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Poetry

The Fish

By Ahmad Shamlou
Translated from Persian by Zara Houshmand
A ghazal on love and longing from one of Iran's most famous poets.

I think my heart has never been
like this
so warm and red.

I feel
even in the worst moments of this fatal night
several thousand sun-springs
in my heart
surge up from deep certainty.

I feel
in every nook and cranny of these salt flats of despair
several thousand wonderfully wet forests
suddenly
spring from the earth.

*

Oh certainty gone astray, oh runaway fish
in the ponds of slippery mirror within mirror!
I am a clear lagoon; now through the enchantment of love,
find a path from the mirror-ponds to me!

*

I think
my hand
has never been
so glad, so grand:

I feel
in my eyes
a cascade of bloody tears
that stirs a never-setting sun to breathe a song;

I sense
in my every vein
in every heartbeat
now
the bells of a passing caravan ring: wake up!

*

She came one night, naked, through the door
like water’s soul
At her breast, two fish, and in her hand a mirror
her wet hair smelling of moss
as if braided with moss.

I cried out from the threshold of despair,
“Oh, certainty now found—I won’t neglect you again!”

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

I think my heart has never been
like this
so warm and red.

I feel
even in the worst moments of this fatal night
several thousand sun-springs
in my heart
surge up from deep certainty.

I feel
in every nook and cranny of these salt flats of despair
several thousand wonderfully wet forests
suddenly
spring from the earth.

*

Oh certainty gone astray, oh runaway fish
in the ponds of slippery mirror within mirror!
I am a clear lagoon; now through the enchantment of love,
find a path from the mirror-ponds to me!

*

I think
my hand
has never been
so glad, so grand:

I feel
in my eyes
a cascade of bloody tears
that stirs a never-setting sun to breathe a song;

I sense
in my every vein
in every heartbeat
now
the bells of a passing caravan ring: wake up!

*

She came one night, naked, through the door
like water’s soul
At her breast, two fish, and in her hand a mirror
her wet hair smelling of moss
as if braided with moss.

I cried out from the threshold of despair,
“Oh, certainty now found—I won’t neglect you again!”

Definitions

ghazal: The classical poetic form used in “The Fish.” A ghazal (“guzzle”) is made of couplets, or paired lines, on such themes as love, longing, and metaphysical questions.

Meet the Author

Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou

Find out why Shamlou never finished high school in his obituary, published in The Guardian newspaper. Scroll to the bottom for another Shamlou poem about love.

On Shamlou’s personal website, you can find a timeline of “His Life at a Glance,” written by the poet himself.

Finally, find out how reading Shamlou’s love poems changed an Iranian teenager’s life in “Daughter Of The Storm,” part of the “Risky Reads” series from National Public Radio.

Meet the Translator

Author and translator Zara Houshmand

Find out what it’s like to grow up between three different cultures, and why Zara Houshmand thinks of poetry as a “spiritual practice.”

Hear the Names, Read the Original

Listen to pronunciations of the names of the author and translator, read aloud by Mandana Naviafar.

(Listen on SoundCloud)

You can also look at “The Fish” in the original Persian on Shamlou’s official website.

A Scholar's Perspective

Author Amir Ahmadi Arian

Read what scholar Amir Arian writes about Shamlou and his era in the introduction to this collection:

The next period of opening up began in the 1960s and continued until the 1979 revolution. In this era, the Iranian economy boomed, and the middle class grew, wafting fresh air into the literary culture. This happened despite the heavy censorship of the time, which drove authors towards symbolism and allegory. Poets, especially, resorted to the indirection of sophisticated metaphors, making their work obscure enough to avoid government scrutiny. Authors grappled with many questions, ranging from existential matters to daily politics. Ahmad Shamlou, one of the most important poets from the generation that published poetry after Neema, looked to the past for answers. He carefully studied the historiography of the eleventh-century historian Abu Al-Hassan Bayhaqi and the poetry of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century poet whose collection of ghazals has gained the status of a holy book in Iran . . . Shamlou’s attempts at forging a new poetical language by realizing the dormant potential of classical literature began in his collection The Fresh Air, from which the poem “The Fish” is translated here.

​Ghazals: From Hafez to Shamlou to Smith

A couple at the tomb of the poet Hafez. By Adam Jones. License: CC BY 2.0.

“The Fish” is a modern version of a ghazal (often pronounced “guzzle” in English), a poem or song made up of paired lines on such themes as love, longing, and metaphysical questions. The fourteenth-century poet Hafez (also sometimes called “Hafiz”), one of Shamlou’s major inspirations, wrote many ghazals.

Listen to a five-minute radio story about Hafez’s lasting appeal: “In Iran, A Poet’s 700-Year-Old Verses Still Set Hearts Aflame.”

Then, read the Hafez ghazal “For years my heart inquired of me.” You can also find more work from Hafez on Poets.org.

Ghazals originally began as songs; to listen, play the video below (singing begins around minute four.)

(Watch on YouTube.)

For another modern ghazal, also about renewed hope, try Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal.”

View the Imagery

Wondering about some of the images in the poem, such as “salt flats”? Try searching for them on Roads and Kingdoms, Atlas Obscura, or National Geographic. Find a few different examples to get a good sense of the different ways these images might appear.

Background on Iran

New to learning about Iran? Read the country’s profile on encylopedia.com.

Alleyway in Tehran, Iran.

Alleyway in Hamoomchaal, by Kamyar Adl. License: CC BY 2.0.

More from the Author

Iranian poet Ahmad ShamlouThe Guardian newspaper commented that, “with his beautiful voice,” Shamlou was a “gifted reciter of poetry.” If you’re a Persian speaker, or want to hear how Shamlou sounded, you can browse a playlist of videos, compiled by the Persian Circle of Friends of Metro DC.

Sholeh Wolpé, who translates another famous Persian poet on WWB Campus, also translated a different Shamlou poem, “Lovingly.” Read the poem and an interview about Shamlou, published in The Arkansas International. For others, visit Wolpé’s website (She warns against unauthorized translations of the poet, which might come up in a Google search.)

More from the Translator

Read Zara Houshmand’s essays and other translations here on WWB.

Then, find out why she considers it so important to include both languages in translations in the video below. (You can find “The Fish” in the original Persian in the Context tab.)

(Watch on YouTube.)

Finally, look at the 2000 virtual reality project she created with Tamiko Thiel, about being “caught in the middle” between a homeland and an adopted country. The project helps tell the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. To learn more about Japanese culture, visit the collection of literature on WWB Campus.

Shamlou's Global Influences

Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten 1936. (No known copyright; available from the Library of Congress.)

According to his obituary in The Guardian, Shamlou was fascinated by Nima Yushij, known as the father of modern poetry in Iran. Read translations of Yushij’s work by Kaveh Bassiri in The Sink Review and Two Lines Journal.

In his introduction to this unit, scholar Amir Arian writes of Yushij:

If one is to mark a symbolic turning point, a year that launched the modern era in Iran, 1921 is a compelling choice. This is the year Nima Yushij published his long poem Afsaneh, in which he opened Persian poetry to the contemporary world and bravely brought “unpoetic” language into his art.

Shamlou also admired the work of many poets from the world: “the French Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, the Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky, the American Langston Hughes and, above all, the Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca.” Follow the links to find out more about these poets.

Censorship: Then and Now, Here and There

Scholar Amir Arian writes about “the heavy censorship” in Iran during the time when Shamlou was writing his poetry. Iran remains a place where censorship is widely practiced, and we can find examples of censorship in most parts of the world, including in the U.S.

To learn more about government control over media in Iran, read:

  • An Iranian Metamorphosis, in which a single word in a children’s cartoon gets a man thrown in prison
  • Amir Arian’s essay Staring at a Digital Black Hole, about a 2019 blackout of all social media in Iran (Arian wrote the introduction to our collection of Iranian literature)
  • What Iran did not want you to see, in which a human rights researcher sifts through clues during the same 2019 blackout
  • A New York Times article about the Iranian’s government’s previous attempts to censor social media, which may have been influenced by a similar effort in Russia
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists’ page for Iran, where you can find out how many journalists are currently in prison for their writing. (The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent not-for-profit human rights organization.)

Censorship happens worldwide. To learn more:

  • Follow a 2020 story of attempted censorship in Missouri, where State Representative Ben Baker has introduced the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, aimed at “drag queen story hours.” Read Baker’s interview with NBC News and the American Library Association’s response
  • Browse the stories about U.S. censorship at Columbia University’s Knight Institute (newest stories at the bottom)
  • Find out which young adult and children’s books are most often challenged or banned in the U.S. in these lists from the American Library Association
  • Learn how the U.S. may be enabling censorship in other parts of the world in this Washington Post editorial
  • Visit the Taboo Topics section of our collection of literature from China
  • Read “My Grandmother, The Censor,” a personal essay by Masha Gessen
  • Watch protests against social media censorship in Russia
  • Read about the censorship of so-called “Fake News” in today’s Egypt

To find out about the state of free speech all over the world, visit the home page of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House.

More on Hafez

Mosaic detail from the Tomb of Hafez. Photo by Pegah Jafari License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Read a short biography of the classical poet Hafez, one of Shamlou’s major influences, from the Poetry Foundation.

Then, find out about his dislike of “self-righteous religious bigotry” in this detailed article from Columbia University’s Encyclopaedia Iranica.

More Vivid Imagery*

Earliest known visual depiction of a lover handing his heart to his mistress. By Atelier du Maître de Bari (Public domain.)

Poetry Elsewhere:

Short Story:

  • Mavis Gallant’s “My Heart is Broken,” a short story reviving this hackneyed phrase by rooting it within a character’s experience

The Heart in Art and Culture:

Poems Set to Music and Video:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Mixed Emotions*

Writing on WWB Campus

  • Amina,” depicting mixed emotions towards a friend
  • Sleepless Homeland,” depicting mixed emotions towards a nation

Writing elsewhere:

Poems set to music and video:

  • See the list in “More Vivid Imagery” above

Songs:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Ghazals*

Poet Natasha Trethewey during book signing at the University of Michigan, 2011. By Jalissa Gray. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

Modern ghazals:

Classical ghazals from Hafiz and Rumi:

About ghazals:

Both classical and modern ghazals:

Wondering about the pronunciation of “ghazal”? Read a linguist’s blog post about exactly how to say the word. (The word “fricative” refers to sounds made by pushing air through a narrow opening; for example, the sounds “th” and “f.”)

*For Teaching Idea 3

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

I think my heart has never been
like this
so warm and red.

I feel
even in the worst moments of this fatal night
several thousand sun-springs
in my heart
surge up from deep certainty.

I feel
in every nook and cranny of these salt flats of despair
several thousand wonderfully wet forests
suddenly
spring from the earth.

*

Oh certainty gone astray, oh runaway fish
in the ponds of slippery mirror within mirror!
I am a clear lagoon; now through the enchantment of love,
find a path from the mirror-ponds to me!

*

I think
my hand
has never been
so glad, so grand:

I feel
in my eyes
a cascade of bloody tears
that stirs a never-setting sun to breathe a song;

I sense
in my every vein
in every heartbeat
now
the bells of a passing caravan ring: wake up!

*

She came one night, naked, through the door
like water’s soul
At her breast, two fish, and in her hand a mirror
her wet hair smelling of moss
as if braided with moss.

I cried out from the threshold of despair,
“Oh, certainty now found—I won’t neglect you again!”

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