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Wednesday Shout Out
My fifth month of weekly shout outs comes to a close today (only one more month before I too sign off the PF blog—how I’ll miss thee, Harriet!), so I decided to do something different: instead of reaching over to my personal poetry bookshelf or to the review copies pile, I skipped over to my local neighborhood bookstore to browse the literature stacks and I came across the following volume by a name not unfamiliar to me—I hear he’s one of the illustrious poet graduates from Queens College. My interest was further piqued by the subtitle: “Letters to the Islamic Republic.” As I leafed through the collection, the critical tone against an oppressive religious government and its constant assaults on freedom of expression emanated loud and clear. Ah, politics and poetry: my favorite artistic combination. I offer two pieces, the second an excerpt from a longer poem:
When I meet the literary historian of a nation,
he’s writing a book in his underwear,
cutting and pasting the faces of poets
into ruler-drawn boxes.
As he holds each black-and-white box before me,
he slices his throat with his index finger,
showing one regime in the old country
suffices as metaphor for another,
substitutions for fear the written word
with all its ambiguities
might lead others to question
positions of power.
Take this poem, for example, designed to frame
the missing men
who surreptitiously appear under the wand
of the critic’s finger,
which also arrives as a warning to me,
another poet in a chain of being
bound to struggle for his voice
across the censor’s literal sword.
In Praise of Moths (Part III)
The censor limited each poet to a single line.
The political one wrote, “You are cutting our throats.”
The one full of love merely printed the name of his beloved.
The religious one cited the Koran.
The literary historian said, “Read Hafez.”
The dying one killed moths in his room.
The Shah’s son implored the reader to recall his father.
The musician scribbled a few spontaneous notes.
The illiterate gardener drew a picture of a nightingale.
The mullah wrote and published an entire book.
The opium addict mumbled, “Life is a dream.”
The graphic designer cut and pasted advertisement slogans.
The woman on trial spelled her name with charcoal and tears.
The children of the dying one wiped moth guts off the wall.
Sedarat is of Iranian descent, and his muse is the political atmosphere of his people’s homeland, where the current governing body rose to power in 1979 after the Iranian/ Islamic Revolution. The Shah was overthrown and in stepped the Ayatolla Khomeini. The tense relationship between Iran and the United States has been documented through the newspaper headlines over the years, and though Sedarat is aware of that country’s history, his preoccupation is the oppression of its people, from artists and intellectuals, to the everyday citizen (women, especially) subjected to the government’s imposed policies of morality and nationalism.
I supposed my affinity for this poet is informed by the overwhelming freedom we have in the United States to write about anything and nothing, and how, repeatedly on Harriet I have had to defend my respect for political poetry. It’s as if people are afraid to recognize that in the rest of the world, poetry is neither luxury nor privilege. Yet it is still artistry.
In his collection, Sedarat works with forms such as the ghazal, the haiku, and the sonnet, which in itself is a political act since one of the strategic principles of the Iranian government is to eliminate outside influences. Sedarat writes in English, but he uses certain Persian words and references Persian culture unapologetically. This is all part of his Iranian-American language and identity as a poet and a dissident.
And in an effort to demonstrate how Iranian culture, language and politics evolve and move forward with its people (despite adversity), Sedarat writes a series of poems with a character reminiscent of Haji Baba of Isfahan. This figure was actually created by a Westerner, J. J. Morier, and was later re-appropriated by Persian culture. And now Sedarat lays claim to him by constructing his own version: street-wise and transgressive, “a kind of Rumi with balls,” who checks into a New York hotel under the name, Holden Caulfield.
Of course, this book will have consequences. And I can only imagine how members of the Iranian and Iranian-American communities will celebrate and/or criticize it. In any case, it’s a gutsy book that deserves a wide readership.
(From Dear Regime: Letter to the Islamic Republic, published by Ohio University Press, 2008.)