An Iranian Tsvetaeva

Rebecca Gould

Mirror of Dew: The Poetry of Ālam-Tāj Zhāle Qā’em-Maqāmi. Translated with commentary by Asghar Seyed-Gohrab. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014. 224 pages. $24.95.

Scholars of Persian poetry have had the good fortune to witness a flurry of publications in recent years on female poets, particularly Qajar women.[1] Asghar Seyed-Gohrab’s landmark translation of the poems of Ālam-Tāj Zhāle Qā’em-Maqāmi marks a turning point in this new area of inquiry, in that it makes the women’s poetry of modern Iran available to a wider circle of readers than ever before. In contrast to most prior work on Iranian women’s writing, which consist of specialist articles in area-specific journals, Seyed-Gohrab has produced a volume of poetry in translation, which has the potential to be read by a wide variety of readers, within and beyond the field of Persian Studies. He has also framed these translations, which appear alongside the Persian originals, within the context of Iranian women’s writing and of modern Persian poetry.

In his engaging and informative introduction, Seyed-Gohrab carefully distinguishes Zhāle (1883-1946) from other women poets of her era, including Parvīn Eʿteṣāmī and Forūgh Farrokhzād. Seyed-Gohrab shows how Zhāle’s poetry—which, unlike that of Eʿteṣāmī and Farrokhzād, was not intended for publication—turns a critical lens on marriage practices, female sexual desire, and motherhood. Although by far the least known among this triumvirate, Zhāle emerges as the one most gifted with an ironic voice, most daring in her explorations of desire, and boldest in her evocations of despair. A striking, if dark, note is struck by poems such as “The Lover of Love” (171), which I quote in Seyed-Gohrab’s translation:

Alas, I was in love with love.
Without love my life is ruined.
In my heart, I had a spark of hope
but this too was blackened by tears of sorrow.

Somewhat surprisingly for poetry of such unrelenting sadness, Zhāle’s verse is anything but monotonous. Rather, her voice is keen and sharp, ironic and brittle, and eager to expose hypocrisy, especially when it applies to the patriarchal social order (see “Reproach to my Husband,” 75). Ranging across modern and classical Persian poetry, Seyed-Gohrab perceptively underscores his subject’s ability to strike a contemporary tone while engaging with a prior classical tradition. Poems such as “Conversations with a Sewing Machine” (93) and “Hair Curler” (185) ingeniously bring modern technology into dialogue with the formal conventions and thematic preoccupations of classical Persian poetry. For example, the opening verses to “Conversations with a Sewing Machine” stage a memorable dialogue between a modern machine and a woman engaged in her daily sewing routine. She ranges across Persian poetry’s rich panoply of imagery for miracle working by Jesus and other prophets:

Oh Singer, you do much magic.
You have no soul but you work miracles like Jesus.
You have no head, but I see the thought of a brain at work.
                                                              You show it moment by moment.

Also striking is Zhāle’s fearless confrontation of political issues, including marriage laws, sexuality, and women’s rights, which infuses her lyricism with a political edge. Poems such as “A Message to Women of the Future” (53) and “The Rights of Men and Women” (85) put to rest still prevalent constructions of the female poetic voice as devoid of political consciousness, while refuting the equally prevalent view that politics militates against lyricism. Zhāle’s lyrics are fraught with political critique. Her ability to lyricize her anger is arguably the most distinctive aspect of her poetic gift. Zhāle’s voice is mocking, harsh, and bitter, particularly when she writes about her husband, with whom she was involved in a loveless marriage for many years (“A Husband, not an Intimate,” 147, and “Reproach to My Husband,” 75). Nor is Zhāle sparing towards manifestations of patriarchal ideology from women, as can be seen in “After my Husband’s Death” (167). In this poem, Zhāle’s extended family, women included, are excoriated for treating her like an object to plunder once she becomes a widow and is thereby deprived of her husband’s legal protection:

Not enemies, but my kin who are foreign
lit a fire on my head.
Now my family and relative are around me,
forming a circle, swiftly, to plunder everything.

Although these make for painful reading, her rage often gives rise to piercing eloquence. Zhāle’s angry tone powerfully evokes the bitter lyrics of her near contemporary Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941). A careful reading of the two poets’ aesthetics would yield much for comparative poetics. Comparisons are inevitably invidious, especially across cultures, but to my mind the parallel between Tsvetaeva and Zhāle is more compelling than the comparison between Zhāle and Emily Dickinson proposed by Iranian critics such as Jahān-Tigh and Qadir. Dickinson’s verse does not feed off her own anger with the same eloquent, if formally constrained, violence that drives the verse of Zhāle and Tsvetaeva.

Aside from the many translations of Forūgh and Ḥāfeẓ that circulate in the English-speaking world, the would-be Anglophone connoisseur of Persian poetry confronts a wasteland. And yet, strangely, Seyed-Gohrab’s translation has been greeted with relative silence. As of this writing, only one scholarly review has appeared in print. Although it includes a detailed discussion of certain aspects of Persian prosody, this review ignores the key issue for a book of poetry in translation: the quality of the English versions.[2] After all, Zhāle’s verse has long existed in Persian; this publication makes it possible, for the first time, to situate Zhāle’s verse within world literature.

Alongside the general neglect of poetry in translation, Arabic writer Sinan Antoon has pointed to the “forensic interest” that drives contemporary English-language publishing, whereby Middle Eastern cultures and literatures are seen as mere objects of anthropological analysis rather than as subjects meriting study in their own right.[3] Seyed-Gohrab’s edition, which is consummate in its literary focus, usefully challenges that trend. Meanwhile, Zhāle’s poetry counters many persistent stereotypes and prejudices that result in part from our ignorance of the literature of this period written by Iranian women. As Seyed-Gohrab demonstrates, in the classical period modern Iran witnessed an astonishing florescence of poetry of many styles, schools, and genres, most of it untranslated into English, and much of it by women.

I will conclude with some suggestions for a future reprint or expanded edition. The order appears to be loosely chronological in that it moves from motherhood to widowhood, but a more explicit justification of the sequence could have helped to situate Zhāle’s oeuvre. The index helpfully enumerates the motifs and themes of Zhāle’s verse; one wonders if this useful critical device could have been integrated more fully into the selections from the poems themselves. Or perhaps the order given follows different logic? Whatever the answer, a discussion of the different options facing the translator could have been instructive.

Finally, a more extensive discussion of the translator’s method would have been useful. What is the intended relation between the original Persian and the English versions? Are these translations intended to stand alone as poems, or are they prose supplements meant to be read alongside the Persian? If the former, a more thorough engagement with the problems of translation (such as line breaks, enjambment, and what is and is not translatable in Zhāle’s verse) would help introduce Zhāle’s verse to a wider cross-section of readers.

Among its many achievements, this book paves the way for a volume that would collate the editions of Zerāʿati (1999), Ahang (2010), and the serial publications in Yaghmā into a comprehensive critical edition of Zhāle’s verse. Such a work would be a service not only to the field of Persian literature, but to the study of women’s writing, comparative poetics, and world literature. With the publication of Mirror of Dew, Zhāle has taken her place alongside Forūgh and Eʿteṣāmī, as well as among non-Iranian poets such as Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Fadwā Ṭūqān, and Elizabeth Bishop in creating a canon of twentieth-century women writers. We have Seyed-Gohrab to thank for creating a framework for future work on the poetry of Qajar and Pahlavi women.



[1] See Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, “Women in Praise of Women: Female Poets and Female Patrons in Qajar Iran,” Iranian Studies 46.1 (2013): 17-43, and idem, “Qajar Confection: The Production and Dissemination of Women’s Poetry in Early Nineteenth-century Iran,” Middle Eastern Literatures 17:2 (2014), 113-146, and other works cited in Seyed-Gohrab’s bibliography.

[2] Review by Saeed Yousef, SCITW: Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World (July 21, 2015).

[3] See Sinan Antoon, “Translation as Interrogation: On the Post 9/11 Forensic Interest in Arabic Literature,” talk delivered at The Translation of Modern Arabic Literature into European Languages Symposium, School of Oriental and African Studies (2 December 2010).

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