Thursday, 14 December 2017
Iraj Ziayi: 'Tehran letter'
I recently went to my first Poetry Translation Centre workshop in a while, where we translated a couple of poems by the Persian poet Iraj Ziayi (using a literal translation by Alireza Abiz, who was also present, as a starting point). He is known as "the poet of objects", often imbuing inanimate things with an unusual charge of meaning in his poems.
One of the poems in particular, 'Tehran letter', affected me deeply. It accomplished what honestly I'd probably like to do in all of my own poems: in a brief format (14 lines) it evokes the emotions and memories that cling to a place, and a non-linear sense of time. The intimacy of translation - and in a Poetry Translation Centre workshop every line is carefully debated, discussed and decided on, with an expert in the original language present - immersed us in the poem and its mysterious approach to time.
By the end of the poem, I realised that it reminded me of TS Eliot's Four Quartets, perhaps 'Burnt Norton' in particular. "If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable": in 'Tehran letter', "they came and killed and burnt" is a reference, well-known to Iranian readers, to the 13th-century Mongol invasion. To me, there was a kind of agitation in the postman's repeated return to number 49, even if it's to seek birdsong (also reminiscent of 'Burnt Norton': "Quick, said the bird, find them, find them/ Round the corner..."), a sad sense of a broken automaton. The poem is beautifully constructed and deeply poignant, but the way the central image of a letter exists and un-exists, writes and unwrites itself, is also disturbing. It seems to spool in a motion that suggests both the "river-that-isn't", and a kind of eternal Mobius strip (as another workshop member said), even a trap.
As well as the final translation of 'Tehran letter', do read the 'About this poem' section, describing the meanings that we explored - some of them nearly impossible to translate without a considerable loss of the original meaning. Translation, especially of poetry, really is a joy and a sadness.
Photo: Glassware and Ceramics Museum by reibai. Used under Creative Commons license