A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
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.