First Loves, Remembered

First Loves, Remembered: Ana Portnoy Brimmer on Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living”

On Living

I

Living is no laughing matter:
     you must live with great seriousness
          like a squirrel, for example—
  I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
          I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
     you must take it seriously,
     so much so and to such a degree
  that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                                   your back to the wall,
  or else in a laboratory
     in your white coat and safety glasses,
     you can die for people—
  even for people whose faces you've never seen,
  even though you know living
     is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
  that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees—
  and not for your children, either,
  but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
  because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II

Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
                    from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
                    about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
               for the latest newscast. . .
Let's say we're at the front—
     for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
     we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
     but we'll still worry ourselves to death
     about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
                    before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
                         I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
     we must live as if we will never die.

III

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
          and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
     I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
     in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
                         if you're going to say "I lived". . .


—Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk


From Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (Persea Books). Copyright © 1994 by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Persea Books. 

Twenty years ago, the Poetry Society published a series called First Loves in which we asked distinguished poets, including W.S. Merwin, Ntozake Shange, and Robert Creeley, to reflect on the poems that first captured their imaginations. The series eventually became a book, edited by Carmela Ciuraru, titled First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them. Here, we revisit that question with a new generation of poets, revealing how poetic influences both endure and change.


Ana Portnoy Brimmer on Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living”

I’ve fallen in love with poems many times over, too plentiful to count or remember. The reasons are always different, sparking hidden sensibilities that had dimmed in me. I don’t know that I can remember the exact first poem I fell for intensely, but I can remember the one that defibrillated me. And for what it’s worth—it was a first time in its own right. Nazim Hikmet’s, “On Living,” found me at a time of overwhelming grief. Hurricane María had only recently ravaged Puerto Rico. The archipelago was subsumed in a debt crisis and neocolonial flood. And I was twenty-two, a Master’s student and unable to understand myself as ever arriving to anything resembling futurity. Our world—all three populated islands of it—had collapsed. And then Hikmet stormed in: “I mean, you must take living so seriously / that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees— / and not for your children, either, / but because although you fear death you don't believe it, / because living, I mean, weighs heavier.”

It must be noted that this poem came to me in translation, through the interpretation of Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, both of whose earnest affect mediated my nascent relationship with Hikmet and this poem. I fell in love with “On Living” because it helped me fall back in love with the possibility of seeding a new world—the attempt at living with a conviction delirious with sincerity and intent. With the seriousness of living, when it seemed posterity had renounced us. With the rescue of posterity as an act of frenetic hope in what has yet to materialize into nothing more than an olive tree. With the understanding that the future is both a project of the present, and the present itself. And that that furious reach for the future we’re owed necessitates mourning. A mourning this poem laid lovingly at my feet: “You must grieve for this right now / —you have to feel this sorrow now— / for the world must be loved this much / if you're going to say ‘I lived’. . .”

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