Negative of a Group Photograph: Azita Ghahreman, trans. Maura Dooley, Bloodaxe
This is a rich selection of poems from five books written over the last 40 years by the Iranian poet Azita Ghahreman, and translated into English by Maura Dooley with the help of the filmmaker Ellum Shakerifar. The close collaboration of these three women has yielded a collection of power and beauty, suffused with yearning, on a personal and a political level.
Azita Ghahreman is an exile who has been living in Sweden for the past 13 years. A longing for the Middle East where she grew up, and for Farsi, her first language, is palpable throughout the book. And there are love poems, enigmatic and teasing, sensual and subtle.
The poems are presented both in the original Persian and in Maura Dooley’s English translations. In Ellum Shakifar’s very useful introduction she describes the work that the three authors had to put in, to bridge the gap between Persian language, rich and lateral in its imagery, and the more concrete “exactitude” that she feels characterises the English language. Their conversations certainly bore fruit. Maura Dooley, always a lyrical writer, has produced a translation that sings with the voice of Ghahreman; not only an exile, but a poet in love with words and images of a warmer climate, who nevertheless finds that through poetry she can find a way to live with the loss of her homeland:
… and then on each white page,
in a voice I recognised,
lovingly, I wrote snow in Farsi.
As well as her personal exile, Ghahreman's poems are infused with grief and concern for the political repression that led to it. The title poem is dedicated to the memory of two friends, woman poets who “died young, in unfortunate circumstances” in Iran.
Those days were crazier than any war,
an almost silence
where words were whispered fearfully
under an old army blanket.
Only poetry could hold us close …
(‘Negative of a Group Photograph’)
In ‘With a Red Flower’, the poppy, in Iran a symbol of political prisoners, appears in striking images: “Wearing your red flower / climb from between these hand written lines, / turn from the empty space of this paper / and step into my memories.” The house she remembers as home is deserted and ruined in imagination: “where cobwebs and whispers have / settled over everything, / where, after all these years,/ sorrow is the only dust-sheet.”
In the long, chilling poem ‘Prison’ the poet makes plain the atmosphere of fear and impotence that she remembers in Iran. This is a very powerful poem, in which the emotional effects of a repressive regime are itemised: “One step at a time, blindfolded, / you go down into the dark / Quietly, from inside the narrow telephone wires, / something listens in. Say nothing.” The poem moves in and out of physical reality and dream; the narrator is alternately calling “Mother!”, then “I push the night to one side / and look at the skeletons with / bullets in their chests.” There is an interlude when “A memory comes to me. / Once again the moon is rising behind the pines, / a nonchalant young cricket chirrups …” Then the images change again:
Shaved heads broken fingers,
torn, flayed skin,
yet thick waterlilies speckled with blood
open out in my soul.
‘Homeless’ is a poem written while the poet was settling into her Swedish exile. With the image of “… a landscape of desolate palm trees / where the rain never stops falling / and the moon hangs upside down’ she shows a sense of disorientation and loss: “Is Home still a place /in the atlas /– green borders and turquoise veins?”
The female principal runs through the whole selection (female friends, a beloved grandmother, the sense of being “bride of the prison”), In ‘Spring’ the season is personified as the bringer of life, as convention would have it. But here, in the world the poet remembers, she comes back
sometimes with death at her breast,
skirts singed by war,
face stained by mud,
I have focused largely on the poems about exile and loss, but there is much more to enjoy in this collection. ‘Moon’ is an intimate, personal lyric, set out in drifting phrases that suggest that in the white spaces between the words we'll see:
the very apple of desire hang against a roof of darkness
In "Words" the poet playfully explores identity, “peers up out of sentences / and from beneath a veil / she slips into the scent of a lily.” “You'll have to chip away at walls ... /– and look! – find me at your side, / in the shape of a woman who is nothing like me.”
There is snow in many of the later poems, brightly crystalline, or flat white like sheets, always an emblem of the difference between the poet’s past and the present. In the last poems of the collection, there's a sense of the poet coming to terms with circumstances and memories. ‘When Winter Comes’ expresses this resignation in beautiful landscape metaphors and images:
Count the passing years on your fingers,
they are galloping by like a wild, dark horse
and the only thing at the end of that path is winter.
And when winter comes
we can follow two paths.
We can get lost
or we can find ourselves.