On April 19, supporters of Words Without Borders had the rare opportunity to hear the Iranian actor Shohreh Aghdashloo read a selection of poems from the new Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. The event was held in the book-lined Reading Room of the Center for Fiction on 47th Street.
Aghdashloo, an Oscar nominee for House of Sand and Fog, is a long-time supporter of Words Without Borders and a friend of its founder, Alane Salierno Mason, who introduced her. More recently she has been seen (and especially heard) on the TV show Flashforward, where she lends her deep, compelling voice to the role of a mysterious informant.
Aghdashloo began by speaking of her early experiences with poetry, especially the work of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. She read Rumi’s poem “Listen to this reed,” and closed the evening by reading a love poem by Rumi that she recalled reciting to her “so-called boyfriends” as a teenager.
Before that, however, she read a selection of some of her favorite work from the new anthology, including these:
“Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine Cavafy
“I Never Sought the Glory” by Antonio Machado
“Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me” by Osip Mandelstam
“Julio Campal” by Gerardo Diego
Excerpts from “Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son” by Camilo José Cela
“Ars Poetica” by Blaga Dimitrova
“Existence” by Ahmad Shamlou
“Remainder of a Life” by Mahmoud Darwish
“Woman Martyr” by Agi Mishol
“Midnight Singer” by Bei Dao
“Completely Friday” by Luis García Montero
“Cross River. Pick Lotus” by Zhang Er
“Existence” is the one Persian poem in the anthology, and Aghdashloo mentioned that she knew the poet, who died in 2000, and that the translator, Zara Houshmand, is a dear friend. Houshmand’s work also appears in the anthologies Words Without Borders and Literature from the Axis of Evil.
It would be hard for me to pick a favorite from the poems read that night, but Mandelstam’s poem (translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin) is certainly among them, as well as being short enough to quote in full and appropriate to the season.
Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me.
Their strength is crumbling but they never miss.
Stars in clusters of blossoms, leaves with stars —
what twin power is there? On what branch does truth blossom?
It fires into the air with flower or strength.
Its air-white full blossom-bludgeons put it to death.
And the twin scent’s sweetness is unwelcoming.
It contends, it reaches out, it is mingled, it is sudden.