reviewed by the Judge
I thoroughly enjoyed Mohammadi’s selection of verse. I say this in spite of having approached it with a certain apprehension – I’ve had some trouble with previous Persian artists published by the Poetry Translation Centre, and I was afraid I might end up with another negative review (something I generally don’t like to publish). From the very first poem ‘Drawing’ (a stimulating theological meditation told in an enchanting, song-like style), however, I was very much drawn into the poet’s voice.
What makes these poems stand out is Mohammadi’s particular metaphorical mode, in which a person (in particularly the speaker) will be extensively described in terms of an object
Reza Mohammadi is young, for an established writer – less than thirty-five years old. He seems to have a strong liking for poetry of address, as most of the works published here feature a relationship between an unspecified ‘I’ and a ‘you’ (when they don’t, it turns to an equally generalised ‘we’ or ‘they’). While this is not the most original way of framing a poem, it’s sustained here – and justified – by the poet’s talent with metaphor.
Indeed, what makes these poems stand out is Mohammadi’s particular metaphorical mode, in which a person (in particularly the speaker) will be extensively described in terms of an object: ‘I was a word abandoned in an old battered book’ (The Word), ‘I am a rain that nobody wants’ (Providence), ‘we are two pairs of shoes made from leather’ (Friendship). These metaphors are enjoyable, original and clever, and they seem to translate rather well: ‘Your day is a street which leads / to a road that reaches a building, / then leads to an avenue, lastly, / caught in the grid of the city. // My day is a corridor that runs / through my veins and is closed…’
I’d have to read a full collection to reach a conclusive opinion on Mohammadi’s verse – there are some occasions, especially in the love poems, when his verse seems a touch clichéd (an expression like ‘o my true love’ should be used with a certain caution, though it may have had a different ring in the original language). But I’ve read enough to call it highly promising, and were the PTC to publish a full-on collection, I would read it with pleasure. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the linguistic abyss between the source and target language, and the fact that much of the original musicality must be lost on us.
The verse of Shakila Azizzada, while also interesting, was a little less convincing to me. Azizzada is a translocal poet who moved from Afghanistan to the Netherlands when she was twenty, and her work bears the imprint of a mixed cultural upbringing. It’s politically engaged and there are some thought-provoking images in here – when the poet celebrates the Persian New Year in Dam Platz in Amsterdam, there is a clear sense of tension between identity as an act of projection and our surroundings as affirmative symbols. She is also unafraid to deal with hefty national subjects, giving us a raw perspective on topics like the civil war.
At the same time, I was not as impressed by the more intimate poems, those in which Azizzada chooses to ponder matters of love and romance. Perhaps this comes down to cultural dissonance, but I had a vague impression that the poet’s view of sexuality was infused with an old repressive notion, to wit, that physical romance is tantamount to sin: ‘Don’t tell me the door to Paradise / opens between my lips. // In the cleft between my breasts, / God himself tripped.’ The lines come from Cat Lying in Wait, in which a (potential?) relationship between a man and a woman is presented through the metaphor of a cat hunting a bird. Not only is the metaphor dubious (having sex is not the same thing as being killed and devoured), it’s also problematic in its suggestion that the woman has no agency in the relationship. Furthermore, Azizzada’s style is marked by something of an over-emphasis on imagery – there are times when she throws so much at the reader that it is hard to keep track of what she is actually saying: ‘I’ll meet you again / under the wings / of a rambling rose by a stream / in a dream broken / by the buzzing of a bee / round a pomegranate, / split open.’ (The Tryst).
Nonetheless, the pamphlet is of such brevity that it could hardly outstay its welcome, and both Azizzada and Mohammadi make for an interesting dip into the culture of Persian poetry, which in its contemporary manifestations has such limited distribution. Both these poets (along with Azita Ghahreman, a review of which is forthcoming on our site) are touring the UK as you read this and you’re still in time to catch them in Edinburgh or at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Readings are free, and it’s going to be a great deal easier to see them now than by going after them in Kabul.