Art by Roya Amigh
When I was thirteen, I discovered poetry in translation. Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko …. We were on a first name basis, just as if they were Iranian—Nima, Forough—though I didn’t yet know my birthright. I spent my allowance at the Erehwon Bookstore in Makati, where the truest treasures were bilingual paperbacks, with fine English renderings (Auden, Kunitz, et al.) facing the originals. English recto, hegemonic even when it lags a page behind, Russian verso through the looking glass, mysterious, otherworldly. Sinister, but in a positive way. I learned to sound out the Cyrillic so that I could hear the music of rhythm and repetition, but I didn’t learn Russian. Instead, I imagined what it would be like to understand the originals transparently. I held them shimmering in a space beyond the page, beyond English or Russian, beyond language. They were lighthouses.
Those were perfect poems
diamond in the crystalline perfection of their form
lightning arcing through the air.
Discovering poetry in Persian was different.
Rumi’s language was under my skin
before I could speak in any tongue,
then abandoned me, fought me, shamed me,
forbade me to learn and mocked when I did
aghab aftadeh, bisavad
retarded, straggling, benighted
illiterate, unschooled, benighted
mongrel, two-faced, unplaced
tongue split and tied
The better to hear you with, my dear.
I was fully adult when I learned my father’s tongue
well enough to follow transparently
to hear him as the walls heard
mother sister pillow child
the spoon in mouth
the breath before it lands as fog
the ear as nest of pearls
standing in the doorway, listening
to perfect poems …
No, human poems
approaching ever closer to perfection
on a parabolic flight, arcing
through the lightning air.
Nothing is unmediated
no fish without its water, and yet
the magician lifts his cape—look!
The rose is gone and still the thorn remains.
Let’s not speak of veils, the screen between
this world and the other,
the tired feathered fan dance.
How much sweeter the drunken magician
whose only trick is art, the simple wand of words,
the juggler of other minds.
There’s another language we hold
before even one of our faces was born
A universe where all creation drowns
It makes a mockery of the body with its tricks
slices through the thousand-layered pastry of memory
the illusions of allusion
where every place reminds you of another place
every moment a palimpsest, a ponce, a double sight
Your self-portrait drawn in dust?
It blows it to the four corners
of the garden
where the music
flows like wine
You write to me, stranger, and ask for the Persian version of a Rumi translation—not even mine—for your wedding invitation, your tombstone, your tattoo. You seem to think this is a matter of back translation, reverse engineering, perhaps a job for Google that I could rubber stamp …
That’s not how it works. I try to explain.
The range of umbrage is infinite.
Inscription. Skin. Is pain the point?
I try to explain. I try not to explain.
It’s a no sum game.
I could mock I have mocked
I have rolled my eyes down the lane
till they clatter in the gutter.
The photo you’ve sent me is broken
and worse, the sequence of letters
reversed robbed of their ligatures
I can’t believe it’s a fucking tattoo
You should have asked first
But oh you want the NUN with its the belly button
the swaying back of LAL
the MIM with its hanging tail
You want the mystery of the alien eastern script,
the poem you can only imagine
the imagined poem—
The range of umbrage is infinite
but today the original came knocking
like signage in a lucid dream
like the letters on Shams’s hat
the words wiggle loose, float free
and nothing remains
but a blank field
You can write it on my hat:
She was not what you thought
She fell off your map
She was nobody
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Zara Houshmand is an Iranian American writer whose work includes poetry, theatre, memoir, and literary translation. She was one of the pioneers in the use of virtual reality as an art form, and she worked with the Mind & Life Institute for two decades on books representing the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with Western scientists. Her most recent book is Moon and Sun (2020), translations of Rumi’s Rubaiyat.
Roya Amigh earned her MFA in painting from Boston University in 2012. Roya has shown in academic and public venues from Korea to Greece to the U.S., including Brooklyn; Boston; Lincoln, Nebraska; New York City; Providence; and Wellesley, Massachusetts. She has had residencies at Art Omi and The Millay Colony for the Arts, among other places. She was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Drawing and Printmaking in 2020 and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2022.