Be Longing


New Poetry by Iranians Around the World
(North Atlantic Books, August 2008)

Book Review
I hate it when I take too long to write a review. It seems these days that the intense competition on has created a speed match of postings. But I am sorry, I just can’t work that way. Especially when I really like something. I want to savour it a bit before I jump in and write about it.

So, to those of you who have read a previous review of this book, I apologize, hopefully you’ll like mine as well. If you will trust me though, and don’t want to read my justification, you can know that this is simply one of those books you need to have on your shelves, one you can look for and find at a party, and hand to one of your closer American friends and smilingly say, “Here Bradley, this will explain everything!”

This review is about the ground breaking new book by Niloufar Talebi, entitled “BELONGING” or “Del-bastangui”  دلبستنگی  in Persian, a combination of “Del-tangui” and “Del-bastegui”, rough equivalents for “Longing” and “Belonging”. The book is 230 pages, jointly published by North Atlantic Books and Scala House Press, a gold medal accomplishment in itself, if you’ve ever tried to get something even considered by an American publisher.

It contains poems in Farsi text, with excellent English translations by Talebi on the opposing pages, a great idea. And as a dual reader, I found this exceptionally handy. Not only is the arrangement of the text artistic, sometimes arranged in designs down the page, but I found that I got a secret extra dose of everything reading the Farsi and English together. It is almost sad that everyone can’t read both languages.

The compilation is of some of the works of 18 contemporary poets as selected and compiled by our hostess on this journey, Ms. Talebi. Greats like Nader Naderpour and my personal favorite, Ziba Karbassi. It is important to note that this is not the quintessential collection of ALL contemporary Iranian poets, just the ones Talebi felt were representative of their generation, and almost more importantly, able to be properly and carefully translated into a quality English collection.

It is important to distinguish a couple of things in order to put Ms. Talebi’s contribution to our ongoing cultural evolution in it’s proper perspective;
Firstly, this volume is a compilation of poetry by Iranian poets living outside Iran since the 1979 revolution and reciting in Farsi.

Second, it is not a book on Modern Persian poetry or “Sher-e-No”. Sher-e-No is akin to the American 50’s beat poetry by the likes of Ginsberg and Guthrie, offering a new radical raw shift away from the even stanzas and steady rhyme and rhythm of traditional poetry, works such as Frost and so on. Uncannily, occurring at almost the same timeframe in Iran, the Sher-e-No movement spawned some of Iran’s most dramatic work, creating giants like Forough Farrokhzad, and Sohrab Sepehri in it’s wake.

The spark and the flame of these groundbreaking poets, flared high and spread fast, but just as quickly seemed to go out too soon. Far too soon.
But flickers off the embers of that flame remain today. Just look at the incredible amount of beautifully written poetry that has amassed itself gorgeously on this site, as well as many other Iranian literary sites. Just so everyone here knows the reason, poetry on this site is largely due to the great support of Jahanshah Javid who has singularly been the biggest avid poetry fan of his generation. I remember years ago, when I would send him an article and he would reply, “Sorry dude, it’s poetry week, send it in next week.” I would smile and start reading the menu, eager to sink my teeth into the latest feast he had planned for us that week. And what a feast!

Sher-e-No has since the 70’s, shifted and morphed into a different, but altogether just as culturally important cousin, to what is now called Sher-e-Mo’asser or “Contemporary Iranian Poetry”. In some ways the rhythm and eclectic nature of this form has picked up speed and power from the previous form. But what I like especially is the more raw, the more violent, the more real, the more beautifully horrid and aggressive nature, that this form has magically taken on. And erotic! Typically one would not consider that Iranian poetry could be erotic in the least. It is almost impolite. A vast departure from the traditionally vague and safe references to non-descript concepts of complicated “Love of man, god, self, or the other” veiled in the oft hidden form of “Mey” (Wine).

No, this form is not vague. It is not safe. It is not clouded in wine, it is Absolut clear. Which makes it a smooth drink to take in. Chug it, sip it, in multiple repeated slam or belly shots, or mixed seductively with a nice pomegranate-y jasmin-ish infusion, this stuff is addicting whether you read it in it’s sweet raw honey Farsi or amazingly readable and well-translated English.
As a reader of both, I often have an opinion on translations, and I can safely say this is some of the best translation I have ever read. Talebi’s passion and love for the material comes through in an almost homage to the words she obviously worships. The love of these words makes all the difference. Too many times Western translators of Farsi don’t really know our language well enough to transfer the magic to the translation.

Having one of our own care for the proper and appropriate presentation of this treasure to the world of English readers, is an advantage for all of us, I think. I expect great things  from the reception of this book by the West.
Speaking with Talebi, one gets the sense that the work has enveloped her, and taken over her own world. Talebi is a stunning Iranian woman both visually and personally, the kind you imagine inspired the lomg lashed, arching eyebrowed miniature paintings of the past. A professionally trained performer and theater actor, her manner is direct, precise, and seemingly matches the very tight form of the work she has dedicated her life to. Having grown up with the great writers of the latter part of the 20th century, who used to come by to her parent’s home in Tehran to visit, one can imagine her wide-eyed, lids fluttering, too excited to sleep, listening late into the night, to incredible lectures and discussions on free intellectual thought and the radical ideas that emanated from the original Genius Bar in her parents’ living room. This is what has inspired her to put this collection together.

To further this end, Talebi has created The Translation Project, a non-profit organization expressly and specifically to help bring the work of Iranian writers to the forefront of the world’s modern literary discussion. THis is done by publishing their works, conducting forums, and even creating performance theater pieces to promote it. She hopes to foster the consideration of a Nobel prize for literature to be awarded to an Iranian writer.

If I could make a suggestion, I would suggest that this book ought to in fact become an annual publication, the first volume of an unending collection that spans and records the ongoing poetic psyche of Iranians. Although it is not an easy task, this first volume alone took 6 years to research and translate. Saving for the future is not often our best suit, so hopefully this book will change all that. If anyone is up to this challenge, Talebi certainly is at the top of that list. It’s most likely a question of funding. No doubt another discussion on where our collective treasure chests of Dollars ought to be spent.

To the poets who did not make it into this collection, the news is good. Keep writing and now you know that you have a friend on this side, one who can respect and appreciate, and more importantly, translate your words properly and correctly with the loving care they deserve. My advice, lobby editors and publishers of Iranian literature, as well as translators like Talebi, and lobby them hard, to publish and translate your work. If your work contributes to the progression of Iranian literature, it will find its way to readers.

As I said in the opener, if there is one book of Contemporary Iranian Poetry that needs to be on the shelves of everyone, this is that book. At a measly $19, the price to listen in on our collective contemporary consciousness, is entirely a bargain.

Finally poetry is private. So I have taken just a few samples that especially moved me, to give you just a small taste of what is probably an unworthy incomplete sampling of this priceless collection of our legacy. I will guarantee you though, that there is something in this book that will tweak that emotional hot nipple in each and every one of you in some way, you just need to stumble upon it for yourselves.

* Learn more about this worthwhile heritage project, please visit: The Translation Project
* Purchase your copy of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World

*** ***

Excerpt from: “To the aged Mulberry Branch”
By Esma’il Kho’i

Dusty earth,

Dusty sky,

Dusty sun

And dusty children
Picking up dusty mulberries

With dusty hands

From dusty earth

To blow on
And place in their mouths!

*** ***

“In a Thousand Years”
By Esma’il Kho’i

In a thousand years,

I will rise out
Of earth’s bosom

Like foliage

And of the eternal custom of the heavens,

I’ll worship

The sun.

I am the spirit of wrath in the heart of patience.

Beware of me.

Oh you new Muslims!

I am a light-worshipping Zoroastrian infidel of old.

*** ***

[excerpt from] “Untitled 19”
By Naanaam

Berlin, 2004- I wanted to return after two weeks;

I stayed ten months.

Bratislava, 1997 – I wanted to return after 6 months;

I stayed 6 years.

The World, 1964 – Upon arriving, I immediately wanted to return.

It’s been 40 years.

*** ***

Excerpt from: “Love is Lemony”
by Ziba Karbassi

We stand facing each other

Two mad souls

Neck to neck

Shoulder to shoulder

Lashes and neck

And then

A bit bent

Bend a bit to roll over

Let me blaze on your shoulder and eyes

Your eyes that kiss kiss wet my lips

Your eye that kisses wets my lips

Your eye that plunges
Into the furrow and once again we see

Nothing and coil like vine

And whirl in noise and rapture

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