Translated by Mevlut Ceylan

Arif Ay’s first book bears the title Hira. The title is significant; hira is the name of the cave where the Prophet Muhammad first received revelation. Ay sees the poetic role as closely paralleling the prophetic: both prophet and poet are seers. This essentially religious vision of the poet’s place in society pervades all his work and helps explain the unpoetic title of his second collection: Dosyalar (dossiers). A dossier is a file the secret police keep on a person, particularly if he is a dissident. Ay dissents from the received view of Turkish history as imparted by state organs and institutions; he views with dismay the collapse of national institutions following the First World War, when they were replaced with institutions on the western model. In his verse he laments the passing of a culture and its replacement with a wasteland of the spirit.

Ay was born in 1953 in Nigde, central Anatolia. He read Turkish Literature and Islamic Theology at Ankara University, and worked as a civil servant before accepting a post as a lecturer in the Department of Turkish Language and Literature in the Faculty of Science and Letters at Kırıkkale University. Ay, who has published nine collections of poetry, has a wide appeal for the youth who flock to his readings in Ankara. The secret of his attraction lies not only in his scorn for hypocrisy (as seen in ‘Ramp’) but in the directness of his voice, sometimes compared to a clenched fist in its relentless ambiguity.

He writes in vers libre which became fashionable in Turkey from the 1940s onward, using modern methods to indite modernism. His most recent collection Candles of Poetry uses the same metric form as the previous collections. Critics hailed it as his most mature work, establishing him as a major figure amongst contemporary poets. 

Ay cries aloud, and his tone is often bitter. He is particularly scathing of the cash nexus, with its all-pervasive materialism, which he sees as having sapped the moral values underpinning the Turkish spirit. A nation cut off from its spiritual roots (the forgotten alphabet refers to Arabic, the language of the Qur’an) ultimately faces extinction, this long sleep which the somnolent system state education anticipates:          

sleep, sleep, go to bed and sleep

that’s what they taught you

on your first day at school.

‘Time’, a haiku, expresses the poet’s sense of futility. Another poem in haiku tradition, ‘Horses’, conveys with epigrammatic pithiness a meaning not immediately apparent to a non-Turk. The Turks were a race of hardy horsemen out of Central Asia: the horse is a symbol of what they were when they formed the vanguard of Islam. Such a horse, divinely appointed or assigned, is riderless because he is the vehicle of faith itself, of the supernatural truth of Islam. Horses amount to a repetitive, almost obsessive image. In ‘Ostlers’ the nostalgia for a remote Turko-Islamic past causes the poet to imagine himself dead:

like a flowering sky

the night rises over my skull.

His poetry is affirmative as well as destructive. And ‘Labour’, with its echoes of Horace, replaces the Latin poet’s faith in the poetic faculty with a religious faith in the eternal edifice of supernatural, religious truth. In the Qur’an the believer is referred to as a labourer, who labours in the garden of the Lord:

Their Lord has answered them: ‘I will not allow the deeds of any one of you to be lost, whether you are male or female, each is like the other. I will certainly wipe out the bad deeds of those who emigrated and were driven out of their homes, who suffered for My cause, who fought and were killed. I will certainly admit them to Gardens graced with flowering streams, as a reward from God: the best reward is with God.’ (3:195)

Ay’s popularity also rests in part on his skill in love poetry. ‘Asking’ is an example of this genre, showing another side of Ay’s inspiration. A gentler mood suffuses his verse at these moments.


I am a thundering river 

in the lands of darkness 

with a single stroke 

I wrench the sleep 

from the eyes of night 

Poems of Destruction (fragment) 

I would like to know you, sir 

put aside your mask

all frogs have a night of their own 

my absence and my voice have a night of their own 

find me a place to leave my voice 

What is it that whittles mankind away, sir 

silence or speech 

how do men multiply, sir 

let us find a place to dump the speeches 

In the sitting rooms of all houses 

there is now a bright hungry guillotine 

all sewers are open to us sir 

everything flows towards heaviest indifference 

forget about the one that doesn’t flow, sir 

you always stay put 

like an antiquated port from times well past 

where fishes of unknowable age swim in moonlight 

you are an antiquated mister, sir  

I am falling apart in the darkness 

find me a place to leave my silence 

a shining ship of death on a sorry wharf 

we are truly romantic executioners, aren’t we sir?  


sometimes I can be divided into three or five 

sometimes into infinity 

I don’t know if you’ve been told 

but I am a docile stable-boy 

looking after horses 

the horses are long dead 

the ostlers long gone 

a broken currycomb scratched into tombstones 

like a flowering sky

the night rises over my skull  

Looking at Istanbul 

This is Istanbul in the sun

When you look at her

She is standing on guard

And resists your attacks.

These are the minarets

That convey news

From heaven to earth

And from earth to heaven.

When a generous heart

Looks with love,

Doors open to the sea

And streets mirror the morning.

Only with love does she come to you,

When you turn your eyes,

This is Istanbul.


a desk has teeth to bite a man 

dead paper and lively pen 

do not make neighbourly sense 

the child starts being a little book 

and then grows into a fire 

words roam and roam around 

hurt and godless 

man is a lost item of furniture 

alive with worms 

night is a tight knot 

haunting our rooms 

everything bites everything else 

sleep is held at bay 


are those who love 

and those who are loved 

bruised and mangled 

over there as well 

are the middayshadows 

long over there as well  


to tell us the time 

birds flap their wings 

by our window 

birds are the pendulum of the sky 

their inexhaustible passion

winds up the clock 

they carry our houses to the sky 

they are the crew of heaven 

they pull us out 

from our darkness  


            to the oppressed and to those who

            suffer with them and fight at their side  

the stars are fading away 

how deep is your countenance 

our heart is a wasteland 

the walls of the world are collapsing 

here the sun is so fresh today 

the roads flanked by cypresses 

the guerrilla is out there 

thousands of suns in his eyes 

come, move on 

remember stars fade and shine 

we march with the Book in our hands 

when the trees cover 

the face of the guerrilla  

like a night bird 

before the pitiless gun 

he turns, and turns 

and falls in spirals 

once more 

the honour of the earth is shattered 

A Traveller in Enlightenment   

my friend I am a passenger of love 

distance is the measure of stars 

closeness is the measure of my love 

as bright and as dark 

as the stars 

I am a passenger of enlightenment 


where the sun’s heat boils in the sand 

you can see me gathering the dark and gleaming 

snake skins 

with my hand I scoop your voice 

I shed my skin like a shirt

where the sun casts a spearing shadow 


it is not in vain 

that time stands still 

that clocks err 


mind you, time’s carrionbird, 

be off with your galleons 

my heart walks before me 

on its way to the Day of Judgment 


look the liars are passing, I can tell by their hats 

they do not like the sun 

their shadows are longer than themselves 

they greet prostitution they fornicate with money 

and then go on pilgrimages with saintly beards,

songs of usury 

poet, tell me what kind of poem is this? 

must you reel off unsettling dreams 

must you upset this moonlight 

how quickly you’ve forgotten your alphabet 

sleep, sleep, go to bed and sleep 

that’s what they taught you 

on your first day at school 


the mountains facing me 

are all rubies 

oh holy Jacob 

where are the sheep 



the simple 

the universal 



what time is it I asked 

the wind was still 

I looked into your eyes 

the sea had receded 

what time is it I asked 

the sun was just rising 

I waved to the birds 

there were smiles in their eyes 

what time is it I asked 

the night was new 

make the night long I said 

rippling tides echoed through the length 

                  of her eyes 


the wind blows quietly 

a tile falls into the garden 

the sun looks at my hand 

a rain drop falls in my tea 

a cloud like a ship slowly 

draws up to my table 

hand in hand we climb up 

to the deck of the evening 

here are the stars we say

we repeat the names of flowers

later as though nothing has happened

you feed the chickens first thing in the morning 


Like two people meeting for the first time

Carnations came between us

Like their scents and voices

Like their faces and hands

Carnations came between us

Parting moved in between us

Then sorrow and hunger

Darkness fell

You said something impossible

And it became possible

Everything happened at once

Carnations came between us


There’s the steep road

Who is leading that caravan?

There’s something inside us that grows

People should understand

That the squares are always filthy

And filth flows

The day is a ball of steel

Without love and affection

Children grow

Neither scales nor cranes

Can match a heart’s endurance

Wastelands will be salty

Decay and rot shall end


A dry sea


When I throw my fishing rod 

Into the day


Neither cement

Nor steel

Are stronger 

Then the wall built 


Where are those deep heavens?

We had in the villages

Why, why do we not have them

In the cities?


Whilst the sun rises

Those wise horses

Carry the skies

On their backs


The dreams are loaded with laments

And the flowers blossom early in an Andalusian morning

From Merve the beloved comes to the shore

The Tigris flows by the evening tales

The beauty of Istanbul, perhaps, is a childish beauty

But the children live a thousand Badr wars in their hearts

Istanbul’s face is scratched and the cut goes deep

Alas, henna is the colour of the sea

Dripping from the hands of mothers

As Andalusia ages she smells of iodine

Now, our love is warmer than our hatred

I am the child wearing the face of St.Sophia, the orphan

Oh heart, a thorny rose in my handkerchief

Thousands of voices have divided our voices

Those who silenced our voice

Have died one by one

This is the endless struggle

Of my heart

Dear heart you’re warm!

What Time

And what era

There’s no repeat of loves and roses

Your face is an illusion in the mirror of innocence

In the wild waters of time in which I am shattered

Ebb and flow of time and fire are the same

A rose of wind, a shadow of cloud

The yellow leaves, death and cries

Tell me, what time and what era

And when


Someone somewhere

Someone in our very soul

As he faces the firing squads

Our blood is the fire that flows

Jerusalem is the name of the blazing sea

Part of me throbs

Wherever I am

Standing as a nightguard

My love is forlorn

Jerusalem is as strong as mountains

Its honour stands still and larger than life 

Like a huge mountain

The children speak to the mountain

They talk about the honour

Wherever I am

Standing as a nightguard

Even if sorrow hits a thousand times

It grows

Water increases

Children grow green

Jerusalem grows

Wherever I am 

Standing as a nightguard

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