25 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.”

It seems that even the editor and translator of this outstanding anthology, Niloufar Talebi, is daunted by the deep history and major role that poetry plays in Iranian culture. And she is an Iranian who grew up surrounded by poets, most influentially Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000) who Talebi describes as “one of Iran’s greatest thinkers and cultural icons, an artist considered a national treasure to Iranians everywhere.” In her introduction, Talebi describes the literary salons that her parents would host where Talebi—a small girl, eavesdropping from the other room—would hear the strains of classical music as Shamlou held forth on lines of poetry by “Nima, Lorca, Neruda, Hafez, Akhmatova, Antoine de Saint-Expery, Langston Hughes, Baudelaire, Hedayat, and Farrokhzad.” As Talebi’s interest in literature grew, Shamlou provided her with books and guidance.

After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible. It is useful to know that all of the poets included in this collection are “79ers” which means that they immigrated after the 1979 Iranian revolution. This knowledge gives extra resonance to a poem such as “To a Snail” which reads in its entirety:

To A Snail

Oh you little home-on-your-back!
Weren’t you afraid that my huge foot
Would sweep you away?

Last night, under the rain,
You slid into my sneaker
For shelter.

You return to your green birthplace
Leaving me covetous, longing for mine.

Even without knowing that “To a Snail” was written by a “79er” in exile from his homeland, this poem can be appreciated for its purely poetic merits. The clear, simple language matches the slow, simple movements of the snail. The short, finely tuned line-breaks move the poem forward with subtle, steady propulsion. The pining first word “Oh” in praise of the snail along with a first line punctuated by an exclamation point reminds us that this ode to nature has its roots in the spirit of Romanticism. In short, this is a finely wrought, lovely poem, regardless of its lineage. In fact, learning that its author, Majid Naficy, had more than ten of his relatives—including his brother—executed in Iran before he fled the country via Turkey in 1983 freights this little poem with more baggage than it deserves. Then again, what tremendous heart to write such a delicate poem of praise after suffering such wrenching loss. Indeed, the brief biographies that Niloufar Talebi includes before each poet’s selection are illuminating and illustrate the geographical fracturing of Iranian poetic culture. However, I am tempted to urge you to skip those biographies on first read; to simply go through the book enjoying each poem as its own pure creation. After that, go back and read the entire book again, including the informative, often heartbreaking biographies. On the first reading, you will come away with a memorable poetic experience. On the second, you will come away with a deep understanding—and profound respect—for the hardships these poets have suffered and the incredible hearts that they have to keep creating their art. You will also come away with a truth that runs through all countries and runs counter to all oppression: you can’t kill poetry.

Rambling Jack
Rambling Jack by Micheál Ó Conghaile
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“50 pages?”
“Including illustrations.”
“And this—what. . .

Read More >

The Things We Don't Do
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .

Read More >

Private Life
Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:

When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .

Read More >

Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >