BOA Editions ($12.50)
by Camille-Yvette Welsch
Born in Turkey, raised in Canada, educated in both America and England, Alpay Ulku roams the borders of a dozen worlds, all without a home. In this first book, Ulku strives to find causal relationships within his world to provide metaphysical security and comfort. These poems explore a deeply lonely place, a "nowhere" in modern culture where Ulku negotiates without the fixed traditions of any one ethnicity. In "Ars Poetica" he writes "Then this happens, so that happens. And you're older again. / The sky, a cast-iron door, shuts without your consent: / some sickly stars. Déjà vu / is what happens when you know you could stop." In the twentieth volume of the A. Poulin, Jr. New Poets of American Series, Ulku's search for agency compels; he cannot "stop," giving the poems both a sense of wonder and a sense of fear, the suspicion that perhaps, the world works without reason.
Ulku's rootlessness provides a gnosis for much of the alienation implicit in his poems. Without a specific home, Ulku explores several different scapes—North America, Turkey, city, desert, but his lack of affiliation propels his work. He writes in his poem, "After Completion," "Time / was, a hundred thousand people could perish in battle over / a hilltop. They died in terror, dreaming of home." Ulku writes in terror, dreaming of a home in faith and history, somewhere between Islam and America, a Western education and Turkish lineage. This volume begins with "July" chronicling a series of actions:
Days that turn like a miller's wheel, nights the air in our lungs. His ashes
are everywhere, in the chambers where gasoline is trapped, compressed,
and then ignited—
These events intertwine based on syntactical proximity alone. The images reveal no higher plan; rather, together, they convince us of Ulku's underlying message: God has left the building. A crisis of faith, equally religious and secular, drives the poet to seek a reason why and how people exist and co-exist, a question without resolution. While the poems display the poet's uncertainty about faith and the meaning of life, they illustrate his understanding about what it means to be living on the earth, to observe his world, and he is not afraid to make comment. For him, it becomes a question of how to articulate beliefs and fears. He writes in "Off-Planet News": "You're a coin sent spinning on its edge. / Dying is a word we use for the thrill of it." The juxtaposition of image and declarative statement characterizes a number of these poems, and Ulku does not fear declaration. He writes in his "Ars Poetica," "Use dignity, and another word for what it takes to survive." After reading this collection, I might guess that the other word is faith.
Thematically, these poems wrestle with spiritual introspection and conflict, but the level of language rarely rises to the point of being startling, beautiful or memorable. The recitation of pedestrian images rarely achieves much. Sometimes we see a tableau, but more often we read a list of actions. In "July," "A car horn blasts. A window goes down. Someone / yells something / about sleep. Shut-up someone replies." Still, at times, Ulku writes longingly about the world that grounds him and seems to give him so much pain, and it is in these moments that the poetry begins to dance, even in its despair as in "Futility":
I would change the meaning of poor.
I wish I were a shard of stained glass
a boy exploring the ruins
picks up and turns over, saying glass.
I wish the bones of a small white bird
would rise up out of the prairie,
rise up and fly off in any direction.
In this poem, Ulku articulates all that the book wants: the desire, the longing, to feel wonder, to be wonderful, to have the power to name things and make them beautiful. Ulku speaks quietly what he would wish for himself in this lost world:
We have lived a hundred thousand lives;
I am tired of it all.
Carry me off on your rolling shoulders.
Show me a new way to live with myself.
Ultimately, though the language lags in places, Ulku still offers some insight into the quest for faith and religion at the end of the twentieth century. Occasionally prosaic, sometimes engaging, Ulku's images are bound by desire, a longing for causality, a universal raison d'etre. Meteorology navigates the eye of a personal storm of loneliness and displacement, a storm that might threaten and enlighten the shores of every modern reader.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000