practice reveals the strength and frailty of the practitioner:

I am gifted to see this
and yet I forget it again
I meditate upon the deceased again
I inhale Nagasaki,
exhale Hiroshima
you think that I am purified
that’s why you call me a Sufi

Whereas I am a confused woman
I have a growing homeless kid within me
she is not me, she is me,
I am.

By situating the political in an expansive consideration of the body and the spirit, in centring personal experience within rich philosophical and poetic traditions, Sezen’s oeuvre offers a fresh and original mapping of the question of home. In ‘A meditation on timelessness’ she writes:

Writing writing writing is such a deprivation from which I build
up an invisible reign on an earth where my footstep doesn’t 
belong to the spot it steps upon …

Yes, my dear friends
every poet is responsible 
for their own timelessness.

Earlier in this review, I referred to my initial sense of a European context to Sezen’s poetics. This certainly holds true as I gain greater familiarity with her work. Aside from Rilke, there are resonances of French poets such as René Char and André de Bouchet in the work. The above quotation from ‘A meditation on timelessness’ for example is something that Char himself may have written. However, with more recent reading of writers from Turkey and Iran, it is clear to me that although a European connection is certainly there, Ottoman and Persian exemplars, particularly in relation to Sufism, are more crucial. Writers such as Bejan Matur, Sholeh Wolpe, and fellow Melbourne writer Shokoofeh Azar engage with classical texts of Rumi, Attar and Hafiz, as well as with the innovative work of Farrokhzad and the contemporary writer, Shahrnush Parsipur, and it is with these practitioners that Sezen’s developing work may be more fruitfully approached.

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