Nazim Hikmet’s “Letters From A Man In Solitary”

Prison ruin in Turkey
Prison ruin in Turkey

Nazim Hikmet was a Turkish poet, novelist, and playwright whose poems are considered to be some of the most powerful statements of the twentieth century. After serving several shorter prison terms, Hikmet was finally sentenced, in 1938, to twenty-eight years in Bursa Prison for his “Communist writings,” a verdict handed down not through the regular Turkish civil courts (who didn’t have the grounds to convict him) but through secret proceedings in the National Security Courts (a strange parallel to our current military courts for enemy combatants). In 1950, Hikmet was released early due to worldwide pressure and the announcement he would receive an International Peace Prize (along with painter Pablo Picasso and Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda). Hikmet fled into exile after 12 years “inside” and settled in Moscow, where he died in 1963.

…outside, with all its machinery and all its art,
a plains night comes down red on treeless space.

“Letters From A Man In Solitary” was written in 1938, the year Hikmet was sentenced to prison. The poem consists of three “letters” that Hikmet wrote to his wife, the only way Hikmet was able to send his poems to the outside world. Small things — the sun, his window, the sound of his own voice — take on large meanings in the small world from which he writes. Also, Hikmet’s language and surprising turns of tone and mood create moving portraits of a man who struggled most of his life to remain heard.

Letters From A Man In Solitary


1
I carved your name on my watchband
with my fingernail.
Where I am, you know,
I don’t have a pearl-handled jackknife
(they won’t give me anything sharp)
or a plane tree with its head in the clouds.
Trees may grow in the yard,
but I’m not allowed
to see the sky overhead…
How many others are in this place?
I don’t know.
I’m alone far from them,
they’re all together far from me.
To talk anyone besides myself
is forbidden.
So I talk to myself.
But I find my conversation so boring,
my dear wife, that I sing songs.
And what do you know,
that awful, always off-key voice of mine
touches me so
that my heart breaks.
And just like the barefoot orphan
lost in the snow
in those old sad stories, my heart
— with moist blue eyes
and a little red runny rose —
wants to snuggle up in your arms.
It doesn’t make me blush
that right now
I’m this weak,
this selfish,
this human simply.
No doubt my state can be explained
physiologically, psychologically, etc.
Or maybe it’s
this barred window,
this earthen jug,
these four walls,
which for months have kept me from hearing
another human voice.

It’s five o’clock, my dear.
Outside,
with its dryness,
eerie whispers,
mud roof,
and lame, skinny horse
standing motionless in infinity
— I mean, it’s enough to drive the man inside crazy with grief —
outside, with all its machinery and all its art,
a plains night comes down red on treeless space.

Again today, night will fall in no time.
A light will circle the lame, skinny horse.
And the treeless space, in this hopeless landscape
stretched out before me like the body of a hard man,
will suddenly be filled with stars.
We’ll reach the inevitable end once more,
which is to say the stage is set
again today for an elaborate nostalgia.
Me,
the man inside,
once more I’ll exhibit my customary talent,
and singing an old-fashioned lament
in the reedy voice of my childhood,
once more, by God, it will crush my unhappy heart
to hear you inside my head,
so far
away, as if I were watching you
in a smoky, broken mirror…

2
It’s spring outside, my dear wife, spring.
Outside on the plain, suddenly the smell
of fresh earth, birds singing, etc.
It’s spring, my dear wife,
the plain outside sparkles…
And inside the bed comes alive with bugs,
the water jug no longer freezes,
and in the morning sun floods the concrete…
The sun —
every day till noon now
it comes and goes
from me, flashing off
and on…
And as the day turns to afternoon, shadows climb the walls,
the glass of the barred window catches fire,
and it’s night outside,
a cloudless spring night…
And inside this is spring’s darkest hour.
In short, the demon called freedom,
with its glittering scales and fiery eyes,
possesses the man inside
especially in spring…
I know this from experience, my dear wife,
from experience…

3
Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
how blue
and how wide.
Then I respectfully sat down on the earth.
I leaned back against the wall.
For a moment no trap to fall into,
no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only earth, sun, and me…
I am happy.

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