In 1983, I was five—just about a year into living in the United States, after a few turbulent Iranian-refugee years bumping around from country to country to find a permanent home under political asylum. I entered kindergarten, and with it came the beginning of my lifelong insomnia. I would lie in bed and reflect on the fact that the eight or so hours I had to commit to sleeping were longer than a full day at school, and that would torture me. I’d review the bad words of kids on the playground and the new words I’d learned in English; I’d make up imaginary friends who looked like sitcom heroines with crimped hair and lip-gloss smiles, and replay Michael Jackson hits, inventing new lyrics in Farsi for all the ones I was missing. Eventually I would give up and go into the living room, where my night-owl dad was always dependably curled up by the television, addicted to late-night talk shows, while pretending to grade papers. He’d look amused at my exhausted but sleepless state, and inevitably would pry himself from the TV and read to me in hopes of getting me to sleep. And it would work every time.
The comfort of having someone read to you at an impossible hour at night—especially if that someone was your father, a man you worshipped beyond reason in that era before your relationship was all glitch and clash for too many years to come—was the king of all comforts. I’d sit squirming in his lap, mesmerized by the strange stories of the one and only book my father ever read to me from, the Persian national treasure, The Shahnameh/Book of Kings.
It was the literary jewel of our country, a cross between our Bible and The Canterbury Tales. An epic poem of more than 50,000 couplets written by the great Persian poet Ferdowsi, the stories of the Shahnameh were in the blood of every Iranian. It would be hard to find any Iranians who couldn’t name their favorite tale in it. Within its three parts—mythic, heroic, and historic—you find the annals of Persia, from the creation of the universe to the Islamic Conquests. For me, then, the stories were very new. And with its battle scenes and romantic escapades, it was something very thrilling, infinitely more scintillating than the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary tales that the teachers were beginning to push our way.
The story that I liked the most, that I’d often beg my father to reread (against his instinct, which was to move forward through the entire text), was an early tale, the story of Zāl. Zāl’s tragedy would move me to tears, even then and always now. Zāl was an infant born to royalty and immediately discarded because he looked freakish—there is a sense in the text that he was perhaps an albino—and abandoned in the woods. A giant bird—the mythic fowl of Persian legend, the simorgh—finds him and decides to raise him as its own child. When he is a young man, his father gets word of him and sends for him, and soon he becomes this famous warrior of Persia, beloved to all.
This was the happiest story I had heard, mainly for its sharp and shocking reversal of fortune. I felt such a connection to it—at least, I hoped the story would end even slightly that triumphantly for me. I felt a strong outsiderness at even that young an age—I did not belong at home, I did not belong in the playground, I was neither Iranian nor American—but I prayed that this outsiderness would one day work to my advantage and perhaps make me something special. Zāl was my first role model, the first fictional character I fell in love with, and I took him to bed and he took to me to sleep and that love never waned, not even slightly.
Twenty years later, my insomnia came back in full nefarious force, but this time there was no one to read me to sleep, and I had long forgotten the Shahnameh. I was much more American than Iranian in every way. In 2003, I was pursuing my master’s in creative writing at the Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University. By the middle of the year, I was deep in the throes of a nervous breakdown of sorts. I cut bangs for the express purpose of hiding under a heavy curtain of them during workshop, making eye contact with no one. I was stick-thin and perpetually trembling, hot-wired with frenetic, fluttery energy, like the misguided stirrings of a bird trapped indoors. I was in therapy several times a week. I stopped sleeping at some point, and nothing worked—until I made the best decision of that year: I signed up for a poetry course.
It was the great Southern poet Dave Smith’s contemporary poetry survey. It was a strange choice for me, full of poets and not fiction writers, but that was my goal; I wanted to hide more effectively. What I hadn’t counted on was that the class would feel lifesaving. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt I could crack open and unlock the codes of poems. James Wright, James Dickey, Carol Ann Duffy, and Sharon Olds felt like my personal saviors. I spoke out in class, sometimes with embarrassing emotion. I started to feel better and better, perhaps as I grew into my crazier and crazier self.
It was sometime in the early spring that Dave turned us on to Robert Penn Warren, and specifically his text Audubon: A Vision. Not even the poets in the class had heard of it. It was described as a “poetic sequence” and was in essence an epic poem, a book-length lyrical study of John James Audubon, the French American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. I did not care at all about Audubon, and I certainly did not care at all for poetry as veiled biography. So I took on the assignment with a negative attitude, but once I got into it, I really got into it.
In the end, Warren interested me as much as did his subject. I became obsessed with his obsession. In 1944 he published a pivotal essay about Eudora Welty’s stories, “The Love and Separateness in Miss Welty,” in the Kenyon Review. In Welty’s “A Still Moment,” she imagines the famed naturalist in action, and Warren writes about this story at length in his essay. He zooms in on the “irony of limit and contamination” in “that the best he could make would be … a dead thing and not a live thing, never the essence,” elaborating on Audubon’s realization that he has to kill a bird in order to capture it artistically. A quarter of a century later, Warren was still ruminating on Audubon; those ironies, those dilemmas would make up the meditation on art at the core of the poetic sequence Audubon: A Vision, released as a thin volume from Random House in 1969.
It’s a rarely mentioned work by Warren, but among those who have read it, it has a cult of obsessive devotees. The poet R.T. Smith recalls in Shenandoah “how spellbound and awe-struck I was, like the child hearing some tale of a dark forest and its shadows, how I could truly say, as Warren’s narrating persona does in the final movement, ‘I did not know what was happening in my heart.’ Forty years after the poem first found me, I am still in awe of it.”
Professor and poet Calvin Bedient, author of In the Heart’s Last Kingdom: Robert Penn Warren’s Major Poetry, believed that “his greatness as a writer began with his determination to concentrate on poetry…. [It] began with Audubon: A Vision.” And both Claudia Emerson’s “The Audubon Collection” and Gardner McFall’s “Plates from Audubon’s Double Elephant Folio” seem more in dialogue with Warren’s Audubon than with Audubon himself.
Warren’s sequence is a wondrous mix: part historical narrative, part-apocalyptic meditation, part portrait-in-lyric, part allegorical fantasy. “Dawn: his heart shook in the tension of the world. / Dawn: and what is your passion?” hooked me, just as did “He leans on his gun. Thinks / How thin is the membrane between himself and the world.” They are hints, early in this poem, that it’s going to be about not just the famed scientist/artist but also about us. Indeed, in a 1969 interview, Warren said, “I just finished a long poem, Audubon: A Vision. It’s about Audubon's life as a kind of focus for a lot of things about humans. I hope it’s the way life is. It’s about his heroic solution of his problems and the problems of being a man.” And its insistence on a sort of elliptical language furnished an odd, mesmeric coded quality: “Unless. / Unless what?” It had to me the brutal weight and dusty shimmer of a sacred text.
Somehow, like Zāl of the Shahnameh, the figure of John James Audubon, as Robert Penn Warren saw him, saved me from sleeplessness via a strange, glittering connection with a figure more mythic than real, a man who came from nothing and who became a certain sort of everything. Warren’s lyrical style, with its strangeness and apocalyptic air—“For everything there is a season / But there is the dream / Of a season past all seasons.”—appealed to me deeply, as if a rite of the occult. Here was a work that almost dared to be interpreted as biography; Warren included painstaking snapshots that were often Audubon’s own retellings, taken from his Ornithological Biography. It was hard to know what was concrete fact and what was Warren’s own myth, as it was more an experiment in essence than anything else. It was Warren as medium, channeling an Audubon of his imagination. If one looks to portraits for their accuracy and precision, it was a failed portrait of the greatest portraitist of all time, just as Audubon’s studies of birds offer beauty in the clinical and the absolute, the magic of his work lying in its denial of beauty being anything more than what is actually there. I read the deeply bizarre existential labyrinths of Warren’s version as if it were a religion, much as I’d felt when I discovered Blake in undergraduate times. It set me on fire; it left me in the icy chill and white-hot madness that only even the best art can very rarely inflict.
At some point I wrote a novel; the thematic axis of the narrative was a childhood game about bird-burning. The book was filled with avian allusions. The novel came out and was well received. And people had so many questions. I was asked: why all the bird references, why the bird-burning game? I shrugged, never once thinking of Audubon.
Fast-forward to the time when I was trying to write my second novel. I had a number of residencies lined up, but no novel to work on. I had nothing: no idea for it, no ambitions. At my first residency, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I brought two books to read: a Pema Chodron text and a new edition of the Shahnameh, translated by Dick Davis. I had not thought of the book in ages when a publicist alerted me to the new English translation. I felt a deep thrill in knowing that I could return to those old stories, in the new tongue that had suddenly become my one and only reading tongue. I sat in my barn studio that week at VCCA and alternated between Chodron and Ferdowsi, took long naps, and at dinnertimes lied about the writing of my second novel. The man I was dating sent me long lovely emails and tried to relate. He asked me to think of works that had inspired me in the past and I told him about Audubon: A Vision, which the Sweet Briar College library did not have, and which I could rarely find. He managed to find it and spent hours in a faculty lounge photocopying it page by page and sending it to me. It is still the only copy I have, now several years after that boyfriend and I broke up; it was the greatest thing he ever did for me.
So I spent a lot of time reading and rereading that.
One day during a smoking break with another writer, when we were deep in our usual chatter, she turned and said to me: “Whatever you do, never google ‘feral children’; just trust me.” For whatever reason, this stayed with me long enough that at some late hour one night, I did it.
It was awful, yes. (Whatever you do, never google it; just trust me.) But more than awful, it was a light-bulb illumination moment. Suddenly I connected Zāl with feral children and Audubon’s bird obsession with an anthropomorphized bird, and thus “bird-boys,” which led me to Zāl. Suddenly, in my mind, very abstractly, I saw the texture and fabric of this beautiful thing, this dreaded thing, the sophomore effort, the novel after The Novel.
I finished my second novel years later and sold it to Bloomsbury last fall. It’s titled The Last Illusion and is a modern retelling of the Zāl story, with Zāl cast as a feral child. The epigraph is from Audubon: A Vision (“Dawn: his heart shook in the tension of the world. Dawn: and what is your passion?”), which is more than just an afterthought—it’s the pulse and bloodline of the book. What I wanted was a darkly twinkling text that meditated on magical thinking, and that was what Robert Penn Warren had given me, especially when I recalled my state in reading it, the crazed psychedelic-visioned bird girl I was. For so long I had felt like that, possessed by a birdlike vigilance and trapped by my role as outsider-observer, like the Shahnameh’s Zāl, like my feral child Zāl, like John James Audubon, great portraitist of birds, whose central dilemma in life and in Warren’s masterpiece was that to capture creatively that which he loves, he must kill it; that to make immortal his one and only protagonist, he must preserve it forever in a dead state. And that’s what is sometimes missed in his paintings: the dark subtext, the reality of the creative process, the industry secret; all the crazy labor that goes into creating the beauty of art.
But literature, I discovered, can also save you. Truly. Over the cliché and through the truth, it can save. It was my only sleep aid, ever, but more potently, it was what allowed me to time-out on real life, to put the curtain down on living and go deep into that other world we are gifted with, the dream life, that realm of art. It over and over has given me an excuse to survive, a way to live through things. As Warren asks in a poem filled with more question marks than commas and periods (his working title was apparently “Audubon and a Question for You”), “What is man but his passion?” Empty shell, bone dust, somebody’s memory. In the name of passion, we close our eyes on this world with the only-ultimately-false promise that we can open them up again.