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
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.
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of
his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t
to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here. . .
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