A Nursery Rhyme of a Different Color: Ahmad Shamlu, Poet Against the State

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A nursery rhyme might not strike you as the best possible vehicle for political dissent. Well, in this case, you would be wrong. Iran’s Ahmad Shamlu has used the form to shattering effect in the poem I’ve chosen translate this month, “Nocturnal.”

Considered among the greatest of Iran’s modernist poets, Aḥmad Shāmlū (1925 – 2000) rose to fame at a young age, but paid dearly for his success. Shamlu was imprisoned for his connections with the Tudeh Party (the Communist party of Iran) in 1953, and served a total of at least 9 prison sentences in his life. Initially condemned for his socialist leanings, Shamlu was further reprimanded by the regime for his fierce rebelliousness and commitment to criticizing an unjust government through his poems. The most famous of all his poems is probably “Dar Īn Bonbast” (“At This Deadend”), written just after the Islamic revolution and translated here. Its refrain gave the PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature its title.

His early poetry was more traditional in style, poems which he later claimed he wished he had burned. The turning point came in 1957 with the publication of Havā-ye Tāze (Fresh Air), a collection of poetry that leveled a scathing critique at injustice in Iranian society. He followed that collection up with the equally biting Bāgh-e Āyene (Garden of Mirrors).  Although he would later become disillusioned with his Iranian compatriots, whom he saw as complacent and ineffectual, in the late 1950s it was clear that he still believed he could effect real change through his poetry. He wrote:

Today,

Poetry

is the people’s weapon; For the poets

are but a branch from the forest of the people,

not jasmines and hyacinths of someone’s greenhouse.

He writes poetry–
meaning,
he touches the wounds of the old city;

meaning,
he tells a tale

at night
of pleasant morning.

Tr. Leonardo P. Alishan

For many modernist Iranian poets, darkness and night were symbols of oppression, and they often used such coded language to evade sensors. Shamlu does the same here; by saying “He tells a tale / at night / of pleasant morning,” Shamlu depicts the poet as the one who tells of hope, possibility, and new dawn, while in the midst of suppression and darkness. Shamlu’s very pen name was Alef Bāmdād, meaning “A. Dawn.”

The symbols of dark and light figure prominently in the poem I have translated here, which, I must admit, is a bit of an obscure selection from Shamlu’s oeuvre. The poem is entitled “Shabāne,” (“Nocturnal,” or “Nightly Ode”), written in the early 1960s but only compiled later into his collection Lahze-hā vo Hamīshe (Moments and Forever). I picked this poem because it is so unusual in the Persian for a very simple reason: it is written in colloquial Tehrani dialect, in the language that every day Iranians speak, not in the typical language of literature and poetry. I can’t emphasize enough how unusual this is, let alone in 1960. Thinking this sort of poem was part of a whole genre of colloquial satire, I tried to write a term paper on it in college, only to find out that it is not really a thing that anyone else did.

The other thing that makes this poem odd is that it has a meter – not in the classical Persian sense, but in a syllabic way. Meter in classical Persian is like Latin – quantified. It’s about length of syllables, not stress. English (and most Western?) meters are stress-based, which means the rhythm of classical Persian meters might be difficult for some of us to hear at first. This poem is unusual because it conforms to our ideas of meter, and because of that, it comes off sounding a bit singsongy, almost like a nursery rhyme. [Someone did, actually, turn it into a fittingly bizarre song]. Shamlu no doubt did this intentionally, and the singsongy sound of the poem clashes fantastically with its dark theme. Each section has its own rhythm, which I tried to reflect in translation. Here is my first crack at it:

Nocturnal

by Ahmad Shamlu

 

The alleyways are narrow

The shops have all been closed

The houses are all darkened

The arches all broken.

 

The fiddler’s fallen silent.

They’re taking the body away

Alley by alleyway.

*

Look! The dead

Aren’t going to the dead,

Not even

To the burnt-out candle.

They’re just like a lantern

That’s out,

But not because of oil.

There’s still

Plenty of oil in it.

*

Society!

I can’t take it anymore!

I have no hope of any good,

No complaint about the bad.

Even if I’m near the others

I’ve got nothing to do with this caravan.

*

The alleyways are narrow

The shops have all been closed

The houses are all darkened

The arches all broken.

 

The fiddler’s fallen silent.

They’re taking the body away

Alley by alleyway.

 

Translation by: Michelle Quay 

 

شبانه

کوچه‌ها باریکن
دُکّونا
بسته‌س،

خونه‌ها تاریکن
تاقا
شیکسته‌س،

از صدا
افتاده
تار و کمونچه
مُرده می‌برن
کوچه به
کوچه.

نگا کن!
مُرده‌ها
به مُرده
نمی‌رن،

حتا به
شمعِ جون‌سپرده
نمی‌رن،
شکلِ
فانوسی‌ین
که اگه خاموشه

واسه نَف‌نیس
هَنو
یه عالم نف توشه.

جماعت!
من دیگه
حوصله
ندارم!

به «خوب»
امید و
از «بد» گله
ندارم.
گرچه از
دیگرون
فاصله
ندارم،
کاری با
کارِ این
قافله
ندارم!

کوچه‌ها باریکن
دُکّونا
بسته‌س،

خونه‌ها تاریکن
تاقا
شیکسته‌س،

از صدا
افتاده
تار و کمونچه
مُرده می‌برن
کوچه به
کوچه. . .

1340 / 1961

احمد شاملو
از مجموعۀ: «لحظه‌ها و همیشه»

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