Out Of Exile: A Review Of Nilofar Shidmehr

With the very first poem, “Alive,” Shidmehr captured my enchanted attention.The enchantment occurs in dark ambiguity between redemption and curse, annihilation and healing, courage and wishing we didn’t have to be brave.

Between Lives by Nilofar Shidmehr

“Alive” puts us on alert that she will be unflinching, neither cruel nor kind, but ruthlessly truthful. And her precise and inventive language will hold us: the purple peels her mother cuts as she prepares Baademjaan for her attacker, the bruise “the shape of an eggplant,” the anger and love mingled as complex as the cooking smells.

“Alive” also introduces us to a recurring theme: mother-daughter bond. Ambivalence, complexity, sorrow, joy, and utter endurance are intricately revealed through diverse angles and experiences. Her relationships with her own mother and daughter are the bedrock of her exploration, but she leaves openings for all mothers and daughters to taste the depth of their own stories.

“Hunger,” about her mother’s breast cancer:

…The love cannot be
severed, although the object of love
is cut right out of the body it belonged to.

“Small Sighs,” comparing the ease of a Canadian mother and daughter in a sauna, to her daughter’s modesty:

shy of me—
the woman who once held her
naked in her womb.

And the precious way she names the unbreakable in “Out From”:

…my soul
tightens the way her mouth used to
close around my breast
in her sleep, at the very moment
I tried to pull
it out from her lips.

Some mother-daughter poems contain elements of injustice to all women. Feminist strength overlaps her ironic, yet compassionate prodding of history, war, and exile.

“Maheen’s Collage…”:

…she is going to slaughter us,
then select and refine
the body parts, which are good
for the marriage contest and bind
them together in a package
she proudly calls,
the daughter of Islamic Republic

“The Last Two Prostitutes of Iran” indicts the contempt for female education:

when they brought the two alleged women down
and laid them on the ground, but shot the dead
body of short Farokh, far more feared
for having spread her filth throughout the land..

In other poems, such as “Saeed” and “Alone,” both genders and all sorts, innocent and guilty, are held in shared tragedy. Shidmehr’s eloquent images of the suffering and complexity of violence range from abuse to inequality to war. But the strongest current of all is her dedication “to all who live a diasporic live.” Exile’s pain, anger, longing, disorientation, and inescapable damage to relationships of all kinds are distilled throughout her poems in brave and beautiful language.

“Lovers’ Applications”:

I have no Farsi font
so I write my silence in English.


Will you still be in exile
if, to the whites, you will become
as familiar as a squirrel that leaps
among their balconies

At one point I longed for a remedy, a redemption, a healing. Even the most accurately diagnosed disease longs for the light, warmth, and laughter of healing. Maybe her next book—too much to ask of this fearless, imaginative claiming of sorrow, conflict and loss. In this book countless people who suffer, mutely or defiantly, are honored by the truth of their difficult lives. And Shidmehr honors all of us with her generous outpouring of invitations to our compassion. She credits her readers with a depth of compassion that may exist before we read her poems, or come into being as a gift of her writing.

Some poems do balance the weight of pain, but ambiguity never leaves even the love poems, even the appreciation of bird or flower. The key to redemption becomes beauty.

“A Mantra for Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 22, 2011” begins with a quote from Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.” Each stanza starts with “The beauty of…” and goes on to name a detail of the tour: “the smudged/words on a letter…never sent,” “the absent/stare, pinned on a pile of eyeglasses.” She recites this mantra to show us a shocking reliquary of human hatred without abandoning us to a vacuum of despair. The mantra is a censer, infusing the this impossible atmosphere with compassion and meaning.

Her faith in beauty to empower us to face horror without looking away, without going blind, is explicit in “Preparation for a Visit.” Traveling by train,

I breathe in color, feel new born,
greedily such in the image stream:
patches of various greens;
a crescendo of wheat…

I watch and watch and watch
until my eyes brim with woods
and greenery and I feel
my eyelids are as light
as the feather of the clouds….

At that is when she knows she is ready, her gaze “sunny and courageous,” to visit the concentration camp.

Some of the beauty she shares comes through poems about her interactive dance with death and about a new love, a new husband. Neither death nor love dilute her acute ambiguity. In “Again” she writes

I have forgotten
to forget

In “My Man Is So Unlike Himself”:
As truthfully as he loves me,
he disdains the holes
in my sensibility;
nevertheless, he overlooks the holes
in his old woolen socks,
overworn by exercise.

Poem after poem, the word distill came to mind. She does something bolder than describe the experiences of diaspora vividly and intelligently. She boils away all the distractions of random circumstance and personal opinion, leaving a residue of essential myth.
For me, the most powerful myth is served where she escapes the weight of exile and celebrates the divine feminine and the feminine wild. In “Eve’s Eureka”

…all Men of Science
the same as Sir Isaac Newton
can finally admit
through their mouth
they have no teeth
to bite the apple

I have found.

And in “Recognition” an encounter with a fox erases all pain:

We let silence
shape the landscape;
no words
between us,
only a conspiracy

of recognition—
I am as indigenous
as she is, and she is
as immigrant as
I am.

There is an exile all civilized people share, even those living where we were born. In “Eve’s Eureka” and “Recognition” we all come home.

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