In my last post, I wrote that I see a lot of anxiety about translations in US literary discussions: “… the threat of translation is the threat of a kind of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages.” Once you add the writing form another country, the illusion of objectivity of a single “tradition” is put in doubt (of course this dynamic is often at play in smaller, non-major countries).
One way this anxiety is manifested is in the skepticism about foreign texts. Whenever there’s a translation, people wonder: Is this really a major writer? Does this writer really deserve to be translated into our language? Is this translation really correct or is it corrupting the truly great poet? Or, as I noted in the essay I linked to last post, are the “young American poets” being “improperly influenced” by foreign writers without having mastered their tradition.
In his anthology “I Am A Face Sympathizing With Your Grief,” Alireza Taheri Araghi shows no intention of creating an illusory alternative canon of great works of Iran. Instead he has searched out underground poets – or more correctly, Internet poets – who have not been deemed publishable by the Iranian government. In a sense Araghi has done the opposite of the typical canonical anthology; he has chosen “young” poets who excite him, many who have little or none of the official recognition that translation discourse tends to demand.
This anthology is one of a great, important book of poetry in part because it eschews “importance” and stature, and in part because it consists of poets from Iran (obviously a country demonized by many in the US). But mostly it’s a great book of very contemporary-seeming poems, including a series of poems writing through Quentin Tarantino’s Killl Bill, plenty of strangely stoic, darkly humorous poems about war, and this brutal poem called (in translation) “Shitkilling” by Arash Allahverdi:
come and do drugs
bring the drugs and do it
drink the water
as if semen drink the water
drink and piss
piss on the office ceramic tiles
don’t tell your colleague you pissed
tell him this is orange juice
your colleague will cheer up
and say real friends share drinks
and there are consequences
but don’t worry
take lorazepam and sleep in the office
think of hips in your sleep
think of the capacities of hips
[Read the rest in Asymptote.]
And this vast poem by Mahnaz Yousefi that starts off addressing the tumultuous city of Rasht but ends up in the politically charged bodies of women:
my dearest Rasht!
with that ilk of yours sucking off the breast
with the drinking struggle in the mouth
with a couple of glasses of milk after the suicide pills
we roamed through your pharmacies night and day
and every time we were out of antidepressants
we took to contraceptives
and every time we were done
we were pregnant
we are afraid of postpartum depression
you tell us you tell us what to do what to do with the orphanage we have in our wombs
you tell us you tell us what to do with the blood clots clots
boy’s bulging arms
girl’s full breasts
and bits and bits of fetus pouring out of your threshold
who were home alone?
who was hugging their knees
crying into the cuffs of their sleeve?
And the subversive, almost Stephen-Crane-like allegories (often about war) like this one by Ali Akhavan (also translated by Alireza):
… “Ah,” loudly he said and
ended with a narrow smile
“Goodbye my friend
and then I
throw some dirt
on my dead lion’s body
keep a fire alight
for a little while
tried to plant a few flowers
there was no fire
there was no flower
and no dirt
there was nothing there
because my lion
In other words, Araghi has produced a horrific book of translation that embraces all the things we are supposed to reject about translation: he’s deliberately not compiled an accepted canonical book, which we can then quarantine off as another instance of a “national literature.” Instead he’s created an incredibly powerful book of contemporary poetry that I think will affect a lot of American readers (and readers from elsewhere!). National literature anthologies (or “World Lit”) tend to give an impression of poetry as static, stable, masterable. Instead of this restricted economy of literature, Araghi gives as a vision of Iranian poetry in motion: a transgressive, volatile, feverish book.