art ~ spirit ~ transformation
e*lix*ir

e*lix*ir   #13
Centenary Issue 2021
The Writing Life
 

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Editorial

Sacred Stories: Beyond Joy and Pain

Events

Global Poetry Reading Honors ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The Writing Life

The Fountain and the Thirsty One by Mahvash Sabet

Poetry

Christine Anne Pratt
Elegy with Mourning Dove and Red-Tailed Hawk by Sandra Lynn Hutchison
Dana Paxson

Essays

An Opening in the Curtain by Martha Washington

Interviews

Encountering Beauty: An Interview with Painter and Photographer Chris Page by Christine Anne Pratt

Personal Reflections on Bahá’í Texts

The Wound is Where the Light Enters: A Meditation on the Suffering of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by Sandra Lynn Hutchison

Artist Profile

Interview with Mahvash Sabet by Raha Sabet Sarvestany
Persian Poems by Mahvash Sabet

Art

Chris Page

Voices of Iran

Thy Court of Holiness by Mahsa Foroughian
The Silence of Being Heard by Nazanin Eslami
The All-Highest Paradise by Melika Rezvani

State of the Art

Books for Children by Allison Grover Khoury

Looking Back on Books

Pearls of Bounty and Light of the World
Agnes Parsons’ Diary by Richard Hollinger
‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Perfect Exemplar by Dariush Lami


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“Enkindled”, Ann Sheppard

The Fountain and the Thirsty One*

MAHVASH SABET

I have not yet forgotten the emotions of that young primary school girl who recited an unwritten essay from a blank sheet of paper and, instead of being encouraged by her teacher, received a beating! I still remember that eleven-year-old girl who sat in the stairway of her grandmother’s home writing a poem about her mother’s absence. And I recall that pupil with spectacles and an ormak uniform who would write essays for her classmates while climbing the high school stairway! I don’t know if it was my deep love for Saadi and Hafez that made me feel so at home with poetry and its rhythms or if that feeling stemmed from a natural talent that was bestowed upon me to compensate for the many other talents I lacked. Our literature teacher used to tell me that my prose was like manthúr — prose poetry. Since I did not know what prose poetry was, I set out to look for the work of a poet named “Manṣúr” whose poetry resembled mine!

But, alas, we humans are experts at killing our own talents. A talent that is always with us seems trivial to us; too easily do we deny its value. And in this, I went a step further. In my stubbornness, I had, inside myself, been battling for years with my poetry! So often I would tear up a draft of a composition or a letter and rewrite it so that it would not bear any resemblance to a literary piece! Later on, when searching for reasons for my resistance to a life devoted to poetry and literature, three came to mind.

During my years as a student, I imbibed, quite unconsciously, the values of the Romantic Movement. However, I did not want to follow such writers on that path. During those years, in the 1950s and 60s in Iran, youth were charmed by romantic novels and poems, but the academics completely denied their value. They believed that in order to present the readers with reality, authors must leave subjective feelings out of a literary work. Realism and romanticism were at odds, they told me. They convinced me I must choose between them, and so I chose realism.

A still greater struggle I faced was between classical and modern poetry and literature. This perceived struggle stemmed from my lack of understanding of the structure and true meaning of poetry. Early on, I had been taught that poetry consisted of imaginative rhythmic and rhyming words artfully composed, and that drew upon rhetorical techniques. Now, literary people were saying that rhythm and rhyme were restrictive practices! And that was because Nima had broken all the rules of rhythm and rhyme. After Nima, other poets such as Shamlou went even further! This is what was being said and considered at that time. Later on, I realized that the rhythm used by Nima was actually the same classical rhythm used in prose, and in fact it was a continuation of our traditional Persian poetry, with the length of the line (hemistich) being made longer or shorter and the rhyme applied differently. While my mind was absorbing the work of both the classical and modern poets of my homeland, Iran, I was also reading that a poet must be, above all, original; a parrot-like usage of fantastic phrases and similes, of metaphors and compositions drawn from the works of others, it was thought, would only cause weariness. One must rebel against literary conventions, I read, and the logic behind poetry is not the same as prose, and . . . and . . . .

To make things even more complicated, the advent of Symbolism and Surrealism had thrown the clarity and simplicity of poetry into such a doubt that the poetry of someone like Hooshang Irani was thought to be so difficult — as inscrutable perhaps as a cubist painting to many of Picasso’s contemporaries — that it needed to be interpreted by an expert. What made a poem a poem, I wondered? I was lost and confused. If we removed the requirements of beauty and elegance as the criteria for poetry, and if we abandoned rhyme and rhythm, we would be leaving our rich tradition of Persian poetry behind. What would be left?

Gradually, after becoming familiar with the poetry of Forough, Sohrab, Fereidoun Tavallali, and others, I saw that this modern — or “new” poetry — had become accepted as the norm; it was the classical poetry that needed to defend itself! Between modern and classical poetry there was an enormous gap, both in philosophy as well as in form and content, and I had fallen into that gap! By this time, I had grown to like modern poetry, but I could not free myself from the grip of rhythm, rhyme or from my attachment to the beauty and elegance of classical poetry. Nor could I grasp the modernists’ understanding of beauty!

All this aside, the most powerful reason I felt compelled to stifle my humble passion for literature was my way of life and my work style; literature was no longer part of everyday life for me, and poetry no longer surged within me or struggled to assert itself in my mind. Nevertheless, years later, while thinking I had fully observed the rules of academic writing, I wrote a textbook on the life of the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith for the students of the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education, I was thoroughly disheartened when a scholar friend said: “This is a love letter.” I was disappointed in myself because I had written a love letter! Despite the fact that I was making every effort to write in a logical, concise, and rational manner, my writing still resembled a love letter — and I did not know why!

And then, there I was in absolute solitude, in my prison cell, where, having gone through many interrogations and endured so many difficult days and months, I sat awaiting my execution. There was nothing left to do. No responsibilities. No hustle and bustle. No rush, no reading, no writing. Silence and nostalgia had taken the place of all these things. The lengthening of the period of solitary confinement had changed my mental habits, and by accepting death, my fear of dying had also vanished! Frightening unknowns and anguished fears no longer gripped my heart! I used to say to myself: Do not die before the time of your death! I was in a place where no one would judge my poetry or my words; it no longer mattered to me if I were to appear romantic — or anything else! And so, I gradually surrendered myself to love. I was gentle with myself and loving even to those walls! It felt as if I had become one with the whole of existence. It felt as if the real walls, the ones within me, had collapsed and I had discovered a new world inside myself — a world which actually happened to be beautiful! Yes, this is a quality of natural talents, that even when they are pushed aside, never used or developed, they are still not extinguished. Poetry had not died within me, and gradually, it began to take hold of my mind and my heart, without regard for any of my previous concerns or inhibitions!

Now, sitting in that dark-house of injustices, I was observing the struggle between tyranny and my devoted love, waiting to see which one would triumph. Something was flourishing within me, and in the very same way that the fountain pours out for the thirsty one, poetry was flowing through me! I could now better understand the meaning of the statement that “by distancing oneself from realism, one naturally grows closer to the spirit of poetry!” I had never actually intended to distance myself from reality, but without even trying, I had now surrendered to the magical lure and melodious music of poetry so that the rain of imagination could pour down on my whole being. In the absence of pen and paper, there was nothing to write or say. There was only beauty for the sake of beauty! Subtlety for the sake of subtlety! I would walk, the five paces of the diameter of the cell, and would recite impromptu poems — a breath-taking and stirring masnavi (poem in rhyming couplets) from the memoirs of those days of mine! At that moment, I was imagining I would live, that I would write down those lines and I would read them to thousands of people. In this masnavi, of which I later managed to record two or three thousand lines in the margins of a book, I was the loneliest and most enraptured person in the whole world, and Bahá’u’lláh, my heavenly Beloved, was continually present, helping me through my difficulties. In my mind, my beloved community emerged, proud and honoured, from the crises that had encircled it, as a glorious and triumphant community!

But why was it that I was surrendering to poetry? I believe it was Forough who once said that poetry and the arts as a whole embody a subconscious need to confront one’s own death — one’s perishing. I was now in the clutches of death, but I did not want to surrender so easily. What kind of language was my language? What type of poetry was my poetry? I was a woman hanging from the spikes of tyranny! — in fact, languishing in that dark and immobile state! I had nothing to say, nothing to create. On the contrary, I was the one being created anew. That which was being created in the closed-up cell of my mind, and within the confines of the cell of that extra-security prison was an account of the real heroism of a community that had suffered oppression for years.

Following that awareness, I spent my years in prison focusing on poetry. I learned through experience that poetry is not an art, it is not a skill. It does not come about simply by sitting and thinking and moving the phrases and words around, or by choosing, gathering, or arranging rhymes. Experience taught me that poetry flows from the innermost layers of one’s subconscious. Poetry arises from an inner heavenly source, and prevails over one. It does not accept any pretence. The inner essence of the poem comes from the inner nature of the poet. So plentiful were my complaints and protests, yet my poems conveyed no complaint! When I gained access to pen and paper, I tried, at times, to change a part of a poem, then I became aware that I could never change the poem in a way that would still convey the original intent. I was no longer content with adornment. Poetry, I realized, was, in itself, a semantic and emotional arrangement unique to the individual to whom it is given, an arrangement that momentarily makes its way into the mind of its creator. It is as if we allow our subconscious a moment to flow into our conscious mind. It is indeed, as Paul Valéry put it, “a heavenly gift”. An idea, in the form of a verse, runs through the mind for a moment. It surges like a fountain, and following that, the mind is set in motion, employing the feelings and imagination, until a work of art is created. Once it is created, it no longer belongs to the poet, but rather, to the reader, who plays an essential part in understanding it and giving it meaning.

Yes, that which had come to life within my innermost heart, through my inner soul, my being, and my sentiments, that which was emerging from my subconscious was poetry. Finally, I let go of my resistance and allowed my mind to soar freely, to imagine, to dream unattainable dreams, to submit to extravagant notions! And at the same time, to express the everyday events of my life in the way that my mind would see and understand them, and to convey what it saw and all that it could see within the dark cruelty of a prison. I knew that within the context of the harsh, emotionless, and hostile prison surroundings, this act of writing poetry would be considered an escape from reality, but wasn’t the act of writing poetry the only way to communicate the inner reality of my experience? How could the bitter and stinging “realities” that surrounded me have power over me when my soul was in the hands of the sweet “reality” within me?

* This essay was translated from the Persian by Farah Mahoony. The Persian version was published on www.aasoo.org.



Mahvash Sabet
Bio:   Mahvash Sabet is a teacher and school principal who was dismissed from public education for being a Bahá’í. For the last 15 years, she has been director of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, which provides alternative higher education for Bahá’í youth. She also served as secretary to the Friends. Mrs. Sabet was arrested in Mashhad on 5 March 2008 and served a ten-year prison sentence. She was released from Evin prison on 18 September 2017. While in prison, Sabet wrote a number of poems, which were eventually translated into English by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani, adapted by Bahiyyih Nakjavani, and in 2013, published by George Ronald. On October 10, 2017, Mahvash Sabet was named 2017 International Writer of Courage by PEN International and co-winner of the annual Pinter Prize.