by Sholeh Wolpé, ed., 2012
“Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love,” has got to be one of the hardest Read Harder tasks I’ve come across. Not only is the task itself out of my normal reading parameters, but I also decided that poetry collections in Spanish, of which I found many suggestions, wouldn’t count (because I can read Spanish), nor would my initial idea to read The Aeneid (because it is an epic poem, which is not the same as a collection). I tossed around the idea of reading some Rilke or some Baudelaire, but neither of them appealed to me – I wanted something a bit more modern and bit less, um, dead white male. Lo and behold, while exploring some of Melissa’s suggestions, I stumbled upon The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles. Featuring a mix of poets writing about the Iran, Islam, politics, and revolution, it fulfilled everything I could have asked for while also addressing a topic of which I am still woefully ignorant. Bonus: it was available at my library.
I’ll admit that I didn’t understand everything in this collection. Poetry still somewhat escapes me and, despite the fact that the editors do provide some guidance, I felt that I was missing a certain amount of cultural knowledge to be able to fully appreciate the writing. It felt more like a book for Iranians to identify with and less like a book for foreigners to learn from. However, that doesn’t mean it was completely impenetrable to an outsider like me.
Of the poems I enjoyed, many presented topics that I could easily identify with, despite the difference in context and culture. “The Poem” by Mohsen Emadi speaks the loss of language, of tongues being arrested at border stations, “Our words decay when they cross that line…In my language / every time we suddenly fall silent / a policeman is born.” Shideh Etaat’s “When a Color Stops Being a Color, Becomes Something Else Completely” intersperses quotes about election abuse within the lines of the poem. Persis Karim’s “In Praise of Big Noses” questions why Iranian women are made to feel not beautiful: “Whole industries were born from Iranian women / watching blonde, petite-nosed movie stars / who made them forget their own striking beauty / took thousands of years to evolve, only to be undone / by someone who decided that hairless, plucked, tucked, / sliced, nipped, and trimmed, were the loveliest / of them all.” There are poems that deal with fear, with hiding from bombs exploding at night, with political martyrs who stood up for rights, with all the numerous words we use to describe those who have been driven from their homeland. Even if I still don’t entirely grasp the situation in Iran, these are things I can absolutely understand.
I don’t see myself becoming a voracious reader of poetry anytime soon, but I’m glad the challenge forced me to find this collection of which I would have otherwise remained ignorant. If a piece of writing can force you to consider those who are different from you, help you to understand their lives, make you a bit more interested in their trials, then I’d call that a success.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.]