Seven Valleys of Love
Editor, Sheema Kalbasi
Born in Tehran, Iran, and now living in the Washington, D.C. area, Sheema Kalbasi is a poet, human rights activist and the editor/translator of Seven Valleys of Love, which features over one thousand years of Persian women’s poetry. What makes this collection remarkable is that these voices are gathered in one book, making them all finally accessible to an English-speaking audience. In the introduction by Dr. Ali Alizadeh, we learn that the titular “Seven Valleys of Love” refers to a medieval Persian fable, called Mantegh ot-Tayr, or Conference of the Birds, written by Farid od-Din Attar. In the story, thirty birds journey to find the Si-morgh, a mythical bird symbolizing wisdom. They never find the Si-morgh after crossing the Seven Valleys of Love; instead, their individual identities are erased and reformed into the Si-morgh. Like the birds finding greater strength through unity, the women represented in Seven Valleys combine their individual talents into a formidable assembly.
The poems in this collection are no more than forty-two lines long, yet they all make their message palatably clear to the reader in a short amount of space. These are poems of longing and loss, yet they all honor the esteemed place poetry holds in Persian culture. In addition, these female poets are reveling in their right to freely speak their minds and transfer their hearts onto the page—certainly not a small feat in the eleventh or even the twenty-first century (in the last thirty years Iranian women writers have struggled to be heard in their own country due to the Cultural Revolution of 1979 as well as the current leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). With so many Iranians living abroad as a result of the Cultural Revolution, a poetry collection such as this one is made all the more important, strengthening national pride, and also applauding Iranian women writers across genres and across the ages.
One remarkable classic poet, Tahereh Ghoratolein, born in 1817, was one of the founders of the Baha’i religion, which teaches unity and one-worldism. She unveiled herself in public in 1848 and as a result of this crime and her Baha’i faith, the Shah of Iran sentenced her to death in 1853. Her poem is in the form of a modified ghazal, a 5-couplet rhyming form popular among Persian and other Arabic poets. In the ghazal, the poet speaks of unrequited love:
You who are the Mecca
And the seeker dressed in white,
You who are the mosque
And the shrine, you who are
The pleasure and the right.
I, the deflated lover, I am.
“Come to me,” the Beloved said,
“Free from the blindness and pride.”
I, manifestation of the One, I am.
When you love Tahereh, she becomes
A woman and shines, drunk by your
wine, awaiting you, the sublime divine.
I, Eve offering the apple, I am.
In this case, Ghoratolein writes about how she is not worthy of the love of her beloved and that she is like Eve who wickedly tempts her lover. She is human, unlike her lover, who is god-like. Ghoratolein and other poets in this collection reference Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden to represent lost innocence and the failings of mankind (Adam and Eve are not only found in Genesis, but also in the Quran, the Talmud, and in various gnostic texts).
Padeshah Khatoon, a thirteenth century artist and poet who was later assassinated, also alludes to Eve as she voices her strong views about perception and reality. In just a few lines we feel her pride and anger:
I am the woman, who dwells in grace,
Covered and veiled but audacious.
O, you who behest me to abide by his rules
Do not veil me! Enthrone me! Thus
Live Eve and the Empress.
To zephyrs travel, those who are pretentious
Fairness and goodness are my resting place.
Not every able one is a seaman or has a face,
Not everyone disguised is as pure or chaste.
In “Adam!” by contemporary poet Farzaneh Seyed Saeedi, the subject of Adam and Eve drive the poem’s theme of longing:
I am lost among so many Eves
And you among so many choices
Giving life to Cain
Captivated by the earth without an
How will you indeed find me?
In many of the contemporary poems Kalbasi selects, we see imagistic elements that reference ordinary details from the real world to describe love and longing. In “Matrimony,” by poet and translator Farideh Hassanzadeh, we hear a woman who loves her husband, yet both are unable to deeply connect with each other.
We pass one another
I walk to the kitchen
You depart for the office
I walk to the mountain of plates and clothes
And you are off to the forest of desks or files.
We pass one another
Now and again
Without a glance
At night our bodies
Find time to socialize
Despite the silence
Despite the exhaustion
A few more editorial details contained within the pages of this collection would have enhanced my reading. Each woman’s story is fascinating; reading the poem, the poem’s date of publication, and the poet’s background together on the same page would have given me a clearer sense of the woman and her work. Instead, I had to settle for reading each poet’s story in the biography section and learn that many of these women were leaders and innovators and put to death because of their views. Also, in either an appendix or in the front matter, a joint Western and Persian timeline would have given me and other Western readers a better historical perspective, contextualizing the various literary periods represented in this collection.
All of these poems honor Persian women’s courage and their need to express themselves, especially during times when they were violently suppressed. Seven Valleys of Love is a one-of-a-kind collection that celebrates Persian culture, life and the universality of love.