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George Messo
reviewed by Alistair Noon
84pp. Shearsman. GBP£8.95 2007. 13 9780907562900; 10 0907562906 paper

This review is about 5 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Alistair Noon and Jacket magazine 2008.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

Doing the Translocal


Not long ago an article in The Economist posited the existence of an Istanbul School of poetry, which was to include George Messo and John Ash[1]. Messo is based in Ankara, but I guess this is close enough to Istanbul to count for membership purposes. The other candidates’ connection to the Bosporus and its cultures seemed, at least on the basis of their biographies, a bit slighter. A semester or two in a foreign city might yield personal enrichment and a change of perspective, but won’t necessarily define an oeuvre.

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But George Messo’s second book, Entrances, which includes poems located in Turkey and the Caucasus, could be given another label, namely ‘translocal’. Historians and anthropologists have been using the term for some time now in relation to the processes and flows of globalization, as a way of describing ideas and activities that cross from place to place. The term could also be useful to poetry.


It may be true that the ‘holiday poem’ tends to exoticize foreign locations and fetishize the writer’s sudden, two-week-long unfamiliarity with their immediate environment. This shouldn’t, however, obscure the fact that other writers make successful use of new, perhaps ‘foreign’ environments in which they have lived or spent time, or otherwise engaged with. Larkin didn’t want any more ‘poems about foreign cities’, but the distinction between what is foreign and what is domestic is blurring.


The architrave to Entrances is provided by the first poem, ‘Winter by the Choruh River’, quoted here in entirety:


A woman is rowing across a dark rift.
The scarf she wears is blue. But
she does not see me here among the trees.
The snow is thick as cream and the river
a black cloud she steers across.

On the far bank smoke rises blue from her house.
Blue of her scarf, blue of the wood-smoke rising.


The poem lays down simple, direct images and descriptions; its two metaphors (‘dark rift’ and ‘black cloud’) and single simile (‘thick as cream’) aren’t hard to follow. The colour scheme is careful: the sequence of imagery resembles a black-and-white film with flashes of blue (the scarf and the smoke). Sounds at the ends of lines repeat and modulate: ‘rift’ and ‘river’, ‘trees’ / ‘across’ / ‘rising’. The title is made up of specific geographical and temporal references. Rubbing these elements together, the poem sends up signals: the ‘rift’ points to geological time, the ‘blue’ to Islamic architecture, and the smoke itself to human settlement and civilization.[2]


The apparent awkwardness of ‘But’ at the end of the second line flags up the self-reflexive gaze that is to follow in line three: ‘she does not see me among the trees.’ This brief aside on the observer adds a stratum of meaning to the more objective elements of the poem: this is a real place and a real person being viewed by a biased pair of eyes. The imbalance in acts of observation and writing comes into play here: the artist / anthropologist / travel writer / journalist imprints their view of things, such that it becomes reality for the reader. This poem provides at least a partial resolution to the power problem, by respecting the everyday nature of the scene and the subject, instead of conjuring up an exotic location and figure.


I guess models from the Near and Middle East are at work here, evident to those familiar with the relevant literatures. ‘Winter by the Choruh River’ also seems to be part of the swirl of particles hurled out by Pound’s Cathay, volcanic ash from East Asia becoming soil for Western poetry. I’m reminded particularly of Pound’s own post-Cathay ‘Liu Ch’e’, that’s the one with the wet leaf clinging to the threshold: the ‘rejoicer of the heart’ plays a similar counterpointing role to the third line of the ‘Choruh river’.[3]


In other poems too, the details have the effect of a shoal suddenly seen in clear water:


You ask how long before we catch a fish.
Still we cannot say. But the night rains
swell the summer pool.
(‘Shenyuva’, II)


The bright, spare lyric swims into view:


For once I know we
have to live and why.
(‘Mothlike I’)


And the simplest of words can tug hard on the line:


Siberia is far away,
The night wood mute with snow.
(‘A Turk in the Hotel Gulag’)


Although the first of the book’s five sections seems to centre around North-East Turkey, I can’t always make out a shared tone, theme, setting or form within the remaining sections. But the division does usefully arrange the poems – many of which are short – like paintings in different rooms at an exhibition. The titles of two of these rooms, ‘Midday Stars’ and ‘Consent to Cloud’, are particularly suggestive.


Messo takes imagery from locations outside the Anglosphere without falling back on exoticness to increase a supposed poeticity. It’s a kind of Anti-Orientalism:


Night Journey

It’s you who cannot sleep
on the night bus
moving miles in the cubic black.

The bed you’d dream
is warm and small
but unreachable by dawn.

In every roadside house
lights go out
before we’ve passed.


Where does this take place? The fact that the houses are right next to the road suggests a region where overnight travel doesn’t take place on motorways, but there’s nothing more specific than that. The simple wording and careful sounding create an individual atmosphere while allowing the poem to be located in many places. And when Messo does want to draw attention to something outside of typical 20th/21st century Anglosphere experience, he doesn’t over-announce that difference. The smoke is back again:


Fabrics weaved on entering
quilt their cigarette smoke.
A four-legged stool’s
held out, then held back,
placed beside the stove.
(‘Teahouse Routine’)


The collection is by no means one-track. Following a different path up the mountain from the imagistic work, ‘The Use and Meaning of Tranquility’ and ’Articles of Faith’ have a more discursive feel. And Messo seems to be always good for a complete surprise, such as in the following hybrid of Imagism (with haiku just a generation back) and the permutational techniques of early Concrete Poetry:


Fruit Music

The cherry tree
and its body-buds
quote pleasure.

Quote “body”
and it buds
the cherry pleasure.

The pleasure-tree
buds and quotes


Or in the erotic-visceral imagery and rhyming stanzas of ‘Going to Rize’. Or in ‘The Flight of the Tortoise’, a prose fable with tongue-in-cheek commentary. Or in an iambic prose poem (‘I Close My Eyes’) with WS Graham-ish diction and subject matter, language. The variety of forms, especially towards the end of the book, is stimulating and meaningful. The visual shapes are familiar to readers of turbomodernist poems – double-spaced lines, left- and right-justified text – but, like words in a sentence, acquire significance through difference. This collaging makes the individual form ‘a landscape closing in to accent each particular thing’ (from ‘too little where’).


Up on the macro-level, that’s much like one effect of the whole book. In the blurbs on the back, Peter Didsbury comments that Messo ‘is somehow bringing a whole region and set of cultures back into the European sphere’. Most entrances are also exits though, and I think this book also implies something more general about landscapes, cultures, and how we view and interact with them. Its entrances are diversely patterned and finely carved.


[1] ‘Poetic inspiration’, The Economist, Feb 15th 2007. Also accessible at

[2] It also makes me think of something by the Hungarian poet Sándor Kányádi:

Smoke has been the sign of human settlement
ever since Prometheus’ defiant act,
ever since people settled down to roasting,
torching, scorching and cremating, ever since
human history began its smoldering.
(‘Smoke’, translated by Paul Sohar)


The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the courtyard,
There is no sound of foot-fall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Alistair Noon lives in Berlin. His e-chapbook Across the Water won the Mimesis Digital Chapbook Initiative 2008. At the Emptying of Dustbins recently appeared from Oystercatcher Press. Links to his poems, reviews, essays and translations from German, Russian and Chinese can be found at

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