Some time ago, shortly after my poetry was reviewed and translated into Persian by a news editor in Iran, I turned to one of North America’s esteemed literary translators, Sheema Kalbasi, for an opinion on its rendition. I recall a genial readiness to review the piece when she was merely days away from giving birth to her second child. I have since come to know Kalbasi, not only as the passionate and altruistic woman she is, but as an equally zealous and dedicated poet, editor, and human rights advocate.
In this most recent accomplishment titled, The Poetry of Iranian Women: A Contemporary Anthology, Kalbasi arranges a set of modern works with an imposing range of beguiling perspectives and voices. For instance, poems like, “A Family Tale,” and “Valentine Garden,” show, on one hand, the insubordinate attitudes towards old-world views and dated conventions and yet, at the same time, demonstrate a somewhat weary concession to one’s hapless condition. Other poems likewise explore the notion of “harsh” and “soft” mingling and yet simultaneously opposing each other with lines such as, “…where I must repose naked on a marble cloud.” “The Unexpected Guest,” “But…The Women,” and particularly “The Queen of All Seasons,” where the poem concludes with a sense of empowerment with slightly surreptitious undertones – “She is smiling at the turn of the road” – reveal a surprising stance of assurance and perspicacity. From dolor and hardship, surfaces a spring of defiance and a purpose for propulsion forward.
If only there was space and time, here and now, to cite all the poems considered tender to the heart, amusing to the ear, pleasing to the mind’s eye, or simply worthy of mention, this brief preamble would soon not end. I took much delight in rereading many of the pieces not only because of a certain lyricism found in them but also because of a familiar timbre set resounding in me. For instance, “Pomegranates,” is a compelling poem about homeland and heritage that is fittingly, and rather cleverly, told as if in the form of a recipe:
How to eat a pomegranate without being conspicuous?
It is a slow and exacting endeavor,
an act of worship...
“You never slice them with a knife,” my father would say
when the September heat had made the trees
sag with the heavy ornaments of Autumn.
Such a visually stimulating poem is not representative solely of a youthful nostalgia or a personal recollection of the poet’s father pictured with the mature fruit in his hands, but also of a proud Iranian heritage troubled by its war-stricken reality. “Pomegranates” is a fine example of verses resonant with meaning, allegory, and imagery, often operating with a dynamic duality. Because precisely at that moment when joy and triumph are projected to permeate throughout the piece, a sobering image emerges to expose the real-life oppression and disillusionment which persist to plague modern-day Iran. Perhaps this is why a food recognized for its notable health benefits also becomes a tool for demise:
Once in a child’s game of war,
My brother plucked the pomegranate,
Tore off its leathery crown
And mimicked the sound of a grenade
Exploding with his mouth full of saliva.
“Bury it,” I said, looking at its inedible remains.
Baba would not tolerate such sacrilege.
Kalbasi’s extraordinary compilation is reminiscent of her other work, Seven Valleys of Love, in which the enlightening, insistent, and incisive voices of women living in all corners of the world convene to traverse seas, alter outmoded ideologies, provoke new modes of thought, move people to heightened emotional states, and provide redemptive or cathartic possibilities for those who have been persecuted, silenced, and exiled. The Poetry of Iranian Women, here again, fortunately for the reader, is a work brimming with inspirational, woeful, unwavering, elegiac, and, at times, wry verses. Kalbasi, who was born in Iran, but also resided in Denmark, Pakistan and now the United States, gifts us with an ensemble of seasoned and spirited poets from a great scope of regions throughout the world.
Though the title, The Poetry of Iranian Women, may suggest a specialized readership, Kalbasi’s sensitive selection of writers and her meticulous search for a medley of progressive poems from writers around the world, including the UK, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Iran, and the United States, does not distinguish among class, race, gender, or age, but appeals to audiences on a mass scale. In this book, the writers ruminate on a range of issues in which one cannot help but identify. Whether the voices express a wistfulness for the innocence of childhood, or the avowal of love in familial or romantic relationships, or resistance to an interminable war and a defective regime, or whether there is the sense of an inevitable capitulation in the face of adversity and bigotry, these are values and sentiments which echo deep within the human spirit no matter when we are born, where we live, and who we are.
The Poetry of Iranian Women does not simply provide an array of samples to suit the reader’s palette, but as well elucidation of the clout behind the written word and its immense capacity to transcend culture, country, and even epoch. I am sometimes reminded of this indomitable power each time I receive emails from students or poetry enthusiasts from different parts of the world, commenting on or hoping to garner further insight into my own work. While the concept of words extending out and affecting others is a relatively simple one to grasp, these concrete instances and the random frequency at which they occur underpin their ability to navigate past physical borders, cultural diversities, and language barriers. It affirms the notion poetry is a phenomenal, stirring force and explains how personal expression, commentary, or concepts, or a combination of the aforesaid, can wind their way into various classrooms, textbooks, articles, and minds of people poles apart. This phenomenon is especially essential to those who suffer through alienation, suppression, and discrimination and apply poetry as a medium to be heard, as a vehicle of escape, or purely as a wing of support.
When Kalbasi approached me to write the preface for The Poetry of Iranian Women a certain quote jumped to mind. “I believe in the universality of human experience. That’s the general framework and the reason why we can read each other’s poems and enjoy them. But there is also a particular element at work here and that’s my individuality. I experience life in a particular body, in a particular age, and in a particular culture. In a sense, when I talk about ‘me’ I am talking about us and when I talk about ‘us’ I am talking about me.” This personal statement by Kalbasi instantly arrested my attention. It resonated with me because as a poet immersed and interested in language and its transcendental propensity to affect people on a private as well as widespread level, I was struck by its simple beauty and organic honesty. I realized, even before glimpsing at the manuscript, what the objective of this new anthology would be.
This intuitive connection to the “me” and the collective voices in this marvelous, modern anthology links the personal to the universal and is a feature of her oeuvre in her unremitting mission for equality, righteousness, and harmony among humankind. Particularly today when Iran is a subject of much popular media attention and too little is actually conveyed of Iranian culture and its rich literary tradition, it is imperative that a masterful collection like The Poetry of Iranian Women burgeon to light. In a region plagued by war and uproar, and in a country where women continue to be suppressed and at times persecuted, it is no marvel so many Iranian women resort to poetry to communicate feelings, experiences, and messages of love and hope. As one of the few literary figures devoted to promoting poets of Iranian heritage and other ethnicities, Kalbasi’s vision remains one that is pure, fervent, and unstoppable.
Inside The Poetry of Iranian Women: A Contemporary Anthology lives a treasure house of brilliantly polished, multihued gems waiting to be unearthed. Kalbasi enthralls us with an album of writing that glimmers underneath a veil of repression and intolerance and gives us a glimpse into the experiences and lives of women who are our sisters, daughters, mothers, neighbors, and friends. In her bold pursuit for equality and justice – sometimes rousing, sometimes reflective, always I declare of tremendous worth – Kalbasi illumes the course towards love, integrity, and valor. Poetry expressed with pangs of grief and gaiety – so replete with the aching for the sanguinity of our being – it unfolds like the skin of a red, ripened fruit waiting to be relished.
– Desi Di Nardo
The best way to understand a culture is to listen to what the people to whom it belongs have to say. In this regard, The Poetry of Iranian Women: A Contemporary Anthology provides a way for those whose attention have been captured by Iran’s Green Revolution to begin the work of comprehending the people who took to the streets demanding reform. To consider these poems only as a window into the culture, however, would do a disservice to the skill of the poets whose work has been collected by Sheema Kalbasi.
This collection is remarkable for its diversity. Some of the poets live in Iran, while others are part of the Iranian diaspora. Of the latter, some are first generation immigrants, some second. They are professors, aid workers, journalists, engineers, therapists, doctors, dentists, and mothers. One was killed when an American military vehicle crashed into her car, another was once Miss World Canada. Some of the poems in the volume were originally written in English, while others were translated. To present such a variety of women poets, Kalbasi did have to make one sacrifice: only one poem appears from each poet which makes it difficult to get an idea of the style of each woman included.
The diversity continues with the content of the poems. They range from the most intimately personal of subjects to the most publicly political, with a few managing to combine the two. All but a few of these poems, however, share a sense of loss or at least yearning, a sadness addressed if not with hope or defiance than resilience. Shokooh Mirzadegi concludes “But . . . The Women” with the lines:
The women will not cry ever
And in the morning the drooping lips
Will blossom by the morning’s laughter.
They refuse to be defeated by stones, fists, lashings, or any cruel customs.
There is diversity in style as well. Zara Houshmand’s “Invitation to Hungry Ghosts” uses lines startling in their juxtaposition:
There has never been such a good time to be alive:
Fascism digging in like gangrene, the earth abused,
Rolling over to die, the work laid out like a feast.
The impact only increases, as she asks “Why do I choke on soldiers?” and then goes on to reference Basho, Rumi, and Napa wine. In “Stoning”, Mehrangiz Rassapour drives each point home through the frequent refrain “stone me” which never touches the left-hand margin. The other poem to depart from standard left-flush alignment is “My Son is a Kangaroo!” in which the lines leap like a kangaroo, even when the scene turns painful. Katayoon Zandvakili’s “Mary Jane Song” is the most experimental, as it uses paragraphs as well as lines, idiosyncratic punctuation, bold text, and underlining. In a more traditional vein, Mimi Khalvati contributes ghazal.
In this anthology, Sheema Kalbasi achieves what the best editors of anthologies do: she creates a picture of a group, in this case a culture broadly defined, that rather than claim exclusive truth encourages readers too look for more work by the artists presented.
– Elizabeth Switaj