Monday, 28 October 2019

Book review: Dying in a Mother Tongue, Roja Chamankar (2018)

An Iranian woman who writes erotic poetry is not something you often come across and, the translator’s introduction tells the reader of this collection, her work is not taught in schools or at universities in her home country. She was born in 1981. This book of hers came out in Persian in 2012 and the English translation was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

When I first began reading this book I felt the sense to be a little overdetermined but then I got into the swing of things and realised that I was dealing with a person with very strong views about the world. You expect such a person to be, at times, unconventional.

There is nothing dry, nothing ironic or understated about Chamankar’s verses. But you do get some outstanding lines. An example of metaphors and images that can appear, at first glance, slightly too strong, and which are coupled with a really striking image is here, in ‘Stand clear’:
I’m detached from myself
from your voice
from my bond with the sparrows
and the moon
who drags the sky down to the earth.
This comes at the beginning of the poem and the protagonist’s feelings are clear: she is fed up with picking up the crumbs her lover leaves for her on the ground. Crumbs, like what sparrows peck at with their beaks. Her bond with the moon is a physical one, one which is native to all women. But the final line sampled here – “the moon / who drags the sky down to the earth” – is masterful. It links up with the first image (crumbs on the ground the sparrows peck at) and adds substance and depth to the feelings that are being communicated as being the protagonist’s (the poet’s feelings).

What Chamankar reminded me of when I was reading her poems is poetry published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when poets gave readers striking and startling imagery but who also, in a classical vein, used historical references to make meaning. I wasn’t clear about the proper nouns that Chamankar deploys in her poetry, and so looked them up. “Zipporah”, a name that appears in ‘On the edge’, was the wife of Moses. “Haliptus” in ‘The Seaweed’s Magic’ has not been indexed by Google. “Dalan” in ‘Bits and pieces of me’ is probably a reference to a town with that name in southwest Iran.

In ‘For Bahar’ you find a reference to the “Strait of Bulhayat” but while no mention of such a place is available on Google’s results pages, "hayat bul" means "find life" in Turkish. This poem contains more or Chamankar's characteristically striking imagery. It is both erotic and patriotic, mixing love of a man with memories of the protagonist’s experiences of war. There is a very striking theme that seems almost Stoic which invokes beauty and its opposite that, when combined in the poem, make existence more poignant. The positive and the negative, the good and the bad. Side by side, like the lovers in their bed.

The poem ends like this:
The sea is more beautiful
when you laugh and water
fills the dimples in your cheeks.  
Now go
pick up the seashell
and hide the sound inside.
The poem had opened with the image of a seashell which, in that case, had carried the protagonist’s voice to her lover. Now, at the end of the poem, the seashell reappears but the meaning of the imagery here is ambiguous, strange, and indirect. There is something sensuous about the final line quoted – this is poetry, after all, and words in poetry are allowed, in fact they are encouraged, to have multiple meanings. But what does the woman who is speaking want the man to do with the shell? With her voice? What does anyone want this woman who is speaking to do with her voice?

Once the shell has been picked up, does she still have a voice? Or perhaps her voice is only meant for the man who holds the shell. Perhaps, as well, finding something positive in acts of violence is the only way to cope with the sorrow they inspire.

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