Book Review

Never Expected! Always Fresh!

Before the advent of the digital world, thinkers and poets liked to characterize art as a harbinger of what would soon come to be. Pound famously said that artists represented “the antennae of the [human] race,” and his acolyte, Marshall McLuhan, described art as a kind of “distant early warning system” that can “tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” Nowadays, culture in all its aspects changes and develops so fast that almost before anyone can intelligently predict something, it has already taken place and is in the near past, not the near future. Yet poets, if the speed of the culture has removed future-gazing from their repertoire, still have a way of seeing things from a transformative angle, of illuminating even something that all of us experience almost every day, so that, as readers, our reaction is to be struck hard by the obvious for the first time. It takes a poet to realize that the common computer notice—“Your session has timed out”—might be heard as eschatological. Or that the Zoom participant, dressed elegantly above the waist but in pajamas or even nothing below, provides a parallel to the dead person in a casket. Or that the now acceptable dodge one does into the street to avoid passing a stranger too closely on the sidewalk who just might, God forbid, be Covid-positive, really comprises “an etiquette of mandatory rudeness.” Or that the little rectangle of color that lights up around our thumbnails during a Zoom meeting when we talk, or even sigh, frames us “in gold light like a vanity mirror.”
These perceptions come from Mary Jo Salter, whose new collection, Zoom Rooms, is replete with such common things noticed in an uncommon way.[1] Most of my examples are from a series of seven sonnets that make up the title poem, the final two forming a double-sonnet. These are well constructed conventional sonnets, largely in iambic pentameter and displaying some extremely clever rhymes: icon/mic on, Boomer/room or, Zoomed/exhumed, dare see/EMT and others. Yet they are addressed to a very recent experience in human history, something that, before the pandemic, few of us were familiar with. (Zoom 1.0 goes all the way back to 2013, but most users only began to exploit Zoom in 2020 when meetings and rendezvous in person became life-threatening.) Contemporaneity embodied in a seven-hundred-year-old form produces exactly the sort of disconnect that Zooming itself does. You are in a space, but not really there. (“Is this life? Is this how you want to live?”) You meet new babies, attend memorial services, teach classes, and all the rest of it, as an avatar, a person of no weight or presence except in the digisphere, like “the essential Amazon / delivery guys who ring the bell and run,” phantoms more than people. As full of contemporary jargon as these poems are, Salter is keenly aware that the words associated with existence on the internet “will soon be moot, // will take their downward spiral / like you to a black hole,” as she says in “Your Session Has Timed Out.”
Several of the poems in Zoom Rooms are ekphrastic. “St. Sebastian Interceding for the Plague-Stricken” is based on a retable by the little known painter Josse Lieferinxe from roughly 1499 and clearly suggests a parallel to the plague-stricken of today’s world, with tonsured monks “performing obsequies / over earthbound bodies.” “Carlo Crivelli and the Trees,” another poem about a painter’s work, is in part about how the work of art gives rebirth to even so “gruesome” a subject as the Crucifixion, “paints / that may, or may not, blossom” on the parts of trees that have been transformed into painting surfaces. Most of the final three stanzas are comprised of a single, sinuous sentence that unwinds beautifully into the closing line:


False question for
him, probably, inclined to honor
foremost his material,
which is to say the fresh-cut trees
splintered into delicate
paintbrushes, or hewn as flat
massive planks to soak up these
minerals and plants ground down
to the consistency of paints
that may, or may not, blossom in
the ways the maker wants.


Works by Giotto, John Singer Sargent, Walker Evans, and the genre known as “Vanitas” or “memento mori” paintings provide the focus for further ekphrastic poems. “Grief and joy [are] complicit” in these poems—grief, perhaps, because as objects on a canvas or a board they are mere representations of living things, but joy that the artist can convince us of their being alive through the legerdemain of art. With poetry, like art, as she puts it in a fifteen-line sonnet about Chopin, we are left with a “Smile of regret along with hopeful tears!”
Still another cultural responsibility that seems to have fallen to the poets in an age in which literacy sometimes seems as old-fashioned as the astrolabe is to keep alive and in use the vocabulary that exists beyond the usual wan and skinny word-hoard of most people, even readers. Judith Baumel, in her new collection entitled Thorny,[2] sent me to the dictionary more than a few times to look up words such as scoriae (slag, cinders), barbicels (small hooks on a bird’s feather), and eyeass (a falcon nestling), while fornacic, which I could find nowhere, I could scry from its Latin root (“fornix,” meaning an oven or kiln). These unusual words, as they should be in poems, are always just the right word for the moment and are never called on for mere show, though Baumel can occasionally imitate Wallace Stevens playing the role of what Siegfried Sassoon once called an “advanced vocabularian.” Here is the short opening stanza of a poem she indicates arose from “Reading W.E.B. Du Bois and Wallace Stevens”:


Hereditary Bondsmen! Barbicels,
sickle, saddle hackle, furbelow,
the feathers of a great and noisy turbit roost.


This concatenation of feathers, flounces, and fly-tying, beginning with a pair of words borrowed from Byron by way of W. E. B. Du Bois writing about Booker T. Washington (the Hereditary Bondsmen bit) creates a joyful noise indeed, something almost as boisterous as a dovecote where turbits (a breed of pigeon) are kept. Although her effects can be subtle too, Baumel likes loud poetic music, as in a poem called “Relics of the Fathers and Mothers,” which is almost an exfoliation of T. S. Eliot’s famous line “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”:


Fragments of my fearsome father
remain in my fraught Levitic core where
I keep my own collections. The Airmont Classics
Series of the Immortal Literature of the World
which subscription I ordered in the days
when one put banknotes and coins
taped to index cards in the mail.


Or take the opening lines of “Young Miss,” a poem about Baumel’s mother and the poet’s recollections of ballet lessons as a girl:


My mother pressed her lipstick to my lips;
its waxy smell disgusted me and I
disliked as well the tutu for the spring
recital Miss Antonia made a fuss


Here in a pentameter environment the musical effects are more attenuated; and if the internal rhyme of “disgusted” and “fuss” is easily registered, many lines later, as the poem ends, it is still in the air for the attentive reader (“I was not a gamine. Just her girl.”)
The title word of the book occurs just once in a poem, one entitled “Hic Adelfia Clarissima Femina” (Here [lies] Adelfia, a celebrated woman). That phrase is taken from a fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Regional Archaeological Museum in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, and the poem concerns family. It consists of two eleven-line stanzas, with the second one beginning in this way:


As I will enter my niche alone, these vignettes testify
the thorny labor of marriage and its rare yield.


The poet is envisioning her own death (“my niche alone”), and her imagination leaps back to Eden, where Eve “is already covering herself” and Adam “is guided from behind by Yahweh present / in the breezy-time of the day.” But it leaps forward also to thinking about her sons whose courage she hopes will keep them safe from fire, “dew-washed and reborn as a shell.” Like many poems in Thorny, this one concatenates the intimate details of personal life and family life and childhood with history and myth. In “Open Arms,” Baumel creates a touching image of “assembling those who are gone like a doll party,” while in the concluding line she allies her emotional necromancy to “Odysseus grabbing three times the shades” in Book 11 of Homer’s poem. She often evokes the ancient world, but also poetry—there is a poem in which Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is updated by the image of a boy sporting a “hoodie that says Stop and Frisk”—and visual art, in ekphrastic poems about the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto and a portrait of Suzanne Valadon by Toulouse-Lautrec known as “The Hangover” (La Gueule de bois), now at the Fogg Museum. The wonderful concluding lines of the latter poem, just one long sentence and one short one, deserve to be quoted at length:


Now a hangover is about time:
operational time and Poincaré’s time,
imprints, pentimenti, cyclical returns,
somatic memory, the way wine brings
the taste of its own history, earth and sun
and casks and the memory
of successive samples, the way
the smell and the pour bring distant ghosts
forward to the spilled circle, bring regret
and promises to bear against the future
as if it were the moment before
some car smashes through the walls
of this café, as if a parking meter outside
were ever clicking down to zero time.
As if, perhaps, the future just proceeds
upon the street, the cold of April rain
on the rangy disappointments of forsythia.


In the title poem of her new book, In Praise of Limes, Shirley Geok-lin Lim presents the ripe and falling limes of spring in Southern California as a symbol of both life and recurrence, a green gift that she as a “newcomer,” unlike the “neighbors,” never tires of.[3] The Santa Ana winds, the frequent fires, the “dried eucalyptus,” the “thirst and desert brown” of the area around Santa Barbara, where she now lives, are the opposite of the “plenty [that] remains a miracle” represented by the lime fruit. Contrast is one of the central underlying themes in Lim’s poetry. She lives in a place that is lush and rich on the one hand but battered by drought and fires on the other. She writes about the colors of nature—the “orange globes” of peonies, the “little sunrises” of lemons in a tree, of avocadoes strewn on the ground, of bottlebrush trees, of the “smidgeon beauty” of a ladybug. Yet even more prevalent in her book are the drought and consequent torching of California by wildfires, the ash that falls like snow, the “smoke that’s / in the air, everywhere,” the dry creek beds. Even spring becomes something to fear:


I walk in dread,
in love with nature each spring. Stingy rains
run out. Eucalyptus’ languid skeins
tan brown and browner than beach bathers
pickled in UV rays June to September.
This May’s early sundowners prepare
for fire season when eucalyptus flare
like matchstick bunches lighting California.


The famous couplet from Cymbeline that she uses as an epigraph to one of her poems is strangely apposite: “Golden lads and girls all must / as chimney sweepers come to dust.”
Lim is a formal poet. Many of her poems contain fourteen lines, even when they otherwise do not aspire to be sonnets; she uses rhyme and half-rhyme expertly and often counts syllables; she even includes a villanelle in In Praise of Limes with the unlikely title “Illegitimi non Carborundum,” a bit of dog Latin which Margaret Atwood has recently made famous (again). The rhymes are not perfect, and the two repeated lines are treated somewhat inexactly, but the poem is no less effective for that looseness. It has compensating clevernesses too, such as invoking that other famous villanelle that begins “Do not . . .” in the changes it rings on its second repeated line, “Don’t let the bastards get you (stay strong!) down.” This is yet another California poem while also being a poem about intolerance. In this stanza, the “big one” is of course the coming major earthquake that all residents of California live in fear of:


When the big one rolls and the mortgaged ground
Breaks to the world’s Schadenfreude, oh then
Begins our every day’s dispirited round.


Only a real poet could think of the very ground under her feet as “mortgaged,” which, in California, it indisputably is.
Most readers of poetry who know a little about verse in the Persian language tend to be familiar with translations of the old poets, especially Rumi and Hafez. These two poets, of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively, have exerted an incontrovertible anxiety of influence over all Persian-language poets since their time; as Basil Bunting, who lived in Tehran for a time and spoke Persian, wrote in his poem “The Spoils,” “Poetry / they remembered / too much, too well.” In the twentieth century, the poetic traditions established by the canonical poets continued to be influential, and even eventually provoked an extensive outbreak of ghazal-writing among American and Canadian poets and others beginning in the 1960s. But like modernist poets everywhere, some poets in Iran, Afghanistan, and other places where Persian is spoken rebelled against the tyranny of the old forms and the old subjects. Chief among these was the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. Born in 1934 near Tehran, she published four collections, beginning in 1955 with The Captive, before dying in a car accident at the age of thirty-two in 1967. A fifth, posthumous collection was published in 1974. She was also an artist and filmmaker of distinction.
Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season was the title of Farrokhzad’s last book, and Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. has adopted it as the title of her new version of the Iranian poet’s selected poems.[4] Gray makes an extraordinary claim for Farrokhzad as a poet in her brief Introduction, in which she writes that the “best of her work can stand with any poem written by any poet in any culture at any time.” A translator’s love for her poet must needs be unconditional, so the list that every reader will start to compile mentally after reading such a statement—Li Bi, Homer, Ovid, Dante, Villon, Basho, Shakespeare, Keats, et al.—is perhaps beside the point. What really is the point is not such an exaggeration, but the case that Gray makes for Farrokhzad in her versions, which are excellent and convincing as English-language poems. Gray aspires to the goal of capturing “as much of the beauty, strangeness, ferocity, and stillness of the original [poems] as possible,” and this, I think, she has done and done well. The poems occasionally contain clichés (“the tunnel of your eyes / led into the depths of your soul”), but these are rare and confined largely to the early books. There are also moments of awkwardness—“my lonely loneliness” for example —that presumably exist in the originals as well; but again, these occur mostly in the first three books which, on the basis of this version of a selected poems, constituted Farrokhzad’s apprenticeship.
Those first three books—they are entitled Captive, Wall, and Rebellion, a series of titles with evident parallels in the poet’s life—are relatively conventional formally. Most of the poems are composed in four-line stanzas, and from the very first words of the first poem—“I want you”—they largely focus on the traditional Persian subject of love, illicit or otherwise. The poems contain some predictable erotic effusions, phrases such as “my mad heart’s grief” and “Like a shoreline I opened my embrace to you;” but they also ascend to language that is more personal and unusual, such as the image of God driving “the flock of pious ones / out of the green debauched pasture of heaven,” or the quiet but telling image of “my hairpins fallen / there on your bed,” or the rather chilling one, “from the heart of the mirror’s cold soil.” Erotic desire coexists with its opposite, sin, in a poem of that title (“I sinned a sin full of pleasure / beside a dazed and trembling body”) and in a couplet from a later poem entitled “From Far Away” (“Or in that magical silent sanctuary / where her hand has kindled the lantern of sin”). These are recognitions that fade away as Farrokhzad comes into her own as a woman and as a poet in her fourth book, Another Birth, though just before that book comes the extraordinary poem “Much Later,” which is hard not to read as a premonition of the poet’s death:


After me a stranger who remembers me
will enter my little room
Beside the mirror there is still
a strand of hair, a handprint, a comb
I’ll be free of myself and stand apart from myself
Whatever is left will be ruin
Like a boat’s sail my soul
will grow distant and hidden on the horizon


With Another Birth (1964), Farrokhzad’s poetry enters a different and more mature realm. The stanzaic structures are less formulaic, and she begins to use a line that varies substantially even within individual verses: now brief, now rangy. She utilizes ellipses often as a rhetorical device. Her imagery is sometimes almost surrealistic, reminding one of Lorca, and her voice takes on a wide tessitura that jumps from a quiet interiority to an almost Ginsberg-like public elocution. Love is still a subject, but now “love is a curse” as well as a gift. Whatever stays were in place before have been kicked out. Love is both adoration and execration. “The mehr āb of my flesh / is ready for love’s worship,” she writes, in an image that surely gave the Shah’s censors the heebie-jeebies—the Persian word, Gray tells us in a note, means the “niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction toward Mecca, the direction of prayer”—and the same poem ends with the hope that “Maybe my love / will be the cradle for another Jesus,” a mind-boggling thing for an Iranian woman to have said in the 1960s. Yet in “My Lover,” she describes the man as essentially a predator:


In the depth of his eyes
you would say a Tatar
always lies in wait to ambush a horseman
In the fresh gleam of his teeth
you would say a Berber
is drawn to the warm blood of his prey.


In other poems in this penultimate book she imagines Iranian women as “wind-up dolls” and registers the death of faith (“the name of that sad pigeon / who had flown from every heart”). In “Rose,” a brief but poignant poem announcing that she is “pregnant, pregnant, pregnant,” she writes these ecstatic lines:


O paralyzed pigeons
O inexperienced menopausal trees, O blind windows
a red rose is growing
red rose
like a flag in
an uprising


Farrokhzad’s posthumous book is translated here complete. Its title poem, “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season,” is the longest poem she wrote. Its opening lines—“And here I am / a woman alone / at the threshold of a cold season”—seem prophetic, given her untimely death that came soon after. It is full of wonderful imagery, heart-rending avowals, and cris de coeur. She asks how anyone can take “refuge in the suras of shamed prophets,” states that her wounds are “all from love / from love, love, love,” and imagines that people, as they kiss you, “mentally braid the rope for your hanging.” In other late poems she explores her childhood (“craziness and insanity” arrived after she turned seven) and pictures the world as a courtyard garden that is dying. Even poetry does not seem up to the task of saving her:


Cooperation among letters of lead type is futile
Cooperation among letters of lead type
will never rescue petty thoughts
I am descended from the trees
Breathing stale air exhausts me
A dead bird advised me to remember flight


These lines, from a poem entitled “Only the Sound Remains,” are then resolved in the final poem in the book, where that counsel to remembrance is explained: it is “because the bird is mortal.” It may be unfair, if irresistible, to read all of Farrokhzad’s poems with her own fate in mind, but a keen feeling of mortality underlies many of her most accomplished poems, as here. Happiness, she said, was a contamination, love a curse, and her life a “disgusting mouse in its hole / shamelessly singing / a stupid meaningless song.” She bore acute witness to these hard truths, while also remembering to notice that moment when “the stars / are making love with each other.”


[1] ZOOM ROOMS, by Mary Jo Salter. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.00.
[2] THORNY, by Judith Baumel. Arrowsmith Press. $22.00p.
[3] IN PRAISE OF LIMES, by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Sungold Editions. $18.00p.
[4] LET US BELIEVE IN THE BEGINNING OF THE COLD SEASON: Selected Poems, by Forough Farrokhzad, trans. by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. New Directions. $16.95p.