Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980) was one of Iran’s foremost modernist writers. A painter as well as a poet, a student of Buddhist as well as Islamic thought, in his mature work Sepehri eschewed traditional poetic form in favor of a lean but playful free verse where he merged world with word, the leaves of his childhood landscape with the leaves of his books. Sepehri travelled extensively (to Europe, to Tokyo, to New York), translating French, English, Japanese, and Sanskrit poetry, but his imagination always returned to his childhood years in Kashan: “I am a native of Kashan,” goes the refrain of his long poem, “Water’s Footfall.” If Walt Whitman compared a blade of grass to “the handkerchief of the Lord,” Sepehri claimed that the wind was his call to prayer, the cypress tree his minaret, and the grass his prayer rug, and it was perhaps with this expanded definition of worship in mind that he penned what has become his most famous line: “I’m a Muslim.”
In an English context, Sepehri’s poetry brings to mind not only Whitman’s grass, but Marianne Moore’s amphibians. While Moore felt that her poems should be “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” Sepehri lamented that “there are no fish in my inkwell.” It is this old gap, between consciousness and nature, between language and its object of representation, that the three poems included here attempt to bridge. Though Sepehri’s language is almost deceptively simple, one of his main devices for this kind of bridging between the two worlds of language and nature is the device that is also, notoriously, the bane of translation: wordplay — particularly the kind of wordplay that goes beyond mere pun into metaphor, that attempts to make a coincidence in language into a relation in thought. When I have been able, I have tried to find an equivalent in English — as in “plot” used to refer both to a storyline and the bed of a garden. But often, I have had to “spell out” Sepehri’s wordplay by translating what in the Persian was an analogy covert in a pun as, in English, an overt metaphor or simile, while pruning the poem elsewhere in order to preserve Sepehri’s economy of language.
Perhaps this means there’s some fishiness in my inkwell — for which, dear Sohrab, forgive me.
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