Featured review

When They Broke Down the Door by Fatemeh Shams, translated by Dick Davis

Mage Publishers, 2016
2017 Number 3 - War of the Beasts and the Animals

Review by JENNIFER LANGER

This moving dual-language poetry collection by the Iranian exiled poet Fatemeh Shams is her first collection in English and is translated from the Persian by the eminent Persian scholar Dick Davis. Shams has previously published two collections in Persian: 88 (2013) and Writing in the Mist (2015). Sham’s first collection of poetry in English represents an emotional journey that many follow in exile. A recurring theme is the visceral anguish of exile from Iran and the shifting forms of memory pervaded by motifs of blood, death, executions and corpses.

The first two poems in the collection are indicative of the regime under which Shams lived. Her hometown is Mashad and the imagery she uses expresses her innate repulsion for the regime’s acts and values:

‘I come from a town of beheaded closed cafés [...] polluted by two strands of a woman’s hair | Two strands! [...] from the place of my own martyrdom’. ‘When They Broke Down the Door’, the shocking title poem, describes the morality police bursting into the private space where the poet and her lover are passionately entwined. The male is then beaten unconscious but the poetic persona suffers vicariously imagining her body dripping blood. The final couplet stuns the reader both because of the revelation that the male was hanged, and because of the manner in which it is revealed: parenthetically, almost as an afterthought.

Following the Green Movement uprising in 2009, Shams, who was studying in England, was unable to return to Iran because of her own writings in support of the movement and because of her backing for human rights activists. She found herself effectively in exile. She represents exile as a state of despair and of utter destabilisation. Rootless, deprived of a homeland and lacking shared memory or meaning with those who remain in Iran, she perpetually longs for the things she will never see ‘If then, in all my life, I’ll never see my home again | I’ll creep into a cloud and pour forever there as rain’. Her sensibility is of confinement and imprisonment as she is restricted to exile and cannot return to Iran and even struggles to retain her memory of the past. This sentiment of a fading past distorted by memory is beautifully conveyed in the metaphor of a wounded soldier: ‘My past | is like a wounded soldier | from a long war | who returns with one arm’... ‘I don’t know him anymore’. Indeed, the scholar Andrė Aciman uses the metaphor of the exiled person’s imagined amputated body part which remained behind, such as an arm, to express the visceral feeling of being bereft and longing to be whole again. In the poetic persona’s deeply troubled state she likens herself to a soulless body and a corpse: ‘a shroud conceals your face’ and ‘I sleep in my own corpse’s arms’. The poems suggest that mourning and the sense of loss continue unabated.

In ‘Three Years Later’ the cause of her inability to fall asleep is revealed. Her trauma is associated with the Green Revolution and is caused by the violence and oppression inflicted on those involved, including her own sister who was imprisoned. She remembers the a ermath of the Green uprising: ‘From someone missing at the roadside, three years before | To the destroyed, hidden graves of the slain, three years later [...] the burning ashes still remain, three years later’ and ‘suffering the wounds that we bore inside’.

Many of the poems here articulate her desperate desire and passion for her lost lover in Iran: Shams experiences a double loss as exile and the loss of her lover are intertwined. Her work can be considered subversive in an Iranian context as she dares to express feminine desire, articulating her intimate feelings of love and sexuality and constructing men as her poetic subjects and as objects of love, passion and sexual desire. The influence of the work of the Iranian woman poet, Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967) is palpable. Iranian intellectual society strongly disapproved of Farrokhzad’s poetry, accusing her of immorality as they deemed her representation of the female totally taboo and derided her for her sexual encounters and non-conformist life.

Shams expresses her love and desire for her absent lover by drawing on the imagery of Persian mystic poetry and particularly work by Rumi and Hafez. These mystics are tormented because of their separation from the loved one who is God, the ultimate Beloved. As their sublime love remains unrequited, they finally a ain a euphoric state of submergence of the self. Shams uses the traditional allegorical imagery to express her love as intoxication: ‘your body’s wine each night’, ‘the wine glass slips from our lips’, ‘resolve my night in wine’, ‘I became your beloved’ and ‘moments of drunkenness’ but she also subverts it by creating negative images of the mystic symbols of euphoria which include: ‘my garden now a withered yellow site’, ‘the mirror bury the night’, ‘the sorrow of a wingless bird’, ‘my lonely wings were flapping wildly’.

Dick Davis’s translations are sensitive and beautifully poetic and the collection includes poems in both traditional Persian and free verse forms. For the poems in traditional form he has imitated aspects of that form in English. It is intriguing to learn that poet and translator never met as Davis was living in the mid-west of America while Shams lived in London and so they conducted all their poetry translation conversations by e-mail. Dick Davis could not be present at the 2016 book launch but sent some words: ‘Trying to translate her poems has been a sobering but heartening experience for me; sobering because of the obvious pain that the poems embody, but heartening because her words call on those who live unmarked by horror to listen, and in this way they can give others who share her situation some courage and hope that the world at large will not remain indifferent.’

      – Jennifer Langer


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