Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World

Edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi

North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA and Scala House Press, Seattle, WA 230 pp.
ISBN 1-55643-712-9 (978-1-55643-712-0)

A Review by Avideh Shashaani

Do butterflies long for the cocoon they’ve left behind? Does longing for what is past prevent us from belonging to the present?

Belonging is a translation of works by Iranian poets who write in Persian and have lived outside Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979, as well as those who were born after the revolution and now live in countries other than Iran. The eighteen poets featured in this anthology represent three generations: those born from 1929 to 1945, those from 1946 to 1960, and those from 1961 to the present.

Nader Naderpour, one of the most acclaimed Iranian poets of the twentieth century (1929-2000), writes:

“And this house, smaller than a boat, sails us—
The distressed—into the sea of exile.
But on the alarming horizon of this sea,
Night prevails
And reveals no path to darkness
To tomorrow.”

When I began reading these poems, I couldn’t help but think of the glass edifice in the city of Houston, where hundreds of different varieties of butterflies from different parts of the world are housed in an adapted and adopted environment—separated from their homeland by a seemingly invisible glass dome.

In “To A Snail,” Majid Naficy writes,

You return to your green birthplace
leaving me covetous, longing for mine.”

A poet’s natural instinct is to transcend boundaries. Transcending boundaries and longing for a land that nurtured them have given the poets in this collection a unique voice. They live between two lands—one that has nurtured them in its cocoon while the other has given them wings of flight.

Abbas Safari writes in “Tomorrow:”

“…with cancelled tickets in hand
And on the way
Saw many tomorrows
That like unripe apples
Drooped from the weighted boughs
Of time.”

The richness of the soil that nurtured them, the turquoise dome of the sky with the brilliance of stars that make the night-sky the envy of the sun, the intoxicating fragrance of the rose, and the mystic songs of the nightingale adorn these pages, strata of the psyche of the Iranian poet who longs for a past that is missing in the land of “belonging.”

In “Red Rose I,” Amir-Hossein Afrasiabi writes:

“I’m talking about that same red rose
In that little backyard,
whose perfume
wafted in the afternoon shadows of summer’s end
through the veranda and yard

when I sat on the veranda
and spotted it over your shoulders,
red and fragrant.
I used to think, It’s there,
It’s still there….”

It is true that a translator needs extraordinary facility in both languages, but beyond all skills, he or she must inhabit the skin of the poet and understand the streams that have shaped the psyche from which their words flow. Niloufar Talebi has demonstrated an excellence that is rarely seen in translations of Persian poetry. She was born in London to Iranian parents, lived as a teenager in Iran, and has lived in the US as an artist, writer, and poet since early adulthood. Her artistic sensitivity and her deep knowledge of the Iranian culture have enabled her to construct an emotional and intellectual bridge between the “longing” and “belonging” of the poets that she has so faithfully interpreted. Her passion and intimate understanding of a heritage that has produced Hafiz, Attar, and Rumi, and her own poetic sensibilities have given her a penetrating insight into how that longing that has shaped the poems in this anthology.

Partow Nooriala captures the hunger in her poem “Many Happy Returns:”

“And when night falls
Hidden from the moon
I unstitch the old threads
And send my keen eye
Clad in a gilded gown
Off to tomorrow.”

Poetry flows from three parallel streams—the conscious, the subconscious, and the meta-conscious. The task of a brilliant translator is to build a path where these streams flow just as naturally in the new language as in the original. This anthology’s contribution to the existing body of translated Persian literature is invaluable, with Niloufar Talebi setting a new standard of excellence.

In “Yearning for Saari,” Mina Assadi says:

“Oh you wet weeds
growing on the riverbanks
of my homeland,
tell the breeze
that so lovingly passes through you,
someone on this side
of the world is also enamored
of the scent of your bodies!”

Avideh Shashaani is an Iranian-American who has lived most of her life in the Washington, D.C. area. She has translated more than ten Sufi works (poetry and prose) into English and has authored two books of poetry and one of poetic prose. She is the founder and president of the Fund for the Future of our Children.