Every culture and its arts have their strengths; however, within those strengths can also stir the seeds of weakness. One the strengths of Western culture has been the growth of a secular consciousness. The mindset has opened an exploration and questioning of existence that can offset limits that more dogmatic views of life can create. Artistically, this can be seen at its best in the works of T.S. Eliot that are perhaps the height of poetry within the realms of the secular rational perspective. In many ways, we have spent the decades since Eliot attempting to approach the levels of his creations.
In consequence, there has been new limitations placed on serious Western poetry, ones in which the mind is acknowledged but often seen as alienated from its surroundings, the body is denigrated, and the soul is ignored. This inability to reconcile the soul and body with the mind is one of the reasons Western verse in many cases tends to be flat and sere with more concern in how it is constructed than in what it is saying.
To break Western poetry out such confines it needs to discover in poetics from other parts of the world elements that are missing within its verses. The work of Sheema Kalbasi creates such reconciliation by incorporating the Iranian understanding that poems should express and contain the unity of the mind, the body, and the soul. Within this "trichotomy" of her poems is a connection to the world that is missing in much Western verse.
At the same time Kalbasi has taken time to learn Western poetics, obtaining a firm comprehension of how to use it in tandem with Iranian poetics, creating a unique style of verse that brings together many of the strengths of both poetries. Two examples are her poems "New England" and "Sitting Buddha."
"New England" is a true celebration of life offered through the joyous observation of a mother and a wife observing the two most precious people in her life, her daughter and her husband. The poem offers the physical delight within the actions of the child, the sharp observations within Kalbasi's mind, and a spirituality that one can only find within the celebration of family.
The poem is written as Western verse in English, showing a strong grasp of those poetics. The choice for line breaks illustrates an adept understand of the need to create units that compels the reader to pause at the proper moments yet desire to continue, like a brook flowing over a series of waterfalls on its way to a still pond.
She also shows a awareness of internal rhyme schemes within lines with her use of alliteration and assonance as seen by such lines as "Near the beach, sea rocks are thirsty to move " and "She slips the shelves and shadows of." Such subtleties bring an even greater strength to her work.
"Sitting Buddha" is a prose poem, a hybrid of fiction and poetry, and stream of consciousness writing. Kalbasi's successful use of the form is another example of the growing strength of her writing in English with the meter of the poem helping to tie together what could otherwise seem like a series of random images. At the same time, her subject matter is handled in a manner that few Western poets would attempt. She just does not observe the religious figures in her poem but embraces them, swimming in the spirituality of the moment, acknowledging the power of the soul as it wrestles with the mind and the body in the montage of images painted before the reader.
I fully acknowledge that my observations are generalities, but within that context I do believe that the lack of acceptance of the soul within Western writing is a problem that has in many cases reduced its poetry to the rather vapid state where form trumps meaning. It is my sincere hope that infusion of Persian poets into Western writing will continue to help to alleviate such limitations and that perhaps we shall finally move beyond Eliot. Within that context Kalbasi shows a strong ability to merge Western and Iranian poetics into writing that is new, fresh, and exciting. I know of no other who merges the two with more adeptness and skill.
– Roger Humes, International Poetry Editor, Harvest International Magazine
The simplicity of Sheema Kalbasi's work masks an anger that simmers below the surface of many of her poems, but the anger is always tempered with profound sadness at the senselessness of it all, her pity for those helpless innocents who suffer most and are forgotten all too soon is uppermost.
Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest anti-war poet ever, wrote about his poetry that 'My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." In her poem Nothing Kalbasi writes the line; 'children die, and journalists are filming for a deadline'… simple words that encapsulate the futility of it all, words that move me deeply because like Owens’ work, the poetry is in the pity… But these 'Echoes in Exile' are not, in the main, reflections on war, they are touching snapshots of her family, hymns to other exiles, reflections on humanity, explorations of her own sensuality and glimpses into her private meditations, at times she lets the reader get so close that I feel that she is literally reaching out to touch me.
The poems in this magnificent collection are expansive and profound and yet are also, in one sense, ambiguous; they deserve an audience who will appreciate their simplicity and their depth, wherein their inherent ambiguity lies. I find myself memorizing large sections without even realizing I am doing it and exploring these memories repeatedly in moments of solitude, words and phrases return to haunt me provocatively.
If you are among the few who know that poetry is the highest of all the arts, if you are one of those special people who need stimulating with an excess of profundity, then this is a work you will cherish and return to time and again; with love in your heart and with your wisdom multiplied a thousand fold.
– Alan Corkish
Many are the feelings and sensations ‘echoing’–nearly overflowing–from this moving collection. Like the intimate bond the author herself describes as connecting the world of dreams and the world of reality, her verses run on the thin edge between a subtle series of opposites. Resignation and hope, sorrow and joy, loneliness and communion, loss and conquest, desire and aversion, war and peace: all these confront each other, repel each other but never separate completely, yet interlace weaving the arduous story of the poet. By using words now sweet but stern, now sharp but responsive–however always in a straight diction, without frills–Sheema Kalbasi retraces her past, the hard trip of a young girl who fled from her tormented home country, that ‘modern’ Iran she still likes to call the Ancient Persia, to search for a new home, a new life, her freedom.
So Mighty Are the Stories … but likewise she can look at the present and the future with neat realism, as well as with intact wonder, so that her Mel lowly-poetical voice streams with messages not only of despondency and denunciation, but also of courage and anticipation. These Echoes In Exile then turn into the author’s chant of liberation, revealing her self-sustaining force before the hatred and the division ubiquitous in the world and afflicting–above all– her beloved Middle East.
From line to line the refugee, the ‘nobody’ she used to name herself at the time of her flight, they all show up in their vigor and radiance, disclosing to us the true identity of the poet and her discreet, unique sensuality–not screamed out, just whispered. So a clear-cut figure and a transparent character finally come to light–simply those of a woman deeply able and willing to love.
– Alessio Zanelli
Already, this new century seems as deafened by ideological clamor as the last, plagued by residues of cultural and literary separatism sometimes bordering on a kind of 'aesthetic apartheid'. For nations increasingly brought face-to-face across cultural divides - chasms that are now as much internal as external - the need for conversation, on its many levels, has never been more essential. Poetry, with its potential for radical openness and self-revelation, is an ideal prompt and vehicle for that conversation. Many kinds of voice continue to lie dormant in the English-speaking world; but we have at least begun to witness, in more recent times, some breakings of silence. In its quiet, intimate way, 'Echoes in Exile' reverberates with that desire to speak up. Of Iranian descent, Kalbasi is one of a swelling stream of poets now beginning to establish the conversation's many-sidedness.
– Dr. Mario Petrucci, Co-founder of writers inc.
Sheema Kalbasi's credentials are impressive: award winning Iranian-born poet; human rights activist; literary translator; Director of Dialogue of Nations through Poetry in Translation; Director of Poetry of Iranian Women Project; passionate and outspoken defender of ethnic and religious minorities' rights. This latest book has drawn high praise from critics internationally, praise that is well deserved. Skillfully, through words, Ms. Kalbasi has transformed sorrow and loss into forged steel. She writes of love, loss, exile, and brave women who protect their children and defuse hate through their very existence.
Kalbasi lives in the U.S. now but honors her Iranian heritage. In this excerpt from "Dancing Tango" she remembers the city of Esphahan and the Zayandehrood River:
Time is eternity, my dignity
resides in yours and your
words are wonders that I count
as precious coins kept quietly
in the pockets of my ears.
"Nothing" shares the poet's sorrow at witnessing the destruction of a people and their ancient culture, all reported stoically and systematically in the news:
The bombs, lights that blind, and Damascus,
Burning after Teheran. Sisters calling in despair,
Brothers ambivalent to the arms of infidels. Nothing
But children die, and journalists are filming for a
"Kaddish" is a powerful poem best read in its entirety:
And on the eighth day
God created his bloody sore,
the Middle East
Where only the streets
speak of the dead,
where the buttercups
cups, cups are red
where bodies are tossed
in oil, oil,
hot hot oil.
Don't burn your finger God
on the ziz,
red, red ziz. (ziz – flower, cleft, or pass)
Allah-o-Akbar! (God is great.)
"For Women of Afghanistan" is a hard truth, a reality most people of the Western world give less than passing thought. In few words, this excerpt reveals much:
As I walk in the streets of Kabul,
behind the painted windows,
there are broken hearts, broken women.
If they don't have any male family to accompany them,
they die of hunger while begging for bread,
the former teachers, doctors, professors
are today nothing but walking hungry houses.
This excerpt from "Mama in the War" extols the quiet courage of women in all wars, everywhere through time. Such women, standing firm without weapons amidst war's chaos, are the real heroes and not the presidents, potentates, politicians, or warriors:
You are my president, mama,
you and all those women
and still defend their children
against the blinded-with-hatred
soldiers of death
all around the world.
"Eternal Friendship" is brief and to the point. Nothing is eternal:
No! Friendships are not eternal. Nothing is eternal. Not
family, not friendships, not love, not lust. Nothing…not
even the wandering eyes that will read these lines in
Sheema Kalbasi misses her homeland, her ancient culture and its beautiful legacy. She shares her loss and sorrow, from exile, through poetry, because she prefers exile to slavery or death. Echoes in Exile is an exceptional work and highly recommended.
– Laurel Johnson, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
Sheema Kalbasi is a stranger in a foreign land. She movingly speaks to the oppression of religious and cultural minorities in Iran.
Ms. Kalbasi shares the horror of war, bombs exploding, “children dying and journalist filming.” She attempts to open the eyes of the world to the atrocities of war. The “Kaddish” speaks of the pain and death in the Middle East. The citizens have long known war, blood in the streets and bodies riddled with bullets.
Many of her poems speak of children. There are children in war-torn areas drawing pictures of “her dad, dead behind prison walls.” “New England” speaks of watching her own child securely playing by the seashore, safe, with dreams of friends. All children deserve the right to sweet dreams and good memories, but as Ms. Kalbasi shows, not all children experience them.
“For Women of Afghanistan” is heart-wrenching. The women are widows, dying of hunger and begging for food. These women are educated, doctors and teachers, but are not allowed to work because they are women. “Men with unknown identity without faces decide my very existence.”
This book is divided into two sections, the first is “Warrior” and the second is “Silent Sensuality.” The second section speaks to love, a woman desiring a man, wanting him to touch her. Ms. Kalbasi bares her soul to readers, sharing her love for a man and the pain and pleasure love can bring.
“Echoes in Exile” by Sheema Kalbasi is a book of poetry that readers won’t easily forget. The poems are appealing and philosophical. The poems speak to the rights of women and the pain of war. She shares the pain of never being able to return home but the glory of knowing her daughter is safe and has not experienced the sound of bombs and the sight of bodies lying in the street. Ms. Kalbasi is a tremendously gifted poet. It is with honor I highly recommend “Echoes in Exile.”
– Debra Gaynor, Reader Views