reviewed by the Judge
Hatchet jobs are a tricky business. They are the easiest reviews to write and the most enjoyable to read, but more often than not they only end up publicising the work they attempt to castigate. Indeed, there are only two conceivable scenarios in which a serious critic might publish a review that is wholly negative. The first is when the work in question is already very famous, perhaps being over-praised or over-hyped, and a more critical perspective is required to go against the tide. The second is when the work is relatively unknown, but criticism of it may open up a wider discussion of some kind.
Given the historical moment in Persian-speaking countries such as Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan, I was looking forward to a local poet’s insight into the events
It is to the latter case that we turn our hopes in reviewing Poems by Farzaneh Khojandi, a pamphlet published by Enitharmon Press under the eye of the Poetry Translation Centre (PTC). Khojandi is a poet originally from Tajikistan, though she has a strong following in other Persian-speaking countries as well, namely Afghanistan and Iran. These Poems are a selection from her latest collection, Unending Sigh, published in Iran in 2007. The translations are by Narguess Farzad and British poet Jo Shapcott – from what I have been able to gather, Farzad provided a very literal translation from Persian, which Shapcott then went on to versify.
The introduction by Farzad cannot escape mention, because it is an insult to poetry criticism. The brevity, at a mere five paragraphs, could be forgiven (even though foreign poets, especially when originating from distant cultures, are those in greatest and most urgent need of proper contextualisation and background). What is harder to let slip is the fact that over those five paragraphs Farzad manages to convey almost no information at all. She gives us a gushing, hollow encomium which mentions the poet’s ‘prominence, influence and popularity’ in three different countries and whose function is to reassure us that we are indeed dealing with a star, a very very bright star of Central Asian poetry. I quote directly:
Farzaneh’s works are comprised of lyrical and romantic narrative poetry in the classical modes, as well as free verse elegies that bring together the classicism of the poetry of Khorasani (tenth to thirteenth centuries) and Iraqi (thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) styles and the innovations that characterise the post-1950s poetry of Iran.
These lines remind me of the back-labels of mediocre wine: ‘We are a family rooted in the traditional methods of wine-making of our forefathers, but also open to the new and innovative technologies of the current age.’ Does it really take a critic to point out that that’s a contradiction? Other than the name of the province where she was born (Khojand), the introduction contains no biographical facts about the artist at all. We know nothing about who this poet is, what background she comes from, what she has done in her life. I eventually had to Google her to see if I could find at least a date of birth, and on the site of the PTC I discovered that she was born some time in 1964. But wait – the only other site I could find which featured Khojandi – Wikipedia, that is – says that she was born on November 3, 1960. It also gives her a whole list of other names – Inoyat Hojieva, Farzona, Forough of Tajikistan (oddly, never ‘Farzaneh’), and since she was born in Khojand, we may deduce that ‘Khojandi’ is only a geographical reference, not a name. This is the first time in my life that after having read an introduction and backed it up with research on the internet, I am not even sure what the poet’s name is. Come on, PTC. You can do better than that.
I’ll have to call her ‘Khojandi’, I guess. What is her poetry like? I don’t know the Persian language, so I can’t discuss her formal merits. Her images as they are rendered in English certainly seem very simple, though, and her intertextual arsenal obvious and predictable. She speaks of the only time she ever stole something – an apple from the neighbour’s tree, when she was five years old – and remarks that ‘I was a big sinner. / My sin was heavier than Adam and Eve’s’. Ah, subtle. Her rhetorical turn of phrase also seems elementary:
Look. There is someone behind this mass of green. Someone whose eyes, right from the beginning of creation until this moment, saved faith and love. Someone whose breath is the astonishment of Jesus, someone whose touch is a loan from Moses, someone whose voice veils the song of eclipses, someone who is seated in the palm of knowledge,
Someone, someone, someone, we get it. Hopefully it is also someone who understands how a ‘breath’ can be ‘the astonishment of Jesus’ (incidentally that phrase is itself a mystery, as I don’t recall Jesus ever being particularly astonished in the Gospels, but this is muddled enough as it is). And that would still leave us with the other images to figure out. Good luck.
Given the historical moment in Persian-speaking countries such as Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan, I was looking forward to a local poet’s insight into the events. Compared to accessing the reality of these nations through the artificial, biased and propagandistic discourse of the media, poetry has the opportunity to give us a perspective that is more intimate and believable, not to mention unmediated and unfiltered. Unfortunately, as Khojandi says in this podcast with the Guardian, she is a poet who ‘tries to avoid composing too many poems on social issues, she is much more interested in human emotions and the relationships between people’. I’m assuming the civil war and the extreme poverty in her country of birth don’t really affect ‘human emotions’ – nor does poetry have a responsibility to address them. Maybe it’s just this selection that omitted Khojandi’s more historically grounded work? Other than a vague line in the last poem that mentions shooting and exploding shells, all the rest of her poetry in this pamphlet is exactly what you expect poetry to be about: roses and the spring, the sun in the sky, love and truth, sincerity and loneliness. ‘The Flute Merchant’ is supposed to be inspired by a very real issue – the life-conditions of beggars in Khojand, according to the podcast we linked above – but the verse is so flowery and platonic that it would take a set of interpretative somersaults to figure that out:
The flute-player tells me: come with your ears used to insults, and listen to the light recite a prayer to the dark. Open your eyes used to pale shame and see the beauty of Truth.
All of this results in poems that are not ‘bad’ as much as they are adolescential. They come across like they were written by a technically precocious sixteen-year-old. There are a few fine metaphors here and there, but the rest is text-book poetic sentimentality:
When the message came with a smile that summer was coming, men, sloshing their way through puddles of muddy water, carried on oblivious. But the roses felt the warm kiss of summer on their necks.
The ‘men’ are basically ‘everybody else’, while the roses – original symbol, that – are a stand-in for the poet’s soul (and for the reader, who can identify with the poet’s sensitivity). It is a very predictable ideological game – the ‘roses’ and anyone who recognises them represent the spiritually illuminated ones. In other words, they are endorsed with a privileged discursive position: what they say is somehow more important, more relevant, more true than what everybody else says. You can almost picture a teenager waving his/her arms and crying for attention (and forgetting about other people’s social realities in the meantime). Khojandi whines from her position of discursive aristocracy that ‘No one understands the absence of the sun. / No one knows that this brightness / is just pretending to be dawn. / No one understands the absence of meaning / in the guises of the chameleon’ (‘Must Escape’). Sorry dear, I guess all those ‘men’ are just too thick to match your sensitivity. (But then she makes sure to defuse the criticism: ‘I am offended by myself, too’. Ah, so she is humble as well).
On the whole Poems is a disastrous pamphlet in everything but the elegant presentation – and this leads us back to the first paragraph of our review. The point here is not to evaluate Khojandi, but to try and stimulate a discussion which, judging by these Poems, very much needs to take place. Something here is not right, and we require more qualified critics to explain exactly what happened. In fact, let me list the possibilities. First, Khojandi is indeed a great poet, but the work of translation and/or selection in this pamphlet does not do her justice. Second, Khojandi is in fact a bad poet who has been over-celebrated (these things happen, at times), and it is she who does not do justice to Persian poetry. Third, Khojandi is indeed the best that Persian poetry has to offer, which would suggest that Persian poetry is in a state of crisis (perhaps as a direct result of the civil / social crises which I cursorily mentioned above, which abrogate the possibility of a healthy poetic platform). Fourth, Khojandi’s poetry in fact requires a particular sensitivity or cultural preparation which I, having no understanding of oriental literature, do not possess. In which case the fault is my own for having reviewed the poems without being qualified.
I’m happy to take responsibility for my mistake if someone can expose it with a proper argument, which is why I wrote this review in the first place. Dr Fulminare is inviting any poet, critic, student, translator with a preparation in Asian literature to write their own article not just on Persian poetry but on any type of oriental poetry which is difficult to carry over to our scene for reasons which may have been exemplified by this article. As long as it is well written, argued and researched, we promise to publish it. Explain why this poetry is so hard to understand for us. Explain who Farzaneh Khojandi really is (starting from her name, thank you very much) and why her poetry made her into the star which the PTC says she is. You are welcome to make a similar case for verse in Arabic, Hindi, Chinese or anything you may come up with. Orientalism deserves better than this.