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'A Wolf Lying in Wait': The Poetry of Abbas Kiarostami


22 Jun 2011 19:34Comments
Aria+trees.jpgThere's more than one way to cut a diamond.

[ spotlight ] Classical Persian poetry is characterized by its creative and highly cultivated language as well as strict regularities of rhyme and meter. Ahmad Shamlu, the highly regarded poet and literary critic, famously described Hafez as the brilliant diamond-cutter of the Persian tongue, with his poetic form of the ghazal as the tool. There are endless articles on the difficulty of translating Hafez -- or the "impossibility" of it, as Mohammad Reza Shafi'i Kadkani says. Those who have attempted the feat all attest to the challenge of transferring both the cultural nuances and the melody of his verse. To an extent, the romanticization of Hafez's musicality has diverted attention from the prismatic world of meanings in his lines. Abbas Kiarostami, among the most celebrated of Iranian filmmakers, has reintroduced Hafez to Persian speakers by removing the musical element -- at least in its classical expression -- and breaking his ghazals into haiku-sized poems. His contemporary retelling highlights the power of Hafez's imagery and invites readers to focus on the meaning of individual narratives. The elimination of rhyme also gives Kiarostami the liberty to convey his perspective through enjambment more effectively.

Kiarostami's international reputation as a filmmaker is well established, but how much do we know about him as an author? He has published two collections of short poems, both in bilingual editions. Within Persian poetry, his style is akin to sher-e sepid ("white," or free, verse). It is unrhymed and, relative to other poetic forms, very close to human speech. It bears many similarities with the Japanese haiku -- it disregards the cultivation of a literary language, places observation at the heart of its generative process, and highlights lifelike narratives and experiences. In contrast to classical Persian poetry, haiku employs language not as an end, but as a means to situate the reader before the heart of its narrative. The reader encounters not dazzling diction, but rather simple, unadorned phrases that make use of a great body of imagery. The serene, nonchalant, and often profoundly philosophical language of haiku allows the poet to swiftly touch on the core of the universal human condition: love, despair, humor, death. The elegant brevity of haiku also prompts readers into an active relationship with the poem -- pleasure is found in locating one's individual perspective on a compact expression that can be viewed from multiple angles. Kiarostami brings these elements of haiku into Persian poetry.

In the introduction to Kiarostami's collection A Wolf Lying in Wait, cotranslator Michael Beard writes, "There are people among us -- bird watchers, photographers, naturalists -- who are at home in the nonhuman world, who can tune in to the rhythms where nature follows its own rules. Out walking with them you may become aware gradually that they are noticing a totally different array of sights -- spotting where the birds are perched, determining which wildflowers are out and when. It is no surprise that Abbas Kiarostami is such a person." Indeed -- patient, perceptive, he alerts us to overlooked narratives and the most delicate of details: "What a pity / I was not a good host / for the snowflake / that settled on my eyelid." His work often makes us feel as if we are looking directly at an image with him: "Moonlight / shining on a narrow path / that I won't take." Although his poetry is most characteristically visual, he continually summons all of our senses: "the smell of burning rue," "the sound of a baby crying," "old wine."

Kiarostami's cinematic sensibility pours into his verse as well. He lightheartedly shifts the vantage point, manipulating his readers' sense of perspective: "The full moon / reflected in water / the water / contained in the bowl / and the thirsty man / deep in sleep." Far from the aesthetic and lyric traditions of classical Persian poetry, hardly closer to Modern Persian verse (sher-e Nimai), his short poems, with their eloquent, cool, and subtle phraseology, are profoundly meditative. Kiarostami is playing an important role in the development of Persian poetry, by turns shining new light on Hafez and Saadi and, as exemplified in the following selections from A Wolf Lying in Wait, sharing his own singular vision.


A red dotted line on the white snow

wounded game

limping away.


The full moon

reflected in water,

the water

contained in the bowl,

and the thirsty man

deep in sleep.



shining on a narrow path

that I won't take.


What a pity

I was not a good host

for the snowflake

that settled on my eyelid.


White colt

red to his knees

after gamboling

in a field of poppies.


Morning is white,

evening is black,

a gray sorrow

in between.


A wolf

lying in wait.



is the reward of a caterpillar

that wrapped itself

in a cocoon of silk.


A whirlwind


the shepherd's boiling kettle

set up on top of a hill.


The smell of smoke

the smell of burning rue

the sound of a baby crying

An adobe hut.


A young moon

an old wine

a new friend.

An apple fell from the tree

and I thought of

the apple's attraction.


Recommended reading:

Hafez be Ravayat-e Abbas Kiarostami [Hafez Narrated by Abbas Kiarostami] (Farzan Rooz Publications, 2006).

Saadi be Ravayat-e Abbas Kiarostami [Saadi Narrated by Abbas Kiarostami] (Niloufar Publications, 2007).

Walking with the Wind, translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Michael Beard (Harvard University Film Archive, 2002).

A Wolf Lying in Wait, translated by Karim Emami and Michael Beard (Sokhan Publishers, 2005).

Photo by Aria Fani. Comments af@ariafani.com.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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