I have wanted to read Persian poetry ever since having heard so many good things about it from my Palestinian friend. Sohrab Sepehri’s collection, The Oasis of Now: Selected Poems, however, sounded quite new-agey—as if the poetry was canned lyricism awash in love, peace, and overly sensual descriptions of nature—and this worried me. I feared that Sepehri’s poetry would surely turn me off to anything Persian for a long time. Even when I started to read the first lines of the opening poem, “Water’s Footfall” (the title already felt like a distasteful personification), I felt depressed to have been selected to read the book. Very quickly, however, I began to shed my misgivings.
While Sepehri is not especially well known in the West, he is one of the five most popular Persian poets of the modern Persian poetry movement known as “New Poetry” (the other four being Nima Yushij, who is considered the father of modern Persian poetry, Ahmad Shamloo, Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, and Forough Farrokhzad; “New Poetry” is most notably characterized as having no meter or rhyme, which is a break from traditional Persian poetry). Sepehri was not even particularly popular in his own time—this has, however, changed since then. Philosopher Soursh Dabbagh explains, “Inclinations towards more abstract thoughts subjected him to criticism by his contemporary literary critics such as Shamloo, [Rezi] Barahani, and [Dariush] Ashoori.” Recently, Sepehri has become an emblem of justice and peace. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, the closing lines of his poem, and title of this collection, “The Oasis of Now”, were used on signs and banners and stitched into people’s clothing. They read, “If you look for me, / come soft and quietly, lest you crack the glass heart / that cups my loneliness.”
From Kazim Ali’s introduction, we learn that Sepehri was influenced not only by his home religion, Shi’a and Sufism, but also by Buddhism and Hinduism, which he explored later in life. He was interested in “ordinary things, discarded things, with the spiritual and divine,” and this view is reflected throughout the poems in this collection. We get a heavy dose of such themes particularly in the aforementioned opening poem, “Water’s Footfalls”, which reflects on the death of his father, and how one wanders the world with such grief. As one would expect, the poem is dense and heavy, but Sepehri creates (or observes) pockets light, “Like a breeze, my Ka’aba drifts from orchard to orchard, town to / town.”
What surprised me most about this collection is the sensuality of the language, and the abstraction of everyday imagery. Sepehri has a way of morphing language to imply a deeper, fresher meaning. This seems obvious to the well-indoctrinated poetry reader, but when one expects cheesiness, and instead gets heart, one discovers treasure. That moment came, still in the opening poem, when he grafts the two most used themes of poetry, love and nature, and given the nature of the poem, the image rises right before the reader’s eyes: “I understand the language of ripe berries bursting in the mouth of the / climaxing lovers.” This line, itself a sort of climax, marries our everyday senses and that of nature flawlessly.
It helps to know that Sepehri was trained as a painter, and particularly that he was considered one of Iran’s foremost modern painters. As already shown, Sepehri infuses his poetry with a painterly eye, even if they are not always as lush as “Water’s Footfalls.” In “The Sound of an Encounter,” a poem that appears in the second section (of three sections), he finds the color and light, when as a boy, he is sent out to get pomegranates and quinces:
bq. The orchard’s long hours of worry glittered in the shadow of each fruit. / Some unknown thing shone among the quinces. / The pomegranates spread their dark red across the country of the pious. / Any thoughts I had about the people around me vanished / before the gleaming ripeness of oranges.
The translation of the text did not leave images or metaphors hanging indecipherably on the page; nor did they leave the reader alienated by complete foreignness. If a moment of cultural material arose, an endnote accompanied it. While the book appears for a moment’s instance to be bilingual, the truth is that each section is divided by a single page from one of Sepehri’s poems in Persian.
I felt the need to slow down after reading these pieces, so much so that I just wanted to walk around my apartment, look at things, without expectations, certain that if I waited long enough something beautiful would emerge out of its ordinariness. And what if we looked at the objects or emotions we find mundane, or cheesy, or over sentimental, or pastiche; what could we learn from them? What would we see? That’s the question Sepehri’s poetry taught me.
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