(Photo: Mehdi Mousavi)
by Amir Khadem
Generally known as the leading figure of the most radical poetic movement in contemporary Iran, Mehdi Mousavi is a prolific poet, with five collections of poetry and a large number of scattered poems that are mostly published in cyber space, including his own personal weblog (Postmodern Ghazal and . . .). The movement, usually called “The Postmodern Ghazal,” tries to revive the classic style of Persian poetry while making it more relevant to the contemporary social and political issues in Iran. The most conspicuous feature of these poems, which is evident in this selection, is a dark sense of humor fused with a pure rejection of the current religious and ideological dogma in the country. The poems of this movement are not only in dialogue with classical poetry of Iran, but are also in direct response to many innovators of ghazal in the past generations. In his article, “An Essay about Today’s Ghazal,” Mousavi has named poets of his preceding generation, like Hossein Monzavi, Simin Behbahani, and Mohammad Ali Bahmani as precursors of the Postmodern Ghazal. All three of these poets are known as modernizers of classic poetic genres in Persian literature. Still, what the figures of the movement perceive as their own achievements in ghazal is not restricted to adopting prior innovations and upgrading them to a certain level.
Sudden shifts between decorous and colloquial language, playing with the formal framework of classic poetry, and constant integration of worldly themes with transcendental ones, are all features that the movement inherited directly from Persian modern poetry, but the extension of these features to an extreme limit, plus their simultaneous admiration and mockery of classical standards of Persian poetry, gives the Postmodern Ghazal a unique voice. Mousavi’s justification of the name of the movement reveals an intricate and distinctive attitude toward the classic heritage:
In the phrase “Postmodern Ghazal,” the term ghazal is a synecdoche for all the formal styles of classic poetry. Thus, all of our argument can be applied to styles like Masnavi, Qasida, [….] Using ghazal instead of “classic poetry” is mostly due to the fact that if, for instance, we say “Postmodern classic poetry” the twisted paradox will imply a claim over the philosophy and worldview of the classic world, instead of just classic formal styles. (“Indications” n.pag.)
The poems of this movement are filled with a mixture of rage and despair, and mostly deal with unrequited love affairs, personal misfortunes, or sad but humorous observations of unfortunate social conditions. They are intentionally paradoxical and incongruous, and tend to approach issues that are normally held as sacred in a profane and sarcastic fashion.
Most of the works by this movement faced severe censorship by the Iranian officials. Due to the unorthodox diction and ideological nonconformity, almost all of these works were banned in Iran. Therefore, they were mostly distributed underground. The whole movement owes much of its success to its timely use of internet and social networks. In the past few years, especially after the 2009 post-electoral turmoil in Iran, the Postmodern Ghazal attracted a substantial number of audiences despite its public restrictions, which led to the formation of several underground poetry festivals , a number of cyber-workshops (such as Kargah-e Majazi and She’r-e Yek), and more than fifty active blogs (e.g. blogs by: Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammad Hosseini-Moghadam, Mohsen Aasi, and Ali Karimi Kolayeh).
Still, since the movement is fully underground, it is not appreciated by an academic readership, neither domestically nor internationally. No critical study has yet been published on it (apart from a few web-based self-published essays and weblog entries), and apparently many scholars of Persian poetry are not even aware of the rich and challenging works of this movement. Familiarity with this movement not only benefits the specialized reader, but can open a new window for those who like to know more about the contemporary social conditions in Iran, and the representation of those conditions in literature.
Mousavi started his poetic practice in the late 1990s, and self-published his first poetry collection in 2002 (which was later published as an e-book by Maniha). His poetic voice is highly original; his constant allusions to classic Persian poetry are coupled with defamiliarization of conventional literary images. This leads to oxymoronic pictures, loaded with an obvious disdain toward ideological values and decrepit social standards. Moreover, he refers to domestic features of Iranian everyday culture in his poems that not only makes the poems hard to translate, but also, by juxtaposing a lofty picture with a down-to-earth one, directs his reader to a personal world where the old values have lost their importance and new ones are insipid and unsatisfactory. In the poems selected here, one can find several examples of this technique – some of which are explained in footnotes. For instance, in the third poem, line 7 directly refers to a common traditional toast: “To the Honor, the Friend, and the Homeland!” Here, the poet takes this sentence from popular culture, and by de-contextualizing it, transforms it into a personal lamentation, which is then attached to a more elegiac and private account: “Even they trash me now: my own lines of verse.”
While a dark social perspective colors his poetry, his sense of humor gives them a tinge of brightness, and sometimes enhances the generated absurdity. He usually create a series of loosely related narrative images, which are then broken by an incongruous rupture in the discourse that makes the poem in its entirety a paradoxical chain of self-references, disrupting their own logical structure. This is one of the reasons that some lines of his poems appear to be connected to each other, but their connectedness does not seem to convey any resulting significance. The first two lines of the second poem in this selection are fine examples of this technique.
The first two poems in this selection are taken from his first book, The Angels Have Committed Suicide (2002). The third one is an excerpt from a longer poem in the collection called The Little Bird Was Neither a Bird nor Little (2010), and the last one is from I Only Publish These for You (2005).
اجازه هست که اسم ترا صدا بزنم
به عشق قبلي يک مرد پشت پا بزنم؟
اجازه هست که عاشق شوم، که روحم را
ميان دست عرق کرده تو تا بزنم
دوباره بچه شوم بي بهانه گريه کنم
دوباره سنگ به جمع پرنده ها بزنم
دوباره کنج اتاقم نشسته شعر شوم
و يا نه! يک تلفن به خود شما بزنم
نشسته اي و لباس عروسيت خيس است
هنوز منتظري تا که زنگ را بزنم
براي تو که در آغاز زندگي هستي
چگونه حرف ز پايان ماجرا بزنم؟!
دوباره آمده اي تا که عاشقت باشم
و من اجازه ندارم عزيز جا بزنم!
Will you allow me to call your name?
To slough off the previous passions of a man?
Allow me, will you, to love, to lift my soul
And fold it inside your sweaty palms?
To be a child again, crying with no excuse,
Again, to throw stones at a flock of birds.
To become a poem again, in my room’s sad corner,
Or, no! To give you a call over the phone.
Sitting there with your wedding gown all wet,
Still waiting for me to make the call.
For you, in the first chapters of your life,
How shall I speak of the end of this tale?
You have returned again, for me to love you,
And I, my dear, have no right to chicken out!
کنار پنجره يک مرد داشت جان مي داد
غرور، قدرت خود را به من نشان مي داد
کسوف بود؟ نه! خورشيد دلگرفته ظهر
پيام تسليتش را به آسمان مي داد
دلم براي خودم لااقل کمي مي سوخت
اگر که پوچي دنيايتان امان مي داد
زمان هميشه مرا زيرخويش له مي کرد
هميشه فرصت من را به ديگران مي داد
پسر گرفت سر تيغ را، رگش را زد
پدر به کودک قصه هنوز نان مي داد
و بعد زلزله شد، چشم را که وا کردم
ميان خواب کسي هي مرا تکان مي داد!!
By the window, a man watched his life fade away.
Pride was showing me his dominion.
Eclipse, was it? No! The midday sun, desolate,
Was sending her condolences to the sky.
I would have pitied myself a bit, only if
The absurdity of your world gave me a chance.
Time has always crushed me under his boots,
Always has forfeited my turn to others.
The boy picked up the blade, slit his wrist,
The father was still feeding the imaginary child.1
Then came the earthquake, my eyes opened
To see someone shaking me amidst a sleep.
ديروز مثل سنگ شدم تا که نشکنم
امروز ميبرند مرا جرثقيل ها
چيزي که نيست را به خدايي که نيستيم
اثبات مي کنند تمام دليل ها
در حسرتِ گذشته ي بر باد رفته اي
آينده ي کپي شده اي از فسيل ها!
ناموسم و رفيق و وطن فحش مي دهند
دارند بيت هام به من فحش مي دهند
پرونده اي رها شده در بايگاني ام
از لايه هاي متن بيا تا بخواني ام
باران نبود، امشب اگر گونه ام تر است
بر پشت من نه بار امانت، که خنجر است!
از نام ها نپرس، از اين بازي زبان!
قابيل هم عزيز من! اسمش برادر است
از کودکيت، اکثر اوقات درد بود
تنها رفيق آن دل تنهات درد بود
شاعر شدي به خاطر يک مشت گاو و خر
شاعر شدي ولي ادبيات، درد بود!
To defy shattering I petrified like a rock.
Now the cranes lift me away.
To a deity that we are not being,
All the reasons are proving what is not.
Deploring a wasted bygone, we wait
For a future modeled after the fossils.
My honor trashes me; my friends and my land, too;
Even they trash me now: my own lines of verse.
A forsaken file in an archive I am;
Come read me out of this layered text.
It was not rain, if my face looks wet.
Not a burden of ordain, but a dagger is in my back.2
Stop asking for names, this futile word play!
Cain too, my friend, bore the name of “brother.”
From infancy onwards, Pain by your side.
Your one and only friend, Pain by your side.
You turned into a poet, for a herd of hogs.
Turned into a poet, but poetry was just pain.
از شعرها فرشتهی الهام من پريد
دختر پرنده ای شد و از بام من پريد
گنجشك ، پر [پرنده ی تو ، پر] كلاغ ، پر
انگشت های يخ زده با نام من پريد
گنجشك پر گشود و هيولای غصه ها
چون كركسی به لانه ی اوهام من پريد
اين شعر ، درد دوری و عشق تو بود كه
از لای بسته های ديازپام من پريد
چون مرده بود نامه رسان (كفتر سپيد)
هر واژه پر شد و خود پيغام من پريد
Flew away my muse from the face of this verse;
The girl grew wings and flew from my house.
Sparrows flew, [your birds flew], and crows flew;3
Flew all the frozen fingers when my name was called.
The sparrow flew away and the monster of sorrows
Invaded the nest of my dreams like a vulture.
This melody is the malady of missing you that
Popped out from my pack of Valium.4
Since the mailman (the white dove) was long dead,
Words turned into wings and my message flew away.
Aasi, Mohsen. Mikh-cubism;Mohsen Aasi’s Personal Weblog. n.p. n.d. Web. 10 June 2012.
Ekhtesari, Fatemeh. Dancing on the Barbed Wire; Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s Personal Weblog. n.p. n.d. Web. 10 June 2012.
Hosseini Moghadam, Mohammad. It was just Tomorrow; Mohammad Hosseini Moghadam’s Personal Weblog. n.p. n.d.Web. 10 June 2012.
Literature Cyber-Worshop (Kargah-e Majazi-ye Adabiat). n.p. n.d. Web. 8 June 2012.
Karimi Kolayeh, Ali. Venash: Ali Karimi Kolayeh’s Personal Weblog. n.p. n.d. Web. 10 June 2012.
Mousavi, Mehdi. The Angels Have Committed Suicide (Fereshte-ha Khodkoshi Kardand). Tehran: Maniha, 2003. Web.
---. “Indications of Postmodern Ghazal” (“Shenasehaye Ghazal-e Postmodern”). Mehdi Mousavi’s Official Website. n.p. n.d.Web. 25 April 2012.
---. I Only Publish These for You (In-ha Ra Faghat Be Khatere Shoma Chaap Mikonam). Mashad: Sokhangostar, 2005. Print.
---. The Little Bird Was Neither Little Nor a Bird (Parandeye Kuchulu Na Parande Bud Na Kuchulu). Mashad: Sokhangostar, 2010. Print.
---. Postmodern Ghazal and . . . ; Mehdi Mousavi’s Personal Weblog n.p. n.d. Web. 20 Apr 2012.
Postmodern Ghazal Cyber-Workshop. She’r-e Yek. n.d. Web. 10 June 2012.
Amir Khadem is currently a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at University of Alberta. He has acquired his M.A. in English Literature from University of Tehran, and his B.S. in Engineering from Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran. His main research interests are postcolonial studies, World literature, globalization, and terrorism.
1. The first simple sentences that Elementary School children in Iran learn to write are “baba naan daad” and “baba aab daad,” which translate as “dad brought bread” and “dad brought water”. The poet is invoking this image to portray the imbalance between the harsh and brutal reality and its naïve representation. There is also a sarcastic attack toward the simple-mindedness of previous generations in facing today’s realities.
2. This line is a direct reference to both a poem by Hafez and a line in Qur’an, where the Man is stated to be held responsible for the heavenly burden that has been delivered to him (Qur’an 33: 72). Hafez has used the vague suggestion of the burden in a mystical metaphor to recapitulate the line of Qur’an, but in Mousavi’s poem the burden is replaced with a dagger in the back, a sign of treachery.
3. A reference to an Iranian traditional indoor game played by groups of small children. In every turn, one player calls out the name of an animal, while the rest put their forefingers on the ground, and if the name called is that of a bird, they all have to lift up their fingers and say “Fly!” Anyone who doesn’t lift her finger when a bird is called, or lifts it after hearing a non-bird by mistake, loses the game and has to stay out. The poet here is mixing a childish image with a dejected memory of an ill-fated love affair.
4. Overdose of Valium (and similar drugs) is a very common method of suicide among the youth in Iran. Here, the poet’s reference to Valium has a suicidal implication.