Author of the Week / 16 January 2023

When it doesn’t make sense, make nonsense: sound poetry and an undeciphered alphabet

Author of the Week: Cyprus

Sound Poetry and Nonsense

Cassandra, a daughter of the royal house of Priam, was not just a princess of Troy. She was also a prophetess, to whom Apollo had granted the gift of foresight. Cassandra talked a lot of sense, but no one listened when she foresaw the impending fall of the city, no one helped her when she foresaw her own terrible end. Apollo’s gift came with a curse that she would never be believed. According to Aeschylus that was because she reneged on her promise to sleep with him, whilst other sources are less certain that she promised anything, but say that he cursed her when his seduction gift failed to deliver the desired result. Either way, Cassandra refused a god, and for that sin was destined to speak the truth and never to be believed. The curse continues. In modern Greek parlance a Cassandra is a prophet of doom, not someone we need to listen to very carefully.

Cassandra may have talked sense, but for me the most memorable and heart-rending words she ever spoke made no sense at all. After the bloody fall of Troy, Ajax raped her in Athena’s temple and King Agamemnon took her to his royal palace in Mycenae as a slave and concubine. Cassandra’s first utterance, according to Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, doesn’t make any sense at all. Cursed with intelligence, her cry of anguish is an unintelligible ὀτοτοτοτοι̑, inarticulate, incomprehensible syllables that Virginia Woolf called a ‘naked cry’ in her 1925 essay On not Knowing Greek. ‘The meaning is just on the far side of language’, concludes Woolf.


At the same time as Woolf grappled with translating the untranslatable in Aeschylus, the artist Kurt Schwitters was midway through composing perhaps the most famous sound poem of the twentieth century, ‘URSonate’, an originary or primeval sonata, a poem that took him a decade to complete from its inception in 1922. The poem is like Cassandra’s cry ‘on the far side of language’, as the introduction indicates:

Sound poetry was first developed by the Dadaists. Schwitters is said to have been inspired by Hugo Ball’s performance at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, to have quoted Ball’s performance:

gadji beri bimba
glandridi lauli lonni cadori. 

Schwitters was influenced by the Dadaists with whom he was loosely but problematically associated – they excluded him from their group as too sentimental and too much of an expressionist, although his work had much in common with theirs. Like them, he was a strong proponent of multidisciplinary practices involving collage, visual and sound poetry, early installation art and performance. Like Cassandra’s his life was dominated by war and exile. Schwitters went into exile in Norway in 1937, when the Nazis included his work in their Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) exhibition. Fleeing the Nazi invasion of Norway, he spent most of the war in an internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man before settling in the Lake District in England, where he died in 1948 at the age of 60.

Sound poetry was an aesthetic strategy that was used not only by the Dadaists. The Italian futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote his sound poem ‘Zang Tumb Tuum’ between 1912 and 1914 as an account of the Bulgarian siege of the Turkish city of Edirne (Adrianople), which Marinetti witnessed as a war correspondent for the French newspaper L’intransigeant:


It is worth noting that modernist, futurist, constructivist and Dadaist artists and poets across Europe and the newly-born USSR embraced sound poetry in the early 20th century at a time of war and upheaval. In the face of contemporary chaos, when the old order no longer made sense, nonsense was a compelling alternative.


I turned to sound poetry a century later, in the heart of the Middle East, on the edge of Europe, on an island divided by a war forty years prior, and just a hundred kilometres across the sea from an ongoing war in Syria. Perhaps I turned to sound poetry because of the war, like poets before me. Perhaps, like the Dadaist poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, I turned to the genre because I had a broken heart.  Her 1920 poem ‘Klink-Hratzvenga’ (Death-wail) was written in response to her husband Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven’s suicide. The scholar Irene Gammel calls the poem ‘a mourning song in nonsense sounds that transcended national boundaries’.[1]

Narin – Tzarissamanili
(He is dead)
Ildrich mitzdonja –astatootch
Ninj – iffee kniek –
Ninj – iffee kniek!
Arr – karr–
Arrkarr –barr […].

But it was more than that, more than turning horror and grief that doesn’t make sense into nonsense. I embraced the genre because I had returned to live in Cyprus, and the island called to me in a lost language. Let me share some of my personal story and my island’s history in order to explain what I mean.

Cyprus was divided by war in 1974. In the Republic of Cyprus in the south, Cypriots speak Greek; in the north, in the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Cypriots speak Turkish. But if we go further back, to the beginning, so far back even the Phoenician Goddess Ashtart had not yet arrived, long before she became Aphrodite, we come to the time of our original Cypriot language, the lost language of the island’s original inhabitants. The first Cypriots spoke and wrote a language that came under pressure from Arcado-Cypriot Greek from the 10th century BC onwards, until it became extinct around 4th century BC. The written fragments, remains of the Eteo-Cypriot language, are yet to be deciphered and the language is as yet unintelligible except for a very small body of vocabulary attested in bilingual Arcado-Cypriot Greek and Eteo-Cypriot inscriptions. It has no similarities to any known language. Due to the small number of texts found, there is currently much unproven speculation. The most famous Eteo-Cypriot inscription is a bilingual text inscribed on a black marble slab found on the acropolis of Amathus, near modern Paphos in about 1913, dated to around 600 BC and written in both the Attic dialect of Ancient Greek and Eteo-Cypriot. But even here, none of the individual words are certain in the context. Gordon Cyrus, the Near-East historian, translates this fragment as:

a-na ma-to-ri u-mi-e-s[a]-i mu-ku-la-i la-sa-na a-ri-si-to-no-se a-ra-to-wa-na-ka-so-ko-o-se
ke-ra-ke-re-tu-lo-se ta-ka-na-[?-?]-so-ti a-lo ka-i-li-po-ti

This sound poem that speaks to the fundaments of our identity translates into Attic Ancient Greek as:

I pólis i Amathousíon Aristóna
Aristónaktos, efpatrídin.
the city of the Amathusans honoured the noble Ariston
son of Aristonax[2]

Questions of grammar remain a mystery, although I would hazard that the spirit of our island’s first language persists in the way Cypriots speak now, with an accent that is awkward and uncongenial to the standard Greek, and Turkish, and a preponderance of ‘sh’ sounds that are not part of the Greek alphabet at all. Of course that is just a feeling on my part, not a fact I can verify. Many languages merged with Eteo-Cypriot in the time of the Ten Kingdoms, and voices speaking Ancient Greek, Phoenician, Akkadian, Sumerian, Old Persian, Ancient Egyptian and Latin have echoed on these shores. All that is certain is that there are fragments of a lost heritage in a language we can no longer understand, a legacy of sense going beyond sense.

There are the traces of many languages on the island but even the two official languages, Greek and Turkish spoken by Cypriots, are diglossic, that is, they have two versions, like for instance Arabic – a local variant that is markedly different from the high or educated form, and relies on rules that don’t make sense in the codified form of the language. The dominant language is Cypriot Greek, but this is a polyglossic island, one where many languages are used, and the spirit of many other languages can be heard in them. Cyprus has seen many empires, the French, Venetian, Ottoman Turkish and British, and is home to longstanding Maronite and Armenian communities, as well as Greek and Turkish Cypriots.


I live in the north of Cyprus where the dominant language is Turkish, but it is by no means the only language I encounter on a daily basis. Arabic blares out of the loudspeakers of the mosques five times a day. My friends, colleagues and neighbours speak Russian, Farsi, Kurdish, Lebanese Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French. I meet Uyghur-Mandarin, Qashqai, Pashtoun, Urdu, Vietnamese and Turkmen speakers in the local restaurants, taxis, minimarkets, beauty parlours and hairdressers. This makes for an environment where language frequently becomes both poetic and musically nonsensical.


I was born to an English mother and Turkish Cypriot father, and brought up bilingually. My earliest years and memories are from a time when my father wrote and broadcast the English language news for the Turkish Cypriot radio station Kıbrısın Sesi, The Voice of Cyprus. Every night I listened to my daddy on the radio saying in his perfect BBC English, ‘Good evening, this is the voice of Cyprus.’ So when I was tiny I thought the voice of Cyprus was my father, and like him Cyprus was bilingual, English and Turkish. I also heard Arabic. I was a greedy little girl and I used to watch the muezzin climb the stairs to the minaret to sing the call for prayer at noon in Arabic, knowing that when he did so it would soon be time for lunch. As he sang allahu akbar, God is great, I misheard him imagining he announced Allah bu ekmek, God – this bread.

Later we bought a TV, and I watched the broadcasts of the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation, which were in Greek, or dubbed into Greek, although there were some English and American programmes that were subtitled rather than dubbed. So I discovered that Cyprus was mainly Greek speaking, with little room for either of the languages I spoke. It didn’t lessen my fascination. I would watch the English children’s TV cartoon Rupert the Bear and follow his adventures in Nutwood dubbed into Greek. I would sing along to the theme tune’s Greek dubbed words with my own nonsense rhymes. Roopert, Roopert dee Bear – gigali ga garo goooo, gigali garoo. By then I was crossing the barricades out of the Turkish Cypriot enclave to the English Junior School on the Greek side. Here I discovered another, much more prosperous world, where initially many of my classmates made it clear I was not welcome because I was ‘a Turk’, they had never met one before and asked whether my father had a curved sword and wore a turban. I was the first Turkish-speaking Cypriot to attend that primary school. In time I made some good friends and most of my peers overcame their fears and prejudice in the classroom, although there were darker forces and violence in the world beyond it. We lived in the shadow of war, and within a few years there was a Greek fascist coup, and then the Turkish invasion. But before that, there was a multicultural classroom full of Greek Cypriot, Armenian, English, Irish, American and French friends, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I loved the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ from Alice Through the Looking Glass:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse in the classroom made much more sense than the logic of nationalism and violence outside it. Nonsense is homely. When the logic of life imposes violence nonsense makes much more sense than war, borders and oppression. When we reach the limits of the sayable, then let us simply unsay it.

Here’s my Cypriot contribution to the genre.

Men Sabarin

Alem galem Mansura
diplava provado boquerones
Vilayet halen gayret mindan öte
potin atlet ikomad drid renc renc renc renc
jarpach murat ise skoda b em ve saire saire saire
watan watan wataaaan Full Kepap.
Panayiya galo kato katistki
lench baboutsa
magarina melano bulli
Hanyayı Gonyayı göremeden
adle ospu esh esh esh.
Şalaguda pu pu tük tük
ah ah gavros gafedaki
mulihiya eenay anoteros su
Çakıstez çakistez horevu
perisotera iplik
memfataasaaa men çekirdekin
Anafartalar çakma amour fatiler.
Prin tipota anixha ruha
mavro foufou ke momo
gavur gayri memdullid memfaat müfredat.
Sürküm, Cablidaşım, Dağ lokum.
Pote yeni thikes avlou monopadi
canım, ciğerim, böbreğim.
Netspresso otaku hamachi
gancelli gurbetden flauna
gülannaa pikava korindenmiş
omifili ağappaq kayros
ah ah alem galem Mansura
Hanyayı Gonyayı göremeden.

[1] Irene Gammel: Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity-A Cultural Biography. The MIT Press, 2003.

[2] Gordon Cyrus: Forgotten scripts: their ongoing discovery and decipherment. New York: Basic Books, 1982.


Alev Adil

Alev Adil’s poetry has been included in anthologies of Cypriot poetry in English, Greek Turkish and Lithuanian, taught on University courses in the UK, US, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey and has been widely translated. Her poetry collection Venus Infers was praised as 'both a passport and a trip to new and unimagined communities'.  

Adil is also a literary critic and reviews for The Times Literary Supplement. She is an associate editor of the literary journal Critical Muslim. Alev is a co-editor of, and contributor to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices From a Divided City, Saqi Books, London, 2019.