Monthly Archives: August 2014

Aug. 25, 2014: from *Guernica* Magazine


you may have heard on the radio or seen in the news (or received a text
from your sister) that esteemed Iranian poet Simin Behbahani died last
week. She was born in 1927, and was the voice of her country’s conscience
for a full generation. She wrote in Persian, and one of her projects for
several years was to transform the traditional ghazal. As we know from
prior readings, the ghazal is is a somewhat ancient form of linking
couplets, all of which feature a second line that ends with the same word,
phrase, or rhyme. Originally there were a limited number of moods and
themes a ghazal could undertake — unattainable love, the perfection of a
lover, the divine — but Behbahani set out to destroy those limitations. In
a period of relative decline of those classical forms, she brought to light
the lives of ordinary Iranians, in all their joys and struggles, amid the
din of war and suppression. Needless to say she was punished for her
humanity, and was under a travel ban when she died. She was also lauded
both at home and internationally for her work, and twice nominated for a
Nobel Prize.

You can find some poems of hers online. Instead, I’m printing two
paragraphs of her “statement of purpose,” from an interview. To me, it
reads like a poem anyway. -ed.

from *Guernica* Magazine
October 1, 2011

I have said again and again that my poetry is the poetry of the moments of
my life. I’ve experienced years when the sky over me was blackened with the
smoke of missiles and the ground on which I walked turned into ruins under
exploding bombs. I’ve seen convoys of war martyrs on their way to the
cemeteries. I’ve seen lorries carrying the bodies of executed prisoners,
dripping with blood, that were being taken for burial in Behesht-e Zahra.

I’ve stood in long lines, in the rain and under the sun, just to buy a pack
of butter or a box of paper napkins. I’ve seen mothers running after the
corpses of their martyred sons, oblivious to whether their headscarves or
their chadors or their stockings and shoes were slipping off or not. I
won’t say any more. In the light of all this, how did you expect my poetry
to be joyful or, as in my recent poem, to speak of love? Even so, more than
half of my poetry is joyful and these are the products of the moments when
I’ve felt happy. As a matter of fact, my poetry is multi-vocal. I’ve spoken
about everything. I’ve written poems that consist of a story in minimized
form. I’ve used surreal subjects. I’ve produced ‘dialogic’ poems. I’ve
produced descriptive poems. I had one working period which was totally
devoted to transforming the foundations of the ghazal. I have used about
seventy new or disused meters, and this is something that can give the
ghazal a totally new potential and a new mold in which to pour today’s
language, today’s events, and today’s needs. You can find any type of poem
that you like in my works and anyone, with any taste, can find something to
their liking in them. On the whole, there’s a great deal of variety in my
works. I can’t predict how my poetry will be in the future. It will depend
on the state of things and how I’m feeling.

Aug. 18, 2014: Epitaph on a Hare

Bad poetry day! I didn’t know there was one until the Indianapolis Star’s
webpage told me so. Enjoy this elegy for his pet rabbit by William Cowper
(1731-1800), apparently most popular English poet of his time. Here’s a
poem that expresses that timeless poetic principle, Why say “5 months” when
you can say “five round-rolling moons.” Is this guy serious? -ed.

Epitaph on a Hare

Here lies, whom hound did ne’er pursue,
Nor swifter greyhound follow,
Whose foot ne’er tainted morning dew,
Nor ear heard huntsman’s hallo’,

Old Tiney, surliest of his kind,
Who, nursed with tender care,
And to domesticate bounds confined,
Was still a wild jack-hare.

Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.

His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.

On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
On pippins’ russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
Sliced carrot pleased him well.

A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.

His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.

Eight years and five round-rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
And every night at play.

I kept him for his humor’s sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits in snug concealment laid,
Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more agèd, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
Must soon partake his grave.

Aug. 11, 2014: TOURISTS

Dear Readers,

Last week’s poet Andre Chenier was one of almost 3,000 people condemned to death in a 2-year span, while the Revolutionary Tribunal occupied the Conciergerie. When you visit the tourist attraction, you can enter a room with the name and occupation of every victim written, alphabetically, on the walls. There was a Lambertie, and a Lamberty, for those interested. Among the occupations were ecrivains, avocats, tratteurs, vicares, notaires, valets, etc., but by far the largest number of victims were “domestics,” or either without a designation at all. In other words: the poor and patronless. Those absences seemed to me the whole point of the story–as fascinating as the Chenier and Marie Antionette and Charlotte Corday sub-plots are.

I made a connection to a reference I saw the next day to Yahuda Amichai’s poem “Tourists.” I wonder if I will be the only one. I’m curious to hear anyone’s reaction to this poem, which sounds so very contemporary. Amichai (his anagram, the text message-koan “Hi, I am U each day”) was the Israeli poet up until his death in 2000. He was born in Germany with German his first language, but left with his family for Palestine in the mid-1920s. He learned Hebrew and published all his poetry in that language, although it’s been translated into many, many more. He has been referred to as the post-translated Hebrew poet since King David, with justification. Critics sometimes note his ability to adopt the persona of an “everyman,” perfectly consistent with today’s piece. -ed.


Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel’s Tomb and Herzl’s Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”

I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Trans. by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt


Dear readers,

On July 14th I was in the Conciergerie, a former Parisian prison that is now part of the palace of justice. During the reign of terror, it was the holding facility for those accused by the revolutionary tribunal. Trial followed accusation, conviction followed trial, and death by guillotine followed conviction, very quickly. I learned a lot about the famous and not-as-famous victims of the tribunal, including poet Andre Chenier (his name is an anagram for “re: chain ender”). He was born in Constantinople, son of a diplomat, in 1762, and died at the guillotine on the 25th of July, 1794–220 years ago this week.

It’s not clear whether Chenier would be remembered as a poet had he not died as a poet. He was unpublished for much of his lifetime, was a son of privilege, and worked for a few years as a diplomat’s secretary in London. He imitated Greek bucolic poetry, tried some philosophical verse (as was the fashion at the time), but, like many, was swept up into the tumult of the revolution almost in spite of himself. His younger brother had gained some renown as a playwright, and had joined an anti-monarchial group. Politically speaking, Andre was much more middle-of-the-road. Of course that was not good enough for the revolutionary tribunal, who eventually turned to sacrificing their own radicals when sacrificing loyalists no longer satisfied their paranoia.

What sealed Chenier’s place in history was that he continued writing poetry while imprisoned, turning more and more impassioned, and more sympathetic to his fellow prisoners. He and a friend went to their deaths reciting poetry by Racine. He smuggled some pieces out by greasing the guards, and other prisoners collected some of his papers after his execution… and they eventually reached publication, sometimes in fragments. Here’s a piece whose title really says it all, followed by a quite literal translation by your editor, who tried only to make it end rhyme. This was published in a volume called “Elegies” in 1819. -ed.


Tout homme a ses douleurs. Mais aux yeux de ses frères

Chacun d’un front serein déguise ses misères.

Chacun ne plaint que soi. Chacun dans son ennui

Envie un autre humain qui se plaint comme lui.

Nul des autres mortels ne mesure les peines

Qu’ils savent tous cacher comme il cache les siennes;

Et chacun, l’œil en pleurs, en son cœur douloureux

Se dit: “Excepté moi, tout le monde est heureux.”

Ils sont tous malheureux. Leur prière importune

Crie et demande au ciel de changer leur fortune.

Ils changent; et bientôt, versant de nouveaux pleurs

Ils trouvent qu’ils n’ont fait que changer de malheurs.


Every man to his sorrows. But in the eyes of his brothers,

Each, with a calm brow, hides his pain from others.

Each one pities himself. Each one, in his ennui,

Envies those who likewise moan, “Oh, woe is me.”

No man living but measures the pain

That others disguise, to look the same.

And each one, eyes wet with tears, heart heavy,

Thinks, “They are all happy, except me.”

They are all unhappy. Their prayer importunes,

Cries, and begs heaven to change their misfortunes.

They change; and soon, wet with fresh tears,

Find they haven’t shaken their dark fears.