Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Kaveh Bassiri: Writing Persian

In the days when I was Kevin in San Jose
and the girls at the mixer thought Iran was in East Asia,
my Catholic high school teacher warned me,
“You have trouble with winding sentences,
articles, prepositions, too many possessives.”
“Yes, I definitely have problems with relationships,” I pleaded,
“my cat hides in the drawers, afraid of my embrace.
My girlfriend sends coded messages, drawings of houseflies
to say bug off.” He chided, “Your paper on the God of Mohammad,
of Jesus, of Moses… You plagiarized Aquinas. Tulips aren’t arrows
pointing to Him.” I confessed, “I don’t know where He is, but I want
Him to come like the revolution.” I knelt, an infinity half-lit to detain Him.
How can you finish a sentence when the thoughts aren’t?
Galb, the heart in Arabic, is also the turning, a revolution.

*

During the hostage crisis, when I was Albanian,
my history teacher conceded, “You’ve to be born into English
to be its rightful citizen.” I wanted to be an American poet,
but was a Persian settler. I said, “I’m used to speaking in tongues,
been talking to Him in Arabic. I think He speaks in English now.”
When I was ten, my father went on hajj without telling me.
Late at night, when he didn’t come home, I unfolded the pages
of his pajamas, still smelling of yesterday, laid inside to find
the Silk Road, not knowing it wasn’t taking me to Mecca.
How else to express loss? My grandmother insisted Muslim
means submitting to words. She didn’t believe in the revolution.
She believed in discipline, inspected the bulbs to make sure
they were wearing their tunics, planted them properly, filling
the blanks in her English workbook. I stopped writing poems.

*

My philosophy instructor believed we’re inmates of language’s
dormitory. I watched the letters escape her mouth, absconded
with the freight. I admitted, “I know ‘whereof one cannot speak
thereof one must be silent’ but I heard proofs last night in the broken
syntax of the Pacific shore.” Late one summer in primary school,
when my friends were leaving Iran, I started naming the flowers
hiding outside my home after them. I didn’t know my friend
Mohammad was praiseworthy in Arabic and Farshad
happy in Persian. I knew Haleh, my sister who was staying
with my mother, wasn’t a flower, and Laleh, my girlfriend,
wasn’t the linden in the front yard, the ambient black
and white television, an empty house. I didn’t know lalehs
were tulips in English. I knew how their soft cheeks bruised,
their thirsty beaks bent to the sun. I knew how we fought at home.
I didn’t know the name of the Dutch naval admiral
or the spreading virus, the exotic pigments of the infected.
I didn’t know any youth sent to the Iran–Iraq War. I wanted
to be the uppercase I, standing tall, not them, not us.

*

The time I wanted to talk to Dante, I wasn’t thinking of translation.
My world literature professor said, “Why don’t you write about Islam?
Didn’t you read The Inferno? Mohammad is split open
from his chin to the anus, his entrails dangling between his thighs.”
She wanted me to present Rumi, pomegranates, and Muslims,
all of them raised and ethically traded. When asked where
I got my information, I admitted, “The Encyclopedia Britannica.”
She said, “Why write about words?” I heard the accent of my suitcase
from Tehran, stuttering down the San Francisco airport tunnel,
fined for its additional weight. There are different names, different
fruits for dates as they grow old. We have tareh, rokhmal, pahak,
karak, dom baz, rotab, khorma. She stressed, “Be careful of the profit,
the last prophet. You’ve a big responsibility. Explain how the tulip
isn’t the bloody heart of a martyr. How it’s Rumi’s wine glass.”
I was filling my pockets full of vows, peddling on the unpaved roads
between languages, with my father’s abacus.

*

When I started writing again, my poetry idol insisted,
“Why don’t you write in Persian. Don’t you like Ferdowsi
and Hafez?” I said, “Even in Persian He doesn’t answer.
But I’ll go on calling. I’ll ghazal open the screen door
to my English backyard, undress the lilies under the language’s
prism, take off their Times Roman suits, plant gh in the soil
of the alphabet. My present, silent vowels wrapped in words.
English, a turban worn by my thoughts.” I say, “I’m writing Persian
when my sentences drag, metaphors circle premises counterclockwise
to kiss the face of a black tulip. I’m writing Persian when my thoughts
lean toward the left, pushing words to the purdah side of the page.
When went becomes a vent and the west becomes a vest.
I’m writing Persian, when I say algorithm, arsenic, bazaar, bronze,
caravan, caviar, chess, dervish, gizzard, jackal, jasmine, khaki,
kiosk, lemon, lilac, magic, orange, paradise, peach, pistachio,
rose, serendipity, shawl, spinach, taffeta, tiara, tiger, tulip.”
Tulip comes from turban.


Copyright 2021 Kaveh Bassiri. First published in Shenandoah. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.

Kaveh Bassiri is an Iranian-American writer and translator. He has received the Bellingham Review’s 49th Parallel Award and a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. His poems appear in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Drunken Boat, Nimrod International Journal, the Mississippi Review, and Best New Poets. His chapbook 99 Names of Exile was the winner of the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Poetry Prize in 2019.

6 comments on “Kaveh Bassiri: Writing Persian

  1. Katherine Lawrence
    May 21, 2021

    Such beautiful words. Such beautiful allusions that set my mind questioning my thoughtful excursions through words and phrases that never quite adequately reveal my heart. Kaveh Bassiri, we are blessed because you chose to write again. Thank you. Michael, thank you for sharing this work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      May 21, 2021

      Thanks, Katherine. I’ll pass your note to Kaveh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vox Populi
        May 22, 2021

        Kaveh tried to reply to your note, Katherine, but he was having trouble setting up an account with WordPress. He asked me to pass on his gratitude for your kind support.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose Mary Boehm
    May 20, 2021

    Have just fallen in love with a poet I’d never read before. Thank you much. What a delight. And I am so there with you, Kaveh Bassiri. My mothertongue is German, I often remember a word in French, Dutch, or even Italian, but I am a poet in English. How one gets lost in the field where words grow (and a part of one’s life).

    That whole last stanza just floored me.

    “I’ll ghazal open the screen door
    to my English backyard, undress the lilies under the language’s
    prism, take off their Times Roman suits, plant gh in the soil
    of the alphabet.”

    Wow!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      May 20, 2021

      Thanks, Rose Mary. I love Kaveh’s poetry as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      May 22, 2021

      Kaveh tried to reply to your note, Rose Mary, but he was having trouble setting up an account with WordPress. He asked me to pass on his gratitude for your kind support.

      Liked by 1 person

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