Review by Jeff Ringelski
THE ART OF STEPPING THROUGH TIME: SELECTED POEMS
by H.E. Sayeh
translated by Chad Sweeney and Mojdeh Marashi
White Pine Press
P.O. Box 236
Buffalo, New York 14201
2011, 120 pp., $16.00
For poets and other writers who live in countries in which censorship and the risk of imprisonment and even death shapes work and life, the struggle to publish while remaining just beyond the reach of bureaucratic censors, police, and death squads gives rise to a poetics of masking. Skilled poets, in order to stay alive, resort to a code conveying a veiled condemnation of the excesses of the ruling status quo while also resonating with the cultural legacy found in literature. In The Art of Stepping Through Time, H. E. Sayeh, the Iranian poet (the last name, given the tenor of his subject matter, is, appropriately enough, a pen name meaning “shadow”) balances his criticism of alternating oppressive regimes–the dictatorship of the former Shah, brought to power by a CIA backed coup d’état and the current theocracy of fundamentalist Islamic clerics–with the traditional tropes and forms of Persian verse, whose romantic images breathe with hope and clarity, though written in a country racked by political and religious division.
From the original Persian, the poems, as all translations do, lose something inevitably when given voice in English. To their credit, the translators address this inherent difficulty. In the Preface to the book, Chad Sweeney, a co- translator along with Marashi, states that they attempted to gain “musical congruence rather than musical equality.” This translation, then, remains true to image and meaning instead of rhyme. Wanting to avoid a clunky syntax, they opted for natural-sounding English. This approach is an important consideration, because Sayeh writes often in traditional forms relying on shared cultural import. These translated forms gave me cause to reconsider a country with which I am familiar mainly through American news reports. My ignorance of Iran spurred me to discover more about the country and Sayeh himself.
Sayeh, imprisoned in 1981, two years after the Islamic Revolution, reportedly had a vision while in prison of an arghavaan tree at his family’s home. The tree has dual symbolism: life and death. In an apostrophe, the displaced poet affirms a kinship to nature and homeland. Adhering to a Romantic tradition, the tree stands for the poet’s body, an extension of being:
Arghavaan, my one-blood, my cut branch!
What color is your sky today?
or locked in cloud?
But later, the tree represents something more than longing for a return home. Its significance expands to that of a confidant, a witness to the executions committed in the name of religious revolution:
what is the secret that spring always
arrives carrying our grief?
That every year the sand stains
with the blood of swallows
and over the branded heart leaps
loss onto loss?
Symbolism and metaphor layer upon another. Nature, in the guise of the tree and the swallows, represents the seeming ritualistic bloodshed occurring regardless of the regime in charge. Plausibly, of course, the address to the tree could refer to its large crimson flowers that upon falling to the ground leave a red stain. Thus, the “sand stains/ with the blood of swallows” functions in the tradition of a nature poem about the cycle of death and rebirth. The arghavaan’s flowers remind the poet of swallow’s blood, which is also a metaphor for the blood of those killed during the revolution.
Still another function of the arghavaan becomes apparent. Using the imperative mode, Sayeh commands the tree to “become my bleeding poem,” the thing in itself. More than inspiration, the tree must substitute for the poem the jailed poet cannot write, become a living metaphor for the words Sayeh is prohibited from producing on the page. Finally, Sayeh issues one final command to the tree: “Shout the poem I cannot write!” Not only does he conceive of the tree as the message, but also the messenger. The poet, with his prophetic connection to the natural world, exhorts the tree, and by extension nature, to manifestly express what the poet could do if not held prisoner. Specific trees, with their associated meanings in a given cultural framework, can have a multitude of meanings. In American society, for example, we associate an oak tree with an acorn, with sturdiness and so forth. And so it goes in Sayeh’s verse. He plays upon implicit cultural associations, making the arghavaan the center of multiple meanings and metaphors.
Living in a repressive society, Sayeh employs the related ideas of wine and drunkenness to both shield oneself psychically from and to explicate severe punishment meted out to religious and cultural moderates. Using the traditional Persian form, the ghazal, a series of couplets with a refrain, Sayeh frequently addresses a “wine maid.” She serves multiple roles: a literal hostess serving drink, an object of unrequited love, a common trope of the ghazal, a muse and a sounding board for the poet’s expressed sorrow. “Night Raid,” written abstractly to avoid raising the ire of the ruling government, presents the traditional and contemporary motivations for indulging in wine:
Hurry wine maid, serve the glass— sorrow unveils its face!
What catastrophe has ambushed us again?
My heart’s image floats in the goblet, wine maid,
We must see what color this indigo wheel is bringing
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lips and grail were shaped for churning wine
Without wine there’s no use for mouth or glass
Pragmatically, the circular forms, another important trope of the ghazal, of mouth and cup allow them to hold wine, making indulgence all the easier and necessary. Dionysian revelry, in the face of arrests and executions, seems more destiny than choice. Overindulging brings about forgetfulness, a coping mechanism in strifeful times. Dulling the senses in the face of tragedy, a tradition dating back to ancient times, contrasts with desire for secular communion, and remembrance of those occasions. A paradox arises. Drinking alcohol, often done in the company of others in celebration, is done in solitude, to obliterate painful memories of those abducted or killed under the cover of darkness. The English title of the poem comes from the Persian word “Shabikhoon,” literally “night blood.” Sayeh, the displaced speaker, seeks comfort in the location of his passion, the memory of communion – “[his] heart’s image floats in the goblet.” In the wake of an all-encompassing power to destroy (“The altar fire was snuffed out by that devil’s breath.”), wine’s original celebratory intent becomes twisted by tragedy. The poet retreats: “like a shadow in solitude/ I don’t want to talk to anyone.” Speech, simple communication, seems headed for oblivion. The poet and his motivation fold in on themselves, disengaging from society. No communion exists except with a shadow, the literal translation of “Sayeh” in English.
Remarkably, Sayeh’s verse, full of sorrow, never lapses into despair. Consolation stems from Persian traditions such as the universe’s inherent circular motion, wheels within wheels almost, and a light emanating from heat and fire, both earthbound and supernatural. “Dance of Burning,” (one feels the title alludes to whirling dervish and a cleansing fire), the longest poem in the collection, addresses these recurrent images:
So excited by this glee
The whole cosmos whirls like a drunk
Light has twirled in seven curtains
Before coming to circle in this mirror.
Circular motion describes the cycles found in nature: seasonal changes, day and night, life and death. Renewal becomes “the heat that multiplies itself/ The birth of a birthing cosmos.” Though imperfect and unwieldy like a drunken gait, these reliable cycles provide some degree of intellectual and emotional certainty. Similar to Whitman’s expansive ideas from “Song of Myself,” Sayeh’s work sees in the minute the universal forms and designs that commonly attract attention:
Inside the seed the whole garden pulses
In the night of the cocoon is the butterfly’s dance
A ripple in the hidden curtain of the soul
Encodes life with its design
Whitman saw in the advances of industry and science of his time the potential to neglect nature’s smallest creations in favor of grander sights. An oft-quoted line from “Song of Myself” makes that point: “A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Likewise, Sayeh sees that the particulars, the details, contain complexities of life through DNA, for instance. These genetic patterns transmit generationally, yet another cycle, forming the basis of the natural and human worlds. Unsurprisingly, poems about these cycles tend to have a certain rhythm and design. The ghazal, then, becomes Sayeh’s primary vehicle to delve into contemporary Iran. Traditionally about unrequited or divine love, in Sayeh’s hands, the form’s common trope of exaggerated violence, resulting from rejection by the beloved, corresponds to the bloodshed of the revolutionary period. Sayeh treasures most a time of unity, his beloved object, the “other” found in much of the volume. The wine maid, ostensibly, the desired female based of the conventions of the form, conflates with the yearning for national peace:
Get ready, wine maid, for this drunk who worships wine
As the barrel waits for wine to ripen, I wait in withdrawal for you
On all sides the chaos of history
The only calm is when we’re together
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The heart’s shanty was pillaged by love
Eyes, bleed your tears, this civil war is your doing
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Wait, Sayeh, keep on waiting –
What the heart aches for will come
In a convention peculiar to the form, Sayeh places himself in the final couplet, stating that cessation of “civil war,” an ambiguous phrase referring to either combat or marital discord, is the object of desire. In much the same way that the traditional ghazal poet pines for an unattainable love, Sayeh first desires what must have seemed like an unreachable goal at the time–peace–then consoles himself, with patience, a gratification delayed.
Sayeh’s verse, concerned with the upheaval in his native homeland, often adheres to the forms of an oral tradition. (Note that ghazal singing is a vibrant art form.) Within them, he creates poetry blending old and new, hitting one target while seemingly aiming at another. His critique of Iranian society – curtained with the historical images of heavenly and earthly love—broaches gratuitous violence with sorrow. Anticipation spurs him toward optimism, though.
The book’s eponymous poem voices hope in conflict:
Blood trickles my eyes in this corner of enduring
The patience I practice is squeezing my life
Come on, Sayeh, don’t swerve from the path
A jewel is buried beneath every step
His poetry embraces and embellishes traditions, resting upon the knowledge that historical cycles bring, perhaps later, evidence of desire fulfilled. I recommend this volume not only as an introduction to Sayeh’s verse rooted in the oral tradition, but as a primer to the political and social upheaval in a country we hear of much, but understand little. Sweeney and Marashi, co-translators, deserve thanks for bringing the work of a little known poet, in this country, to an English-speaking audience.
Jeff Ringelski is a grad student in creative writing at Sacramento State University.