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Poetry

The Poem

By Mohsen Emadi
Translated from Persian by Sholeh Wolpé
A contemporary Iranian narrative poem with themes of memory, migration, and loss.

For Reza A’lameh-zadeh 

1

Words are the burying ground of things.
The trot of a horse through these lines

is a sound I haven’t heard since childhood.

Your laughter wilted in my teenage years.

I write
as if on pilgrimage to the city of the dead.
If time by chance slips backwards,

my father’s murmurs will echo
in the ears of the text, the sound of a bullet
will disturb the sleep of these lines
and a wild-haired poem will pace
a room that’s been decayed for years.

Words have been arranged along the faded lines of a house:

Here is a window,

behind the window a courtyard. No one knows
which nightmare awakens the poem. It sees

sometimes, at the window, the glance of a neighbor’s bride,

sometimes the swing and the bicycle,

or the wall with its cheap paintings.
It looks at them

until they come alive
then, to the inhale and exhale of living things
goes back to sleep.

 

2

Years ago my father’s murmurs
lost their way in the text of sleep

and the poem lit three thousand candles,
built three thousand paper boats
and offered them all to the sea.

Now that I have packed my bags

and wait for the first train
that would not return me here,

the poem is riding a bicycle;

trembling and in haste
it pedals through bumps and puddles,

rings a door bell, stares at whispers and sobs
afraid of being heard.

But the whispers are so loud in the ear

it is impossible to hear the whistle of a train.
I am still in the station

and the poem in Khavaran
protects the dead of these past years
from the gaze of the guards.

 

3

A year ago
the poem slipped through barbed wire
where soldiers patrolled the hills of your breasts,

stole your lips,

your hands;

recreated you piece by piece.

This year, soldiers guard the edge of nothing:

your body long stolen.
In the station,
my bench is occupied by a dead
whose name the poem doesn’t know.

(It wouldn’t learn your name either.)

Bullets and warm blood
find their way into the lines—

no paper can stop the bleeding.

The station is full of passengers who are dead.

The firing squads,

and the hanging ropes
are not waiting for any train.

Mumbling grave-diggers
ring the doorbells of three thousand homes.

Three thousand abandoned bicycles

litter the alleys.

 

4

The poem is not standing in front of a firing squad.

Nor does the firing squad

know where, on the poem, to aim at.

They simply hike the price of utilities,

the rent, and burial expenses.

I cannot buy cigarettes for three thousand dead

but I can bring them all back to life.

I don’t want to make the poem

send them back to a cemetery
that doesn’t exist anymore;

I only want to remind it
that all the abandoned bicycles have decayed by now,

that no one will ever again hear the jangle of their bells.

The dead will remain in the station

and if the poem can secure a ticket from each reader

it will send them off on the first one-way train.
In my country

three thousand dead in a station is normal.

Three thousand dead on a train is normal.

 

5

At the border stations

they arrest our tongues.

Our words decay when they cross that line.

I let go of your hands outside the station,

the train’s whistle hurries my words.
Words have filled up all the cabins,
they dream thousand-year nightmares.

My words are young,
just thirty years old,

but they have piled up
layer by layer
under this prison garb.

Yellow was not the color of my first school shoes,

nor was red the color of my piggy-bank,
or blue the color of my first bicycle.

Words grew up with the colors of your dress;

they were a herd of fleeing horses,
a rainbow that you would take off

and send curving through the air,

falling into mud and dirt,

into handcuffs, darkness, and the command to shoot.

 

6

I’m not standing in this long line for bread and milk.
I stand here to surrender my tongue.

Everything crossing the border becomes lighter.

I stand to be translated.

A bicycle rides my borders

over bumps and puddles.

The poem considers conjunctions and prepositions,

the distance between I and I,
the me to-from-on-or me.

It is raining

on conjunctions and prepositions,
on relationships.
In the rain
the distance between us widens,

and in that distance,
Khavaran grows larger.

 

7

In my language
every time we suddenly fall silent
a policeman is born.

In my language

on the back of each frightened bicycle
sit three thousand dead words.
In my language

people murmur confessions,

dress in black whispers,

are buried

in silence.

My language is silence.

Who will translate my silence?

How am I to cross this border?

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

For Reza A’lameh-zadeh 

1

Words are the burying ground of things.
The trot of a horse through these lines

is a sound I haven’t heard since childhood.

Your laughter wilted in my teenage years.

I write
as if on pilgrimage to the city of the dead.
If time by chance slips backwards,

my father’s murmurs will echo
in the ears of the text, the sound of a bullet
will disturb the sleep of these lines
and a wild-haired poem will pace
a room that’s been decayed for years.

Words have been arranged along the faded lines of a house:

Here is a window,

behind the window a courtyard. No one knows
which nightmare awakens the poem. It sees

sometimes, at the window, the glance of a neighbor’s bride,

sometimes the swing and the bicycle,

or the wall with its cheap paintings.
It looks at them

until they come alive
then, to the inhale and exhale of living things
goes back to sleep.

 

2

Years ago my father’s murmurs
lost their way in the text of sleep

and the poem lit three thousand candles,
built three thousand paper boats
and offered them all to the sea.

Now that I have packed my bags

and wait for the first train
that would not return me here,

the poem is riding a bicycle;

trembling and in haste
it pedals through bumps and puddles,

rings a door bell, stares at whispers and sobs
afraid of being heard.

But the whispers are so loud in the ear

it is impossible to hear the whistle of a train.
I am still in the station

and the poem in Khavaran
protects the dead of these past years
from the gaze of the guards.

 

3

A year ago
the poem slipped through barbed wire
where soldiers patrolled the hills of your breasts,

stole your lips,

your hands;

recreated you piece by piece.

This year, soldiers guard the edge of nothing:

your body long stolen.
In the station,
my bench is occupied by a dead
whose name the poem doesn’t know.

(It wouldn’t learn your name either.)

Bullets and warm blood
find their way into the lines—

no paper can stop the bleeding.

The station is full of passengers who are dead.

The firing squads,

and the hanging ropes
are not waiting for any train.

Mumbling grave-diggers
ring the doorbells of three thousand homes.

Three thousand abandoned bicycles

litter the alleys.

 

4

The poem is not standing in front of a firing squad.

Nor does the firing squad

know where, on the poem, to aim at.

They simply hike the price of utilities,

the rent, and burial expenses.

I cannot buy cigarettes for three thousand dead

but I can bring them all back to life.

I don’t want to make the poem

send them back to a cemetery
that doesn’t exist anymore;

I only want to remind it
that all the abandoned bicycles have decayed by now,

that no one will ever again hear the jangle of their bells.

The dead will remain in the station

and if the poem can secure a ticket from each reader

it will send them off on the first one-way train.
In my country

three thousand dead in a station is normal.

Three thousand dead on a train is normal.

 

5

At the border stations

they arrest our tongues.

Our words decay when they cross that line.

I let go of your hands outside the station,

the train’s whistle hurries my words.
Words have filled up all the cabins,
they dream thousand-year nightmares.

My words are young,
just thirty years old,

but they have piled up
layer by layer
under this prison garb.

Yellow was not the color of my first school shoes,

nor was red the color of my piggy-bank,
or blue the color of my first bicycle.

Words grew up with the colors of your dress;

they were a herd of fleeing horses,
a rainbow that you would take off

and send curving through the air,

falling into mud and dirt,

into handcuffs, darkness, and the command to shoot.

 

6

I’m not standing in this long line for bread and milk.
I stand here to surrender my tongue.

Everything crossing the border becomes lighter.

I stand to be translated.

A bicycle rides my borders

over bumps and puddles.

The poem considers conjunctions and prepositions,

the distance between I and I,
the me to-from-on-or me.

It is raining

on conjunctions and prepositions,
on relationships.
In the rain
the distance between us widens,

and in that distance,
Khavaran grows larger.

 

7

In my language
every time we suddenly fall silent
a policeman is born.

In my language

on the back of each frightened bicycle
sit three thousand dead words.
In my language

people murmur confessions,

dress in black whispers,

are buried

in silence.

My language is silence.

Who will translate my silence?

How am I to cross this border?

Definitions

Khavaran: Located in the city of Tehran, Khavaran was originally a Baha’i cemetery for members of the Baha’i faith. Later, political prisoners killed in the mass executions of 1988 were buried there. The cemetery was reportedly demolished by the Iranian government in January 2009.

Meet the Poet

Iranian/Mexican poet Mohsen Emadi.

Find out why Mohsen Emadi and his friends “were forced to have a double life” in this interview with fellow poet Nathalie Handal.

In the same interview, Emadi talks about how he came to write “The Poem,” which was inspired by plans to demolish a cemetery where thousands of political prisoners had been buried after a mass execution:

I had a lot of friends whose parents were buried in the cemetery. I wrote “The Poem” about the demolishing of the cemetery and exile seven months before I left Iran. I never imagined it would become so symbolic of my life—now in exile, lost, un-findable.

Finally, to learn about Emadi’s life in the U.S. and the reasons he was forced to leave, read the L.A. Times article “At the last reading of exiled Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi before he is barred from the U.S.”

Meet the Translator
A portrait of translator Sholeh Wolpé

Copyright © Bonnie Perkinson

Find out which words are most difficult to translate, and read about a Christmas-Eve translation inspiration, in Sholeh Wolpé’s interview with the magazine Words Without Borders.

To get to know more of her work as a translator, poet, and playwright, visit Wolpé’s website.

"The Poem" on Film

On his website, Mohsen Emadi describes the origin of “The Poem”:

In 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the execution of nearly 5,000 political prisoners. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves at unmarked sites in Khavaran cemetery.

Emadi, Clara Janés, and translator Sholeh Wolpé created an 11-minute film about these events. It begins with a sped-up history of modern Iran.

The Ayatollah appears at 0:50. Sholeh Wolpé begins reading the poem aloud about three minutes in. (Film in Spanish.)

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Persian terms in this story, read aloud by translator Sholeh Wolpé.


(Listen on SoundCloud.)

Meet Reza A’lameh-zadeh
Persian Dutch filmmaker Reza A’lameh-zadeh

PersianDutchNetwork, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Poem” is dedicated to the Persian Dutch filmmaker, film critic, and writer Reza A’lameh-zadeh.

Find out the common theme running through all of A’lameh-zadeh’s work in the first few minutes of an introduction from the director of Stanford University’s Iranian Studies department.

Then watch A’lameh-zadeh’s recent
Corona Days Ballet,” dedicated to the victims of the virus.

The Green Movement

In an interview published in Words Without Borders, Mohsen Emadi describes leaving Tehran:

At the airport, the images of the past two months flashed by me—after the Green Movement, the street fights, bullets, deaths, hopes, and despairs . . . “

Unfamiliar with the term “Green Movement”? In his introduction to the collection of Iranian literature on this site, scholar and author Amir Arian explains:

In 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the second time declared himself the winner of the presidential elections, ignoring deep suspicions about the counting of ballots and the fairness of the elections, millions of people poured into the streets and launched what came to be called The Green Movement. Those months in summer and fall 2009 shook up the political scene in Iran, but the movement didn’t fully achieve what it pursued. Ahmadinejad continued to run the country, which, for writers, meant four more dark years of heavy censorship.

For a firsthand account of the movement, read this essay by Salar Abdoh in Guernica Magazine. Two more essays by Abdoh, “The Cleric and I” and “Hunger,” are also available on WWB Campus.

To find out more about the Green Movement, watch a video from the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR.)

You can learn about the crackdown on media after the protests in an article, also from the CFR. (Note: Use resources from this organization with discretion, as some may reflect biases about Iran.)

Then, watch this one-minute video from the AFP news agency, recorded a year after the movement was suppressed.

“Death to the dictator (Khamenei)! We have no jobs!” chanted Iranian protesters in 2018. If you’re curious about the political movements that came before and after the Green Movement, check out this article from The Wire. (A note of caution: The article provides a good historical overview but over-simplifies the inner workings of Iranian leadership.)

Background on Iran
Two Iranian women walking down an alleyway with old buildings and parked motorbikes.

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

New to learning about Iran? Read the country’s profile from encyclopedia.com. (Scroll through the first few screens to get to Iran’s modern history.)

More from the Author

The book cover of "Standing on Earth" next to a photo of Mohsen Emadi

Read Mohsen Emadi’s poem “autobiography,” also addressed to a person, on the poet’s trilingual website (A Burning Metaphor) – Una Metáfora Ardiente.

(The site also includes the poet’s own “Playlist” of favorite music videos.)

For more poetry, read Emadi’s collection of “poems of memory and displacement,” Standing on Earth, translated by Lyn Coffin.


Poet as Translator

Know Persian? If so, you can visit Emadi’s other website, the online anthology House of World Poets, featuring translations of poets like Allen Ginsberg and Emily Dickinson into Persian.

The tagline of the site, translated here from the Persian, is:

“Poetry” is the blood of “us.” “Our” poems belong to you.

More from the Translator

Watch Sholeh Wolpé read her translation of another poem on this site, Forugh Farrokhzad’s “I Pity the Garden.”

Wolpé also translated “Connection” by Farrokhzad.

Next, read an interview in which Sholeh Wolpé describes how she handled an “untranslatable” phrase of Walt Whitman’s while collaborating on a translation of his work into Persian with Mohsen Emadi.

For more about Whitman, take a look at this collection of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation’s website.


You can find Wolpé’s most recent work as a poet, translator, performer, and playwright on her website. Her latest collection of poems is Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths, about which the magazine Shelf Awareness wrote:

A gifted Iranian-American poet beautifully explores love and the loss of love, beauty, and war and the ghosts of the past.

Tehran: A City That "Devours Itself"

Tehran construction still life by Carsten ten Brink via Flickr

In an interview published in Words Without Borders, Mohsen Emadi commented:

I can feel Tehran most of the time as a destructive intensity . . . The way the city devours itself—the graves of the freedom fighters of the Constitutional Revolution*, the ruins of abandoned houses replaced by a hospital. Such images can be found all over the Old City.

You can see something of what he means in a linked photograph, entitled “Cycle,” by Peyman Housmandzadeh; also, in the “documentary” photo series from Jassem Ghazbanpour.

For more images of Tehran, look through Flickr users’ photographs.

*The Persian Constitutional Revolution led to the establishment of Iran’s first parliament, or Majlis, in 1906. This image shows its members; the man in the middle is the first Chairman, Mortezā Qoli Khan Sani od-Dauleh, who was assassinated in 1911 as part of a larger effort to undermine the Majlis.

To learn more about the Majlis, read this article from The Wire. (A note of caution: the article provides a good historical overview but over-simplifies the inner workings of Iranian leadership.)

A History-Spanning "Coffee House Painting"

Visual and video artist Shoja Azari. By Manfred Werner, CC BY 3.0 license.

Read about and experience a work of video art that also grapples with modern Middle Eastern history: Shoja Azari’s “Coffee House Painting,” which references the Iranian Revolution (at 1:36), among other conflicts.  The Ayatollah Khomeini is in the top and central images. (Complete video includes a few four-letter words.)

Mohsen Emadi's Influences

Poet Forugh Farrokhzad

In the same interview quoted above, Mohsen Emadi says that one of his most heartbreaking memories of Tehran is the day the poet Ahmad Shamlou, “a monument of love and commitment,” died. Read Shamlou’s poem “The Fish,” also published on this website.

He also mentions the Persian woman poet Forugh Farrokhzad—”the sad, rebellious voice of woman.” To see what Emadi means, read her poem “Connection.”

Finally, Emadi quotes the Austrian woman poet Ingeborg Bachmann’s line about “playing death on the strings of life.” Visit a discussion of Bachmann’s lifelong “pursuit of the inexpressible” in the Paris Review.

More from Reza A’lameh-zadeh

“The Poem” is dedicated to Reza A’lameh-zadeh. Watch a clip from A’lameh-zadeh’s 1988 film Guests of the Hotel Astoria, about Iranians fleeing the 1979 revolution (summary here.) In the clip, a young Persian couple finally arrives in the U.S. after many struggles, hoping to gain entry into Cuba.

You can watch all of this movie, and many others (including the recent short film Tales of the Corona Days) on the film director’s YouTube channel.

To hear directly from A’lameh-zadeh, watch a lecture he gave at Stanford University. Check out his answer at minute 40:53 to hear what it’s like to make films in exile (he also mentions Ahmad Shamlou in this answer).

Three Prisoners

In his introduction to Reza A’lameh-zadeh, Stanford University professor Abbas Milani describes a “Kafkaesque” episode in the filmmaker’s life: his arrest and imprisonment on an absurd charge of plotting to kidnap Iran’s then-queen and prince.

For a more recent, but very similar story, read Mana Neyestani’s graphic memoir “An Iranian Metamorphosis,” also available on this website.

An image from Mana Nayestani’s “An Iranian Metamorphosis”

For a woman’s experience of the absurdities of prison, read the memoir-essay “Prison Echoes” by Shahrnush Parsipur, one of Iran’s most celebrated (and censored) woman novelists. (Translated by Sara Khalili, published in Granta.)

Shahrnush Parsipur. Photo by Mahgameh Parvaneh, 2010. Public domain.

More Emigration Stories

The book cover of Maziar Bahari's "Then They Came for Me"

For more writing about the “Persian diaspora” of recent emigrants, look through the Brooklyn Public Library’s list of recommended books or download the PDF.

Interested in reading about emigrants from other parts of the world? Check out The Displaced, an anthology of essays by refugee writers edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen (recommended in Lesley Williams’s list of literatures of exile).

More on the Power of Words*

Photo of Walt Whitman by George C. Cox (1851–1903, photo) and Adam Cuerden (1979-, restoration), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Poems:

  • “Riverwilt,” a Japanese poem by Nomura Kiwao, translated by Angus Turvill, about memory and environmental degradation
  • “I speak to” by Cihan Hesen, translated by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef, a poem from Rojava about the poet’s reasons for writing
  • “Nothing Remains Empty” by Juan Gregorio Regino, translated by Earl Shorris and Sylvia Sasson Shorris, a Mexican indigenous-language poem about the power of words
  • I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman, whose work Emadi and Wolpé translated into Persian

Visual Art: “Memories,” a photo series of destroyed notebooks from the Iranian photographer and writer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh

* Connects to Teaching Idea #1

More Poetic Dedications*

Writer Nathalie Handal

Read Nathalie Handal’s “Preface to Life,” dedicated to Mohsen Emadi and published in the magazine Words Without Borders. (Handal’s interview with him is under the Context tab.) Then, take a look at another Iranian poet’s “Elegy” for a beloved woman poet. Finally, read Iman Mersal’s “Amina,” also published by WWB.

For other poetic dedications, try:

The three dedication poems above were recommended in a user thread on emule.com.

Connects to Teaching Idea #2

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

For Reza A’lameh-zadeh 

1

Words are the burying ground of things.
The trot of a horse through these lines

is a sound I haven’t heard since childhood.

Your laughter wilted in my teenage years.

I write
as if on pilgrimage to the city of the dead.
If time by chance slips backwards,

my father’s murmurs will echo
in the ears of the text, the sound of a bullet
will disturb the sleep of these lines
and a wild-haired poem will pace
a room that’s been decayed for years.

Words have been arranged along the faded lines of a house:

Here is a window,

behind the window a courtyard. No one knows
which nightmare awakens the poem. It sees

sometimes, at the window, the glance of a neighbor’s bride,

sometimes the swing and the bicycle,

or the wall with its cheap paintings.
It looks at them

until they come alive
then, to the inhale and exhale of living things
goes back to sleep.

 

2

Years ago my father’s murmurs
lost their way in the text of sleep

and the poem lit three thousand candles,
built three thousand paper boats
and offered them all to the sea.

Now that I have packed my bags

and wait for the first train
that would not return me here,

the poem is riding a bicycle;

trembling and in haste
it pedals through bumps and puddles,

rings a door bell, stares at whispers and sobs
afraid of being heard.

But the whispers are so loud in the ear

it is impossible to hear the whistle of a train.
I am still in the station

and the poem in Khavaran
protects the dead of these past years
from the gaze of the guards.

 

3

A year ago
the poem slipped through barbed wire
where soldiers patrolled the hills of your breasts,

stole your lips,

your hands;

recreated you piece by piece.

This year, soldiers guard the edge of nothing:

your body long stolen.
In the station,
my bench is occupied by a dead
whose name the poem doesn’t know.

(It wouldn’t learn your name either.)

Bullets and warm blood
find their way into the lines—

no paper can stop the bleeding.

The station is full of passengers who are dead.

The firing squads,

and the hanging ropes
are not waiting for any train.

Mumbling grave-diggers
ring the doorbells of three thousand homes.

Three thousand abandoned bicycles

litter the alleys.

 

4

The poem is not standing in front of a firing squad.

Nor does the firing squad

know where, on the poem, to aim at.

They simply hike the price of utilities,

the rent, and burial expenses.

I cannot buy cigarettes for three thousand dead

but I can bring them all back to life.

I don’t want to make the poem

send them back to a cemetery
that doesn’t exist anymore;

I only want to remind it
that all the abandoned bicycles have decayed by now,

that no one will ever again hear the jangle of their bells.

The dead will remain in the station

and if the poem can secure a ticket from each reader

it will send them off on the first one-way train.
In my country

three thousand dead in a station is normal.

Three thousand dead on a train is normal.

 

5

At the border stations

they arrest our tongues.

Our words decay when they cross that line.

I let go of your hands outside the station,

the train’s whistle hurries my words.
Words have filled up all the cabins,
they dream thousand-year nightmares.

My words are young,
just thirty years old,

but they have piled up
layer by layer
under this prison garb.

Yellow was not the color of my first school shoes,

nor was red the color of my piggy-bank,
or blue the color of my first bicycle.

Words grew up with the colors of your dress;

they were a herd of fleeing horses,
a rainbow that you would take off

and send curving through the air,

falling into mud and dirt,

into handcuffs, darkness, and the command to shoot.

 

6

I’m not standing in this long line for bread and milk.
I stand here to surrender my tongue.

Everything crossing the border becomes lighter.

I stand to be translated.

A bicycle rides my borders

over bumps and puddles.

The poem considers conjunctions and prepositions,

the distance between I and I,
the me to-from-on-or me.

It is raining

on conjunctions and prepositions,
on relationships.
In the rain
the distance between us widens,

and in that distance,
Khavaran grows larger.

 

7

In my language
every time we suddenly fall silent
a policeman is born.

In my language

on the back of each frightened bicycle
sit three thousand dead words.
In my language

people murmur confessions,

dress in black whispers,

are buried

in silence.

My language is silence.

Who will translate my silence?

How am I to cross this border?

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