Monday, May 25, 2009

Three Turkish poems for America's Memorial Day

Somewhat unusually, I suppose, on this Memorial Day in the United States I am thinking of a Turkish poem by Orhan Veli.

By Orhan Veli

What didn't we do for this country
Some of us died
Some gave speeches

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King

This wry little poem gets right at the way I feel about so many public displays of patriotism.

Some of us died
Some gave speeches
The ones with the most to say are seldom the ones doing the most talking. This basic fact of human experience is especially true of war. Witness the previous U.S. presidential administration, with a Pentagon run hawkishly by civilians with an almost unanimous history of dodging military service - including the commander in chief.

Another Orhan Veli poem that I co-translated with the great Turkish actor Defne Halman speaks beautifully to the anguished feeling of sending off a soldier.

By Orhan Veli

Come back as beautiful as you are
The smell of sea on your lips
Salt on your eyelashes
Blonde boy gone to war

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King

I have had the smell of the sea on my lips from the U.S. Navy. I was in Navy ROTC for one year at Boston University, bookended by a bootcamp at Fort Devens and a summer of active duty aboard the USS Saipan in the Mediterranean. It wasn't much of a tour of duty, though it taught me as much as anything else I have ever done.

I learned - as anyone who has ever been ranked as an enlisted man (as I was, aboard the Saipan) learns - that the typical serviceman feels mostly neglected and forgotten. Police officers tend to feel the same way for the same reasons. There is the feeling of being used by the political right for its crass purposes and scorned by the political left based upon the wicked misdeeds of a few, but not properly understood or rewarded by anyone.

This Orhan Veli poem gets to that abandoned feeling.

By Orhan Veli

They put his rifle in the depot
They gave his clothes to someone else
No bread crumbs in his bag anymore
No lip traces on his canteen
Such a wind that it blew away
And not even his name remained as a souvenir
Only a couplet remained
Handwritten above the coffee stove:
"Death is God's decree
If only parting wasn't a part of it"

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King
By the way, I wish President Obama would use some of his substantial political capital to push for compulsory military service in the U.S. That is the only way the American people will ever genuinely understand this complex, expensive, dangerous and valuable military we are paying for - and that is, in fact, risking lives to pursue our foreign policies and protect our nation.

Orhan Veli's military I.D. card from a Dizifil forum.

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