Walking with the Wind: Poems by Abbas Kiarostami, Trans. by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkad and Michael Beard. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Trade paper: $19.95. 240pp. ISBN 0-67400-844-8.
It is April 2000. Abbas Kiarostami is being given the Akira Kurosawa Lifetime Achievement Award by the San Francisco Film Festival. He has a heavy schedule of interviews. He has just returned from Uganda, where in March, at the request of the U.N. he made ABC Africa, a documentary about children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. Characteristically the focus of his gaze shifted away from death and desolation. All he can talk of is the spirited life force that was present amid the poverty and ravages of the country he has just returned from. He speaks of the beauty and majesty of the men and women he’s met. He says that if he were ever to abandon his home in Iran, he would seek to become a citizen of Africa because he has never seen the will to live present in so vibrant, forceful, and unabashed a manner; he says he has never known a people so gracious.
In an interlude between two interviews — I am his translator from Farsi to English — he picks up a book. It is a book of poems he has just written. It is in Farsi. He reads the 220-odd poems to me one by one. In the quiet warmth of the afternoon in this room, his reading is measured as he slowly goes through the entire book. I am struck dumb both at the immensity of the moment, this private audience with a master of the world cinema, a man I venerate, and also daunted by the stark, brilliant, and austere nature of these capsules that fly across the room toward me in a continuum.
* * *
The poems in Walk with the Wind distill and deliver the world in the same ways Kiarostami’s films do. After all, what is poetry but the ability to utter and share one’s experience of the world? Time itself stops, and within it the Kiarostami moment begins and ends, like musical time, with its own measure. In film this sort of observation may be hampered by conventions of narrative, a beginning, an end, and characters. In this book of poetry, Kiarostami is not bound by these constraints. Sparse words are effortlessly wedded to the sensory world and result in brilliant illuminations. The ingredients are elemental: night, day, Spring, moonlight, violets, streams, butterfly, cherry blossoms, a snowflake, or a spider diligently weaving its web. Each poem is a journey that lasts a mere instant; in it we are momentary travelers and life itself is revealed to us.
The lyrical quality of Kiarostami’s cinematic gaze carries over to these poems. The images are delicate and bold and acutely visual. Nature here is not imbued with mystical content; it is the poet’s observation that yields nature’s true essence. The seer and the seen become one.
From a crack in the ashen sky
a drop of light
onto spring’s first blossom.
* * *
The more I think
the less I understand
to fear death so much.
The first time I meet Mr. Kiarostami is 1977. I am his translator at the Telluride Film Festival. Taste of Cherry is showing, its first U.S. screening after it has received the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. In the film a man is attempting to decide whether he should live or kill himself. Throughout the time he spends at the festival, Kiarostami is carrying with him a book of Khayyam’s poems. He tells me he is reading it in preparation for his next film. He reads the Khayyam poems, and later, when some Italian guests at the Festival offer us a glass of wine, he reads it to them as well. The film will be The Wind Will Carry Us, in which Kiarostami quotes Khayyam directly. It is set in a far village, a world at once impenetrable, beautiful, and ordinary.
Omar Khayyam (1048-1123) is perhaps better known than some other of the extraordinary Persian poets in the West primarily because of the eloquent, if not always accurate, Edward Fitzgerald translations. Khayyam’s poetry is about understanding mortality and the choices we make in the short span of our life.
Then to the Lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d — “While you live,
“Drink! — for, once dead, you never shall return.”
He proposes pleasure, not as a hedonist, in an “eat, drink, and be merry” sense. Rather, the choice is informed by the wise man’s fatal knowledge of mortality and familiarity with death that colors every moment of the present life.
The title of the film The Wind Will Carry Us is that of a Forough Farrokhzad poem. Farrokhzad (1935-1967) and Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980) are the twin foundations on which Iran’s modern cultural and poetic sensibility is built. Both poets were acutely aware of sensory detail. Forough shook the Iranian world with her passionate verse. Sepehri, a painter and poet, wove a delicate and fragile tapestry of simple, tender, and vibrant colors. Where Is the House of the Friend is inspired by a Sepehri poem, and Kiarostami dedicates the film to him.
This is a translation of the Forough Farrokhzad poem:
In my small night, alas,
The wind has an appointment with the trees,
In my small night there is fear of devastation.
Do you hear the dark wind whispering?
I look upon this bliss with alien eyes
I am addicted to my sorrow
Do you hear the dark wind whispering?
Now something is happening in the night
The moon is red and agitated
And the roof may cave in at any moment.
The clouds have gathered like a bunch of mourners
And seem to be waiting for the moment of rain.
And after it, nothing.
Beyond this window the night trembles
And the earth
Will no longer turn.
Beyond this window an enigma worries for you and for me.
Oh you who are so verdant
Place your hands like a burning memory in my hands.
And leave your lips that are warm with life
To the loving caresses of my lips.
The wind will carry us away,
The wind will carry us away.
* * *
Kiarostami’s poems are, however, not love poems. The most striking sentiment in them is an overwhelming sense of solitude.
I arrive alone
I drink alone
I laugh alone
I cry alone
I’m leaving alone.
The subject of Kiarostami’s films has always been the collision of the individual and the world. The world in its manifestations remains other, and the protagonist alone must navigate it and make some sense of it. Then, in moments of grace, sometimes the otherness is dissolved. The first 132 poems of this collection consist of pristine observations of nature. This is not realism but brings to find the experience afforded to mystic visionaries. It is the expression of a gaze that is so intrinsically poetic as to eliminate all distance between the viewer and the object viewed. There is no sense of being inside or outside; the poet, the reader, and the subject become one. This is a celebration of life and its mysteries.
A parade of characters also are observed much in the same way as the natural elements. The characters appear as archetypes. While there is a thoughtful and penetrating gaze here, there is no direct emotional relationship in the poet’s address. Nonetheless, the pervasive sentiment is not of joy but of loneliness, not of love or community but of isolation. There are peasants, nuns, workmen, a blind man, an old woman, an ugly woman, an unloved woman.
A pregnant woman
in a sleeping man’s bed.
An exhausted traveler
on his way alone —
from his destination.
The overriding solitude extends to the natural elements in these poems. However, in nature, there is beauty and serenity.
a sycamore leaf
on its own shadow.
And hesitant exceptions to loneliness,
Two dragonflies, one male one female
pass in the air
among the oak trees
It is almost halfway through the book when the poet’s address shifts from the third person to the first person. This marks the beginning of the group of the eight more or less consecutive poems that all begin with,
The more I think
the less I understand.
Over the course of the next 80 or so poems, the first-person voice intermittently expresses its solitude.
keeps me company
this moonlit evening.
And finally there is one poem, and only one, which speaks of another. In Farsi this subject of address need not be identified as male or female. The pronoun is neutral. But the translated verse reads:
“I just can’t”
I wish she had said:
“My heart won’t let me.”
The meditation on the world that the poet has developed up to this point has not addressed another. Here it becomes personal.
Sadly, it is also a moment when the translation by Karimi-Hakkak and Beard — distinguished scholars and brave men to have undertaken this most difficult task of which they avail themselves, generally speaking, most admirably — falls short. The simple beauty of the Farsi expression is lost. Nonetheless, the sense comes across, even if the ring of the poetry does not.
Yet even though there is heartache, desolation is offset by the staggering beauty of the world that has been constructed over the course of the previous poems. A universe of great beauty that is imperial. Those who inhabit it submit to its order. The poet observes this order painstakingly.
That the turtle doesn’t see
The little bird’s effortless flight.
can do anything
when the sky
decides to rain.
The poem that lends itself to the book’s title comes toward the end of this section and near the end of the book. It is reminiscent of Pessoa’s poems on Spring in its acute awareness of the poet’s mortality.
I have come along with the wind,
on the first day of summer
the wind will carry me along
on the last day of fall.
* * *
“… his discourse is like a flower which crumbles away no sooner do you touch it, or like a chemical substance which evaporates the moment it comes into contact with a little heat.”
— M. Mo’in [in an introduction to the work of
12th-century Islamic mystic Ruzbehan.]
While the traces may only be visible to a knowing eye, in his poems Kiarostami has married to his own unique visionary gaze to a centuries-old tradition of both Persian verse and of mysticism. Stylistically, he has found a form that matches the immediacy of his images. Emotionally, his sparse and thoughtful observations in this collection succeed in delivering a crystal ball in which we can gaze to see our world.
Note: Above two photographs by Abbas Kiarostami.