Book Review: The Poetry of Iranian Women
The best way to understand a culture is to listen to what the people to whom it belongs have to say. In this regard, The Poetry of Iranian Women: A Contemporary Anthology provides a way for those whose attention have been captured by Iran’s Green Revolution to begin the work of comprehending the people who took to the streets demanding reform. To consider these poems only as a window into the culture, however, would do a disservice to the skill of the poets whose work has been collected by Sheema Kalbasi.
This collection is remarkable for its diversity. Some of the poets live in Iran, while others are part of the Iranian diaspora. Of the latter, some are first generation immigrants, some second. They are professors, aid workers, journalists, engineers, therapists, doctors, dentists, and mothers. One was killed when an American military vehicle crashed into her car, another was once Miss World Canada. Some of the poems in the volume were originally written in English, while others were translated. To present such a variety of women poets, Kalbasi did have to make one sacrifice: only one poem appears from each poet which makes it difficult to get an idea of the style of each woman included.
The diversity continues with the content of the poems. They range from the most intimately personal of subjects to the most publicly political, with a few managing to combine the two. All but a few of these poems, however, share a sense of loss or at least yearning, a sadness addressed if not with hope or defiance than resilience. Shokooh Mirzadegi concludes “But . . . The Women” with the lines:
The women will not cry ever
And in the morning the drooping lips
Will blossom by the morning’s laughter.
They refuse to be defeated by stones, fists, lashings, or any cruel customs.
There is diversity in style as well. Zara Houshmand’s “Invitation to Hungry Ghosts” uses lines startling in their juxtaposition:
There has never been such a good time to be alive:
Fascism digging in like gangrene, the earth abused,
Rolling over to die, the work laid out like a feast.
The impact only increases, as she asks “Why do I choke on soldiers?” and then goes on to reference Basho, Rumi, and Napa wine. In “Stoning”, Mehrangiz Rassapour drives each point home through the frequent refrain “stone me” which never touches the left-hand margin. The other poem to depart from standard left-flush alignment is “My Son is a Kangaroo!” in which the lines leap like a kangaroo, even when the scene turns painful. Katayoon Zandvakili’s “Mary Jane Song” is the most experimental, as it uses paragraphs as well as lines, idiosyncratic punctuation, bold text, and underlining. In a more traditional vein, Mimi Khalvati contributes ghazal.
In this anthology, Sheema Kalbasi achieves what the best editors of anthologies do: she creates a picture of a group, in this case a culture broadly defined, that rather than claim exclusive truth encourages readers too look for more work by the artists presented.
The Poetry of Iranian Women: A Contemporary Anthology edited by Sheema Kalbasi. Reel Productions, 2009. 151 pp.