Poetic Reference Beyond Postmodernism: On “The Autobiography of the Past” by Enver Ali Akova

In the rhyming dictionary that he gifted to J. D. McClatchy, James Merrill included the following couplet:

Things often, Sandy, have more rhymes than names.

—A Melancholy truth to learn. From James.

There are only so many words for things, and the idea of synonymy is largely deceptive. “Beautiful” and “pretty” do not mean the same thing. “Mother” and “mom,” “father” and “dad,” “destiny” and “fate”—these “synonymous” words might be said to have similar meanings, but they each have, to borrow Gottlob Frege’s term, a different sense. So yes, we have limited names for things. Rhymes? We have many. There is one word for bliss (“happiness” won’t do) but rhymes? “Kiss,” “abyss,” “reminisce.” Why does Merrill call this truth melancholy? It is easier to talk around something through the various relations and associations we make with it. Language proliferates around an idea or a thing. Our reality also proliferates along with language. When we return to the plain sense of things, we may hope that our language will capture all that a name signifies. But how can a mere name contain all those relations? This melancholy truth has led postmodern intellectuals toward suspicion and skepticism about the relationship between word and world. This is one way to go about it. Look back at Merrill’s couplet, however. The rhymes are playfully paired with proper names: “melancholy” with “Sandy,” “names” with “James.” Reference is indeed precarious but it does not naturally follow that we can never really mean what we say nor that our reality is linguistic. Just as words can put pressure on the occasion, occasions too can place pressure on words.

When Dibur asked me to translate a poem, I immediately thought of the young Turkish poet Enver Ali Akova, who received the prestigious Yaşar Nabi Nayır Prize in 2018. Akova’s Olmasını istediğimiz bir park (A park wished for) is one of the most impressive first books of poems I’ve read in a long timeAkova was born in Istanbul and continues to live there. The experience of living in a city like Istanbul, where green spaces are continuously threatened by urban development, is the focal point of Akova’s poetic narrative. Amid relentless urban construction, the idea of nature boils down to whatever remains of heavily demarcated (and politicized) green spaces such as parks. This psychogeography and its impact on communication are central concerns in Akova’s first book. In the distinctive flow of his voice, one can recognize influences of various Turkish writers. For example, the intimacy of Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the most important writers of Istanbul, and the modernist syntax and dramatic monologues of poets like Cemal Süreya and Edip Cansever are some of the most recognizable influences. Akova’s multifaceted relation to poetic tradition also occasions performative subversions of readerly expectation. He gestures toward traditional poetic forms such as the ghazal while entirely modernizing their content and bending the formal rules with subtle but consequential decisions. As a result, he exposes uncanny similarities between how urban structure and poetic form condition our perception.

At first glance, Akova is an unmistakably postmodern stylist. In “The Autobiography of the Past” one can quickly recognize John Ashbery’s influence in the fast pace with which the poet moves between images, allusions, and other rhetorical anchors while avoiding any specific commitments to these potential anchors. The conceptual pursuit which unites these disparate efforts is itself infused with obvious irony: as if the idea of the past is not elusive or abstract enough, the poet proposes to give us an autobiography of it. Is the past supposed to be the speaker of the poem? How can we imagine a voice for the past? What kind of past are we supposed to imagine? Personal? World historical? Without giving the readers a chance to seek answers to some of these elementary questions, the poem throws them right in the middle of a vortex: “It all happened so fast.”

Here are some elements which call attention to Akova’s embrace of a postmodern poetics: the indeterminacy of reference (“it all”), atmospheric insinuations (of a birth scene), self-conscious commentary on the poem’s own rhetorical gestures (“our struggle to color this”), and allusions that interpret the doomed heroism of such gestures (Icarus). The generous use of the first-person plural makes this doomed heroism even more apparent and dramatic. No matter what choice we make, it seems, “our struggle to color” a state of plain existence makes that state of plainness irretrievable. Language, rather than establishing reliable centers of communication or producing detailed images for the mind to dwell on, causes a grief-stricken proliferation of meaning.

I characterize this as a grief-stricken situation for two reasons. First, the idea of death, which haunts every attempt at autobiography, also structures the narrative of this poem. It begins with the intimation of a birth scene and ends by wondering whether assigned meanings can retain their force after death. To rehearse for this ultimate loss, in the middle, the poem performs a repetitive mixture of inflationary and deflationary aerobics. A question which at first sounds metaphysically loaded (“Why is it that we spoil like a fruit?”) loses its force when followed by a series of casual questions (e.g., “what is natural and does not spoil?”). This deflationary mechanism grows to the point where actions such as remembering—fundamental to the existence of any past—begin to appear “senseless.” Second, in a psychoanalytic sense, the entry into language, a symbolic system of representation, commits us to a chasm between word and world. The desire for more rhetoric, more metaphors, and more allusions stems from the radical lack of referential stability. Words we use to refer to things in the world are already laden with subjective associations. In addition, when joined with other words, they occasion endless associative permutations.

This conceptual framework, however, is overfamiliar at this point. Linguistic melancholy and a meta-level awareness of the operations of language are characteristic of many postmodern experiments in poetry. Well, then, what is different about Akova’s poem?

The most muscular pause and punctuation comes at the very end of the middle stanza. The speaker announces, “Remembering and shadow feel senselessly identical.” It is hard, in other words, to tell the difference between remembering something and seeing a shadow, or being in the presence of an object. The indistinguishability of perception and association is in line with the rest of the poem. References and assertions realize their potential largely from the way they motorize relational attitudes. The powerful pause comes in the next line: “When one sees the mother the first word; mother . . .” Syntactically, at first, it is possible to read this as completing the previous line: it is hard to tell the difference between remembered things and shadows “when one sees the mother.” According to this reading, the return to the mother—once again in a psychoanalytic sense—can be seen as the beginning of all referential problems. For Freud and later psychoanalysts like Lacan, the figure of the mother preserves the traces of a child’s changing relationship to things and objects. At first a unit with the child, then separate though still an unmediated object of the child’s desire, the mother eventually becomes a problematic site of attachment, especially after the child is sufficiently developed to take account of others’ desires for the same object. By returning to the “mother” in this fashion, the poem restages the theater of psychoanalysis.

Nevertheless, as we continue to read the line, the syntactical connection to the previous line proves untenable. Rather than announcing yet another process of mediation, the speaker offers a moment of perception and an utterance triggered by this perception. “Mother” is the first word that comes out of one’s mouth when one sees the mother. Why does Akova include such a dramatic pause here? What would be different about this line had the poet written: “When one sees the mother the first word is the mother”? Maybe it would have sounded overly logical. The word “mother” would have been a part of the poem’s reasoning process. Here, however, the poem stages an encounter not with psychoanalysis, not with any kind of postmodern theory of mediation, but with the mother, whether it is the idea, the shadow, or a memory of the mother. The pause liberates the word from the mediating tendencies of the poem’s syntax and gives it an immediate, theatrical inflection. This ostensive moment could be understood in multiple ways: as pointing to the mother, acknowledging the mother, or making an emotional plea to the mother.

It is no wonder that, like psychoanalysis, philosophical theories of reference often return to the figure of the mother. For example, in Word and Object, W. V. Quine argues for a behavioral theory of language acquisition. He shows how a process of reinforcement turns an infant’s accidental utterances “into a stimulus for the act.” Children may at first randomly utter the word “Mama,” but if they are rewarded for this utterance, they will begin to use the word when the right occasion arises. Quine continues: “That original utterance of ‘Mama’ will have occurred in the midst of sundry stimulations, certainly; the mother’s face will not have been all. There was simultaneously, we may imagine, a sudden breeze. Also there was the sound ‘Mama’ itself, heard by the child from his own lips. Hence the effect of the reward will be to make him tend to say ‘Mama’ in the future not only on seeing the approaching face, but likewise on feeling a breeze or hearing ‘Mama.’”[i]

Therefore, in addition to mimicry and repetition, these first “occasion sentences” are accompanied “by ambiguity, or homonymy, as between use and mention of words.” Quine’s theory is obviously speculative. But it is driven by an empiricist desire to understand how the stages of language acquisition might shape a person’s ability to do things with language and the kind of control one might be able to retain against the proliferative tendencies of language. The child acquires, after this rather vague and abstract referential stage, the ability to discern and address specific objects, to distinguish the mother from all the extra details that might have accompanied her perception. Nonetheless, after this process of individuation, there comes yet another kind of abstraction: the child may now recognize qualities shared by different objects. These qualities, like redness and kindness, may invite more advanced categorical abstractions. At this point the child “already has forerunners of his eventual abstract singulars.”[ii]

Even though for Quine abstraction bookends any specificity we might come close to accomplishing through reference, his emphasis on the specific “occasions” in response to which the child learns to construct sentences is crucial. “It is,” Quine argues, “occasion sentences, not terms, that are to be seen as conditioned to stimulations.”[iii] The suspicious attitude of postmodernity has taught us to believe in and look for mediation everywhere: in words, objects, concepts, references, frameworks. Quine, as well as Akova’s poem, offers alternative ways of thinking about the word-world relation and problems of reference. Quine’s insistence on the sentence as a holistic unit is crucial, as well as his emphasis on how reference stimulates the “individuative” resources of grammar (i.e., relative clauses). This feature might help us appreciate the specificity of lexical choices which are called for by specific occasions and are not replaceable by synonyms or descriptions that approximate their meaning.

In Akova’s poem, too, the word “mother” exhausts the syntactical resources of language to demonstrate the word’s unique position within a holistic framework. The same cannot be said, for instance, for the Icarus reference, which is not prompted by a specific occasion and could very well be replaced by another reference or attempt at paraphrase. Likewise, the image of the melting rocks or of the ticktocks of the clocks could be replaced by other such images or descriptions that capture the unstoppable proliferation of meaning. Akova’s poem stages the theater of postmodernism in order to suggest a way out of postmodernism’s by now worn-out and limiting procedures. The central muscle of the poem is a semicolon. It unsettles the syntax and inaugurates a performative occasion.

More panoramically, the tension that governs Akova’s poem can be observed in how philosophers often mistakenly conflate perception and consciousness. In an article that proposes a Hegelian theory of reference, Katharina Dulckeit first asks the following question: “Exactly what sort of perceptual link is required for reference by ostension to go through?” However, afterward, Dulckeit criticizes those philosophers who insist on ostension as providing an immediate acquaintance with an object, since according to the Hegelian framework, there cannot be an immediate consciousness: “consciousness must abandon immediacy.”[iv] Dulckeit uses perception and consciousness interchangeably, without making any qualitative distinctions between the two concepts. As Sydney Shoemaker remarks in his work on self-reference, “the main source of trouble here is a tendency to think of awareness as a kind of perception, i.e. to think of it on the model of sense-perception.”[v] Both awareness and consciousness are theoretical concepts that assume enduring and synthesizing centers of selfhood. Surely, perception is no exception. It, too, must have mechanisms, habits, and tendencies. It, too, cannot escape the influence of the past.

Above all, perception relies on immediate sensory stimulation. The occasion sentences triggered by such sensory stimulation exert empirical pressures. Akova’s return to the mother, similar to Quine’s and many other empiricists’ obsessive returns to childhood, results from the cherished belief that the empirical foundations of our now mediated and synthesized concepts are to be found in childhood. As Cathy Caruth observes in her psychoanalytic study of empiricist philosophy, “childhood is the time when sensations are most influential. Indeed, the spatially conceived threat of sensation is placed here within the temporal framework of the concept of childhood, which is defined precisely as the time of sensory indulgence.”[vi] Surely, these philosophical, psychoanalytic, and poetic returns to childhood may be based merely on speculative theories of development and cognition. The same is true for the pervasive fictions of postmodernism about the inevitability of mediation and sense proliferation.

Akova’s poem invites readers to reflect on how occasion, syntax, and reference may work together to distinguish the immediacy of perception against a postmodern backdrop. To be sure, Akova does not do away with the skeptical reflexes of postmodernism. By organizing the poem around a referential occasion, however, he announces a suspicion about the way postmodern poetry treats objects as artificial automatons, like marionettes, controlled by discursive systems. While reading Akova’s book, I found myself wondering whether it is time to suspend our belief—even if only sometimes—in conspiracy theories, in there always being, in John Gray’s words, some force “pulling the strings behind the stage.”[vii]


[i] W. V. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 74.

[ii] Ibid., 110.

[iii] W. V. Quine, “Things and Their Place in Theories,” in Quintessence: Basic Readings from the Philosophy of W. V. Quine, ed. Roger F. Gibson Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 245.

[iv] Katharina Dulckeit, “Language, Objects, and the Missing Link: Toward a Hegelian Theory of Reference,” in Hegel and Language, ed. Jere O’Neill Surber (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 153, 159.

[v] Sydney S. Shoemaker, “Self-Reference and Self-Awareness,” in Self-Reference and Self-Awareness, ed. Andrew Brook and Richard C. DeVidi (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2001), 90.

[vi] Cathy Caruth, Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 17.

[vii] John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom (London: Penguin, 2015), 133.

Melih Levi studies English modernism and its immediate aftermath to think about the philosophical stakes of symbolism, imagism, and mid-centutry formalisms.

Essay first published in Dibur Literary Journal (Creative Commons).

Photo by Esin Üstün (Flickr).

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