A look at I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief, a collection by seven young Iranian poets
Please note: the following article contains strong language.
I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief is an anthology of poems by seven young Iranian poets, edited and translated by Alireza Taheri Araghi (co.im.press 2015). The collection includes works by Arash Allahverdi, Sodéh Negintaj, Babak Khoshjan, Ali Karbasi, Mahnaz Yousefi, Shahram Shahidi, and Ahoora Ghoudarzi.
Taheri Araghi explains his criteria for the selection of the poets and their works in the introduction of the book. “Of the variegated mix of works out there, I was more interested in what the less established where doing, and mostly the youth, the underrepresented of the underrepresented.”
He says his “intention was to assemble a rather homogenous collection of works that would read as a stand-alone book of poetry as opposed to an extensive anthology comprising works from all across the spectrum.” As he wished, the book is a “stand-alone” work and it is not an “extensive anthology,” but not homogenous per se and that is actually one of its strengths. The works represent a spectrum of voices and concerns, a heterogeneity that makes them really engaging and interesting to the reader. They, however, still share qualities that allows the work to congeal. They are all intense and unmediated, do not shy away from revealing strong emotions, find deeper meaning in the ordinary and the mundane and go to the heart of the matter when facing and revealing a multi-layered complex world.
The book opens with Shitkilling by Arash Allahverdi, a poem, that begins with:
come and do drugs
bring the drugs and do it
drink the water
as if cum, drink the water (3)
and ends with Bill, a poem by Ahoora Goudarzi from a series of his poems inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The last lines of the poem and the book read:
one, the wind blows into your flute
two, my heroine chokes up
three, my heroine’s fingers shake
four, silence flows into your flute
five, tears fall on the table (135)
Between these two excerpts, we go from It’s Nothing by Sodéh Negintaj that lists “bullshitting” figures and “fucked-ups" and “ooh-la-las" standing “in your face” (31-32) to a Proposal in Azadi Street by Babak Khoshjan that involves the lady of the poisoned “Qajari coffee” (54); from Ali Karbasi’s “Tick Tock Tick Tock Tick Tock Tick Tock Draraaaaah” of a radio program countdown (68) and his “giants”, “fairies”, and “yellow seals” to the city of Rasht coming to life in the words and imagery of Mahnaz Yousefi to Shahram Shahidi’s war scenes in which bodies and their pains are resurrected. These poems take us in many directions, but it is always to the depths that they take us. Moreover, the fact that several poems from each poet is translated and put together allows us to spend more time with each and every voice, getting to know their concerns, themes, rhythms, and styles.
Meanwhile, attention to two issues could have strengthened this collection even further. It would have been nice to see, in the tradition of many translation poetry books, the original Persian versions of the poems side by side the English translations. The choice would have allowed those who read Persian to experience the poems in both languages and those who don’t to immerse in the visual aesthetics of the words and the forms. It is also sad that the cover image chosen for such a daring exploratory collection of poems follows the cliché cover favoured by books from the Middle East that are translated and published in the U.S.: a veiled face that reveals only one eye staring at the reader in a sad, submissive manner; an image that has nothing to do with the diverse strong voices inside the covers, voices that have long ago overcome any such submissiveness.
Aditi Machado, poetry editor of Asymptote, an online journal of translation and world literature that had initially published a few of the poems in both Persian and English, says that after reading the book her “faith in anthology” was renewed. In her review of the book (for “Fortnightly Airmail”, the journal’s newsletter, of May 13, 2016), she writes, “Read this book, I say to friends and strangers. Publish more books like this, I ask of publishers. Curate and collaborate, as this translator has done.”
It is important to remember what Taheri Araghi emphasizes in the introduction: that the book “should not be taken as a representation of Iranian poetry as a whole.” It is not as a representation (as no one book can or should be a representation of a whole country and its literature) but simply as a book of its own that this book is worth our attention. Especially in an Anglophone book market that often shows interest in cliché samples of Iranian and Middle Eastern literature, books like I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief are important additions to the translation literary scene that we need to read and speak of.
The article solely reflects the opinions of the independent journalist and not those of the British Council. Please send all feedback and opinion on the articles to firstname.lastname@example.org or our Facebook page. You can now follow Underline art magazine on our Telegram channel.