"The Oasis of Now" by Sorab Sepehri [Why This Book Should Win]

We’re only hours away from announcing the two winners of this year’s BTBA awards, but it’s never too late to promote one of the finalists. The piece below was written by BTBA poetry judge, Bill Martin.

The Oasis of Now by Sorab Sepehri, translated from the Persian by Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati (Iran; BOA Editions)

One of the books that surprised and impressed me most from this year’s BTBA poetry submissions was Sohrab Sepehri’s The Oasis of Now, translated by the American poet Kazim Ali and the Iranian scholar of religion Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Like most readers of English, I was unfamiliar with the work, because like most Persian-language writers, Sepehri—who was born in 1928, lived most of his life during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and died in 1980, a few months after the revolution—is practically unknown in Anglophony. But something of his poetics, I’ve since discovered, has long been available “in translation” in the films of Sepehri’s countryman Abbas Kiarostami, a staple of film festivals and world cinema courses. The muted colors and rustic life-world, simple narration and gentle irony of Kiarostami’s first international success, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), for instance, can be understood not only as opening a view onto everyday life in Iran—which was my primary takeaway when I saw it many years ago—but as enacting a philosophy that the filmmaker and the poet shared (the film’s title is a line in one of Sepehri’s canonical poems, “The Address,” which is included in this book). According to Hamid Dabashi, who has written at length about this connection, Kiarostami’s faith in immediate observation and the “fictive lucidity of the real” can be attributed to the influence of Sepehri’s poetry (and probably of his painting as well—he was equally well known in his lifetime as a visual artist).

Historically American readers have tended to understand literature from politically repressive countries unaffiliated with the United States mainly in terms of its political value, without reflecting on the ways in which our own reading practices are ideologically determined or inflected. What this may mean for literary translation and the place of world literature, of translated poetry, of a book like this, in the US, is a question at the back of my mind in reading it. Sepehri’s work does not ask to be understood “politically”—by contrast with other poets of his generation like Farough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlu—because his domain is the lyric subject’s engagement with nature and his mode is highly deflective even in its insistence on a kind of affective immediacy. Nevertheless, this poetic itself has come to be understood in political terms. Dabashi puts it in a nutshell: “Sohrab Sepehri cut through the thick politicization of his age to grasp a primal moment of wonder in the world.” And this may also be a key factor in his translatability. Although Kiarostami’s Iran of the eighties, a fundamentalist theocracy hobbled by a war instigated by its (then US-backed) neighbor Iraq, was far different from the country Sepehri lived in a decade and more earlier (when he was criticized for not taking a stand against the abuses of the—then US-backed—Pahlavi regime), their mutual embrace of the primacy of perception may have provided existential coherence in a time and place disorganized by political ideology. Is that coherence available to us, English-language readers, disorganized (or organized—you choose!) as we are by capitalism? Can “primal moment of wonder in the world” ever be anything other than a commodity for us market segments? And what would it mean for this poetry to win a prize endowed by a megacorporation as part of its brand positioning? (A lot of money, that’s what!)

Well, there are universal values, and translation is possible. Something that Dabashi hints at and another scholar, Massud Farzan, addressed forty years ago as crucial to Sepehri’s work is, in addition to the influence on it of Buddhism, its connection to Sufi apophatic theology, the “via negativa . . . the cleansing of the heart’s and mind’s mirror of its dust and grime.” This mystical affiliation informs the frame that Ali and Mahallati give his work in the introduction to the book, and also affirms the fantasy I had in reading him of an affinity with Tomaž Šalamun, another poetic descendent of Rumi. (I imagined a genealogy involving other poets on the American scene, too: Whitman, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Gary Snyder, Fanny Howe; but none seemed so closely related.) Like Šalamun’s poetry, Sepehri’s cleaves and coheres at odd angles to the Anglophone avant-garde. But while Šalamun refracts sense paratactically and with scintillating speed, Sepehri is much slower, tellurian, more liable to syntax, haunting, his epiphanies so figurative and deliberate they often come across as platitudes. Yet the experience of reading him is more robust, ample, and structured than it may appear at first sight:

Beyond the poplars
sweet innocence beckons.

I paused by the stand of bamboo to listen as the wind susurrated through.
Who was speaking to me?

A lizard slid into the water. I walked on.

Hayfield, cucumber patch, rose bush, oblivion . . .

At the stream I doffed my sandals to dangle my feet in the water.
How alive I am,
how green like the garden.
So what if sadness creeps down the mountain slope?
Who is that hiding behind the trees?
Only a water buffalo grazing.

Like most of the poems in The Oasis of Now, this one, “Golestaneh,” reads like a rehearsal of reverse apperception, with the “human position” of the subject reconceived in relation to nature through repeated gestures—questions, reappraisals, simple descriptions, epiphanies—a repertoire of moderated ecstasy. This poetic redirection of the subject toward nature, or as Jonathan Skinner has put it, this “turning of the poem out of doors” and the “extending and developing” in these poems of the “perception of the natural world,” that signals the potential inspiration of Sepehri’s work for ecopoetics. This is not a book that immediately announces itself as avant-garde or new, it does not brandish its modernism, and does not in fact seem so easily commodifiable, but the more time one spends with it, the more it astonishes and yields.

* * *

The Oasis of Now is made up of three sections of Sepehri’s poetry from the mid-1960s, the high point of his career, which followed on his encounter with Buddhism and coincided with extensive travel in China and Japan, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It begins with the long poem “Water’s Footfall” (Ṣedā-ye pā-ye āb, 1965), which Omnidawn published as a bilingual chapbook in 2011; the midsection comprises the 25 poems of the book “A Measure of Green” (Ḥajm-e sabz, 1968), which as Houman Sarshar points out, in his excellent Encyclopaedia Iranica entry on Sepehri, was written between 1962 and 1967 and “comprises virtually all of Sepehri’s best-known and most anthologized works” (a translation of this book by David L. Martin was published in 1988); and it wraps up with another long poem, “The Traveler” (Mosāfer, 1966). Sepehri’s collected works, “Eight Books” (Hašt ketāb, 1978), included everything already published along with a previously unpublished series of poems, Mā hič, mā negāh—a title that is basically untranslatable but means something like “We are nothing but looking,” as Kazim Ali says in the interview below. Sarshar also points to the influence on this final phase of Sepehri’s poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature,” and to the echo in this title of Emerson’s line: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all.” Hopefully English-language readers will be able to read more of Sepehri’s remarkable and important work very soon.

* * *

I was curious to hear more about the translation of Sepehri’s work in preparation for writing these ruminations, so I conducted a brief interview with Kazim Ali over Skype last week. Here it is:

WM: How did you come to Sohrab Sepehri’s poetry?

KA: My father, in around 2002–2003, was working in Iran on an international hydroelectric dam project, which is what he does. And he asked me what I would like him to bring back as a gift. I said I’d love to read some Iranian poets. So he brought back some volumes of poetry that had been translated into English from Farsi, but published in Iran in a very basic translation. I didn’t think too much of it, although I recognized that there was a mystical aspect that was appealing to me, in terms of the work that I do myself. It wasn’t until a while later that my partner, Marco, who is a photographer, needed text for a project he was working on, and took the book off the shelf and read this couplet out loud to me, which as I later learned is an iconic Sepehri couplet: “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla.” I thought it was actually very beautiful, and I often thought of that line and quoted it and other lines from the same passage later on. But I didn’t think about doing a translation of Sepehri’s poetry until several years later when Poets’ House and City Lore, two institutions in New York City, held their “Poetries of the Islamic World” event [in May 2011].

In preparation for that event, I felt like, even though they had invited me as an American Muslim poet, I wanted to bring something from the Muslim world. Particularly because the Cold War against Iran has not only been a political Cold War, but has had a cultural impact as well, in terms of its cultural isolation. So I thought I would bring some Iranian poets to the attention of the American audience. Because, as you know, it is a very ancient and storied literary culture, I mean it’s incredible, the literature of Iran and literature in Farsi, the classics, everything. And not just literary culture, but visual culture and music, all of it. I was thinking of what has happened with the cultural damage and fallout from the Iraq invasion, and the horror of something like that happening again. So there was a political motivation for me. I really wanted to get something of Iranian literature to American readers so they that they can better understand what this country is about.

Luckily for me, I have a colleague here at Oberlin, Jafar Mahallati, a wonderful scholar in the Religion Department, who is very interested in Iranian poetry. I asked him if he would be interested to tackle this with me, and we sat down and did it. I had the old, bad translation to work from, and he and I would sit together and he would recite the Farsi to me, and we would talk through the poem and all the different nuances. You know, with Sepehri there are so many different layers of meaning, oftentimes we would be very confused by the images and metaphors he was using and have to tease out the multiple layers. He uses lots of images of birds and plants and stuff like that. And Jafar would say something like, “Well, you know, the interesting thing about this plant is that it only blooms in the nighttime, so Sepehri is saying such and such by using it.” So we would spend an hour on a page of poetry, just talking through it. And then I would go and create it as an English poem. And then I would send them to him and he would say, “This is great,” or “this image is not exactly right,” that sort of thing. We did the whole book like that together. The final part, “The Traveler,” I did mostly on my own. But he did go through it, so it was a collaboration from beginning to end.

WM: The book you got from your father, from Iran, was that a single volume of Sepehri’s work, or was it his work in an anthology?

KA: It was two books of his in one: the long poem “Water’s Footfall” and another book which we’ve translated as “A Measure of Green.” And there was another volume as well, which we’re working on now, which had two more books of Sepehri’s in it. One of them is “The Traveler,” which went into The Oasis of Now; and the other is a book with a title that is very hard to translate, but means something like “We are nothing but the looking” or “Our life itself is an observation.” It’s like Emily Dickinson’s line “As all the Heavens were a Bell, and Being, but an Ear.” But with Sepehri, being is a looking. We don’t know how we’re going to translate the title. This is the problem when working on Sepehri, it’s all very esoteric and metaphysical and philosophical.

Sepehri had six collections of poetry that he published in his lifetime, and then included two sections of new poetry in his collected works, Eight Books. We’re just working our way through it. We’d like to finish his body of work, but it’s going to be a long project.

WM: You mention Dickinson. Another poet I thought of when reading the book was Rilke, in terms of a kind of embodied metaphysics in Sepehri’s poetry. And I thought of the way American poetry was saturated with Rilke in the 1980s, and also of the presence here of a poet like Tomaž Šalamun, and this made me wonder why Sepehri isn’t more available in English, and where you see Sepehri’s home on the American poetry scene.

KA: There are actually other recent English versions of Sepehri out there. Sholeh Wolpe, who has published translations of Farough Farrokhzad both here and in England, has done some of his work. Kaveh Bassiri and Jean Valentine did a handful of his poems together. The poet Robin Magowan has also done some. So some individual poems have been translated by different people here and there, but yes, The Oasis of Now and the Omnidawn chapbook are the only full books available here. I feel very personally connected to Sepehri’s work, as a poet who is invested in the metaphysical stuff, and someone who is steeped in the religious tradition as well. Sepehri was an iconoclast in a sense, he wasn’t part of the Muslim orthodoxy. That line “I am a Muslim, the rose is my qibla,” is an ironic line, in a way, but I feel there is a deep sincerity under the skin of irony. Sepehri often plays fast and loose with literal meanings and metaphorical meanings, flirting with the ordinary and quotidian and turning it into a mythical condition. Working with a native speaker has allowed me to really get underneath the skin of those lines and find a universality in them.

As for finding a home for his work on the American scene, one of the criticisms that we’ve gotten so far, in a review in American Poetry Review, was that I made Sepehri sound too American, or something like that. But there is something about the postmodern American lyric that’s very close to the classical poetics of disjunction that exists in Farsi and Arabic poetry. You know Adonis, the Syrian poet? He wrote an interesting piece on modernism in the Arab world, where he said that, “Our modernist moment in Arab literature happened in 700 A.D.” What happened to British and American literature in modernism in the 20th century was already happening in the Arab world in the 700s. So their classical literature is like our postmodern literature. The ghazal and all these other forms, which are centered around the notion of disjunction, came out in 1700–1800 over there; and their contemporary lyric has a lot of affinities with what’s happening now in contemporary American literature. So as far as Sepehri sounding American, I can see that.

WM: Is there anything else about Sepehri, about the book, that you would want people to know, in terms of framing it, its reception in English?

KA: Sepehri is one of the major figures of 20th century Iranian literature. Like a Whitman or Robert Frost. You know how “the road less travelled” is a line from Frost—the same thing goes for Sepehri. People quote him in everyday life situations. When we were preparing the introduction, we discovered that a newspaper in Afghanistan had just used a line of his for the headline of an article on religious intolerance—it was the line that goes “We have to rinse our eyes clear of habit so we can actually see”—and it was unattributed because everyone knows it. Sepehri is a great window into a certain type of contemporary, progressive Iranian thought. Which people here don’t think exists. So I’m really glad that the book got out there. I’m very grateful to BOA. I mean, they rushed it; they took the book in February and published it in October. So I’m really grateful to them for seeing the importance of the book and getting it out there, and I’m grateful to every organization that’s promoting it, because I think it’s very important to engage with literature from this part of the world now.

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