The Week of Felix Poetry Festival, 31.5.-1.6., Belgium

The Day you Became Human

Review of Mustafa Kör's Are You Love

/ by Willem Thies

In 2007 Mustafa Kör (1976) published his critically acclaimed and prize-winning debut novel De Lammeren / The Lambs. Now he has also debuted as a poet with the collection Ben jij liefde / Are you Love.


Kör was born in the Turkish city of Konya. His father migrated to Limburg, Belgium, to work in the mines in Maasmechelen. Mustafa joined his father when he was three. When he was eight, he returned to his native soil for two years, after which he settled permanently in Belgium. In the absence of the father in Turkey, one of Mustafa’s brothers, acted as a surrogate father, but later committed suicide. In 1998 Mustafa Kör fell asleep at the wheel on the Duivelsberg in Maasmechelen. The car missed a bend in the road, flipped over, and Mustafa was thrown out of the vehicle. He remains paralysed for life.


These biographical dates are relevant, as they feature prominently in Are you Love. They serve as both a context and starting point. The car accident was central to the awakening of the writer in Mustafa Kör. Until then he had not read a book, or felt the urge to write. On that decisive day his body was broken, but he was born as a writer.


Mustafa Kör is extraordinarily flexible with language. He is a poet (and writer) pur sang. His poetry is extremely lyrical. Kör dances and juggles with language, he kneads it, makes it sparkle. He dusts off beautiful obsolete or archaic words, polishes them and makes them shine again – for example, ‘druivelaar’ (a dialect term for ‘vine’), ‘zog’ (in the sense of ‘mother’s milk’), ‘festoen’ (‘garland’), ‘pardessus’ (‘overcoat’), ‘fluwijn’ (regional for ‘pillowcase’), ‘aks’ (‘primitive ax’) and ‘amechtig’ (‘heavily panting’, ‘short of breath’); but he also uses slang, fashionable contemporary jargon, typical Flemish sayings (‘Bezwaard titst hij de peuk weg’ / ‘Troubled, he flicks away the cigarette butt’), anglicisms and neologisms, even new formulations. One example of an anglicism is: ‘you shrink / as if you were a match in naughty children’s hands’ (Pilgrim’), in which ‘schrink’ is used in Flemish but with the English meaning of to shrink: ‘to contract’. His language is a potpourri: cosmopolitan, colourful. Sometimes his poetry is a bit baroque: strange and capricious, but never excessive – it is kept ‘tight’, while making elegant turns, without flipping the vehicle of language over.


Körs’ imagery is likewise very original, and entirely his own; he regularly derives comparisons from nature and the animal world. ‘Like a weasel we slipped into the night / of the sleeping prehistoric village’ (‘Spring night’). ‘We are staring glassily / like trout eyes’ (‘Flow’). ‘Audaciously and / armed with good excuses / you came towards me // like a blue tit // I fed you questions / the necklace around your neck / they were like castanets / and you a dancer’ (‘Take five’). The phrase ‘like a blue tit’ in the last example is positioned so that there can be an apo koinou: it can be read as part of both the preceding and the following line. Most probable, however, is that the word belongs to the following line: she is frivolous, he is still timid; he feeds her small titbits (questions), cautiously, and always looks skittishly around, like a blue tit in a garden that comes to eat a fat ball or a peanut. The necklace with castanets is also reminiscent of a cord strung with peanuts.


And what about the opening verses of ‘Under a bridge’ (‘In flight’, second section)? ‘In the surprised rocking chair / I awaken illusions of your comfort’ – Kör does not use ‘comforting’ here as an adjective, but comfort as a noun, as a country, a metaphysical place.


Are you Love consists of six sections, and both the prologue and epilogue are formed by a single poem. The prologue is entitled ‘Idylle’, and takes place in the idealised mountain village where the ‘I’ was born (apparently this was not modelled on Konya, as this is a big city, but perhaps on a surrounding village, or a fictionalised town). Körs’ Anatolia becomes his Arcadia, a utopian (but lost) country. Kör (or his lyrical I) is a ‘deviant’ - ‘because my old man refused to love / the carmine earth / that a tourist, had to and would taste as honey and milk’. The title is therefore treacherous: the father leaves the idyllic place (which is rough and savage, ‘that barren land of my forefathers’, not a sweet country of abundance), with his son Mustafa in his wake. The poem ends with lines in which a tragedy is casually (!) made apparent: ‘My heart burst open as pomegranates / when I entrusted my brother’s suicide / to soil that was no longer mine’. From the opening poem, the idyll is cruelly disturbed.


The poem ‘Apples’, in the fourth section ‘Bread and love’, also seems to refer to a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise – and here too there is a threat, a danger, present from the outset. ‘The apples are out of reach of his arms (...) Curled golden blond, a bumbling angel / in the garden. Poor child of mine, beautiful child of mine / gorgeous and ready for the desecration.’ How a ‘beautiful child’ (pure and innocent) is something that can and will be desecrated, the way a perfectly whole, intact apple will be desecrated – affected by worm or tooth. As a child he is still ‘whole’ and intact, but as a grown-up man he is crippled and paralysed. Of course, this reading is not necessarily inherent to the poem, but for my reading I include references to the poet’s biographical background, and also to some other passages from the collection.


Incidentally, the references to the physical state, the disability, of the author are very brief and oblique; and Kör does not at all dramatise it. In the thematic breadth of the collection, the paralysis is only of minor importance, and is only sparingly alluded to. For example, the final stanza of ‘Creeping Blood’ (‘In Flight’) may be considered as a reference to the wheelchair, which is a ‘prosthesis’: ‘At night, always that black beast / you rake the smouldering heart and stare / at the by-product by your feet / a shadow without a hull’.


Another passage can be found in the poem ‘Pilgrim’ (‘Spleen’, third section): ‘Wife and offspring do their thing / you look at it, in aversion of / that lame on the side line and every fibre / every battered muscle screams: go, man!’


Finally, in addition perhaps to the title of the penultimate section ‘Missing the Bend,’ one single poem is entirely devoted to the fateful accident, and to the resulting paraplegia and paralysis. The last poem, the epilogue ‘Thawed out’, is not only resigned in tone, it is accepting and embracing: ‘Done with the agitation / and the sorrow of hearts / The mystic had a starring role / especially for you // The world had gathered you together / when you became human and clenched your fists / to cope with life / that one day would scream / for the fate that struck your marrow / as frost on blossom’.


The way a baby shrieks when it comes into the world, is how Mustafa Kör shouted on the all-decisive day that he became human, writer, poet; his true nature revealed itself with a shock. The poet rose from the wreckage. And what a poet!

Willem Thies

(1973) published his debut poetry collection Tundra in 2006. It was awarded the C. Buddingh’ Prize. This collection was followed by After the Plain (2008), nominated for the J.C. Flower Prize, Two Birds one Bullet (2012) and More People than Lifejackets (2015). His latest collection After the Mating Ritual will appear in September.