Book World: ‘Faces of Love,’ translations of Persian poetry reviewed by Michael Dirda

September 18, 2013

In “The World of Persian Literary Humanism,” Hamid Dabashi writes that “the physical beauty” of Hafez’s poetry is “above and beyond anything achieved before or after in Persian lyrics.” These days, nonetheless, Rumi has become the best known Persian poet in the West, his mystical 13th-century love lyrics being available in many translations, while the even more famous Omar Khayyám has long been a part of English literature due to Edward FitzGerald’s translation and adaptation of “The Rubaiyat.” Perhaps that poem’s most famous lines are:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness —

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”


“Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz,” edited by Dick Davis. (Penguin)

These same sentiments recur throughout “Faces of Love,” which offers not just 133 pages of Hafez’s poetry, but also a substantial selection from that of two of his contemporaries, the poet-princess Jahan Malek Khatun and the outspoken and often obscene Obayd-e Zakani. All three were contemporaries in the city of Shiraz during the 14th century and may even have known each other.

“Faces of Love” is one of those books with multiple appeals. First of all, it is beautifully designed, especially in the hardcover edition from Washington’s own Mage Publishers. Second, the poems are introduced, translated and annotated by Dick Davis, widely acknowledged as the leading translator of Persian literature in our time. His version of Ferdowsi’s great epic “Shahnameh,” which I reviewed in 2006, stands as one of the major reading experiences of my life. And third, but not least, “Faces of Love” has made the Persian originals into real and moving English poems.

In the book’s substantial introductory essay, Davis likens 14th-century Shiraz to the mercantile cities of medieval Italy, such as Venice or Genoa. In the 13th century it had already been the home of Sa’di, another great Persian poet, and had gradually gained a reputation for being artistic, cultured and dissipated. This was especially true under the rule of Abu Es’haq, who seems to have been rather a merry monarch. Unfortunately, his kingdom was conquered by an Islamic fundamentalist named Mobarez al-din, whose puritanical reign lasted for five years until he was deposed by his own son. “Shah Shoja reversed his father’s draconian anti-pleasure policies, and wine and music once again emerged from the shadows.”

Such is the historical background to these “ghazals,” to use the Persian term for most of these lyrics. As Davis explains, “The addressee of a ghazal can be a beloved/lover, a patron, or God. In the work of some poets, it’s crystal clear which of these three is being evoked; in the work of others, the situation is more ambiguous and a whole poem can be read as addressed to either a lover or to God, or perhaps to a patron. In still other poems, the verse can seem to glide from one referent to another. . . . Such implied ambiguity of reference was a prized strategy for medieval Persian poets.” Hafez is thus often interpreted as a Sufi mystic, employing — as did our own 17th-century metaphysical poets — erotic imagery to convey spiritual angst. But then again, as Davis stresses, a poem may be really about actual physical yearning.

There is one other facet of this verse to bear in mind: “Descriptions of beauty tend to be androgynous, ambi-sexual; there is usually no way of telling whether a boy or a girl is being talked about. But scholars have generally assumed that, in reality, we are fairly safe in assuming that a medieval Persian ghazal’s subject, if it is a beloved, is a boy.” Nonetheless, Davis again argues that this is a convention with a lot of play to it, and that many times the beloved is actually a woman. His translations reflect this, sometimes using masculine pronouns, sometimes feminine. As he points out, gender isn’t of primary importance anyway when the real subject is “longing and desire, polymorphous and overwhelming.”

What do these poems sound like in Davis’s English? Their diction is plain, limpid and direct. Certain arch-romantic words and images recur: moon, cypress, heart, eyes, dawn, nightingale, roses and, above all, wine. Many employ recurrent phrases, such as “May I remember always when” or “ah, don’t ask!” To imitate the ghazal itself, Davis uses a four-line quatrain in what is a slightly singsong ballad-rhythm. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of the first Hafez poem in the book:

“However old, incapable,

And heart-sick I may be,

The moment I recall your face

My youth’s restored to me.”

What most 21st-century readers will respond to in Hafez’s poetry are those cris de coeur that bridge all gaps of time and culture: “Come, tell me what it is that I have gained/ From loving you. . . . Lost in the tangles of your hair/ My shameless heart has never said,/ ‘Oh, give me back the life I knew/ Before I strayed like this, and sinned. . . . If there’s no sorrow there can be no happiness,/ And, when the world was made, men knew this, and said ‘Yes.’ ”

While Hafez occasionally sounds like Horace, praising wine, friendship and quiet pleasures, Jahan Malek Khatun often calls to mind her sisters in heartbreak, Sappho and Louise Labé. Highly educated for a woman of her time, Jahan, the niece of Abu Es’haq, experienced exile, the deaths of her father and daughter and much sorrow. Her poems — only recently rediscovered — are strikingly passionate.

“I don’t deserve you, but

I long to see

The sunlight of your face

Shine here, for me.”

Sometimes there’s a country-and-western plangency to her voice:

“I’ve cried too much since you’ve

Been absent from my sight;

What do you know of all

That I endured last night?”

Another opens, “I swore I’d never look at him again.” At times Jahan’s lines are surprisingly bold: “How envious our clothes were when we lay/ Without them, clasped together, you and I!” My favorite poem closes with an exquisitely moving image: “The heart’s the body’s queen; and look, my love/ At your street’s end — a queen stands begging there.”

In contrast to princess Jahan, Obayd-e Zakani is vulgar, maudlin and obscene, a poet in the mode of the rowdy Goliards or the outlaw François Villon. One of his poems starts: “I’ve debts, and nothing else: Endless/ expenses, and no money.” Another opens, “I’ll fix this hangover, then find a whore.” Many of his subjects are too frank to quote in a family newspaper, but he also wrote a long allegorical fable about a war between the mice and the cats and there’s a recurrent “ubi sunt” theme running through his verses: “Where is Shiraz’s wine, That burned our grief away?/ And those brisk, pretty boys who served us, where are they?”

Davis ends his book with three of his own poems, in the ghazal style, reflecting on his experience of translating Hafez. On the inner flap of the dust jacket of the Mage edition, there’s also a picture of the man himself: He is smiling happily and holding up a large glass of wine.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

FACES OF LOVE

Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz

Translated from the Persian
by Dick Davis

Penguin. 285 pp.
Paperback, $18

Mage. 285 pp.
Hardcover, $45

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