The title of this anthology of Iranian women's poetry, collected and translated into English by Iranian-born American-based poet and woman of letters Sheema Kalbasi, refers to the narrative of the medieval Persian allegory Mantegh ot-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) written by Farid od-Din Attar.
Attar, one of the seminal figures of early Persian literature, was also one of the most committed advocates of the doctrines of the incipient Islamic mystical movement, Sufism. Attar's literary concepts, such as the motif of 'the Seven Valleys of Love', had a profound effect on not only future Persian-speaking poets (most notably Rumi and Hafez); but also introduced, or at least for the first time articulated unambiguously, a number of tenets of one of the medieval world's most significant and enduring theosophical schools.
Among these notions was Eshgh (literally 'Love'), which, in a Greco-Western episteme, seems closer to agape than either philia or eros. This ideal was most vividly illustrated in Attar's abovementioned narrative verse, in which a group of thirty birds embarks on a journey to meet the majestic Si-morgh – a mythological giant bird symbolizing wisdom. Instead of finding the Si-morgh as such, however, the birds experience something ostensibly more poignant: they undergo the Sufi concept of Fana (Annihilation). At the end of the tale, as a consequence of enduring the arduous journey and traversing the Seven Valleys of Love, the birds have somewhat unwittingly effaced their selves (or egos); and have, as a result, unified to constitute an assembly of thirty birds, that is – in Persian – si (thirty) morgh (bird/s). The ordinary birds have, in other words, become the legendary Si-morgh in and of themselves.
It is of great interest and pertinence that Ms Kalbasi has named her anthology after the above mystical idiom. Many of the poets presented in this volume have experienced journeys similar to those of the parabolic birds; and it can be said that these authors, by the virtue of being women in an intransigently and institutionally patriarchal society such as Iran, have too had their egos threatened (although by no means 'annihilated'), and that they too have succeeded in not only surviving the travails and brutalities of sexism but have also found a Sufi-esque kind of love, solidarity and inspiration that has resulted in passionate and provocative poetry.
This is not to say, however, that this collection presents a 'journey of self-discovery' in a positivist, New Ageist sense; and neither can all the authors collected in The Seven Valleys of Love be classified as classic survivors. The mid 19th century poet Tahereh Ghoratolein, for example, was brutally murdered by the then Shah of Iran because she repudiated the hejab veil in public and proselytized for the banned Baha'i faith. The poem of hers included in this book, a close-formed ode or ghazal, can be seen as a poem of intense, almost agonistic, yearning for an unattainable beloved. It is by no means a generic 'feel good' love poem; but a profoundly devotional and theological exploration of melancholy or, as Keats may have it, 'the wakeful anguish of the soul.'
The lyrics of the above martyred feminist sit alongside those of other articulate and committed Iranian women poets in Ms Kalbasi's unique anthology. One of the other great strengths of Ms Kalbasi's work is her decision to present lesser-known poets in place of such well-known figures as Forugh Farrokhzad, Simin Behbahani and Parvin Etesami. This editorial decision is visionary and courageous. By bringing new and/or marginalized poets to an international readership, Ms Kalbasi has broken one of the most stifling taboos of poetry anthologies – that of presenting only the famous/classic 'public' poets – and has, as a result, opened a new front in giving voice to female artists usually denied exposure by unapologetically sexist and/or elitist culture industries in Iran as well as the Anglophone world.
Another important and immensely valuable dimension of this anthology can be found not only in the shared identity of the authors presented – their being Iranian and/or Persian-speaking women – but in the poems themselves, and in the range and diversity of periods, voices, discourses and poetic genres included in the book. The Seven Valleys of Love comprises poems from medieval Arabic/Turkish ruled Persia; as well as poems from the independent unitary Iranian kingdoms of the Safavid and Ghajar monarchs; as well as works by modernists and post-modernists of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic Republic. Included are also poems written in Persian by members of the considerable Iranian diaspora communities. Therefore Ms Kalbasi's selection cuts across not only chronological divides but also aesthetical and ideological chasms. Some of the poems here are versified, others are free-formed/prosaic; some are romantic/erotic in a broad sense, others speak to the specific socio-political contexts in which they were articulated.
My final evaluation of this exciting new anthology concerns what – at least for today's mainstream Western readers – may constitute the book's most noticeable characteristic: its representation of work by poets from Iran, that terminally demonized/dehumanized 'axis of Evil' nation that has seemingly been at war with the West since the Battle of Marathon between ancient Greeks and Persians in 490 BCE. It is my belief that by exposing the journey of Iran's women poets through 'the Seven Valleys of Love' Ms Kalbasi has depicted and emphasized the humanity and dignity of one of world's most misunderstood peoples, and has made a significant contribution to facilitating a cross-cultural dialogue in place of a nefarious 'Clash of Civilizations.'
Dr. Ali Alizadeh, PhD Deakin